ANALYSIS-Old wounds, ethnic rivalries stoke Sudan war fever
Apr 26, 2012 12:02pm GMT
(Updates with South accusing North of attacks, response)
* Border fighting likely to drag on
* Both sides increasingly bent on regime change
* "Hardliners" gain influence in both countries
* Limited chance for talks to succeed soon
By Ulf Laessing and Alexander Dziadosz
JUBA/KHARTOUM, April 26 (Reuters) - When petrol started running low in South
Sudan's capital this month, Peter Bashir Gbandi sensed a sinister force at
Rather than blaming a severe shortage of dollars, which the
newly-independent country needs to buy imported fuel, the lawmaker pointed
to arch rival Sudan - likely in league with Horn of Africa immigrants
running filling stations, he said.
A few days later, a member of Sudan's parliament railed against the hundreds
of thousands of ethnic southerners living in Khartoum, many of whom do not
hold passports and have never been to the South, demanding the "fifth
column" be expelled.
Breaking old habits is always hard, and in the case of Sudan and South Sudan
- whose leaders fought one of Africa's longest and deadliest civil wars
until 2005, before the countries split from each other last July - it is
proving nearly impossible.
The longtime foes have clashed repeatedly in their contested oil-producing
borderlands, and deep-rooted animosities mean they will probably keep at it
until one of them collapses.
The two edged dangerously close to resuming full-blown war this month when
South Sudan seized the Heglig oil region from Sudan before withdrawing on
Friday in the face of international pressure and, Khartoum says, a military
The South's withdrawal from Heglig eased the immediate crisis, but the
aftermath of the incursion makes it less likely the two will be able to
transcend the grim logic of their decades-long conflict and resolve disputed
issues any time soon.
On both sides of the border, the fighting over Heglig has stoked old ethnic
suspicions, excited jingoistic zeal and hardened leaders into the conviction
that peace is impossible as long as their old rivals remain in power.
Gbandi's diatribe about the ethnicity of owners of petrol filling stations
shows just how deep the distrust runs.
"Most of the fuel stations here are run by people whose allegiance is
doubtful, so they can be used as agents of the Arabs," he said, shouting for
several minutes on live radio. "It is time for clear decisions so that the
economy is in the hands of the sons of South Sudan."
Rulers in the two countries face pressure from powerful domestic politicians
who advocate confrontation and deplore compromise with their opponent,
These hardliners are gaining the upper hand on both sides of the border,
where deteriorating economies mean leaders are more dependent than ever on
the perception they are tough on their foes to shore up domestic legitimacy.
South Sudanese President Salva Kiir said on Tuesday Sudan had "declared war"
with aerial bombardments in its oil-producing Unity State this week.
Sudan denied any raids, but its President Omar al-Bashir ramped up the
political tension by ruling out negotiations, saying the South only
understood "the language of the gun".
Before the countries broke apart, many had hoped mutual dependence on the
oil industry that underpinned both economies would deter such conflict - the
landlocked South took most of the crude output but needs pipes across Sudan
to export it.
But disputes over transit payments, the border, and other issues have halted
almost all of the combined production, meaning that incentive to cooperate
has all but vanished.
"Both parties are working towards a change of regime in each other's
country," Nhial Bol, editor of Juba's independent daily "The Citizen", said,
adding he doubted the two would be able to work out their differences at the
OLD HATREDS FESTER
Bashir has repeatedly called the South's ruling Sudan People's Liberation
Movement (SPLM) "insects," a play on their Arabic name, in recent weeks.
It is an unsettling word in central Africa, where Rwandan Hutu extremists
called their Tutsi enemies "cockroaches" before trying to exterminate them
in the genocide of 1994.
State television has grown increasingly fond of the label as it broadcasts
montages of whooping soldiers, corpses of South Sudan's SPLA fighters and a
downcast-looking South Sudanese President Salva Kiir announcing the
withdrawal from Heglig.
When Sudan's armed forces declared Heglig "liberated", thousands of people
poured into Khartoum's streets, some demanding Kiir's downfall and an end to
talks. One chant calling for military forces to enter Juba was especially
All of this is an ill omen for opponents of Bashir's ruling National
Congress Party (NCP) and proponents of reconciliation with the South. Some
mutter darkly of authorities exploiting war fever to crack down on dissent.
"Wisdom disappears during war," said Farouk Abu Issa, head of the National
Consensus Forces, an umbrella group of Sudan's main opposition parties.
He said South Sudan's ruling SPLM party had made a mistake by attacking
Heglig, playing into the hands of Bashir's NCP. Authorities had further
"narrowed the margin of liberties and human rights" in Sudan since the
Heglig crisis, leveraging popular support for military action to label the
ruling party's critics spies or traitors, he said.
"It is detrimental to our cause of getting rid of the ugly regime of the
NCP, and restoring democracy and the rule of law."
For hardliners Heglig has been pure vindication.
Eltayeb Mustafa, a relative of Bashir whose party's Al Intibaha newspaper is
Sudan's most widely read, framed the South's seizure of Heglig as evidence a
group of SPLM leaders were bent on overthrowing Khartoum and "colonising"
"The only solution for the problem between the north and the south is to
remove the SPLM," he said during an interview in his modest Khartoum
Sudanese politicians who want to compromise with the SPLM - a group he
brands the "Naivasha boys" after the Kenyan location where northern and
southern officials negotiated the 2005 peace deal - are losing ground,
"They are keeping silent. We are bombarding them every day."
Western powers are also likely to watch for signs of a return to the radical
Islamism that coloured Khartoum's politics in the 1990s when it hosted
militants, including Osama bin Laden. A U.S. trade embargo imposed in 1997
remains in place.
