Hope for a lasting peace following South Sudan’s independence last year has receded with Sudan and South Sudan already engaged in acts of war. In a new Q&A, Marina Ottaway analyzes the tensions in the Sudan and the challenges that both sides face. 

Why do Sudan and South Sudan appear on the brink of all-out war?

Marina Ottaway
Before joining the Endowment, Ottaway carried out research in Africa and in the Middle East for many years and taught at the University of Addis Ababa, the University of Zambia, the American University in Cairo, and the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa.
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This is the final failure of the international efforts to solve the problem of the Sudan. 

There has been war between the Sudanese government and southern movements, with only temporary pauses in violence since Sudan gained its independence in 1956. This is an old conflict. What is new, though, is that after South Sudan became formally independent the conflict has become a war between states rather than a civil war. 

An enormous international effort managed to finally negotiate and sign the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005. This seemingly addressed all aspects of the conflict, but critics claim that there was not enough effort made to ensure its implementation. Regardless, the real problem is that there are now two countries more interested in scoring points against each other than in making peace. 

This became clear as soon as South Sudan officially became independent. The Khartoum government theoretically accepted the South’s decision—made through a popular referendum with an overwhelming majority—to choose independence, but it never really digested the decision. Conflicts have proceeded unabated ever since.  

In many ways, both sides need conflict with the other as a diversionary tactic for their own internal problems so neither is anxious to reach a settlement. Sudan and South Sudan are faced with intractable domestic challenges without easy and quick solutions. 

What issues still need to be resolved between the two countries?

There are two main conflicts between Sudan and South Sudan—oil and territory. 

There are now two countries that share a major source of revenue as well as a single oil pipeline and one oil terminal. The South controls 75 percent of the oil, but it can only realistically export its oil through the pipeline that runs across Sudan and to the port controlled by Khartoum. 

In theory, the South can truck oil through Kenya over unpaved roads with tremendous wear and tear on the vehicles, but for all practical purposes the only option is to rely on Khartoum’s pipeline as it would take years and huge amounts of money to build a new one to Kenya. 

Sudan and South Sudan can’t reach an agreement on the transit fees. Industry experts estimate that for a pipeline of this length, Sudan should charge South Sudan $2-3 per barrel for moving oil to match going international rates. Sudan is asking for $32 a barrel and the South is offering $0.41. So it is clear that there is a long way to go to break the impasse. 

After months of negotiation and attempts at mediation by a number of countries and international organizations, the South has now stopped pumping oil. This is likely to affect exports from Sudan as well, because the North may not be able to keep the pipeline running without the oil from the South. Both countries are taking a tremendous economic loss. China has even intervened (one of the big players in the South is a Chinese company), but there is still no sign of a breakthrough. 

The second conflict is over border regions. 

There are non-Arab populations living close to the border in the North that sympathize with the South. These groups fought alongside the South during the war, and yet they are supposed to remain part of Sudan. The line between the North and South is an old line that was drawn by the British, so this problem was anticipated. 

To complicate matters even more, the boundary is not completely delineated. This is not only important for the effect on the pasture lands of various tribes, but also because this involves oil producing areas. 

The latest heightening of tensions occurred when the Southern army pushed past the border to occupy the oil fields in Heglig, the most important remaining source of oil for the North. The South claims that it was provoked by bombings from Khartoum, but has since retreated back to its side of the border. There is plenty of blame to go around for this. 

The scary truth is that at some point either side may take out oil installations to spite the other. 

What is the risk of economic and political collapse for both countries?

South Sudan is not a country for all practical purposes. Even as it gained independence it had many of the characteristics of a failed state, or at least one that had not yet come into existence. It has very little infrastructure—for example, there are no paved roads outside the capital, Juba. 

South Sudan has tribal structures that complicate the country’s political dynamics, something that Khartoum typically exploited by playing one tribe against another to weaken the South. 

The economic situation is very serious in the South despite its oil revenue and the international aid flowing into the country. Juba does not really have a cash flow problem, the challenge is more about determining how to spend money in a way that actually makes a difference. 

And the oil revenue devastates the rest of the economy. The so-called Dutch Disease, the curse of natural resources driving up currencies and hurting local industries, is already being seen. Agriculture was once seen as the hope for the country, but it is neglected, just as it was neglected in the North after the discovery of oil. 

This all means that the South has an impossible problem of building a state.

The North has an equally impossible problem of keeping its own state together. Sudan faces internal conflicts on all sides—disputes in Blue Nile and South Kordofan in the south, Darfur in the west, and major non-Arab tribes that spill over from Ethiopia are up in arms in the east. 

There is also increasing unrest in the countryside over Khartoum’s ambitious energy projects that displace many people as existing dams are expanded or new dams are built. And the ones most affected are the least likely to benefit from the greater energy capacity. There is also a great deal of discontent in Khartoum. Food prices are high and keep on going up, university students and youth groups are restless, and the political leadership is old—without new, younger voices, it is total political stagnation. 

Sudan clearly faces huge economic problems and lost billions of dollars in oil revenue, almost 25 percent of its total revenue, when South Sudan broke away. The country is still under sanctions because of the conflict in Darfur, so it is going to be next to impossible for Sudan to make up the lost revenue. 

How should the international community respond? 

The main players in the international community are rushing in to try to revive negotiations and find new hope for a lasting solution. But this may be a situation where there is very little the outside world can do to help. 

By continuing to funnel foreign assistance and food aid to the governments, the international community is empowering both sides to avoid making the hard choices that are necessary to ultimately find peace. While the rest of the world should try to stop needless, immediate violence, political distance from both capitals is the least bad option available today. 


Correction: Due to an editing error, this originally stated that Sudan is asking for $2.50 a barrel when the correct figure is $32 a barrel.