When the situation along the Sudan-South Sudan border started to rapidly deteriorate a few weeks ago, I started to wonder what factors could be causing the Sudans to push each other closer and closer to conflict. So, I decided to explore a line of logic focusing on whether war, or at least low-intensity conflict, served political interests for the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) in Sudan and the Southern People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) in South Sudan. (I should caveat this by saying that what follows is based on observation and speculation rather than hard evidence, so this is really just food for thought.)
In both countries, conflict could provide a distraction from the current financial situation.
- In contrast to the oil boom years following the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), Sudan has had to introduce economic austerity measures due to the loss of most of its oil revenue from fields in the South. Prior to South Sudan’s independence, oil comprised 60% of the government’s revenues and 95% of export revenues. The country’s economic prospects deteriorated even further as a result of the shutdown of oil production in South Sudan as a result of disagreements over oil transit. With the loss of oil revenue, the NCP’s ability to coerce opponents and use patronage to co-opt potential rivals has been significantly reduced.
- Like Sudan, South Sudan recently introduced an austerity budget to cope with the loss of oil revenue, which comprised 98% of total government revenues and 99% of export revenues. After the CPA was signed in 2005, there was an expectation among South Sudanese that with peace, and the CPA’s Protocol on Wealth Sharing, the SPLM would be able to deliver them a “peace dividend.” However, given the challenges inherent in establishing a new government, even by independence, the SPLM was still struggling to keep pace with the population’s rising expectations. The dispute over oil transit fees and Sudan’s bombing of areas along the border allows the SPLM to deflect blame for the population’s continued hardship on Sudan’s intransigence.
In both countries, conflict has the potential to consolidate political support and quell dissent.
- Since losing the South and the revenue from its oilfields, President Omar al-Bashir has been extremely vulnerable. Arguably, Bashir has chosen war to rally the population behind him in similar situations (i.e., in Darfur to divert attention from the concessions the NCP had to make to the South during the CPA negotiations, and in the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile state in the lead up to South Sudan’s independence). Bashir has even used the term “jihad” to consolidate Northern Muslim support against Southern non-Muslim aggressors. A conflict might also allow Bashir to minimize the emergence of a student uprising, for example, that could topple his regime. Such uprisings were responsible for the fall of the Ibrahim Aboud and Jaafar Nimeiri regimes in 1964 and 1985, respectively.
- Although several issues (political, tribal, regional, etc) divided South Sudan during the civil war, what brought the population together was its collective opposition to the north. However, as independence grew closer, the SPLM faced allegations of exclusionary politics, nepotism, and corruption, in addition to dissatisfaction with the SPLM’s commitment to improving state and local government. Thus, for South Sudan, conflict with Sudan affords SPLM the opportunity to rally the population around the government by reasserting Sudan as an existential threat in order to transcend internal divisions.
In both countries, conflict has the potential to consolidate military support – or at least distract the armed forces.
- Without oil revenue to grease Sudan’s patronage machine, Bashir cannot guarantee the loyalty of the military. Having come to power by coup, Bashir might fear a coup launched by disgruntled mid-level officers, and seeks conflict with South Sudan as a diversion. Aided by South Sudan’s invasion of Heglig earlier this month, Bashir has been able to cast South Sudan as aggressors and turn the military’s attention outwards, away from him, in spite of 700 officers warning him to avoid war back in January.
- For the past six years, the Southern People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) has been simultaneously undergoing Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) and integrating former militia members who have accepted the government’s offers of amnesty. Ideally, DDR would reduce the number of solders on the SPLA’s payroll by 50%, allowing the government to spend more money on socio-economic development. However, with the possibility of conflict with Sudan on the horizon and a shortage of economic livelihoods to occupy demobilized soldiers, the government continues to devote up to 40% of its expenditures on conflict prevention and security. (As a side note, the security sector was also subject to budget cuts, but remains one of the better-funded sectors of government. See the Minister of Finance & Economic Planning’s speech to the Legislative Assembly last month.) Renewed conflict would not only give the oversized military something to do, but it would also allow the government to justify massive defense expenditures while the population suffers the effects of the austerity measures.
