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Five issues which still hamper north-south relations five years on

Adam Mohamed
Five intractable problems continue to cloud relations between Sudan and South Sudan: Borders, citizens, oil, rebels and Abyei.
8.07.2016  |  Khartoum, Sudan
A typical homestead in the contested Abyei region, May 2016. Oil-rich Abyei abuts both Sudan and South Sudan and is claimed by the two countries. (photo: The Niles | Nancy Alek Kuol)
A typical homestead in the contested Abyei region, May 2016. Oil-rich Abyei abuts both Sudan and South Sudan and is claimed by the two countries. (photo: The Niles | Nancy Alek Kuol)

These five thorny issues were part of the Cooperation Agreement inked by the two presidents on September 27, 2012, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. With an eye on recent developments in both countries, the two Sudans remain a long way from resolving them.

1. Borders: Where is the zero line?

The Addis Ababa agreement underlined the need for clear borders, or the so-called Zero Line identification, and the withdrawal of the two countries’ armies from each other’s territories. On January 29, 2016, South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir ordered his army to immediately pull out from the area within five miles from the border with Sudan. However, the negotiating parties failed to identify the Zero Line, making it hard to determine the demilitarised security zone between the two countries.

“The major obstacle for the two states from September 2012 to January 2013 was identifying the Zero Line, which Sudan considers essential to address the vitally important security issues,” said Moiz Farouq, a former delegation member to the negotiations with South Sudan. “The Joint Border Demarcation Committee – set up before the separation – agreed on 80 percent of border demarcation of the states. They, however, disagreed over four sites – namely, Kafia Kingi, Mgeinis, Joda and Kaka.”

On January 27, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir issued an order to reopen the border, following positive gestures by his South Sudanese counterpart. But question marks were raised about this plan in March this year, when rumours swirled that borders were once again being blocked, speculation which proved unfounded. But the highly politicalised issue of borders remains volatile and does not look likely to go away, any time soon.

2. Citizens or foreigners?

On March 18, 2016, the Sudanese Council of Ministers said it would treat South Sudanese people as foreigners, removing their access to health and education services and taking a hard line on southerners who do not hold passports.

It ruled that all South Sudanese needed a valid official entry visa within a week. The move sparked shock among the immigrants, as it unwound a previous decision which granted them the right to live as Sudanese citizens.

The move was implemented amid rising tensions between the Sudans following Khartoum’s accusation that Juba harboured rebels. In response, South Sudan’s Information Minister Michael Makuei threatened to take similar steps against Sudan.

3. How much for a barrel of oil?

Following extensive talks, the two parties finally struck agreement on charges for transporting oil from South Sudan through the Sudanese territories. Oil forms the backbone of South Sudan’s economy and the loss of oil income left a deep dent in Sudan’s finances following secession, making the fees a hot topic for both countries. The negotiating teams, with mediation from third parties, finally agreed that South Sudan would pay Sudan a total fee of 24-26 U.S. dollars per barrel.

This sum included an 11 U.S. dollars per barrel fee for transportation services, payable to the Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company, a Chinese-Malaysian company operating in the Unity State fields. This fee also includes a processing fee of 1.60 U.S. dollars, a transport fee of 8.40 U.S. dollars and a one dollar transit fee for each barrel. As for oil coming through PetroDar, a Chinese-Malaysian company operating in the Upper Nile state fields, South Sudan pays 9.10 U.S. dollars per barrel. In addition to these fees, South Sudan must “transfer a finite sum of 3.028 billion U.S. dollars, as a transitional financial arrangement”, according to the Cooperation Agreement.

Following the outbreak of war in South Sudan and plummeting global oil prices, the new country’s fragile economy took a hit, prompting Juba to request a reduction in oil transit charges. On January 11, 2016, former South Sudanese Foreign Minister Barnaba Benjamin Marial said his country asked Sudan’s government to lower the charges. “It is due to global fall of oil prices,” he told Sudanese Al-Shorooq TV.

Shortly after however, Sudan’s Finance Minister Badreddine Mahmoud said that “South Sudan has defaulted on oil transit charges and Khartoum is obliged to take its share in kind in accordance with the JCA”. In his address to the Sudanese parliament on January 20, he added that: “The Sudanese government is making technical arrangements should Juba shut down its oil pipelines.”

But just a day later the Sudan News Agency (SUNA) quoted government sources saying that al-Bashir agreed to reduce Sudan’s charges on South Sudan’s oil transit. This reduction does not affect the total amount to be paid by South Sudan, i.e. 3.028 billion U.S. dollars. It only means that the amount per barrel would be reduced, thus extending the pavement period initially set at three and a half years in the cooperation agreement.


4. Who is helping the rebels?

Written in black on white in the Cooperation Agreement is the clause that neither country can allow armed oppositions in its territories. But hardly any time passed before accusations started flying back and forth between the two countries.

The Sudanese government was quick to point the finger at South Sudan’s government for failing to cut ties with the SPLA-North, the Sudanese offshoot of South Sudan’s SPLA. And when Vice President Riek Machar broke away from President Kiir in December 2013 and became a rebel leader, Juba accused Khartoum of supporting him.

“Security arrangements remain a huge challenge,” said Faroog, adding that it is nigh on impossible to monitor a 1,260 km-long border which is home to two-thirds of both countries’ populations.


5. What next for Abyei?

As part of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), which ended the second Sudanese civil war, a “special status” was awarded to Abyei. But even after South Sudan became a country in its own right, the issue continued to burn. Oil-rich Abyei abuts both Sudan and South Sudan and is claimed by the two countries.

In 2012, the African Union proposed a referendum over Abyei, in which the nine Dinka Ngok tribes and the population living in that area would participate, taking into consideration the political rights of the Misseriya tribe. The Khartoum government refused to support the decision because the Misseriya tribe were excluded from the vote, meaning the outcome would likely go against Sudan.

The Juba government, however, approved the proposed referendum. The issue hung in the balance until October 2013, when the nine Dinka Ngok tribes in Abyei forged ahead with a unilateral referendum to annex the area to South Sudan but The African Peace and Security Council refused to accept their vote. To this day there is little to suggest that the status of Abyei will be settled in the near future.


How to bury the hatchet...

“Sudan is committed to all the agreements it has signed with Juba and is keen to implement them,” said Ali Sadiq, spokesman for Sudan’s Foreign Ministry. “We believe that the security of the South leads to security for Sudan, and vice versa. Therefore using many regional platforms and international mediation, we seek to convince disputing parties in South Sudan to bury the hatchet.” But, at the same time, Sadiq said Juba never seemed keen on forging a neighbourly relationship with Khartoum and failed to implement agreements struck between the two states.

For his part, South Sudan’s Spokesman Michael Makuei called on the Sudanese government to discuss outstanding issues with South Sudan, rather than taking unilateral decisions. “South Sudan’s government will not take any action unless the decisions are implemented on the ground,” he said in a press statement.

And Farouq casts doubt on both countries’ motivation to improve relations. “The two countries have a lot in common, social, political, and economic ties,” he said. “They are still unable to draw up a long-term strategy based on these commonalities. They simply lack the ability and/or willingness to look at their relationship comprehensively and from a long-term perspective.”

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