Are the Sudans heading for peace?

Khartoum and Juba have recently started shifting course and implementing a long-delayed peace agreement.

In a marked display of political agility, over the last couple of weeks Khartoum and Juba have shifted course and reengaged in implementing their peace deal. It is a significant change of direction. Since the start of the year there have been reports of troops amassing on the border shared between Sudan and South Sudan. All the talk was – in light of a stagnant agreement signed six months ago – of more war. But the soldiers on the border are now pulling back, allowing a demilitarised border zone to be put in place.

And peace on the border is paving the way for oil to be turned back on in the coming weeks. The South, which had taken with it 75 percent of the country’s oil reserves when it seceded in 2011, turned off its entire production just over a year ago. Still dependent on Sudan’s oil pipelines to get it to international markets, the South took this self destructive action in a fit of anger when it found that Sudan had sold some oil in lieu of transit fees, the price of which they were then still negotiating.

For six long months – since September last year – the peace deal between the two sides had not left the paper it was written on, despite the long-suffering African Union mediators spending hundreds of hours trying to cajole the two sides to take action.

So what has changed?

Well another six months with no oil income has only stoked domestic pressure. Both economies are in a dreadful state, food prices are high, as is inflation. The stabilizing allure of oil dollars for both capitals is obvious.

But the second reason for this shift seems to be that both governments have managed to reign in the influence of their military hardliners who until now appear to have been key in undermining implementation.

At the heart of their mutual objection to creating a demilitarised border zone was the SPLM North, the rebel group fighting against Khartoum in the border states of South Kordofan and Blue Nile. These rebels had been part of the South’s own rebel army during more than 20 years of civil war. Even though Juba officially denies it, any western diplomat will quietly confirm that this relationship was not severed after independence and the SPLM North has continued to rely on its former comrades in Juba for support and resupply.

A strong sense of loyalty meant that certain senior generals in South Sudan’s army did not want to see this connection cut off as a result of a demilitarised border zone with UN monitors verifying cross border activity. Across the border in Sudan, however, some of their senior counterparts in Sudan’s army wanted just that. They objected to the idea that Khartoum would allow South Sudan to benefit from oil again while they still supported rebels who were fighting against their government.

Khartoum had been insisting that before oil could flow, the demilitarised border zone had to be in place. The breakthrough in the stalled peace deal came earlier this year when Khartoum agreed the two could happen simultaneously.

A few months ago, a seasoned Sudan analyst advised me that when it comes to understanding these two governments “don’t listen to what they say, watch what they do, and ignore what they sign”. It has proved instructive. In the last couple of weeks we have seen the troops moving away from the border and instructions from both governments to let the oil flow again. Last week the Sudanese government also announced it will hold direct peace talks with the SPLM North. It seems both governments are shuffling towards implementing the parts of their peace deal they now deem in their current interest.

But when the overarching aim of both regimes in Khartoum and Juba is to stay in power, current interests can change. And the political agility these governments have displayed in starting to implement this deal does not limit them to moving in just one direction.

Follow Harriet Martin on Twitter: @harrietinwords

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