Based on the financial constraints of both countries, I would expect that it is actually in both countries’ interest not to engage in all-out war. This is, of course, unless the ongoing brinkmanship spirals out of control and war cannot be prevented. However, based on the political and military points raised above, a limited conflict along the border potentially serves the interest of both the NCP and the SPLM. If this is the case, we can expect both countries to continue supporting armed proxies in the other country because they are cheaper to support than a conventional military, allow the countries to continue exerting pressure on one another for concessions if/when negotiations resume, and in principle offer the governments plausible deniability for perpetuating instability along the border.
It’s been a few days since South Sudan withdrew its troops from Heglig…or was expelled from the area, depending on which side you favor in the ongoing tit-for-tat between Sudan and South Sudan. Yet, there have been no signs of either country backing away from the precipice of war. In a nutshell, the causes of this round of conflict are the disagreement over oil transit fees (plus South Sudan’s subsequent shutdown of oil production and the breakdown of African Union-sponsored negotiations) and the yet-to-be-demarcated North-South border, which has several disputed areas.
I decided, a few weeks after the fact, to try and think through what South Sudan’s invasion and brief occupation of Heglig might tell us about South Sudan’s evolving negotiation tactics. Here’s what I came up with:
- South Sudan intended the incursion to demonstrate that it was capable of disrupting a vital part of Sudan’s economy, and to establish parity with Sudan at the negotiating table. The logic to this point is that Juba has demonstrated that it can respond to Khartoum’s intransigence or outright aggression with military action, and should be considered a serious adversary in any potential conflict or future negotiations.
- In spite of statements to the contrary, I don’t think South Sudan intended to hold Heglig. Considering the massive Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) presence in South Kordofan to fight the Southern People’s Liberation Army-North (SPLM-N), it would not have been rational for the Southern People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) to believe that it could hold Heglig and defend it against massive SAF retaliation. Furthermore, the rainy season is imminent, which would have made sending reinforcements and resupplying troops in a region with limited transportation infrastructure very challenging – especially for a military that already has limited ground mobility. Therefore, having made the point that it could invade Heglig, the SPLA withdrew after 10 days in order to avoid a full-scale war and/or a humiliating expulsion from Heglig.
- In spite of possibly violating international law during its Heglig incursion, Juba has tried to remain the “good guy” as the situation along the border deteriorates. South Sudan couched its invasion of Heglig in terms of self-defense, claiming that it invaded Heglig because it was being used as a staging ground for attacks on Unity state. Moreover, it disputed Sudan’s interpretation of the 2009 decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) that Heglig was not part of Abyei, but was part of South Kordofan state (Sudan) and not part of Unity state (in future South Sudan). (See the PCA’s award map of Abyei.) After rejecting appeals by the international community to withdraw from Heglig, South Sudan agreed to withdraw its forces if the United Nations would deploy a neutral international force to ensure that the area would not be used to launch attacks on South Sudan. That said, although referring the case to the UN allows Juba to remain in the right, it would be illogical for Juba to expect that such a force would be particularly effective, considering the inability, to date, of the United Nations Interim Security Force for Abyei (UNISFA) to secure the withdrawal of SAF troops from the disputed area of Abyei.
- South Sudan’s status as a darling of the international community may be catalyzing its brinkmanship with Sudan. As the victim of “northern aggression” for over half a century, and a product of a lengthy and internationally mediated peace process, South Sudan has many supporters in the international community – particularly in the West. Many countries and international organizations hope for the best for the new country, and may be biased in their efforts to persuade Sudan and South Sudan to avoid war. In both rhetoric and action, both Sudans are responsible for contributing to the escalation of violence. If there is still a chance to mediate between the two Sudans, then both sides need to be held equally accountable for the actions they take that could derail any cessation of hostilities.
