In December it was possible to see the early features of Sudan?s third civil war. Now those features are sharpening. Threatened with the loss of oil revenues from production sites in newly independent South Sudan, the National Islamic Front/National Congress Party (NIF/NCP) regime in Khartoum is sending ever more strident signals of war against its sovereign neighbor. Such a war would likely have catastrophic consequences for civilians, as did Sudan?s first two civil wars, during which as many as 3 million civilians died and more than 5 million were displaced.
The NIF/NCP regime has already displaced hundreds of thousands (and killed unknown thousands) of people in South Kordofan and Blue Nile states?border states in the north, but tied in many ways to the South?through savage military campaigns, including indiscriminate civilian bombardment. For months the UN and various humanitarian organizations have warned of the dire consequences of disrupting the harvest season in these regions. The Famine Early Warning System Network predicted in December that without food aid, near-famine conditions would prevail in many places by March. There are presently no means of providing the necessary food aid, and the Obama administration seems unwilling to propose actions that might either change the thinking in Khartoum or open humanitarian corridors without securing the regime?s consent.
In January the Satellite Sentinel Project released two reports: one showed a nearly complete military encirclement of the Nuba Mountains in South Kordofan and its remaining population (as many as 400,000 people); the other that Khartoum?s artillery has closed the choke-point for refugees attempting to leave the region. The Nuba Mountains are a vast, cordoned-off arena of starvation and ultimately annihilation. And conditions in neighboring Blue Nile state are no better.
Months before its invasion and siege of South Kordofan and Blue Nile, the NIF/NCP seized another contested border region, Abyei, straining and eventually breaking down its ongoing negotiations with South Sudan over transporting southern oil to Port Sudan in the north. Khartoum has dug in its heels, insisting on a preposterous proposal that would have the war-ravaged South pay billions of dollars for the privilege, in addition to an ongoing $36 per barrel transit fee. This is extortion. The Ukraine, for example, receives from Russia $7.80 to $9.50 per ton of oil transported through its territory by means of the immense Druzhba pipeline (there are approximately seven barrels in a ton of oil, so the price per barrel in transit fees would be $1.10?$1.36). In 2009 Cameroon negotiated an increase in the transit fee for oil from Chad passing through its territory from $0.41 to $1.00 per barrel. Khartoum recently raised its proposed fee, up from $32 per barrel, suggesting that the regime has not been negotiating in good faith but rather has sought to play a dangerous game of brinksmanship, or to create a casus belli. To judge by the warlike language coming from senior officials in Khartoum, the latter seems more likely.
If it was just brinksmanship, then both sides have now stepped over the edge: South Sudan has shut down all its oil facilities and refuses to send oil north; it is moving ahead with plans to ship the oil to the Kenyan coast for export. This is risky for a variety of reasons, but the leadership in Juba has concluded, rightly, that there is simply no possible arrangement with the north that would be both reasonable and guaranteed.
Khartoum, increasingly desperate for income, is now in a position from which it can extricate itself only by seizing the oilfields in the South. It has already unilaterally claimed the Diffra oil production site in Abyei, which?though small?still generates approximately $80 million per year. For decades, the NIF/NCP regime has mismanaged the northern economy. It squandered the oil wealth generated from 1999 through July 2011 on self-enrichment, buying political support, and exorbitant military expenditures.
Indeed, Sudan?s economy is in shambles, a situation that in turn poses a grave political threat. Inflation has been running at around 20 percent, while the Sudanese pound continues its precipitous decline; foreign exchange reserves are almost non-existent, leaving import companies desperate for financing; fiscal realities have obliged the regime to cut highly popular subsidies on fuel and sugar; and unemployment is growing. Towering over all this is a massive external debt of almost $40 billion, an amount that Khartoum cannot service, let alone repay. Whatever chances there were for debt relief from the West have been dissipated by the regime?s military actions and the refusal of South Sudan to accept any part of this debt?the benefits of which they saw only in the form of weapons used against them.
On hearing of northern President Omar al-Bashir?s recent briefing of senior military officials, where he told them to prepare for ?all-out war with the South,? some 700 officers warned the regime leadership that this was unacceptable, and that the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) were already overstretched on three fronts (South Kordofan, Blue Nile, and Darfur). More senior SAF generals, including Defense Minister Abdelrahim Mohamed Hussein (indicted by the International Criminal Court for ?crimes against humanity?), have seized much of the political power in Khartoum. Field Marshal al-Bashir is all too aware of the precedent for military coups in Sudanese history. His allies lie in the senior ranks, and his opponents in the middle ranks. Balancing these forces may be an impossible task. But presiding over an imploding economy is an equally unattractive option, which is why al-Bashir recently declared that the ?climate now is closer to a climate of war than one of peace.? He went on to say that his forces would wage ?a war of attrition,? a war ?hitting them before us.?
His foreign minister, Ali Karti, followed this up with threatening words of his own: ?We have many cards to use against the south, and the southern government has consumed all its cards. We are yet to use any of the security cards and it is high time that the [Khartoum] government considers this option.? Sudan Vision, part of Khartoum?s media propaganda system, quotes Karti as saying that the regime should begin ?preparing for so-called ?plan B,? which exposes to all African and neighboring leaders who is behind South Sudan. ?We will not stay with arms folded towards what the government of the South is doing.??
Sudan is charging the south with ?economic warfare,? as a pretense for military warfare. The charge is a savage irony, given the regime?s yearlong effort to destabilize South Sudan by refusing to allow many northern goods (including food) to pass into the South. Meanwhile, Khartoum continued to arm and support various renegade militia groups operating in the South, particularly in Unity and Upper Nile states. The Small Arms Survey (Geneva) provides detailed analyses of weapons seized from these militia forces by the army of South Sudan, which collectively lead to the conclusion that Khartoum is waging a widespread war by proxy in the South. This works to stoke ethnic tensions already present in South Sudan, and to weaken its ability to respond to the highly alarming ethnic clashes, some with origins going back many years, recently reported in Jonglei and other regions in the South.
The international community is only now awakening to the threat of war and the immensity of the humanitarian crisis in South Kordofan and Blue Nile, as well as the hundreds of thousands of refugees from Khartoum?s violence, but this awareness has brought no meaningful action. Nor is there any credible proposal for ending Khartoum?s blanket denial of humanitarian access to these northern regions. The clock long ago began to tick off the lives of Sudanese victims of renewed civil war in the border regions. Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, have already died. As the Khartoum-created food crisis worsens in the coming weeks and months, little stands to prevent the deaths of hundreds of thousands more.