Sudan endgame could be negotiations

Zeina Khodr is an Al Jazeera’s roving correspondent.

Zeina Khodr

In Khartoum, there is widespread concern over the recent flare-up of violence in border areas with South Sudan.

However, nationalist feelings are high.

“I am with war,” Ali Ahmed Saeed said. “Many of us are supporting our government’s hardline stance even though we may have our differences with our leadership.

“This is because we built their land [South Sudan] and allowed them to separate but they still want to take what is ours.”

The withdrawal of South Sudanese forces after their brief takeover of the oil town of Heiglig in Sudan’s Southern Kordofan State hasn’t brought peace or the two sides any closer together.

Sudan says it doesn’t want to take the fight to South Sudanese territory, but both sides have accused the other of declaring war.

Relations between the long-time enemies, who were supposed to become partners when they split, are at an all-time low. Tensions are at an all-time high.

In Khartoum, there is widespread concern over the recent flare-up of violence in border areas with South Sudan.

But what has become clear is that neither side wants a return to all-out war. It would be a costly decision.

So, for now, they are waging an economic war.

Khartoum says Juba has been trying to destroy its economy following the latter’s decision in January to stop oil production because of what it said were the unreasonable fees charged to refine its crude and transport it to world markets.

“South Sudan decided to stop oil production because it wanted to put pressure on Khartoum and it didn’t want Sudan to benefit from oil revenues,” Mohammed el- Nael, an economy expert, told Al Jazeera.

“They did it even though they depend on the money for their economy.”

Sudan says, at least publicly, it hasn’t been affected by the move even though the government introduced new measures to increase revenues and intends to reduce spending.

The damage to the Heiglig oil facility has been estimated to be in the billions of dollars.

The oil output at Heiglig has stopped as a result of the recent fighting. It is vital to Sudan’s economy – it produces more than half of the domestic consumption. 

Sudan has hit back. President Omar al-Bashir said he would no longer allow South Sudan to export its oil through the country’s territory any longer. A tough measure since it would deny Khartoum much needed revenues 

Bashir’s comments, however, could be more political posturing than policy.

“If you have war you will have wild statements – I don’t think people will insist when they are back on the negotiating table,” Mahjoub Salih, editor-in-chief of El Ayam newspaper, told Al Jazeera.

Oil has always been a source of confrontation in this conflict and it is being used as a weapon.

Both sides are now engaged in a war of words … but the history of this struggle has shown that no war ends without a negotiating table.

“If South Sudan stops hostilities and stops supporting rebel groups on our territory, then we can discuss how we can resume negotiations,” Dr Rabie Abdel Atti Obeid, an adviser to Sudan information minister, told Al Jazeera.

Clearly Bashir’s vow not to resume talks is not state policy.

But Sudan says it has no intention of resolving issues leftover from the two countries’ separation last July – border demarcation, oil revenue sharing and the rights of citizens’ in one another’s territory – before the “security file” is resolved first.

“Until this moment in time there is fighting in South Kordofan, Blue Nile and Darfur … fighting instigated by South Sudan – the rebels in Blue Nile and South Kordofan belong to the South Sudan army,” Rahmatullah Mohammed Osman, Undersecretary of Sudan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told Al Jazeera.

Sudan’s government wants the Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement-North disarmed. It accuses Juba of supporting them to undermine stability on its territory – a charge South Sudan denies. 

Heiglig may be back in Khartoum’s control, but it is still at the centre of the conflict.

Osman said: “Until this moment, South Sudan is claiming Heiglig is theirs … how can you expect us to reach any agreement with them.”

For now, the two states have returned to being the enemies they once were.

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