On 9 July, the world’s newest nation emerged from the state of Sudan, when South Sudan achieved formal independence.
Five months later, the new nation’s fragility is obvious to all, as aircraft dispatched by Khartoum's Sudan Armed Forces have bombed targets in South Sudan. The planes targeted Yida, which currently houses more than 23,000 registered refugees.
The development continues the bloody history of Sudan, quite aside from the ongoing tragedy of Darfur.
South Sudan’s independence in July resulted from a 2005 peace deal that ended a half a century of civil war which left two million dead and followed last January’s referendum, which saw the largely Christian population of southern Sudan vote almost unanimously to secede from the Arab-Muslim-dominated north.
So, why the conflict now?
The ugly but true answer is – oil. Sudan’s daily output is now approximately 500,000 barrels per day (bpd.) But while the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) stated that northern and southern Sudan would equally split the revenue from oil exports, the geographical reality is that most of Sudan’s oil comes from oilfields in the south, the pipeline network to transit it to the country’s Indian Ocean coastline lay through the country’s Muslim north, controlled then as now by the administration of Sudan’s President Omar al Bashir.
The CPA stipulated that the new state of South Sudan would pay transit fees to transport its oil and ship it abroad from the north’s Port Sudan terminal.
International observers attribute the latest attacks as a deliberate and calculated provocation by the increasingly militarized regime in Sudan, whose ultimate goal is to redraw the borders agreed last July, in order to incorporate South Sudan’s oil fields into the North. Regime hardliners in Khartoum have apparently urged the attacks on the al Bashir regime, as they believe that the CPA made far too many concessions, and found their beliefs that Southern secession would not succeed violated when the referendum advocating secession actually occurred.
The Satellite Sentinel Project (SSP), which receives international support, including from Hollywood superstar George Clooney has validated Khartoum’s military build-up. The SSP combines satellite imagery analysis and field reports with Google's Map Maker technology to compile its data.
On 10 November the SSP released imagery underlining Sudan’s preparations in Kurmuk, positioning Antonov-26 aircraft there, which have the aerial capacity to reach the South Sudan capital Juba.
SSP also reported that the "Sudanese Armed Forces appear to be rapidly building helipads in Kurmuk," suitable for helicopter gunships, which were deployed in a brutally effective manner in the southern oil regions during the final years of the civil war, releasing satellite imagery to bolster their assertions.
Conflict was perhaps inevitable, as at the time of the referendum, Sudan’s Minister of Finance and National Economy Ali Mahmood Hassanein told the National Assembly in Khartoum that 73 percent of the country’s oil was in the south, 26 percent in the north and the remaining one percent in the contested region of Abyei.
Why would Khartoum seek such an international black eye?
Well, part of the answer is undoubtedly that al Bahshir’s regime has little to lose. Sudan is currently suffering from rampant corruption, a $38 billion debt burden, soaring inflation and U.S. sanctions.
Another potential factor convincing al Bashir’s administration to go for broke is, ironically, the Arab Spring.
Al Bashir has the unique and dolorous distinction of being the world’s sole leader currently under indictment by the International Criminal Court, a warrant being issued against him in March 2009 for charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.
But al Bashir is looking down the gun-barrel of the consequences of the Arab Spring. In Tunisia President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, who ruled his country with an iron fist for 23 years, fled into exile on 14 January following massive uprisings. To the east, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stepped down from power on 11 February after nearly 30 years in power and is now on trial.
But the sternest judgment of the people was reserved for Libyan ruler Muammar Gaddafi, which after a popular uprising against his 42-year reign erupted there in February after events in Egypt, was captured and killed on 23 August.
Accordingly, given the precedents, al Bashir has little reason to mitigate his behaviour, given the potential consequences. Earlier this month al-Bashir accused South Sudan of arming Sudanese insurgents. After enumerating recent encounters that his forces had “won” with South Sudan troops al Bashir cautioned Juba, “We are ready to teach you another lesson.”
Rebels in Sudan have announced a new alliance with the aim of overthrowing the al Bashir government.
And in the meantime, the oil continues to flow as usual, though South Sudan exports have slumped 25 percent since July.
According to South Sudan Natural Resources Minister William Garjang speaking on 9 November, a shortage of skilled workers, as many northerners left the oilfields once South Sudan became independent.
If Khartoum’s military offensives broadens and is successful, well, perhaps that export shortfall will be addressed. Thanks to the technological wonders of satellite imagery and the Internet, the world will be able to watch President al Bashir's latest diplomatic initiatives in near real time.
By. John Daly of Oilprice.com