Tim Flatman, writing from Juba, South Sudan

The “international community”, a nebulous concept at the best of times, achieved rare unity in its desire for and welcoming of an agreement between South Sudan and Sudan on oil transportation fees, disguising its self-interest by arguing the agreement will stop the two countries from returning to war. But will it really?

From the outset, most governments patronisingly lectured South Sudan as to why halting the export of oil was not in its interests, rather than trying to understand the logic behind a decision which achieved near-unanimous support within the country. It should not be difficult to understand why Southerners, knowing that their oil is a finite resource, would balk at paying over the odds to a hostile government with a track record of using oil money to wage war against South Sudan and other marginalised areas, and prefer to leave the oil in the ground until a more reasonable deal is achieved. I am also wary of a Western-centric mindset that assumes, informed by the post-war European experience, that economic integration inevitably promotes peaceful relations. Sudan and South Sudan are not France and Germany. While oil is exported through Sudan, it will always be subject to day-to-day political machinations between Sudan and South Sudan, with potential for Sudan to confiscate oil without payment or South Sudan to threaten to halt production to gain leverage on other issues. Nonetheless, I admit that outside South Sudan, I am very lonely in arguing this case.

Hillary Clinton’s remarks in South Sudan two day ago gave a wink and a nod to a Southern perspective on the dispute, acknowledging that the Republic of South Sudan Government’s actions “brought Khartoum to the negotiating table”. But when she argued simplistically that “a percentage of something is better than a percentage of nothing”, she either did not understand or chose to ignore the position outlined above that the oil is not going anywhere, and better for it to be used to develop South Sudan in the future than to pay for bombs to be dropped from Antonovs in the present, whether on Southerners in Northern Bahr-Ghazal or their brothers and sisters in the Nuba Mountains.

It is always dangerous to write about specifics when, as at the time of writing, there appears to be much disagreement on what the details of any agreement actually are. Transportation fees of $9.48, $11, $15 and $24/25 dollars have been variously and confidently reported by different media. But there is already a feeling within South Sudan that the South Sudanese Government gave away too much in its draft proposal, the Agreement on Friendly Relations and Co-operation between the Republics of South Sudan and Sudan. The assumption that any agreement on oil transportation fees came about because the US threatened South Sudan in the knowledge that it had more leverage over South Sudan than over Sudan, prioritising a more immediate resumption of oil exports over a fair agreement, is giving rise to an anti-Americanism within South Sudan that has previously been reserved for specific individuals like Scott Gration and John Kerry. The higher the figure, the more considerable grassroots resentment towards the US is likely to be.

If it was undoubtedly true that a deal on oil will help the two countries avoid war, it would be easier to forgive the US and other sections of the international community, for acting in its interest. But this is not clear. Unhelpfully, international media has so far reported that implementation of any deal on oil is subject to Khartoum’s security concerns being resolved. But it must also be subject to other outstanding CPA issues being resolved, notably border demarcation and the final status of Abyei. If a deal on oil is de-linked from resolution of these issues, they will never be resolved. Khartoum has little interest in reaching agreement on them. Once the flow of oil resumes and appears to be guaranteed into the future, the international community will lose interest in promoting agreement on other outstanding issues. But without resolving them, the question of the border, and particularly of Abyei’s status, will at some point drag the two countries back to war. In demanding that oil exports do not resume before these issues are resolved, the Republic of South Sudan Government is not being unreasonable. It is effectively saying it wants to avoid a return to war at all costs. No-one understands the cost of war more than the South Sudanese. Can they be blamed for adopting this position?

Oil exports must not, therefore, resume before these issues have been resolved. That means actually resolving them, not signing a further agreement and putting in place a framework for resolving them. The permanent residents of Abyei know too well that agreement on a future date for exercising their self-determination is not a guarantee of it happening. In this context, the date proposed for an Abyei Referendum in the draft Agreement on Friendly Relations and Co-operation makes good sense. According to the Minister of Information in the Government of South Sudan, the process for resuming oil exports will take approximately three months. Abyei is the next item on the agenda for discussion between Presidents Kiir and Bashir in September. If – and this is a big if – agreement was reached on a 30 November 2012 referendum date, the process of exporting oil could be restarted on the proviso that it would only be completed, in mid-December, if an Abyei Referendum had successfully taken place.

