Oil and The New Cold War in Sudan: Independence of South Sudan shrouded in Scepticism

November 06, 2013 | Roundtable Discussion

By Amir Shafiy Mazlan  –

The independence of South Sudan on July 2011 has been welcomed by the international community as a sign of high possibility of ending the humanitarian crisis in the region. Even though, this is a big challenge for Khartoum (North Sudan), it cannot be rejected as nearly 100 percent (approximately 98.88 percent) of South Sudan population voted to secede from the North. The general perception assumed is that this is a new beginning to a better future for both South Sudan and Khartoum. However, the humanitarian crisis in the bordering area between both territories persists indicating the fragile two-state partition. Indeed, the humanitarian crisis has sparked a deeper problem- oil resource war – a military contest over oil – and this will pose in the long run a greater threat to the ‘national interest’ of both North Sudan and South Sudan.


Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir and South Sudan President Salva Kiir in a handshake at the airport

Again, oil is the main natural resource for the North and South economies. The dispute over oil-rich boundary as well as the overlapping of oil blocks will impose diplomatic tensions between both the two states and the independence of South Sudan will be put to test by the North. Thus it is essential to explain briefly about the significance of black gold (oil) and how it contributes to the prolonged tensions before and after the partition. Sudan has been exporting crude oil since 1999, and in the next decade, oil production increased dramatically to 490,000 barrels per day. As mentioned, this black gold remains crucial to economic development of both and the basic resource to mitigate the endemic problem of poverty of the whole of Sudan.  Oil is accounted for 60 – 70 percent revenue in the North and 98 percent in the South, this imbalance in division has made Khartoum less happy with the South’s independence. Subsequently, unbalanced oil spread involves dispute over provinces as well. This covers areas like Abyei, South Kordofan, where the Blue Nile long pipelines connecting Port Sudan to the central Africa states runs through these areas.

Furthermore, about 75 percent of Sudanese oil is produced below the old colonial line dividing North and South and the current border sticks to that colonial legacy. Growing oil competition between the North and the South is regulated under the CPA (Comprehensive Peace Agreement). In general the CPA, signed in January 2005, is seen as an important agreement towards the achievement of mutual understanding between two leaders, President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan and Southern Sudanese President Salva Kiir. Indeed, it is hoped that CPA will end one of the longest- running war in this turbulent region. The main objective of CPA is to restore economic development by encouraging trade cooperation between the two countries. Now Sudan and the SPLM (Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement) have arrived at an agreement, now the CPA’s main concern is with lasting security, boundaries and of course to settle the sharing of oil revenue between both sides. In fact CPA was assumed as the guarantor in the holding of the July 2011 referendum; yet it still fails to satisfy both parties. For instance, the South is unhappy with CPA oil allocation, the North is not satisfied when 98 percent of oil revenues belonging to the South.


South Sudan’s presidential guard await the arrival of foreign dignitaries invited to participate in the country’s official independence celebrations in the capital city of Juba, 9 July 2011. Image credit: Steve Evans

On April 22, 2012, Russia Today (RT) reported thousands of people displaced during the military escalation between Sudan and South Sudan’s SPLA soldiers in the Heglig oil-rich area. UNHR (United Nations Human Rights), concurred indeed that thousands of civilian population in Heglig town had fled due to military clash between Sudan armed forces and SPLM soldiers. The report also stated that South Sudan’s army had already completed its withdrawal; however the tension erupted when the South accused the North for bombing the area and this stretched the peace deal. Heglig is part of South Kordofan area. Indeed the problem was accentuated in ‘turbulent’ areas due to unclear border determination. It is still unsettled whether Abyei, South Kordofan (including Heglig), and Blue Nile states should be recognised as North territorial area or become a part of the South. The ethnic clashes were also frequent in these ‘hot areas’ due to a struggle or competition for water and land. Press TV reported on February 2013, the clash erupted between members of Sudanese Arab Misseriya tribe and South Sudanese – based Nuer tribe, and killing more than 60 people in the contested zone of Abyei.

North- South tension extends not only due to internal conflicts or ‘states at oil war’, but also due to the intervention of foreign powers that pose as an international threat to independence of the South. Paradoxically, the signing of CPA is to ensure the restoration of peace and ending the conflict, but obviously US-China rivalry over African oil had indicated that both states (North and South) could become proxies to these two ‘heavyweights’ and their geopolitical manoeuvring in the spreading of the oil resource war. Moreover, the Former US President George W. Bush announced the establishment of sixth US military command, AFRICOM on February 6, 2006. The main intention of this military command is to promote the USA as the main oil player on regional stability-instability of the Africa continent. With China shifting its focus to Africa by conducting wider investment and military cooperation, AFRICOM is clearly aimed to counter China’s influence as well. The US argues that its oil dependency needs Africa oil. Sudan is recognised as one of the largest oil producers in Africa, and China via China National Petroleum Company (CNPC) is a growing presence with $5 billion invested in Sudan’s oil fields development. This development gets negative reaction from Washington as the US worries that it may lose control of African oil and this will pose a big threat to US energy security. 

Admittedly, significant effort from the international community has been made to halt diplomatic tension between North and South, for instance through CPA. But the intervention by foreign powers is seen as the major problem now and this may lead finally to the failure of the Sudanese peace deal. Since the presence of US global military might (via AFRICOM) in Africa, the US are acting through surrogate allies in Chad and the neighbouring states and have trained and armed the SPLA rebels against Khartoum. In addition, the US have also allegedly contributed financial aid to South Sudan in its effort to support the South separation from the North. According to US Congressional Research Service (2012)US foreign assistance to South Sudan in 2011, has approximately reached up to $341 million and this is higher than financial aid to North Sudan, which stands at approximately $30 million. US hegemonic power is seen clearly in the leaked secret report that US military advisors are being deployed in Nzara, South Sudan and in the other three US allied states.


Special Envoy Gration discusses security issues with members of a Joint Integrated Unit (JIU) in Malakal, Southern Sudan. Image credit: Sudan Envoy

Perhaps, there is the better solution to this issue – the US and China should collaborate in developing South Sudan, indeed, even better Sudan should get the same benefits. Moreover, US-Chinese co-operation could also bring a positive impact as well as it generating economic growth rather than rivalry to secure interests. In fact, this significant cooperation not only benefits Sudan and South Sudan, but the whole African continent. The main issue that really needs to be addressed now is that South Sudan is a new country and indeed they face economic difficulties. CPA determination should be reviewed, but the most important thing for the moment is a serious commitment from the major powers, such as US and China where they are really sincere to help any troubled nations, thus, dismiss ‘scepticism’ about southern independence.

In a nutshell, the independence of South Sudan is clearly shrouded in ‘scepticism’ and this is due to the failure of peace dealing and border demarcation. Above all, foreign intervention has shown that there is no promise that South Sudan’s independence is a genuine freedom particularly when it clashes with the potential interest of US’s oil agenda. Indeed this oil resource war scenario depicts the true concept of realism; oil hegemony via funding a proxy war in Sudan.

Amir Shafiy Mazlan just finished his undergraduate studies in International Affairs Management at Northern University of Malaysia, with a major in Political Economy and International Security.