It’s entirely possible that South Sudan’s actions vis-à-vis Sudan are meant to increase their leverage if and when negotiations resume. However, the situation has continued to spiral out of control as both sides continue to try and outmaneuver the other. I would argue that South Sudan’s invasion of Heglig changed the nature of a potential conflict between Sudan and South Sudan from one in which they could continue to wage war through proxies to one in which both sides could be in a state of all-out war. Let’s hope we can stick with low-intensity conflict – or better yet, no conflict at all.
Yesterday, the International Maritime Bureau’s Piracy Reporting Centre released its quarterly report on Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships, which highlighted the rise in pirate attacks in West Africa – mainly in Nigeria. While there were 10 reported pirate attacks in Nigeria for all of 2011, in the first three months of 2012, there have already been 10 attacks. Attacks perpetrated by Nigerian pirates have also been occurring elsewhere in the region, such as the one additional attack in neighboring Benin. Furthermore, incidents are occurring further away from land (in excess of 70 nm), which suggests that Nigerian pirates are using fishing vessels as motherships to increase their range of operations. This is a contrast to attacks perpetrated in the early days of Niger Delta piracy, which were actually cases of armed robbery at sea – cases where vessels were attacked in port or in Nigeria’s territorial waters.
The expanding range of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea emphasizes the ever-increasing need for not only increased maritime security capabilities of regional countries, but also greater regional coordination and information-sharing to address this transnational problem. However, in the Gulf of Guinea, there are many challenges associated with regional cooperation to counter maritime threats, including insufficient maritime assets (i.e., air, sea, surveillance, and communications) to pursue suspected pirates or respond to information that suspicious activity is afoot in their waters; disparities in maritime assets and capabilities due to a lack of continuous funding from land-focused governments; lack of appropriate relationships or communications mechanisms to share information on real-time cross-border illicit activity; and finally, the operational seam between the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), whose member states are most affected by maritime insecurity in the Gulf of Guinea.
I always appreciate opportunities to learn about these issues up close, and as luck would have it, I was able to do so when I observed a multinational counter-piracy exercise from an operations center in Douala, Cameroon last March. After the exercise’s pre-sail, I was offered the chance to ride the pilot boat from the port of Douala out to the point where the Wouri River meets the Atlantic Ocean in order to meet the NNS Kyanwa that had sailed down from Nigeria. The next morning, I awoke to reports that heavily armed pirates had sailed down from the Niger Delta, all the way up the Wouri River (past the Cameroon Navy base), moored their speedboats, walked into the Bonaberi neighborhood, and proceeded to rob two banks for a few hours before hopping back in their boats, speeding down the river, and heading back towards the Niger Delta.
Having traveled part of that path the day prior (although at a much slower speed than pirates in speedboats), I gained an appreciation for how long it took to travel between the port of Douala and the point where the Wouri meets the Atlantic. And although there had been three similar bank robberies in Limbe, Cameroon in September 2008, I was also pretty amused at the sheer irony of having several warships either in the port of Douala or anchored in the Atlantic for a multinational counter-piracy exercise…when a cross-border pirate attack occurred. Fortunately (or unfortunately for the pirates), Cameroon’s Bataillon d’Intervention Rapide (BIR) caught up with the pirates just before they entered Nigeria and either killed or apprehended many of them after a firefight.
In spite of the outcome of this attack, this story calls attention to the fact that individual countries cannot address this transnational challenge alone. In order to facilitate regional cooperation on maritime security, U.S. Africa Command and the Africa Center for Strategic Studies coordinated a Maritime Safety and Security Conference last month that brought together over 250 members of over 20 countries that are members of ECOWAS and ECCAS. This conference was a continuation of earlier efforts to increase regional cooperation, and allowed ECOWAS and ECCAS to respond to United Nations Security Council Resolution 2018 (2011) and United Nations Security Council Resolution 2039 (2012), which encouraged regional organizations to develop cooperation mechanisms to combat piracy in the Gulf of Guinea. The conference ended with the signing of a communiqué to recommend that ECCAS, ECOWAS and their member states continue to develop a Memorandum of Understanding and Operational Agreement and submit it to their respective Regional Economic Community Secretariats for eventual adoption by their member states.
