Sudan and South Sudan to resume negotiations

After weeks of fighting, in which South Sudan took out one of Sudan's last remaining oil fields, the two countries are returning to the negotiation table, under African Union mediation. 

Sudan and South Sudan will return to the negotiation table on May 29, the first sign of hope in their troubled relations after a month of fighting.

After a series of aerial bombing raids on South Sudan from their northern neighbor, South Sudan’s Army moved across the border into the Sudan oil town of Heglig in April, shutting down oil production before withdrawing.

South Sudan separated from Sudan in July 2011 after a referendum. Since then, clashes between the two have become a regular occurrence, partly because a proper demarcation of borders or an agreed plan for sharing oil revenues was never officially decided.

The United Nations has demanded that Sudan and South Sudan put an end to fighting, and Sudan’s chief spokesman Al-Obeid Meruh, confirmed that Sudan and South Sudan have agreed to an immediate cease-fire. The resumption of talks next week in Addis Ababa, announced by the African Union’s designated mediator, former South African President Thabo Mbeki, offers the first chance to start the process of resolving those unaddressed issues.

"The two parties already started to implement the resolution and the roadmap. The meeting will discuss the progress of implementation," Mr. Meruh told Agence France Presse news agency.

The office of South Sudan’s chief negotiator, Pagan Amum, told Reuters that the South would join talks as well. "The government of South Sudan requested for a meeting to convene as soon as possible... We agreed to recommence negotiations on May 29,” Mr. Amum’s office said in a statement.

Given the amount of diplomatic capital spent on bringing peace between Sudan and South Sudan – their brutal 20-year civil war ended with a 2005 peace deal; and given the economic need to get South Sudan’s oilfields pumping again – South Sudan shut all production after disputes with Sudan about Sudan’s oil pipeline fees to its Port Said – resumption of peace talks will be welcome.

Both sides need this peace process, and with bills mounting and their economies suffering, neither can afford a return to conflict. But getting these long-term combatants to cool down, trust each other, and embrace a spirit of compromise may be easier said than done.

Until a few days ago, neither side appeared ready. South Sudan insisted that Sudan had still failed to withdraw its troops from South Sudan’s borders. Sudan said it would not even think of peace talks unless South Sudan agreed to make security issues the first priority, ahead of border demarcation or oil revenue sharing.

But Sudan’s neighbors may have given the two countries the equivalent of a slap upside the head.

"Certainly, if this continues it is definitely going to affect the oil prices and therefore the international community cannot sit by and just watch this happening," Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga told CNN earlier this week, urging the AU to increase its peacekeeping presence on the Sudan-South Sudan border. "But apart from affecting the oil prices, many people are going to die." 

Western powers, who are major aid contributors to the newly created and aid-dependent state of South Sudan, made it clear to South Sudan that it had overstepped the line by taking the Sudanese oil town of Heglig. Both Sudan and South Sudan claim Heglig – which produces more than half of Sudan’s total oil production – as part of their territory, but a UN-sponsored arbitration team in 2009 ruled that a final resolution should come through a referendum, which has not been held.

“We felt it was extremely dangerous [to enter Heglig] and that they should withdraw,” US envoy to Sudan Princeton Lyman told McClatchy newspapers. “This is beyond self-defense.”

Whatever the reason – growing economic pressure, neighborly shoving, or Western encouragement – a return to negotiation couldn’t come fast enough. Food insecurity on both sides of the border currently make some 2.7 million civilians vulnerable to acute malnutrition, hundreds of thousands of civilians have been displaced both by fighting and political instability on both sides of the border, nearly 700,000 South Sudanese currently living in the north have the status of statelessness, and an additional 1.7 million civilians in the nearby Darfur region live in displacement camps after years of civil conflict. Conflict between north and South Sudan makes the task of meeting these humanitarian needs all the more difficult.

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