Just fifteen days after President Salva Kiir of South Sudan told the world in Addis Ababa that his political rival, Riek Machar, could never again be part of the country’s politics or government, he signed a historic peace agreement with his key adversary, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-in-Opposition (SPLM-IO), in the Sudanese capital Khartoum.
Thanks to what appears to be a dazzling piece of “miracle diplomacy” by the Sudanese government led by Omar Al-Bashir, the border between the two countries has been reopened; a permanent ceasefire (although shaky at first) has been agreed; and Machar, the former rebel leader from the minority Nuer tribe is now due to be reinstalled as South Sudan’s Vice President.
Make no mistake, if an agreement had not been reached, Kiir’s government faced further economic sanctions; Machar faced a return to house arrest in South Africa; and Sudan’s economic conditions and political instability were set to deteriorate. The stakes were high on all sides.
What transpired in Khartoum was an extraordinary display of diplomatic leverage by Sudan on its southern neighbour. This is especially so considering the failure of the initial face to face meeting of the two men in the Ethiopian capital. “We have had enough of him,” said South Sudan government spokesman Michael Makuei about Machar. Opposition spokesman Lam Paul Gabriel commented, “We were able to see violence in Salva’s eyes.”
However, despite the prediction of doom and gloom, the two sides signed an agreement that is being hailed with cautious optimism as “historic” even though much of what has been agreed was outlined by the regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) some years ago. Nevertheless, the treaty includes free and fair elections in about three years’ time and has been welcomed in some quarters in Sudan as a signal that the “two Sudans” could again be a united nation.
“I have spoken to Southerners who say that the decision to separate from Sudan in 2011 was premature,” says Yasir Abdullah Ali, a Sudanese political commentator. “This agreement is the strongest indication yet that reunification would be the most beneficial and viable option for both countries.”
His words were echoed by Ramadan Ahmed, a Sudanese affairs commentator based in South Africa. “The lack of institutions and good governance in South Sudan means that, short of unification, the only permanent solution to the problems of South Sudan is a confederation closely aligned with Sudan,” he told me.
Whilst there is no dispute that the two countries working together stand a chance of overcoming major political and economic challenges, others say that talk of unification is, at best, a “pipe dream”. According to political analyst Mawan Muortat from South Sudan, there were “special circumstances” that allowed the peace deal to be reached but talk of reunification will never be on the agenda. He dismissed reunification as wishful thinking.
“What has happened here,” explained Muortat, “is that the Arab nations have abandoned Sudan in its hour of need, so the circumstances were conducive to striking an agreement that would bring the chance of peace in South Sudan and bring stability and security to the North of Sudan to allow economic development. The two sides are treading the same water and therefore need each other to secure a better future.”
Those circumstances leave the two nations struggling to salvage their economic and political fortunes. Sudan’s current inflation rate is running at more than 55 per cent while South Sudan’s stands at 83 per cent but was an astronomical 800 per cent in October 2016. Some international sanctions imposed by the US on Sudan and South Sudan are still in place.
After agreeing a ceasefire, arguably the focus of the deal was to ensure that South Sudan’s oil fields would again become fully operative. Sudan’s offer to protect the oil fields against sabotage, using a joint force, seems to have persuaded both sides to resolve the finer points of an agreement which would end the 5-year civil war which has seen hundreds of people killed and led to a massive humanitarian crisis.
Once it is back in operation, South Sudan’s currently dormant oilfield in Unity State would allow it to export up to 290,000 barrels a day, a 45 per cent increase on its current output. In turn, Sudan could receive as much as $26 per barrel to allow the crude oil to flow through its pipeline to Port Sudan on the Red Sea.
“There are those who will be very angry that the Sudanese Army will again be on South Sudan territory,” Muortat noted, ”but there is now a level of trust on both sides, so it’s an inevitable step.”
He was a little taken back when I broke the news about the decision to reinstate Riek Machar as Vice President. Indeed, he sounded apprehensive about it.
“Well, is it good news?” I asked.
“Oh yes. Yes… It’s good news, I just want there to be peace,” he said softly after a stunned silence. It looked as though he sensed that a significant moment in the conflict had arrived.
It remains to be seen whether this new agreement will hold, but Muortat pointed out that the agreement means a lot for both sides to the conflict in the South, and to Sudan. “People are fed up of the violence and many have lost faith in the government. Like I said, I don’t see a unification happening but I think the closer the cooperation between the two countries, the better it will be.”
Sudan’s President Omar Al-Bashir, meanwhile, described the agreement as a “gift to the people of South Sudan.” However, commentators on both sides of the divide seem to agree that if the agreement holds, it will also be a valuable present to the people of Sudan and an important means to bring stability to the Nile Basin.