Clearly, regional states are recognizing the importance of a regional maritime security framework that would focus on coordinating each country’s maritime security operations and facilitate information-sharing on ongoing pirate attacks. And although these countries will have to overcome the aforementioned challenges to regional cooperation, we will continue to see examples of increased cooperation due to the increasing scope and scale of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea.
For additional information on maritime strategy at the level of the African Union (AU), check out this part of their webpage. Also, for a discussion of some of the efforts that have taken place within the AU and subregional organizations to address maritime threats, consult Toward an African Maritime Economy: Empowering the African Union to Revolutionize the African Maritime Sector.
Over the past few months, there has been a steady escalation in the conflict between Sudan and South Sudan. Earlier this week, regional media sources reported that Uganda would support Juba in the case of a full-scale war with Khartoum. What are some potential reasons for Uganda’s to get involved in this conflict?
Historical Ties, Historical Proxy Wars
Uganda and the Southern People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), the ruling party in South Sudan, have historical ties due to Uganda’s support of the Southern People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) during the second civil war (1983-2005). In addition to providing financial and military support, Ugandan troops were directly involved in operations alongside the SPLA. Uganda also served as a vital sanctuary and rear base after 1991, when the SPLA was expelled from western Ethiopia after the fall of Mengistu Haile Mariam’s Derg regime.
In retribution for Uganda’s support for the SPLA, the Sudanese government supported the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) as a proxy to destabilize northern Uganda and weaken the SPLA. Having been expelled from Uganda between 2005 and 2006, the LRA has since been operating in remote areas of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the Central African Republic, and South Sudan. Ugandan intelligence suggests that Khartoum has recently made contact with the LRA in order to use the group as a proxy in the event of renewed hostilities with Juba.
Trade and Economic Opportunity
Uganda has substantial commercial interests in South Sudan that could atrophy if South Sudan were attacked. South Sudan is Uganda’s biggest trading partner, although this relationship is disproportionately skewed in favor of Uganda. In 2008, South Sudan’s formal imports from Uganda were $246 million, while informal imports were estimated to be as much as $389 million. Furthermore, approximately one million Ugandans reside in South Sudan, not only capitalizing on the country’s postwar economic opportunities, but also escaping the dearth of such opportunities in Uganda. This is possibly the largest group of foreign nationals in South Sudan.
Influx of Refugees
Although a conflict between Sudan and South Sudan would take place far from the Ugandan border, Uganda might be reluctant to play host to another generation of South Sudanese refugees. By the time Sudan’s civil war ended, over 200,000 Sudanese refugees were in Uganda; many of these have since been repatriated. However, renewed instability in South Sudan could add to the recent influx of refugees from North Kivu province in the DRC. Earlier this month, former rebel leader General Bosco Ntaganda and soldiers loyal to him defected from the Congolese armed forces and Congolese President Joseph Kabila subsequently called for his arrest. Ntaganda had been indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 2006, but had been integrated into the Congolese military in a 2009 peace deal, as he was believed to be critical to the peace process as well as to regional stability. More than 3,000 residents of North Kivu have fled to Uganda since the beginning of the year as a result of instability in the province, and Uganda is already struggling to manage this most recent influx along its border with the Congo.
Security…and Regime Longevity
Finally, Uganda’s involvement in a conflict between Sudan and South Sudan would ensure its own security. Uganda, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and the DRC have formed a Regional Task Force (RTF) to capture LRA leader Joseph Kony, whose movement originated in northern Uganda. If South Sudan is preoccupied by fighting along its border with Sudan, Uganda might be concerned that Juba might not be able to fulfill its commitment to the RTF.
