Fighting continues between Sudan and South Sudan, as economies collapse

At this time last year, South Sudan was preparing to become Africa's newest nation. Now the dispute between South Sudan and Sudan may turn both into the latest failed states.

Goran Tomasevic/Reuters
A SPLA-N fighter holds up his rifle near Jebel Kwo village in the rebel-held territory of the Nuba Mountains in South Kordofan, May 2.

If everything had gone according to plan, South Sudanese bureaucrats would have been scurrying around to make preparations for the country’s first annual independence day celebrations in July.

Its oil wells would be pumping and generating income to help build roads, electrical and water systems, hospitals, and schools. And its closest neighbor, the Sudanese government in Khartoum, would be sharing in oil revenues from all that South Sudanese oil being pumped through Sudanese pipelines to international markets.

Instead, Sudanese Antonovs and fighter jets are bombing South Sudanese villages; South Sudanese forces continue to occupy Sudanese territory along their disputed border; rebel forces have taken advantage of the disarray and begun taking territory in Sudan’s restive Darfur region; and the economies of both countries seem to be collapsing, according to the World Bank.

"The World Bank is deeply concerned with the economic and development impact of the unresolved oil issues and how this will affect the people of both South Sudan and Sudan, particularly the most vulnerable," the World Bank told the Sudan Tribune in a statement on May 7. "Given the desperate living situation being faced by people in both Sudan and South Sudan, the World Bank's economic analysis unambiguously shows that it is in the interests of both countries to resume talks urgently," the Bank added.

Clearly, it wasn’t supposed to end this way, when Sudan and South Sudan parted ways on July 9, 2011, after South Sudanese citizens voted overwhelmingly to split from the Khartoum government, with which South Sudan had been fighting a vicious civil war for some 20 years. A peace plan hammered out in 2005 was supposed to be the start of either a new era of cooperation in a unified Sudan, or a new period of friendship between two independent but peaceful neighbors.

That didn’t happen.

From the beginning of their unity government, there were suspicions that officials in Khartoum were using money from Sudan’s oilfields – three quarters of which are found in southern Sudanese territory – to benefit the north. Khartoum, for its part, said that South Sudanese officials were so ill-educated or corrupt that they didn’t know how to use the oil revenues they got.

When it came time for southern Sudanese voters to decide in a January 2011 referendum whether to stay in a unified Sudan or to move toward independence, the choice seemed clear. It’s easy to forget the enthusiasm and hope of that time, symbolized in this music video by South Sudanese singer Yaba Angelosi.

Now there appears to be no end to the fighting.

Existential fight?

The United Nations voted a resolution calling for a cessation of Sudanese aerial bombing of civilians, and for South Sudan’s military to give up territory it has taken from the North. Both sides continue to violate this resolution, observers say.

The reason may be because both countries see this as an existential fight to the finish.

South Sudan refuses to pump oil through Sudanese territory, because it is convinced that the North is charging too much for oil pipeline fees, and it feels that an oil cutoff hurts the North more than it does itself.

North Sudan, meanwhile, says it has lost some $2.4 billion in lost oil revenues from the dispute, and it fears that other rebel groups within its own territories of Darfur, Southern Kordofan, and Blue Nile states are moving to seize the advantage against a government that is isolated and pressed for cash.

The rebels confirm that this is precisely what they want. A spokesman for the rebel group Sudanese Liberation Army led by Minni Minawi told Reuters news agency that his group had recently begun to take towns away from the Khartoum regime in Darfur.

“We want to bring the downfall of the regime,” Abdullah Mursal, spokesman for the Sudan Liberation Army told Reuters. “And to do that we have to take over cities before we reach Khartoum.”

But wait, it gets worse.

A confidential World Bank report, obtained by Sudan Tribune in Khartoum, says that neither of the two rival countries seem to realize that they are headed toward collapse.

By cutting off its oil production, South Sudan has not only stopped the growth of its economy; it has stopped its economy, period. If the cutoff persists, the new country will have to cut social spending on all those South Sudanese immigrants it welcomed back over the past year, many of whom rely on foreign aid donations to survive. And the effects of that could be devastating.

The percentage of South Sudanese living below the poverty line will grow from the current 51 percent to 83 percent in 2013. The mortality rate for children under five will double from 10 percent to 20 percent, and school attendance for those children who do survive will drop from 50 percent to 20 percent, the World Bank report estimated.

This is how nations fail.

Yet, while all of this feels like a scene from the Hunger Games, there is a way out of this mess.

The United Nations resolution has provided the stick, with both nations facing possible economic sanctions. The African Union can provide the carrot, with a fresh round of talks to resolve the relatively simple numbers game of satisfying both sides by playing with percentages, and setting down firm boundaries to which both sides can agree.

What is needed is a political leader, preferably an African, who has the experience and seniority to push both sides to the negotiating table and then lock the doors until the two sides are ready to come to an agreement. 

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