Sudan and South Sudan: Post-Separation Challenges

Adeeb Yousif
Daniel Rothbart

This Case Study was written by Adeeb Yousif and Dr. Daniel Rothbart, School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution (S-CAR), George Mason University, in December 2012.



The comprehensive peace agreement (CPA) signed in January 2005 between the Sudan People's Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M)[1] and the National Congress Party (NCP) brought an end to Africa's longest civil war. Although the accord inspired some Sudanese to seek a peaceful unity, the referendum of 2011 led to a political divorce. On July 9, 2011, the population of South Sudan rejoiced in celebration over its independence from the Republic of Sudan; a collective sense of liberation enhanced the euphoria of the South Sudanese people. After decades of civil war with the North, a peaceful resolution of long-standing disputes with Khartoum seemed within grasp. The jubilation among South Sudanese was destined, however, to be short-lived, replaced by the sobering realization that peace remained elusive for the South, that their struggles with Khartoum continued, and that their new nation was born under conditions of extreme vulnerability. This paper analyzes the current relationship between the two countries. We survey the conflict over border issues, the politics of oil, and the economic trade war that emerged following South Sudanese independence. We also examine border conflicts involving land rights between ethnic communities that lead to instability and massive displacement.

Secession of the South

The path to this political divorce was anything but peaceful. The Government of Sudan could not accept that the campaign for independence by South Sudanese reflected the will of the people. Seeking scapegoats, the officials in Khartoum implied that the secession resulted from Western interference and the Zionist lobby. In a conference called the "Fateful Issues Conference," the representatives from the Sudanese government eventually agreed on self-determination for South Sudan. The Machakos Protocol of July 20, 2002 subsequently reinforced the decision for the right to self-determination for the South Sudanese.

The independence of South Sudan was enabled by the terms of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) of January 9, 2005, which sought to end 22 years of civil war between the North and the South. The agreement calls for national elections and a referendum for secession of the South in 2010. An extraordinary achievement in the history of Sudanese politics, the CPA addresses a wide range of controversies and challenges surrounding religious and cultural diversity, rural marginalization, power-sharing, and a transformation toward democratic governance. When the citizens of South Sudan went to the polls to vote on the referendum for independence, the outcome seemed inevitable; the referendum for secession passed by more than 98% of the vote. Secession from the Republic of Sudan was the South Sudanese people's response to a long history of acrimony, mistrust, and war. On July 9, 2011, when South Sudan declared its independence, all 192 member States of the United Nations offered their endorsement.

The secession of South Sudan from Sudan had major economic, political, and social implications. The expansive border between the two countries spans 2135 kilometers — more than the borders collectively around South Sudan with Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Central Africa, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Border areas between Sudan and South Sudan are inhabited by 81 pastoral tribes, representing 20% of the population in both countries. On one side of the border, Sudan has five states: East Darfur, South Kordofan, White Nile, Blue Nile, and Sennar. On the other side of the border, South Sudan has the three states of Upper Nile, Unity, and Northern Bahr el Ghazal. Again, the general euphoria that came with independence quickly turned to bitterness, with threats and counter-threats emerging from both Khartoum and Juba regarding control of the border areas.

After secession, both countries began levying accusations of military intervention threatening internal security. The Republic of South Sudan and its ruling party — the SPLM — accused Khartoum of supporting militia groups and political movements seeking to overthrow the nascent government in Juba. For their part, the Government of Sudan charged the SPLM with fostering close military and political ties with an umbrella movement called the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF), a group working toward the forceful overthrow of the government in Khartoum.

Oil, Arms, and Economics

As acrimony and threats intensified in the wake of the referendum, violence erupted in certain border regions. The reasons for the conflicts often center on disputes over the control of land, economic competition, and conflicting interpretations of the boundary divisions between the two countries.

Two border regions that are currently sites of extensive hostility, resulting in extensive casualties and large-scale displacement, are the Nuba Mountains and the Blue Nile. For the conflicts in both regions the protagonists are the Government of Sudan and Sudan People's Liberation Movement-North (SPLM/N)[2]. SPLM-N receives military support from SPLM from South Sudan. One major source of the hostility centers on the mis-interpretation and incorrect implementation of the CPA. While the agreement calls for disarmament by the government of Sudan of SPLM-North in 2012, the government sought to impose this measure prematurely in 2011. Yet, the Government of Sudan has political control of both regions.

Two other border conflicts are known as Kafaia Kingi in South Darfur and "14 Mile" in East Darfur. In both cases, the Sudan Armed Forces clashed with SPLM/N. Currently, the Kafaia Kingi region is controlled by the government of Sudan; "14 Mile" is controlled by the Government of South Sudan.

These struggles over boundary divisions, however, mask a deeper set of disputes over a vital natural resource: oil. The contestation of oil — its access, control, and economics — erupted into violence in four regions: North Kordofan, the Blue Nile, Abyei, and the Heglig Oilfield. The collective impact of the violence in these regions resulted in thousands of fatalities, massive displacement of civilians, and gross human rights violations committed by both sides (Brosché 2011). A region of intense conflict, Abyei is the richest oilfield for both countries, with an area of 10,460 square kilometers. Before the 2011 referendum, it had "special administrative status" within the CPA, due to a protocol of 2004 — the Abyei protocol — on the Resolution of the Abyei Conflict.[3] After negotiations over control of this disputed area stalled, the major parties reached out to the International Court at The Hague for arbitration. The Court rendered its binding decision on July 22, 2009 regarding the boundaries for Abyei. The court ruled that neither country will have political control over Abyei and that the region would be governed by the Presidential Commission that was formed in 2005 as part of the CPA.

