Kiir sheds close friends for better relations with Khartoum – By Stephen Arrno
September 3rd could turn out to be a make or break day for the relations between Sudan and South Sudan. The September 3rd Khartoum summit was Kiir’s third visit to Khartoum since North and South Sudan split and came barely four month after Bashir was in Juba tasked with averting an escalation of tensions and steering up the implementation of an agreement signed in Addis Ababa in September 2012. The importance of this presidential summit and visit lies in its timing and the political and economic context that looks more favourable to the forging of new deals between the two old foes.
In the past month, Juba has rolled the wheel of change – removing giant SPLM historical leaders from decision-making circles. These changes can be traced back to January this year when top military figures were relieved from active duty. The reform process broadened later in the year when the veteran politician Mr. Deng Alor – the minister for cabinet affairs and main actor on the unsettled Abyei file – was suspended over corruption allegations. By July 23rd president Kiir ushered in major changes by dissolving the whole cabinet and removing his long serving Vice President Dr. Riek Machar. These gigantic political changes saw key members of the South Sudan negotiations team, including Chief Negotiator and the ruling party’s Secretary General, Mr. Pagan Amum, out of government and out of the decision-making process.
The new political context in Juba has gone beyond cabinet reshuffle as the government has started to reconfigure its political outlook in a manner that convinced many political observers and analysts that these new changes are meant to appease its main rival in Khartoum. The changes saw new faces in cabinet that were considered Khartoum-friendly, with elements seen as jeopardising relations with Sudan being kept in the dark.
The appointment of Dr. Joseph Nguen Monytuel Weijang, the brother of a former South Sudanese militia leader, as the new head of the Unity State government serves no other purposes than to appease Sudanese-backed militias and to send a message to Khartoum that access for Sudanese rebels from Southern Kordofan to Unity state would be squeezed. Khartoum was the first to welcome these changes, no doubt realising that its negotiators would no longer face such staunch opposition as that provided by Mr. Amum or have to deal with influential members from the Abyei community such as Mr. Deng Alor.
The only concern raised regarding these changes was by major western donors to South Sudan who have some worries about the effect of these changes on the course of negotiations with Sudan. Whilst there has been no response from Juba, Kiir’s visit to Khartoum with a completely new delegation sends the messages that the future of talks with Sudan is secure, albeit with new players.
For South Sudan to conduct such a meeting at a time when it has not yet decided on the fate of its top negotiator is indicative that this time round it is changing the rules and is interested in engaging concurrently both at the presidential and ministerial levels. Indeed, the “˜new’ approach to handling disputes between the two countries is not “˜new’ at all – these same mechanisms were envisaged in the implementation matrix of the Cooperation Agreement signed in March this year. It is therefore imperative to conclude that the political context in South Sudan is becoming more favourable for Khartoum.
The summit comes just three days before the end of the extended ultimatum to shut down oil pipelines by Sudan. Last month, South Sudan’s minister of Petroleum, Mining and Industry, Mr. Stephen Dhieu, raised concerns that the two countries had reached deadlock on whether oil would continue to flow after the 6th of September or that production would be shut down in accordance with threats issued by Sudanese president.
Sudan may have realised that the conditions it has given for the continuous flow of South Sudanese oil, and the allegations against South Sudan for rebel support, may not hold up under independent investigations and therefore it had to find a quick fix to reverse its earlier threat. Moreover, key stakeholders in the oil industry and close allies to Sudan are not supporting such undertakings, while the UNSC members had unanimously warned Sudan not to shut down oil pipelines. These developments have brought some relief to Juba and provided good incentives for further discussion to seek means to resolve other pending issues such as the final status of Abyei and disputed borders. The timing of the summit was, therefore, appropriate considering that both countries needed to act on the UNSC recommendations.
From the press reports on the presidential visit to Khartoum, it is easy to capture the gist of discussions that were limited to Abyei, borders and the future of oil production. The sequence of the agenda and the content could be extracted from the statements given by president Kiir who urged his counterpart to accept the AUHIP’s proposal on Abyei, stressing that the Permanent Court of Arbitration has already defined eligible voters (ruling for Dinka Ngok ownership). President Kiir has stressed the CPA protocol on Abyei as a basis for conducting the referendum, reminding president Bashir covertly that for the formation of an administration the quotas shall remain intact, cutting short attempts by Sudan to change these quotas which – a stumbling block in the formation of an interim administration as envisaged in the June 2011 agreement.
From the outcome of the meetings it is clear that president Kiir has pushed South Sudan’s agenda a notch higher. Kiir brushed aside alleged support for rebels or the security pre-requisite from under the feet of Khartoum, stating that he is not in Khartoum to complain or record a statement of admission or denial (he would only act if there was substantiated evidence that his government support rebels).
In my view Juba has acted according to the rules and has left no stone unturned in its quest for peaceful solutions to pending and residual CPA benchmarks. With president Kiir’s visit to Khartoum ahead of the AUPSC meeting to evaluate the mode of implementation, Juba has cleared the smoke screens and built the stage for the mediators, other regional and international actors to identify those who are repositioning the goal posts and procrastinating on dangerous files that have the potential to put the two countries on the verge of conflict.
The Khartoum September summit is a new chapter in the Sudan South- Sudanese relations which will either prove the futility of such agreements or put the past behind. It may also demonstrate that external pressure and a solution-backed approach is the only viable option to solve residual issues that led the Sudans to split. President Kiir has played his part and is challenging his interlocutors in Sudan to pay back in kind. Kiir has paid a high price by shedding close and influential friends in an attempt to gain Khartoum’s trust.
Stephen Arrno is a policy analyst working in South Sudan.