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni also sees himself as a regional patriarch, and demonstrates this, in part, by deploying the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) abroad. In addition to being part of the RTF to capture Joseph Kony, Uganda is the largest troop contributor to the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM). Uganda is keen to remain a key player in the realm of regional security, which would necessitate its involvement in a full-scale war between Sudan and South Sudan.
Although he tends to prefer his military deployed abroad to ensure that it is not a nuisance at home, Museveni simultaneously tends to like his military large and reasonably capable in case he needs to call upon them to restore order in Uganda itself. Museveni’s heavy-handed crackdown on last year’s “Walk to Work” movement to protest high fuel prices was one example of the growing pressures for Museveni to step down after 25 years (at the time) in power. (For analysis of Museveni’s political challenges and prospects for Uganda’s future, see International Crisis Group’s report Uganda: No Resolution to Growing Tensions released earlier this month). Furthermore, a recent news report on Uganda’s increase in defense expenditures suggests that the types of equipment Uganda is acquiring might be more useful for securing regime longevity and sowing fear in the population than for addressing the country’s actual security threats.
The bottom line is that Uganda has a wide range of legitimate interests in South Sudan, but in my opinion, the most compelling reason is that a new war is a new shiny object for Museveni’s military.
In spite of last week’s inauguration of Dioncounda Traoré as interim President, Mali’s military junta is still calling the shots, as evidenced by the arrests of several members of Mali’s political and military elite earlier this week. I won’t go into too much detail on the civilian transition and these arrests, as such analysis has been offered elsewhere. However, I would like to posit that this incident is an indication of how, under the status quo, the junta could potentially stonewall the efforts of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and other international partners to address the Tuareg rebellion in the north.
In the aftermath of last month’s coup in Mali, ECOWAS was faced with two competing, but related problems: 1) how to restore civilian rule, and 2) how to resolve the Tuareg rebellion in the north. In the context of the rapid post-coup expulsion of Malian government and military authorities from the northern part of the country, it was clear that resolving the country’s political crisis was a necessary precursor to restoring Mali’s territorial integrity. Accordingly, ECOWAS acted with haste to coerce the military into accepting a transition to constitutional rule, which was understandable considering the multiple crises that the regional organization had on its plate in Mali alone (i.e., the de facto partition of the Malian state, resultant surge of refugees fleeing to neighboring countries, the emergence of Islamist armed groups in northern Mali, and the food crisis in the Sahel). For better or worse, a solid political transition was sacrificed to facilitate the resolution of the situation in the north – which arguably has broader regional and international implications. Thus, a quick political transition in which Mali could operate under the guise of civilian rule allowed ECOWAS to refine its mission there. Specifically, rather than simultaneously focusing on the political crisis AND the Tuareg rebellion, the regional organization could now concentrate on its response to the rebellion.
Clearly, negotiation with Tuareg rebel groups is an option on the table, but this may be difficult, due to the Malian authorities’ relatively weak status and the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad’s (MNLA) aspiration for independence. ECOWAS’ Mediation and Security Council is also considering the deployment of a regional force intended to assist Mali in securing its territorial integrity. However, coup leader Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo is opposed to the use of foreign military forces. In lieu of an ECOWAS force, Sanogo has said that Mali will accept equipment and logistical assistance. I suspect that this may be an issue of pride, given that the original stated goal of the coup leaders had been to more effectively wage the war in the north. (This was, of course, thwarted by international condemnation of the coup, cuts in security assistance, and the chaos and lack of cohesion within the military that allowed the rebels to conquer the north in a matter of days). I suspect that it is more likely, however, that Sanogo wants fewer eyes watching how he manipulates the reins of power and continues to undermine the political transition.
It is possible that the junta will continue its ongoing machinations to undermine civilian authority. However, any efforts to obstruct an effective solution to the crises in the north might be a step too far for the various regional and international stakeholders who have an interest in containing the potential fallout from these crises.