In the spring of 2011, when the South was building momentum for its anticipated succession, the Government of Sudan launched a large-scale military assault to take control of the oil-rich border area of Abyei. Despite this violent provocation, the South refused to engage in the violence, mindful of its own military weakness and political fragility. By May 21, 2011, the Sudanese Armed Forces had for three days maintained an occupation in Abyei that proved to be devastating to civilians, causing extensive casualties, displacement, and looting of property. Ultimately a settlement was reached with Sudan agreeing to withdraw from the area and replace the military with Ethiopian peacekeepers (Brosché and Rothbart 2013, Chapter 9).

Another border region experiencing conflict is the Heglig oilfield, currently under the political control of the Government of Sudan. On Friday, January 20, 2012, South Sudan fully suspended its oil production, following disputes over transit fees for the passage of oil through Sudan to the Port of Sudan, a vital route for export of oil from both countries. The Minister of Information in South Sudan, Barnaba Marial Benjamin, accused Khartoum of misappropriation of funds and of imposing unreasonable transit fees. In response, the Government of Sudan declared that South Sudan was overdue in its payment of tolls, and appropriated South Sudanese oil. South Sudan considered this action an act of piracy and a flagrant violation of international law. Sudan demanded a passage fee of 26 Sudanese dollars per barrel, while South Sudan maintained a proposal of 70 cents per barrel. On Tuesday, April 10, 2012, The SPLM/A expelled the Sudanese Armed Forces from this region and shut down the Heglig oilfield. Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir retaliated by suspending trade with South Sudan and declaring a state of emergency in three border states: South Kordofan, White Nile, and Sennar. Additionally, the Sudanese parliament declared Southern Sudan an enemy of Sudan.

The decision to shut down oil production had serious consequences for both countries. Oil production represents 98% of treasury revenue for South Sudan.[4] The loss of this revenue resulted in rampant inflation and severe limits on access to essential material resources for the population. Sudan experienced similar hardships, as runaway inflation and a thriving black market eroded their economy. For Sudan, this oilfield was the source of approximately 60 thousand barrels of oil per day — more than 50% of the nation's oil production.

The Sudanese government responded to these losses by launching an economic war against its neighbor, with results that were counter-productive at best. Officials imposed carrier fees to use the pipeline, which limited trade, and the frequent border closures imposed by Sudan reduced the flow of goods between the two countries. To tackle its budget deficit, Sudan's government cut fuel subsidies in June, which reduced by three-quarters the country's oil output, causing high inflation. Opposition protests erupted in parts of Sudan after the spending cuts, including calls for regime change, but subsided after a security crackdown during the holy month of Ramadan. The Sudanese Minister of Finance, Ali Mahmoud, said that the conflict with the Republic of South Sudan caused a fiscal deficit of 6.5 billion Sudanese dollars ($2.4 billion).

A Fragile Peace

On May 2, 2012, the United Nations Security Council adopted resolution 2045, calling for an immediate halt to fighting between Sudan and South Sudan. With this resolution, the Council gave both countries an ultimatum — either resolve the conflict or face sanctions until August 2, 2012. Despite the fact that the conflict continued beyond this date, the UN did not impose these sanctions, believing at the time that such measures might hamper ongoing negotiations. And in fact, as one step towards peace, Sudan and South Sudan agreed on September 27, 2012 to establish a demilitarized zone on the border and to resume oil exports from the South through the territory of Sudan. Yet, long-standing disputes between the countries remained unresolved.

One of these disputes concerns the issue of nationality of citizens of the South after its independence. The Sudan government rejected the principle of dual citizenship, despite the Constitution of Sudan providing the ability for Sudanese citizens to acquire the nationality of another country. A second dispute centers on the right to residency of Southern citizens living in the North. A decree by the government of Sudan declared that all southerners living in the North must return 'to their ancestral homeland.' Yet, in fact, hundreds of thousands of Southerners living in the North were actually born and raised in the North, and many who have returned to the South did not participate in the referendum for the self-determination of South Sudan. Some sought to unify the North and South. Others are students still studying in different levels of education or were leaders in the ruling regime. Alongside the fallout from these decisions about nationality and repatriation, there are some issues that directly affected Southern citizens, such as suspension of trade with South Sudan, which rendered staple goods unaffordable for most people.

So, the sources of these various border disputes center on economic competition, a history of acrimony and distrust among ethnic groups, and political disputes over land access and control. And the regions are rife for continued hostility.


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Mohamed Eissa Elew, The Chairman of the Consultative Council of the Rizeigat Tribe. Darfur-Sudan.

[1] Sudan People's Liberation Army/Movement (SPLM/A) was former rebel movement in Sudan and is currently the ruling party in Republic of South Sudan.
[2] Before secession of South Sudan, SPLM-N was united with SPLM. As an independent armed movement, SPLM-N is currently active primarily in the Blue Nile and South Kordofan against the martial forces of the government of Sudan.
[3] According to the CPA, the Abyei Borders Commission (ABC) consist of 15 persons: 5 represent the NCP, 5 represent SPLA, three represent the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, and one each represent the United States and the United Kingdom. The ABC presented a report in July 2005, but it was immediately rejected by the NCP, who accused the experts of using sources after 1905 in their determination of the boundaries.
[4] Foreign aid has increased since independence, although donors are wary of long-term investment because of allegations about corruption, insatiability and tribal fighting.