Sudan-South Sudan relations: Now for (yet another) hard part

Focus turns to political challenges as Sudan and South Sudan reach deal on oil

9 September 2013

Now that Khartoum has agreed to drop its threat to prevent South Sudanese oil exports via its pipeline infrastructure, a series of political challenges remain if the two countries are to continue to co-operate on the energy sector in the months and years to come.

The two most urgent issues are the status of the disputed border territory of Abyei and the definition of the border. Both were outlined in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005 and were scheduled for resolution prior to South Sudan’s independence in July 2011, but they remain far from resolution. “Nothing has been done about border definition, and Abyei wasn’t even talked about during the summit of Kiir and [Sudanese president] Omar Bashir on 3 September,” says a former international negotiator for the government.

The AU has brought together a team of experts to work on the definition of the border between the two countries, but despite efforts by the AU Peace and Security Council in late 2013 to draw up the terms of reference for the team’s work, neither Juba nor Khartoum has agreed to them. “Neither side has even made any submissions yet,” says the former negotiator.

Last year, the AU proposed that a referendum be held in Abyei in October 2013. On 4 September, South Sudan’s information minister Michael Makuei Lueth announced that public and private sector entities had been instructed to grant paid leave to workers from Abyei to enable them to vote in the referendum. But Khartoum has not endorsed the process, the AU has withdrawn its commitment to the timetable, and foreign governments are now weighing in to deter Juba from moving forward.

“We support AU proposals for Abyei referendum but timing/format to be agreed by both sides,” the UK ambassador to the UN, Mark Grant, said on Twitter. “Unilateral action won’t help.” Khartoum objects to the AU proposal that only permanent residents, predominantly South Sudanese Dinga Ngok, be allowed to vote in the referendum, excluding the nomadic Misseriya tribe, who are more sympathetic to Sudan. Sudan has also called for the formation of a joint administration of Abyei prior to the formation of the referendum commission. This leaves the process at a standstill.

“The AU High-Level Implementation Panel on Sudan (AUHIP) proposal has been endorsed twice by the AU Peace and Security Council, and the two presidents agreed in January to meet as soon as possible to establish a referendum committee based on the AUHIP proposal, but that hasn’t happened,” says the former negotiator. “It’s very unclear what’s going to happen next.”

The loss of a great deal of expertise on the South Sudan side of the negotiating table will not help. When South Sudan’s president, Salva Kiir, decided in July to sack his government, he also removed the country’s two leading negotiators: Riek Machar, the vice president; and Pagan Amum, secretary-general of the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement.

As vice president, Machar headed the implementation oversight committee on issues outstanding between the two countries after South Sudan’s independence. Amum, who was suspended from his post, was South Sudan’s lead negotiator with Khartoum.

As it transpired, negotiations on oil came to a happy ending, for now at least. The visit to Khartoum by Kiir himself may have helped the process, while some argue that the reshuffled government is more amenable to Khartoum. But there are still concerns as to how a number of other issues will be tackled.

“I’m most concerned about the removal of the South Sudan’s negotiating team,” says the former negotiator. “No one who was on the negotiating team is there any longer, so a lot of know-how and understanding has been lost.”

In late August, James Wani Igga was appointed as South Sudan’s vice president, and will take over Machar’s duties as head of the implementation oversight committee. Amum, though, remains suspended, and in early August filed a petition in South Sudan’s supreme court accusing Kiir of violating the SPLM charter and the transitional constitution.

An investigation committee appointed by Kiir has meanwhile recommended criminal proceedings against former cabinet affairs minister Deng Alor Kuol for an alleged “un-procedural” transfer of $8m to Kenyan-based company Daffy Investment Group. Alor Kuol was suspended from the government in June, along with former finance minister Kosti Manibe Ngai. Manibe Ngai has since been cleared of any criminal responsibility.

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Richard Nield is a freelance journalist, photographer and filmmaker covering the Middle East and Africa. In 10 years covering the region, he has been published and broadcast by clients including the BBC, Reuters, Al Jazeera, The Economist, The Financial Times, The Independent and Foreign Policy magazine. He has reported from throughout the region, including Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, South Sudan, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.