Interview with Petrus de Kock, Senior Researcher at the South African Institute of International Affairs.
Dr. de Kock, could you try to explain to our listeners just what is the cause of the recent deterioration of security situation in the Southern Sudan?
Yes, as things develop over time there have been a few things that have been leading up to it. I think since the last year with the separation of the two countries, you know, there are some of the border regions that remain contested between the Northern and Southern Sudan. But I think in the case of this specific conflict that we have been seeing in this last month or two there are some areas on the border where you have a definite contestation for control over some oil fields. So, that is one issue.
And then kind of parallel to that is another phenomenon of certain groups that were allied to the SPLA\M from Southern Sudan before independence that now find themselves in the territory of Sudan. So, that is clear it has a lot of tension in the security issues where Khartoum feels that the Southerners are supporting people arming to fight against the Khartoum and vise versa. So, I think there would be some very isolated kind of pockets, you know, very problematical areas where some of these conflicts are actually taking place.
Dr. de Kock, according to reports coming from the Barnabas Fund some 500 000 to 700 000 people who are mainly Christians of southern origin are now being forced out of Sudan having been stripped of their citizenship the Fund reports. They have to decide until the 8th of April either to leave the northern country or to be treated as foreigners. And we need to remind our listeners that many of them fled north during the long civil war and have been staying in the northern part of the country for a number of years. So, how accurate is this report?
If that is the case I would be quite surprised because I do know the one issue that has been under negotiation – the southern people who are still living in Northern Sudan, I think one of the things they are negotiating about is at what point in this year will they have to either go back to Southern Sudan or to then apply for residence permits in Sudan. And that is one process I know of but whether this have actually been actions to expel Christians – I’m not so sure about that.
Many experts are saying that neighbouring countries also experience some deterioration in security situation as an outcome of the Arab Spring developments, namely the developments in Libya. Does Sudan experience anything like that?
I’ve seen some reports coming to the fore since last year when the big Arab Spring phenomenon started in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. And there were some movements in Khartoum and around Khartoum of people, especially among the students, there were some small student protests. And now, in this last week I’ve seen a report of some people in Khartoum who were arrested and it is actually people related to the very important family that has all kinds of political connections in the country. And there was quite a strong police crackdown on that.
So, there has been that movement in Sudan around Khartoum but I think more important than that, and something that is also linked to our previous discussion on the current conflict between some isolated areas between the Northern and the Southern Sudan, is the creation of what they call the Sudan Revolutionary Front. And that organization was created in the end of the last, the beginning of this year which is a new unified I would say armed movement that includes elements from Darfur, elements from the former SPLA\M that are in Sudan and from eastern Sudan.
So, what I think is – it is important to look at the terms of the political developments now in Sudan, that some of the developments are not actually the result of the tensions between North and South Sudan but it is also a result of internal and new kind of political and even military opposition taking shape against Khartoum. So, that is a whole new dynamic that is entering the conflict pattern now and it will take some time for us to see to what extent that will impact on the security situation in the Northern Sudan itself.
If there is an opposition against Khartoum being formed now, does that imply that the country is moving towards some kind of civil war?
Well, look – in a way Sudan is now in the unfortunate part of its history. You know, if you look at Darfur for example, let’s say in the last year or so there has been a bit of improvement in the situation, there has been some disagreement signs with some of the rebel movements. The relationship between the Khartoum and N'Djamena of Chad has improved dramatically which also helped to stabilize the territory but some of the bigger movements like the Justice and Equality Movement still refused to sign the peace treaty with Khartoum.
So, in a way even though Southern Sudan managed to get independence last year, Sudan is kind of on growing basis it has been caught in a civil war just in Darfur alone. And the emergence now of this Sudan Revolutionary Front is just a new symptom I would say of a much older political disease in Sudan concerning questions of marginalization of people not having access to political power or economic opportunity. So, this kind of dynamics is deeply embedded in Sudan’s history and it is basically taking a new from now as to the Southern Sudan independence last year.
Doesn’t it also resemble in a way the situations in other Arab Spring countries, even in such a seemingly peaceful country like Tunisia for instance when people were deprived of all access to ways of improving their life standards and we can see what is has brought? Is my impression correct?
I think yes, at some level we can make a comparison like that. I just think the conditions in Sudan, economically the country, you know, they have oil now they rely onto but in terms of the level of development in some of the peripheral regions – in Darfur, in the regions that are now along the border between Sudan and Southern Sudan, and even up in the eastern Sudan towards Port Sudan people have been complaining bitterly for decades about basic neglect at a political level, that they feel that their voices aren’t heard in the national Government and then the outcome of that is also economic marginalization.
So, I think those would be the two key kind of factors to study in Sudan that will also be appointed towards understanding the new conflict dynamics that is emerging. Of the two conflict patterns that I’m talking about there is the one that emerges now with the Sudan Revolutionary Front and they together with the tensions between the North and the South, there are contact points between those.
But does the Government of Northern Sudan do anything to address those explosive points in the situation?
