East Africa at the Brink: Hidden Hands behind Sudan's Oil War
by Ramzy Baroud
May 03, 2012
Once again Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir waved his walking stick in the
air. Once again he spoke of splendid victories over his enemies as thousands
of jubilant supporters danced and cheered. But this time around the stakes
are too high.
An all out war against newly independent South Sudan might not be in Sudan's
best interest. South Sudan's saber-rattling is not an entirely independent
initiative; its most recent territorial transgressions-which saw the
occupation of Sudan's largest oil field in Heglig on April 10, followed by a
hasty retreat ten days later-might have been a calculated move aimed at
drawing Sudan into a larger conflict.
Stunted by the capture of Heglig, which, according to some estimates,
provides nearly half of the country's oil production, Bashir promised
victory over Juba. Speaking to large crowd in the capital of North Kordofan,
El-Obeid, Bashir affectively declared war. "Heglig isn't the end, it is the
beginning," he said, as quoted in the Wall Street Journal. Bashir also
declared a desire to 'liberate' the people of South Sudan from a government
composed of 'insects.' Even when Heglig was declared a liberated region by
Sudan's defense minister, the humiliation of defeat was simply replaced by
the fervor of victory. "They started the fighting and we will announce when
it will end, and our advance will never stop," Bashir announced on April 20.
Statements issued by the government of South Sudan are clearly more
measured, with an international target audience in mind. Salva Kiir,
President of South Sudan, simply said that his forces departed the region
following appeals made by the international community. This includes a
statement by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, which described the attack on
Heglig as "an infringement on the sovereignty of Sudan and a clearly illegal
act" (Reuters, April 19). A day before the hasty withdrawal, South Sudan
government spokesman Barnaba Marial Benjamin claimed there had been no
conflict in the first place. His statement was both bewildering and
patronizing. He considered Sudan, which was then rallying for war to
recapture its oil-rich area, a neighbor and "friendly nation", and claimed
that "up to now we have not crossed even an inch into Sudan" (Associated
Press, April 19).
The fact remains, however, that wherever there is oil political narratives
cannot possibly be so simple. Sudan is caught in a multidimensional conflict
involving weapons trade, internal instabilities, multiple civil wars and the
reality of outside players with their own interests. None of this is enough
to excuse the readiness for war on behalf of Khartoum and Juba, but it
certainly presents serious obstacles to any attempt aimed at rectifying the
With a single act of aggression, a whole set of conflicts are prone to
flaring up. It is the nature of proxy politics, as many armed groups seek
opportunities for territorial advances and financial gains. News reports
already speak of a possible involvement of Uganda should the fledging war
between Khartoum and Juba cross conventional boundaries. "As the possibility
of a full-fledged war became unnervingly higher, General Aronda Nyakairima,
chief of Uganda's defense forces, said that his army might be compelled to
intervene if Bashir did overthrow South Sudan's regime," reported Alexis
Okeowo in the New Yorker website (April 20). Both Sudans are fighting their
own war against various rebel groups. Despite the lack of basic food in
parts of the region, plenty of weapons effortlessly find inroads to wherever
there is potential strife.
In a statement published last July, Amnesty International called on UN
member states to control arm shipments to both Sudan and South Sudan. It
accused the US, Russia, and China of fueling violations in the Sudan
conflict through the arms trade.
US support of South Sudan is already well known. "The US reportedly provided
$100 million-a-year in military assistance to the SPLA (Sudan People's
Liberation Army)," according to Russia Today on April 19, citing a December
2009 diplomatic cable revealed by WikiLeaks.
According to political author and columnist Reason Wafawarova, US interest
in South Sudan is neither accidental nor motivated by humanitarian issues.
He told RT, "It would not be surprising if the US is trying to capitalize on
the vulnerability of South Sudan in its efforts to establish the AFRICOM
base somewhere in sub-Saharan Africa." RT goes on to reference Sudan's
Al-Intibaha newspaper for its reports on Israeli weapon supplies to Juba.
US and Israeli military support of Juba is not a new phenomenon. Sudan's
civil war (1983-2005), which cost an estimated 2.5 million lives, could not
have lasted as long as it did without steady sources of military funding.
And while the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, the January 9-15, 2011
referendum, and finally the independence of South Sudan in July were all
meant to usher in a new era of peace and cooperation, none actualized.
Sudan's territorial concessions proved most costly, and South Sudan,
destroyed and landlocked, was ripe for outside exploitation.
Both countries are now caught in a deadly embrace. They can neither part
ways completely, nor cooperate successfully without a risk of war at every
turn. Bashir also knows he is running out of options. While Khartoum has
already "lost three-quarters of its oil revenue after the secession,"
according Egypt's Al Ahram Weekly, "now it is poised to lose the rest."
Naturally, a conflict of this magnitude cannot be resolved by empty gestures
and reassuring statements. The conflict has been festering for decades, and
war has been the only common language. Powerful countries, including the US,
Russia, China, but also Israel and regional Arab and Africa players
exploited the conflict to their advantage whenever possible. In a recent
analysis, the International Crisis Group in Brussels advised that a "new
strategy is needed to avert an even bigger crisis." The crisis group
recommends that the "UN Security Council must reassert itself to preserve
international peace and security, including the implementation of border
monitoring tasks as outlined by UN Interim Security Force in Abyei."
Expecting the Security Council to act in political tandem seems a bit too
optimistic, however. Considering that the US is arming and supporting South
Sudan, and that Russia and China continue to support Khartoum, the rivalry
in fact exists within the UN itself.
For a sustainable future peace arrangement, Sudan's territorial integrity
must be respected, and South Sudan must not be pushed to the brink of
desperation. Rivalries between the US, China and Russia cannot continue at
the expense of nations that teeter between starvation and civil wars. And
whatever hidden hands that continue to exploit Sudan's woes now need to be
exposed and isolated.
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Received on Fri May 04 2012 - 06:23:56 EDT