Although relations between the two countries started out well, hostilities had been brewing almost from the very beginning, over how the two countries would share revenues from the sale of oil – most of which is now within South Sudan’s territory, and all of which must be transported through Sudan’s oil pipelines to foreign markets. The final spark, though, appears to have been over the borders between the two countries. South Sudan had long banked on receiving the Abyei region, including the oil fields nearby at Heglig. Last week, South Sudanese troops took Heglig by force, prompting Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to proclaim a state of war.
While there is no formal declaration of war, Bashir told troops at a rally that they would be marching to Juba, South Sudan's capital.
"Heglig isn't the end, it is the beginning,” President Bashir was quoted by the Wall Street Journal as saying on a Thursday visit to South Kordofan state, where Sudan is facing a separatist rebellion by Nuba Mountain militants. “And we shall go all the way to Juba."
This is no mere fight between siblings over an inheritance.
South Sudan is resource rich and has assiduously cultivated friendships with its southern neighbors, Uganda and Kenya. South Sudan maintains close military and trade ties with Uganda’s leader, Yoweri Museveni, and it has also proposed to build a new oil pipeline to the sea at the Kenyan port of Lamu. South Sudan has also been rumored to support the Darfur rebel group Justice and Equality Movement (JEM). And Time magazine this week reported witnessing JEM fighters in Heglig alongside members of South Sudan’s own Sudanese People’s Liberation Army troops.
Sudan’s President Bashir, meanwhile, is increasingly isolated. He faces an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court in The Hague for war crimes and genocide during the Darfur insurgency. And he is struggling to pay the costs of a bloated government and security structure even as he loses 80 percent of the oil revenues he once had when South Sudan was just a region in his country.
It was once thought that Bashir would recognize the increasing weakness of his bargaining position, and that he would eventually come to the negotiating table, willing to compromise. But with his troops taking a drubbing in South Kordofan and Heglig, and with his own future in question as an accused war criminal, Bashir may have decided that war is his only option.
Bashir may also be hoping to win some sympathy from Islamists, from whom his National Congress Party has always drawn heavy support.
On Thursday, Bashir described the fight against South Sudan to be a “jihad” or holy struggle. It’s a word that may be intended to stiffen the backs of his own army, the vast majority of whom are Muslims, or it may be a call for help from Muslims worldwide. Many Muslims consider jihad to be a collective effort, where any Muslim country under threat must be defended by any faithful Muslim who is capable of fighting on its behalf.
More quietly, Sudan may also draw on support from some of its larger trade partners, including China. According to Africa Confidential, a respected journal, a trio of UN experts found evidence that Chinese ammunition has made its way to pro-Khartoum militias in the Darfur region. The trio’s report was rejected by the UN Secretary General’s office, but the experts simply sent the report on to the UN Security Council. If the evidence proves true, it could indicate a covert violation of UN weapons embargo against a state that is accused of launching an ethnic cleansing and genocide campaign against several tribes in the Darfur region.
China’s state-owned oil companies are part of a consortium that has exploration contracts along both sides of the Sudan-South Sudan border.
What we are witnessing now, therefore, could be the beginning of a wider conflict, one that draws in South Sudan’s friendly neighbors such as Uganda and Kenya on one hand, and that draws in Chinese military hardware, a disparate collection of Islamist volunteers for Sudan, along with all the remaining resources that Khartoum can muster.
All-out war is not inevitable. But if it truly starts, this is not likely to end well.