Well, let’s look at Darfur. One thing that happened, and it is might be a small change in Darfur, is that in this I think past month President Bashir as well as the Chad President and of Alger were in Darfur to launch a new peace agreement. And part of that agreement gave Darfur’s political representatives I think five seats in the National Cabinet and that is one of the most important objectives of some of the groups in Darfur – to feel that their political voice would be heard in the national Government. So, at that level it is not major progress but at least some progress has been made in Darfur, but there is still a long way to go obviously.
The new challenge now will be for the Khartoum Government to prevent this slash points, conflicts on the north-south border to escalate further because the more that escalates, the more people who are resisting Khartoum would want to put political pressure on Khartoum to address the political grievances. So they would need a new kind of political intervention in Sudan to kind of try and lay the fears of marginalization of people. And that would have to be a huge national process I think of redesigning the political system.
Dr. de Kock, what is your forecast?
I think one interesting thing to highlight if we want to forecast. I think it was in January or February of this year, something very interesting happened when a group of quite senior Sudanese military officers sent a message to President Bashir and some of his security advisors that said that the Sudan armed forces are not prepared and at this point not willing for an all-out war with Southern Sudan. And they listed several reasons for that. One of them was poor equipment and another one is that they are deployed in Darfur, they are deployed in the certain areas on the border with the Southern Sudan and that operationally the armed forces are not ready for a major attack on Southern Sudan. And that had quite a shock impact on President Bashir because it is a sign of resistance from the military establishment to him.
To forecast now on the conditions in Sudan I think we will have to look very carefully at what are the signals of political instability in Sudan itself and to what extent will that impact on any decision to escalate the conflict with the Southern Sudan. The other issue that will impact on our forecast will be oil revenues because the oil exports have been stopped by Southern Sudan. So, both countries can either become reckless like they feel – look, we’ve got nothing to lose and let’s go to war, but I think this is a thing that will impact on its basic finances and the survival of the Government.
So, I think at this point in time in the medium term there is still a window opened for negotiation, to say – look, we don’t want to go back to war. You know, I think this is the most likely thing that is going to happen. There are going to be slash points of conflicts but at the same time there will be attempts I think at least to try and manage the process.
In this situation, what could the external powers do?
I think there is a big question at this point in time about the African Union High Level Implementation Panel that has been mediating in the negotiations between Juba and Khartoum, especially on the oil and those kinds of issues. So, I think there has been a bit of skeptical noises coming from Southern Sudan about the African Union and its ability, we see that southern interests are basically taken care of in the negotiation framework.
So, I think the African Union would have to revise its strategy maybe in consultation with the United Nations and regional organizations like IGOD – the Intergovernmental Organization on Development. And I think between those two regional organizations and the UN as an international organization, I think they would have just kind of in a way quite gently force the parties into negotiation and they also maybe for the deployment if necessary of other UN peacekeeping units to demilitarize that border regions.
I have also talked to several experts who were complaining about arms trade in that region. They were saying that arms trade has been on the rise. Would you agree with this assessment?
Well, I don’t have any specific statistics on it but I wouldn’t be surprised given the conditions of uncertainty, especially in places like Southern Kordofan, the Nuba Mountains where you have old elements of this SPLA\M basically located now on the Sudanese territory. I think in those areas we can probably see quite an increase in arms trafficking, basically people are arming themselves to protect or somehow try to challenge the authority of the Sudanese Government.
The Islamist factor, is it still there?
It is there, if you look at people like Hassan al-Turabi, he was a very close ally of the President Bashir until about 1999 when he fell out of favour with the Islamic movement. So, they are definitely there. And what is also interesting – earlier, I think it was last year at some point, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood for example proposed to mediate between Hassan al-Turabi and President Bashir to find a kind of a political solution in this split between them. I would say Hassan al-Turabi is slightly more radical Islamist thinker and Bashir has proven himself to be an Islamist guy but he is not as outgo to put it that way as someone like al-Turabi. So, that factor is there and it does play a role in shaping dynamics in Sudan.
Did they mediate?
I don’t know what the outcome of that was. It is basically the last I saw about that story. I think that Turabi was in Cairo and then a delegation from the Muslim Brotherhood traveled to Khartoum and while they were there they made this offer to mediate between the two but since then the story has just come dead. I haven’t seen or heard anything about it after that.
Does it indicate a growing support to Sudan from Egypt, from the new authorities there?
Well, I think it is very important for Egypt to maintain its very good historical relationship at many levels – cultural, political, social, even economic in certain respect relationship with Khartoum. And one of the strategic reasons for that would be about the use of the water of the River Nile because Egypt gets about 85% of all its water from the Nile River. So, it is very important for it to maintain a good relationship with Khartoum and in that way also to present a unified position on any agreements on the use of the water of the Nile. So, I think even the Muslim Brotherhood would be aware of that and that is probably why, as they are ascending the power ladder in Egypt, they would want to solidify their relationships with Khartoum for that reason among others.