Sudans’ Oil Feud Risks Shattering a Fragile Peace

Not for years have north-south relations been so poisonous, with a proxy war between the two nations fueling rebel groups and sometimes even flaring into direct Sudan-South Sudan clashes. The jagged, disputed frontier separating Sudan from its newly independent neighbor is now probably the most incendiary fault line in Africa, with two big armies that fought each other for generations massing on either side.

After emergency talks to prevent a full-fledged conflict, the two sides agreed to a vague nonaggression pact late on Friday, yielding to intense pressure from the African Union, the United States and China — a major oil partner for both sides — to move beyond the language and tactics of mutual destruction. But few analysts see any easy solutions to the heated push and pull over oil, and it is not clear how the nonaggression pact will be any different from previous security deals that have led nowhere. In May, the two sides agreed to demilitarize the contested border. But just days after that, Sudan began heavy bombardment along the border, occasionally dropping bombs in the south, while the South Sudanese rushed in weapons to rebel allies fighting just across the divide.

The border area has been a tinderbox for years because that is where most of the oil lies. Both sides desperately need oil to run their governments, feed their people and stamp out spreading rebellions. And theoretically, both sides need each other. The conundrum of the two Sudans is that 75 percent of the oil lies in the south, but the pipeline to export it runs through the north. Because of this, oil was once thought to be the glue that would hold the two nations together and prevent a conflict. Now, it seems, oil is becoming the fuse.

When South Sudan broke off from Sudan last year, after years of guerrilla struggle, its independence was heralded as the triumphal capstone ending one of Africa’s deadliest civil wars. But the question of how exactly the two sides would share oil profits loomed ominously over the separation, unresolved. Now that both nations are struggling to make it on their own, the issue has proved to be as prickly — and perilous — as many feared.

It was South Sudanese oil that drove Sudan’s economic boom of the past decade and made the repression by Sudan’s Islamist government (which is still heavily penalized by the United States) tolerable to many Sudanese. When South Sudan declared independence, it took oil worth billions of dollars with it, gutting Sudan’s economy and creating one of the deepest crises that President Omar Hassan al-Bashir has faced in his more than 20 years in power.

Mr. Bashir is now battling high inflation, a shrinking economy, student protests and several simultaneous rebellions — in Darfur, the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile State — as well as genocide charges related to the massacres several years ago in Darfur, and stiff American sanctions.

At the same time, South Sudan, one of the world’s poorest countries, is facing a major food crisis and heavily armed ethnically based militias that have been sweeping parts of the countryside, killing hundreds and making a mockery of the South Sudanese security forces.

Stoking the tensions, Sudan and South Sudan have been covertly backing rebels in each other’s backyards, leading to border clashes and relentless aerial bombings. The more than 1,000-mile border between them is now effectively closed, with millions of pounds of emergency food and just about all trade held up in a two-way stranglehold.

Before the emergency accord on Friday, the situation was so precarious that many saw only violent outcomes. “I, personally, expect full-fledged war,” said Mariam al-Sadiq al-Mahdi, a leading opposition politician in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital. “This is like the previews before a film.”

In the fight over oil, the south has refused to turn over royalties for using Sudan’s pipelines. Sudan upped the ante in late December by seizing oil tankers filled with South Sudanese crude. Then the south took the drastic step of abruptly shutting down all of its oil wells, a measure that could quickly bring the economies of both north and south to their knees. South Sudanese officials have admitted they are using their oil to squeeze Khartoum to make concessions on all sorts of issues, including the disputed area of Abyei, insisting that oil production, about 350,000 barrels a day, will resume only after “all the deals are signed.”

The south has even threatened to sit on its oil for years while it builds an alternative pipeline through Kenya. But it is not clear how the new country will survive that long; oil provides about 98 percent of government revenue. And experts question whether the Kenya pipeline is even feasible. It would have to run uphill, requiring many expensive pumping stations, and most likely slice across Jonglei, a South Sudanese state that, with all its militias, is essentially a war zone. NYT