Sudan and S Sudan resume talks amid optimism

Rare sense of hope surrounds new dialogue between African rivals, while economic situation for both states is dire.

There is an unusual sense of optimism surrounding the resumption of talks in Addis Ababa between Sudan and South Sudan. Both governments have come out with generous statements about each other with a Sudanese government spokesman quoted as describing the attitude of the South’s delegation as “also open-minded and open-hearted”.

A Southern negotiator was quoted as saying that if the Sudanese government “is coming to negotiate in good faith than we are likely to agree on everything except the borders which will follow later”. 

This is a far cry from the cold rhetoric back in April after South Sudan occupied Sudan’s key oil field. Then it all seemed to be leading to one thing: war. Fear of just that was what forced the UN Security Council to step in to issue the two sides with a deadline to resolve their many outstanding issues which they were left with when they divorced without a settlement in July 2011.

Now they have until September 22 and negotiators and mediators alike seem quietly confident about meeting it.

But this unusual sense of hope takes place against a grim backdrop of two flailing economies both starved of oil dollars. Even though the Sudanese government will be heartened by quotes this week from the head of the International Monetary Fund in Khartoum that its austerity measures are having a positive effect, inflation in Sudan is running at over 40 per cent and food prices are rising rapidly. The situation is said to be even worse in South Sudan, a landlocked country that is largely import-dependent.

This dire situation means both sides have a keen interest to see the South’s oil, which it turned off in January in a dispute with Sudan over unpaid transit fees, is turned back on. A deal to do this was agreed in principle in early August. The south, with no other real income, is gasping for the injection of hard currency that oil revenue will bring. It needs it implemented as soon as possible, bearing in mind it is expected to take many months – possibly a year – to get the oil fields up and running to capacity again.

Unquestionably, Sudan needs the hard currency that the roughly 10 per cent share for transit and transportation fees, means it will receive. But despite its cash-strapped state, it actually needs something else more: security on its Southern border. Without agreement on this, there will be no oil deal, it says.

The split with the South reignited an old conflict between the government of Sudan and the peoples of the Nuba mountains in South Kordofan and in Blue Nile state. During the more than 20 years of civil war, they fought alongside Juba against Khartoum.

Khartoum believes that Juba continues to supply and support what is now called the SPLM North. Juba denies this. The first issue on the table at the talks is the establishment of a demilitarised zone. Once implemented, a joint observer mission will be able to verify what is really going on in the border area.

It will also help normalise trade between the two nations – a relief for all the people living along the border who have long relied on this for their livelihoods, and a necessity for South Sudan as Sudan provides its closest and cheapest access to the sea.

Whatever they do manage to sign in the coming weeks is far from being the end of the story. For the test of any agreement is not in the signing but its implementation. And in many peace agreements – and Sudan, at least, is no exception – between the two lies a toxic chasm of other interests and pressures that the government must navigate if the deal is to become a reality.

For it is at the end of a peace process that the difficult compromises are made – issues that touch upon sensitive questions of national identity and self esteem. And these thorny issues have to be sold to those least likely to buy them: their own hard line supporters.

Knowing that even in the best case scenario an oil deal will take months to bring in the cash, and that hardliners thrive in economically bad times, the optimism surrounding this week’s resumption of talks will be needed long after any success there is to be had in Addis.

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