What al-Bashir’s removal means for South Sudan’s fragile peace
Sudan’s former president was central to South Sudan’s latest peace process. Elites in both countries may sense opportunity in his absence.
One of the last things Omar al-Bashir did before he was ousted on 11 April was to oversee South Sudan’s latest peace deal. The then Sudanese president stepped in where most in the region and international community had given up and, in September 2018, shepherded in the Revitalised Agreement for the Resolution of Conflict in South Sudan.
With the support of allies such as China, Russia and Saudi Arabia, al-Bashir used resources and his influence on various armed and opposition groups in South Sudan to broker a deal. Although the resulting agreement is acknowledged to be replete with flaws, it is a deal nonetheless, and there has been relative stability since its signing.
That’s not to say, however, there has been much progress on its implementation. Riek Machar, the leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-in-Opposition (SPLM-IO), is still refusing to return to the capital Juba and help set up the transitional government, which is supposed to be in place by 12 May. President Salva Kiir meanwhile has said he will form the government with or without Machar. The stage seems set to repeat the deadly mistakes of 2015.
Before his removal then, al-Bashir was a major broker in South Sudan’s political process. Sudan’s leadership would almost certainly be a key determining factor in developments in Juba today. The question now is what kind of role it will play following the military takeover in Khartoum and the continued popular uprising. How might al-Bashir’s ouster have changed Sudan’s approach to its southern neighbour? How might it have changed the calculations of leaders in South Sudan?
What has changed in Sudan?
As well as their historical relationship, Sudan and South Sudan are closely linked today by the oil industry that straddles the two states. The commodity itself is largely located in South Sudan, but its only route to the sea requires transiting through Sudan. Both countries’ economies rely heavily on oil, which is responsible for the biggest component of each nation’s GDP.
This reality suggests that Sudan should remain completely committed to ensuring peace in South Sudan. This would allow oil to flow securely, which is particularly important Sudan’s huge protests, partly born of economic grievances, continue.
The politics of the region, however, frequently defy this kind of conventional logic. Instead, decisions are often driven by factors such as localised politics, ethnic competition, individual ambition, community perceptions, and complex patronage networks. There is also the fact that some leaders in Sudan resented the peace deal al-Bashir struck with southern rebels back in 2005, following a long and bitter civil war. The figures who opposed that agreement, which eventually led to South Sudan’s independence in 2011, may assert themselves following al-Bashir’s exit.
At the same time, Sudan’s internal turmoil is still very much ongoing. As long as this uncertainty remains unresolved, its leaders may be unable to turn their attention to issues beyond the country’s borders. Given that Western states and international organisation have already largely backed away, this would leave South Sudan with little external direction or support.
What has changed in South Sudan?
From South Sudan, leaders have also been watching events in Khartoum closely and working out their responses.
In February and March, as the protests escalated in Khartoum, President Kiir expressed his support for al-Bashir. After al-Bashir’s removal, however, the South Sudanese government quickly changed tack and congratulated the new military rulers. As Sudan’s leadership continues to take shape, Kiir’s government is likely to continue offering its backing to whoever is apparently in charge.
This may seem fickle, but Juba has little choice. After South Sudan gained independence, al-Bashir and Kiir agreed to end their support to insurgencies in each other’s territories. Khartoum’s removal of its support for armed and opposition groups in South Sudan allowed Juba to more effectively assert its sovereign authority in the country. Following al-Bashir’s removal, Kiir cannot afford to alienate its neighbour and risk that pact being reversed.
Nonetheless, al-Bashir’s departure will necessarily change some aspects of the relationship. Although there are several links between elites of the two countries, al-Bashir was the main individual leading the peace process, sometimes acting against the interests of his own inner circle. Now he is no longer driving the negotiations, figures in both South Sudan’s government and opposition could smell an opportunity and act as spoilers in the hope of getting a better deal.
The new uncertainty could be particularly disruptive within South Sudan’s opposition. The SPLM-IO’s leader Machar is currently calling for a six-month extension to the deadline for forming a transitional government and refuses to return to Juba, citing security fears and poor resources. Machar had close links with al-Bashir, who supported his rebel forces as proxies in the Second Sudan civil war (1983-2005), and has continued to receive material support from other military leaders in Sudan. Since al-Bashir’s ouster, however, Khartoum’s elites appear unable or unwilling to provide the guarantees and resources Machar is looking for.
More broadly, shifts in Khartoum are likely to contribute to the politicking within South Sudan’s opposition. Individuals like Taban Deng Gai, Bampiny Monytuil, Gatkuoth Gathoth and Johnson Olony, amongst a constellation of other opposition armed group leaders, are all reportedly working to secure good relations with the emerging dispensation in Khartoum. Since the death of the powerful opposition military leader Peter Gadet earlier this month, a number of his deputies and acolytes are also asserting themselves, drawing significant support as they look to inherit Gadet’s prominence and ability to master South Sudan-Sudan politics.
Some of these individuals challenging for greater standings appear to have stronger relationships with Sudan’s new military leaders than Machar. It is not implausible, for example, to imagine Vice-President Taban Deng Gai returning as the main opposition figure in a Transitional Government in South Sudan, similar to the way he stepped into the role of Vice-President after the 2015 peace agreement. That move effectively split the SPLM-IO as Machar and others continued to fight against Kiir’s government.
Confusion and collapse?
At the macro-level, events in Sudan should not affect its priorities and role in overseeing South Sudan’s peace process. Khartoum needs stability in its southern neighbour to ensure both countries’ oil revenues. The reality, however, is that politics in Sudan and South Sudan involves a wide range of competing personalities, personal interests, and often contradictory elements.
What this suggests is that figures in Sudan may turn inwards as the uncertainty continues, resulting in less pressure and resources for South Sudan. This could, in turn, allow more room for elites in South Sudan to manoeuvre, leading to more complications. The resulting confusion will cause further delays in the implementation of the peace deal and, in the absence of any Sudanese or other international intervention, its possible collapse.
Sudan may try to find a way to ensure sufficient stability in South Sudan to keep the oil flowing, perhaps with the backing of China and Russia. But if the situation destabilises, the results would be disastrous for both Sudan and South Sudan. In Sudan, protesters are still on the streets, in part motivated by the country’s ongoing economic crisis and rising prices. In South Sudan, both President Kiir’s patronage structures and the fragile peace deal rely on significant funding and external support to stay afloat.