It’s not just why Heglig, but why now?

Is South Sudan’s attack on Sudan’s oil field an attempt to destabilise President Al Bashir’s control to the north?

Heglig conflict
The South Sudanese military attacked Sudan's Heglig oil field in April, but was forced to surrender its gains [EPA]

Cambridge, MA –
In mid-April, 2012, Southern Sudanese forces attacked Heglig, an oil-rich area in Sudan, which is also claimed by South Sudan. This attack was considered the worst incident of violence involving the Sudans since the secession of the south in July 2011. It also shows that South Sudan’s secession does not necessarily mean that war between the two countries is over. Moreover, the incident poses a threat to peace and stability, and raises some questions: Why did South Sudan attack Heglig in the first place, and why now? How will this affect negotiations vis-a-vis the outstanding issues between the two states?

Heglig was neither a disputed area between Sudan and South Sudan nor an outstanding issue in the aftermath of South Sudan’s secession. At The Hague, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) ordered the redrawing of Abyei, thus decreasing its size and placing the richest oil field, Heglig, under the control of Sudan. Indeed, this justifies the quick, wide and unified condemnation of South Sudan by the international community for the incursion into Heglig. The African Union, the United Nations, the Arab League and the US have all agreed that the January 1, 1956, border between north and south must be respected.

Launching a war with South Sudan would be an ideal situation which could distract the attention of citizens from the internal challenges and failures of Khartoum.

Two possible scenarios could explain the attack on Heglig. The first is that South Sudan sought to control Heglig and then use it in its negotiations with Khartoum, perhaps to trade it with Abyei. This would have only worked if South Sudan had the military capability to maintain control over Heglig for a longer period of time, along with an absence of condemnation from the international community.

Second, the attack was meant to cut off Khartoum’s oil supplies from Heglig and therefore produce an economic crisis in Sudan that would eventually lead to a popular uprising by the Sudanese people to oust President Al Bashir. The assumption was that if this goal were not achieved, Khartoum would not be able to enjoy its oil revenues, while South Sudan negotiated the fees that it pays Khartoum to export its oil through Sudan.

Distraction from internal problems

Nevertheless, the attack on Heglig should not be isolated from the ongoing conflict in Southern Kordofan, the Nuba Mountains and Darfur, which involve the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/North (SPLM/N) and the Sudanese Revolutionary Front (SRF) – which is an alliance between the SPLM/N and other major Darfuri rebel groups.

Inside Story: Can the two Sudans find peace?

The attack, however, did not serve its purpose. It rather made it worse for the Sudanese people. Khartoum, instead, succeeded to introduce South Sudan as a foreign enemy and an external threat that had to be fought against. It further mobilised the Sudanese, took advantage of the intensely emotional tension and revived its jihadi rhetoric, a dogma that Khartoum was renowned for in the early 1990s, during the civil war with the south.

Regrettably, this jihadi spirit in Khartoum coincided with an inflammatory discourse, a recruitment campaign and calls in Juba by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M) to remain entrenched in Heglig. This, again, took place at a time when the National Congress Party (NCP) was undergoing enormous internal pressures in Khartoum after the secession of the south, as well as the changes that the Arab Spring brought to the region.

These pressures were generated, in part, by the problems that South Sudan’s secession had created in terms of the economy and the constitutional vacuum it left, in addition to the increasing conflict between NCP leaders and the resentment of the Islamic movement and Sudanese citizens towards the situation in Sudan. This forced the NCP to find a way to legitimise its presence to continue its ruling until 2014, the year set for the general elections. Therefore, launching a war with South Sudan would be an ideal situation which could distract the attention of citizens from domestic challenges and failures of Khartoum.

In light of this tense atmosphere, one would ask: How will the negotiations to resolve the outstanding issues between the two states resume? Both countries are in a very critical economic situation. The economies of the two states are going in a downward spiral, and the solution for this depends primarily on their cooperation to resolve their disputes, along with an agreement to sit at the negotiation table without setting unrealistic preconditions.

As expected, this will not be an easy process, and preconditions are most likely to be expected from Khartoum than from Juba. War and tension seem often to be the only methods of conferring legitimacy in Africa, and they are always a pretext for a regime to simply endure without reform. This is true for both the NCP and the SPLA/M.

Abdelkhalig Shaib is a human rights activist, lawyer and visiting researcher at Harvard Law School.