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.