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Sudan Versus South Sudan: Mixing Volatile Oil, Water and Religion

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
In the last two weeks, the lingering war between Sudan (northern Sudan, capital in Khartoum) and South Sudan (capital in Juba) has escalated dramatically.

Fearing a wider regional war involving other east and central African nations (Egyptian military involvement is the nightmare scenario), international diplomats are pursuing a ceasefire agreement between Khartoum and Juba.

The diplomats confront a multifaceted task. This war involves control of oil fields and pipelines; both Sudans rely on oil revenues. Nile River water rights are another contentious issue. (Since the pharaohs, Egypt regards Nile River water as a vital national interest.) Sudan is predominantly Arabized and Muslim; Khartoum calls itself a staunch Islamist regime, with Arab Muslim nations its cultural kin. South Sudanese are predominantly black African and practice either Christianity or animism. Kenya and Uganda are its brethren. A sustainable peace between the Sudans must successfully mix volatile oil, volatile water and volatile religion.

The 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) tried to do that. The CPA ended the north-south civil war (1983-2005) but has not been fully implemented. The Sudan-South Sudan border remains unsettled, with the oil-rich Abyei region (which the north invaded in 2011) now patrolled by Ethiopian Army peacekeepers. The CPA did produce South Sudan's independence (July 2011), which Khartoum tellingly calls secession. Independence gave the south roughly 75 percent of pre-division Sudan's oil, but the pipeline delivering the crude to international markets runs through the north. The north has imposed such exorbitant pipeline fees that the south curtailed oil production.

Ethnic and political divisions afflict both Sudans. Tribal quarrels spark dozens of vicious small-scale conflicts. Battles over cattle theft, grazing rights and refugee resettlement complicate resolution of the larger issues.

In the short term, ceasefire-seeking diplomats confront "the logic of war" on the ground, where the violent politics of military attack and counterattack overrule negotiations. South Sudan said that the destructive air raids on southern towns conducted by northern aircraft amounted to a declaration of general war. "General war" didn't rhetorically satisfy Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir. Bashir called Khartoum's war against South Sudan a war of liberation. The International Criminal Court (ICC) has indicted Bashir for committing genocide in Sudan's Darfur region. During the civil war, Bashir and Khartoum also countenanced slaving expeditions by Muslim militias operating in the south. A genocidaire and slaver casting himself as a liberator is sordid irony indeed.

South Sudan, however, ignited this round of escalation by occupying Sudan's Heglig oil field on April 10. South Sudan claims a 1956 map placed Heglig in its territory. The southern attack looked like political retribution for the north's Abyei assault, which sent 100,000 refugees fleeing south. The south held Heglig until April 20, which, given the north's edge in military power, impressed many military analysts. South Sudan has no jet aircraft. Its army remains basically a guerrilla force short of tanks and artillery. Sudan possesses jet aircraft, operational tanks, 800 artillery pieces and 600 rocket launchers.

Khartoum may gamble that war now, to seize southern oil fields, is its best option. South Sudan is slipping the north's stranglehold on oil exports. Kenya and militarily powerful Ethiopia (both U.S. allies) have agreed to help the south build a pipeline to Kenya's seaport of Lamu. This means, however, that Kenya and Ethiopia have an interest in South Sudan's survival and control of its oil fields, so war now by Khartoum risks a wider war. Uganda has already suggested it might intervene if the north takes southern territory. Uganda bears a grudge against Bashir and Khartoum. It contends that the murderous Ugandan rebel Lords Resistance Army (LRA) was created by Sudanese intelligence.

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