- To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.
Tensions along the oil-rich border that divides Sudan and recently independent South Sudan have escalated in recent weeks, raising the prospect of a full-scale war between the longtime foes. China, which maintains considerable oil interests in both countries, has called for restraint (Reuters) and vowed to work with the United States to bring both sides back to the negotiating table. Jendayi Frazer, the former U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs, says while the role of mediation should remain with the African Union, the United States and China are vital players in this conflict that can bring pressure to bear on both parties. However, Frazer says it is "a strategic mistake and it has never worked" for the international community to treat both sides equally, since the northern Sudan is clearly the aggressor in this latest conflict as well as many of those in the past. "The international community should be united against northern aggression," she says.
Can you give an overview of the history of the sectarian conflict between the people who live in what is now the South Sudan and those in the northern state of Sudan, and how that led ultimately to the South’s secession from Sudan in July 2011?
The conflict goes back to more than fifty years, but the last twenty years has been the war between the north and the south--the Sudan People’s Liberation Army and the Khartoum government of President Bashir. That conflict over the last twenty years has led to the deaths of more than two million people, and wasn’t ended really until the comprehensive peace agreement of 2005, which allowed for the South to go to secession.
The roots of the conflict over the past fifty years and the intensification over the last twenty years was very much about how the north marginalizes the other regions, whether it is the south, whether it is east, or Darfur in the west. There’s a small group in the center, who are a part of the government, who have marginalized the other regions and basically used them for resource extraction--that led to several rebellions.
Is there an ethnic component to that?
It’s ethnic, it’s racial, it’s religious. There’s a religious difference between the north, which is largely Muslim, and the South, which is largely Christian. And then between the north and South, there is a view that there is an Arab north and a black African South. If you go to the north, and you find Arabs, you wouldn’t know that that they weren’t Africans. So that sort of racial difference is really quite mixed.
This dispute is really over borders, over oil, over many of the issues that were not finalized before secession.
In terms of the conflict right now that has pushed Sudan and South Sudan to the brink of war, can you sum up the main issues and what is at stake?
The primary issue is about oil, and then about the demarcation of the border between north and South--and the oil fields are located along that border area. As long as that border has not been demarcated, then there are claims on both sides that the oil fields belong to them. This is particularly intense around the town of Abyei, which it’s not clear whether that belongs to the north or whether that belongs to the South. Then there has been recent fighting in the town of Heglig [which the South occupied for ten days until reportedly withdrawing last week], which is a part of South Kordofan [a state in Sudan] and appears to be in the north, but the South claims that it is actually a part of the southern state of Warrap.
Is there an "aggressor," or are both parties equally culpable in this conflict?
I don’t think both parties are culpable, and that’s where the international community got it wrong last week when they universally condemned South Sudan for going into Heglig. This dispute is really over borders, over oil, over many of the issues that were not finalized before secession. The tension has been rising since the beginning of the year, in which you would have had the north bombing areas in South Kordofan, in Blue Nile--basically bombing the SPLA North [South Sudanese-affiliated rebel forces operating in Sudan]--and continuing to fight with rebels in Darfur.
The north has continued to be an aggressor for months before this particular conflict over Heglig came up. Yet the international community’s condemnation of the north couldn’t be heard at all. And so this heavy unified condemnation of the South for going into Heglig seemed to me to be overkill, and in fact, it created a cover for further northern aggression--which is what we are seeing right now with the bombing into Unity state. These aerial bombardments and killing of civilians have been going on constantly. This is the north killing [its] own people--the Southerners of the northern state--and now going into South Sudan and bombing. So there’s a very clear aggressor here and it is northern Sudan, continuing to do what it’s always done, which is bomb and kill civilians.
The international community--the position of the United States--is going to try to be the arbitrator and treat each one equally; it is a strategic mistake, and it has never worked. In the past, the United States has been very clear that the north has been the aggressor, and the South has been our ally and our partner--and we need to treat them as such. It’s all well and good for the African Union to come in as a neutral arbitrator. In the signing of the comprehensive peace agreement, Kenya was a neutral mediator; the United States was not the mediator and should never be the mediator because we are clearly on one side of the conflict.
What’s China’s role in all of this? As a long-time ally of Khartoum, but also a large purchaser of oil from South Sudan, can it play a mediating role?
No, it shouldn’t be a mediator--no more than the United States should. The mediation should stay within the African Union. But China and the United States are two of the most important players here, from the point of view that they can bring pressure to bear on both parties. They can bring coercive pressure--i.e, sticks, sanctions--and they can also bring incentives to bear. They could bring the goods that would actually deliver parties to the mediator. So China has an essential role to play, as does the United States. And the United States and China working hand in hand is even better.
What’s the role of the larger international community, including the United Nations?
The UN is involved from the point of view of having peacekeepers on the ground. The UN’s role is very important. But it was a mistake for Ban Ki-moon, the United States, and the AU to come out so hard against South Sudan for just an incursion into Heglig. It just created the context in which the Sudanese are now bombing Unity state. The UN role is primarily to protect the civilian population--from the point of view of keeping their peacekeepers there, as well as providing humanitarian assistance to those people that are now displaced and fleeing from these bombing attacks from the north. The international community should be united against northern aggression.
The fights on the ground are part of the negotiation that’s taking place. Sometimes when you can’t get a decision at the negotiating table, you go back to some incursions, some fights to shore up your position.
How has South Sudan’s decision to shut down oil production in January affected the economies of both South Sudan and Sudan?
It’s probably hurting South Sudan more than it is hurting the north, but it’s hurting both of them. The South is playing a very high-stakes brinksmanship type of policy vis-a-vis the north to try to force decisions. The South is trying to force the issue [of being able to reap the rewards of its own oil production, which must be transported through Sudan’s infrastructure to be exported] by shutting off the oil, but it’s a high-stakes game, and that has probably led even more to this type of armed conflict, these incursions. The environment is that much more tense because of that decision and because of the economic impact. It’s not just hurting the north and the South, it’s also hurting China. It’s hurting the countries that have oil concessions there and have been pumping oil out of Sudan. So China has a lot at stake in trying to resolve this.
What are some of the plausible outcomes to this conflict? Do you think both parties will get back to the negotiating table?
The fights on the ground are part of the negotiation that’s taking place. Sometimes when you can’t get a decision at the negotiating table, you go back to some incursions, some fighting to shore up your position. Basically, if you can take some advances on the ground, you can shore up your position at the negotiating table. So I think this is all part of negotiating. The problem is it can get out of hand and create its own dynamic, which leads back to full-scale war. But I don’t expect full-scale war. I do believe that the negotiations will continue.
The ultimate goal here--the South needs to take a strategic pause in terms of fighting the north on the ground. They need to focus on a future that’s more eastern looking, i.e., connect themselves to the East African Community. Most of the traders who are in South Sudan right now are coming from east Africa. So their economic future and political future should be looking south and east, rather than looking north.
So they need to, over time, disentangle themselves from the north. In order to do that, they need to not be in a full-scale war or these types of episodic conflicts or fights with the north. It’s not that they acquiesce to the northern decisions, but they need to look beyond the day-to-day and look toward the future. The only way to disentangle themselves from the north is at the negotiating table, and on the ground have that strategic pause, and do the compromises necessary to get out of the relationship. But also as part of that, the United States needs to provide aerial defense for the South. The north is constantly bombing civilians, and the South cannot defend itself. We need to adopt a posture that says to the north, "If you mess with the South, you mess with the United States." We need to give them a security blanket, and a part of that would be helping them with an air defense system.