There are other arguments for a 30 November 2012 Abyei Referendum date. It avoids the complications and insecurity likely to arise if a referendum date coincides with annual migrations. While migrations last year were relatively peaceful (notwithstanding a large amount of cattle raiding, with more Dinka Ngok cattle stolen than in any previous year), it is unlikely that this will be the case in a further year, especially if Misseriya are seen to be holding up an Abyei Referendum. Experience from last year also showed that Misseriya migrations were easily infiltrated by PDF (Popular Defence Force) elements. PDF elements attempted to cause insecurity and division between other Misseriya and Dinka Ngok returnees on numerous occasions. In one case in February 2012 they were successful, and killed a Southerner despite local people warning UNISFA a day beforehand about suspicious movements. Holding a referendum well before migrations are due to take place is the only way of preventing insecurity during an Abyei Referendum.

UNISFA are widely and rightly praised for their actions in defending civilians and forestalling conflict, but there are growing concerns at their tendency to assume a governmental role, taking on decisions that should rightly be left to Abyei Administration. The divvying up of plots within Abyei market, granting them to Arab “traders” universally recognised amongst the Dinka Ngok community as former soldiers, will continue to provoke rather than relieve tension, and the sensible local proposal to relocate the market to an area near Todac, away from residential areas, has been ignored. UNISFA have failed to deal satisfactorily with cattle raiding, reluctant to assume a role not within their mandate and rightly the responsibility of a desperately-needed local police force. They have come under criticism for spending too long interviewing the victims of cattle raiding, while the cattle themselves are moved far away from their owners and become more difficult to trace. There are also concerns that they have been misled as to how certain water-points have been used, by the very elements that previously rendered these water-points unusable. Raising these points should not be misinterpreted as criticism of UNISFA, who are doing the best they can in an incredibly challenging environment. UNISFA cannot be expected to be have the historical and contextual understanding to deal with these problems as effectively as local civil servants under an Abyei Administration could.

With proposals for a temporary Joint Administration perceived by the local community as a way of setting a precedent as to who resides in the Area, the only certain way of enabling functions UNISFA has swallowed to be taken on by more appropriate authorities with proper experience, is to finally resolve the status of the area. Otherwise, as UNISFA continues to take on civil affairs, it will find itself increasingly out of its depth, and the prospects of localised conflict more likely. Again, this demands a referendum date that is sooner rather than later.

A 30 November 2012 date will of course require agreement on other issues, including voter eligibility and the formation of an Abyei Referendum Commission. But there are sensible proposals within the Agreement on Friendly Relations and Co-operation on these points too, which at the very least could serve as a starting point for negotiations. The international community must insist, as it did on oil transportation fees, on a specific response from Khartoum as to how voter eligibility should be determined and verified, rather than an argument in principle which is unimplementable in practice. Registration should not be seen as a barrier – the target population is relatively small and very concentrated: registration can be completed quickly compared to the experience of South Sudan’s referendum. However, assistance to Ngok returnees North of the River Kiir will need to be upscaled. More will seek to return and sooner, if a referendum date is scheduled. Already the numbers have outstretched predictions, with an estimated 17,000 (5,000 in Abyei town, and 12,000 in the villages North of the Kiir around Abyei town) reported yesterday by local sources. INGOs are not ready to provide the necessary assistance and it will take a political decision by the international community for sufficient assistance to be provided should the entire community return.

Returning to our original premise, will yesterday’s agreement on oil make war more or less likely? The truth is that it could do either. If the international community continues to engage at the level it has done over oil; if it adopts and aggressively promotes the proposals in the RSS Government’s AFRC on border demarcation and Abyei, and ensures these issues are resolved before oil exports resume, this agreement will have been a step along the road to sustainable peace. If it pats
itself on the back, congratulating itself on a job well-done and insisting that oil exports now resume as soon as possible regardless of agreements on other outstanding issues being reached and implemented, it will in the medium-term have furthered the prospects of war in the name of its own short-term economic interests.