"SURPRISED AND DISAPPOINTED"
Passions have also run high in Juba, the South's ramshackle boomtown
capital, where some call northerners "Jellaba," a reference to Arab slave
traders who once prowled the South.
In an emotional speech to parliament near the outset of the crisis, Kiir
fired up southerners by telling them to get ready for war and admonishing
U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon for asking the SPLA to leave Heglig.
Hundreds of people, framing the border fight as a chapter in their
decades-long struggle against Sudan's Arab-dominated government, joined
street celebrations after the speech, some even demanding the SPLA seize
Abyei, another disputed area.
The oilfield grab was a sign to many the South could score a victory against
Sudan's much larger army and dominant air force.
"We are not afraid of Sudan's army ... We managed to win independence and we
will win Heglig and Abyei," Alfred Lado Gore, the environment minister, told
a rally of about 1,000, mostly young people, who burned a Sudanese flag and
chanted "down with Bashir" and "down with Ban Ki-moon" for hours.
Even independent newspapers and the parliament's small opposition praised
the army for teaching Khartoum a lesson after what the South calls frequent
air strikes inside its territory.
Many were disappointed when Kiir ordered the withdrawal.
"This is a major decision, and I am telling you everybody I spoke to is not
only surprised but disappointed about the withdrawal," radio journalist
Mading Ngor said, hosting a heated live debate just hours after the pullout
Bol, the newspaper editor, said Kiir pulled out troops in response to rising
international pressure, but that he might order them back to show Bashir his
"I don't think the SPLA will withdraw completely from Heglig. They will keep
parts ... and then come back again."
One reason Kiir needs to play hardball with Khartoum, analysts say, is to
galvanise public support - especially among the South's bloated army, which
some officials estimate has as many as 200,000 soldiers.
Confrontation might also help Kiir deflect public anger over a rapidly
worsening economic crisis resulting from the January shutdown of the
country's roughly 350,000 barrel-a-day oil output, part of a row with
Khartoum over oil payments.
Food prices are soaring while fuel, cement and some medications have become
harder to get as importers struggle to get their hands on dollars.
"Supplies from the central bank have dwindled to a trickle," one executive
at a privately-owned bank in Juba said. "We now get 10 to 15 percent of what
we used to get in dollar allocations ... People have to turn to the black
As a result, the South Sudanese pound is expected to lose even more ground.
A dollar now buys up to 4.2 pounds on the black market, compared to 3.5
before the shutdown.
With practically no industry outside the now-defunct oil sector, South Sudan
needs to import everything from basic food items to fuel trucked in on bumpy
roads from Kenya and Uganda.
Building up the war-battered country, plagued by violent cattle raiding and
widespread poverty, was never going to be easy, but corruption and cronyism
have also hindered development.
Juba is bustling with Toyota Land Cruisers - every senior official is
entitled to two - and officials in designer suits and Rolex watches dine in
expensive restaurants on the White Nile, while Juba still has no power plant
or water utility.
"The government is not delivering anything," a Western diplomat in Juba
said. "But there will be support for Kiir if he stays tough with Bashir in
the face of a perceived military confrontation."
Things are not much better in the north, where the Sudanese pound hit a
historic low against the dollar in the wake of the Heglig occupation,
forcing some importers to temporarily pause business because they could not
get enough foreign currency.
With no oil deal in sight, and Heglig's central processing facility, which
both countries use to separate water and impurities from crude, apparently
badly damaged - analysts say the two economies will struggle to recover.
The central processing facility is a vital piece of infrastructure which
separates water and impurities from crude before it is pumped into the
But in the north, the border fight may at least be a short term blessing for
the government, as many citizens turn their thoughts away from food or fuel
prices and toward stability after a perceived threat from hostile outside
"I think now the people are not concerned with the living conditions ...
They are concerned with the national issue of Heglig," Mustafa of the Al
Intibaha newspaper said.
" The economic situation in the north is not good, yes, but the situation in
the south is worse."
LANGUAGE OF THE GUN
The best chance for averting further war and economic catastrophe has so far
been through African Union-brokered talks, but a resumption of those seems
unlikely now as both sides seem to bet increasingly the other will soon
In addition to oil, the countries are at loggerheads over a long list of
disputes including the exact position of the 1,800-km border, the status of
citizens in one another's territories and the division of national debt.
Speaking in Heglig on Monday, Bashir vowed Sudan would not return to talks
because the South's rulers "don't understand anything but the language of
Other Sudanese officials are less absolute in their pessimism, but still see
little immediate prospect of a deal.
Sudan's State Oil Minister Ishaq Adam Gamaa told Reuters on Sunday the
chance of the sides reaching a settlement soon was now "very remote," and
said Khartoum would probably demand compensation for damage to Heglig before
returning to talks.
Some diplomats hope China, the biggest buyer of southern oil and a longtime
friend of Khartoum, will try broker a deal. Kiir is due to pay a state visit
to China this week.
But even China, eager to avoid taking sides, may be hesitant to see itself
as the key mediator, analysts say.
For now that leaves little chance border fighting and attacks on strategic
targets will die down soon, although neither side can really afford to
launch a full-scale invasion of the other's territory.
As Magdi El Gizouli, a fellow at the Rift Valley Institute think tank, wrote
last week: "Khartoum and Juba have only adrenaline to compensate for their
loss of oil." (Writing by Ulf Laessing and Alexander Dziadosz; Editing by
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Received on Thu Apr 26 2012 - 09:25:53 EDT