KHARTOUM, Sudan — As the conflict between South Sudan's government and rebels worsens, President Salva Kiir has found succor from an unexpected source: Sudan, the country southerners fought for two decades to win independence.
Sudanese President Umar al-Bashir's motivation in helping his former enemies is based on the need to maintain oil flows from the south, according to analysts including Magdi El Gizouli at the Nairobi-based Rift Valley Institute. His government is also concerned that instability along its border will hamper the battle against its own rebels, he said.
“For the first time in history they are interested, even more than the South Sudanese themselves, in retaining stability in South Sudan in some form under a government that is ready to do business, and Kiir is ready to do business,” El Gizouli said.
Since South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in July 2011 and took with it three-quarters of the formerly united country's oil production, Sudan has depended on revenue it earns from shipping the crude through its territory to an export terminal on the Red Sea. The violence has brought production almost to a halt, according to the U.S.
Transit fees for southern oil were set to earn Sudan's $59 billion economy about $1.4 billion this year, according to the International Monetary Fund.
“We are the country to be most harmed from this crisis,” Sudanese Foreign Ministry spokesman Abu Bakr al-Sideeg said by phone from Khartoum. “A breakdown of security in the south directly affects our own.”
Al-Bashir flew to Juba, the South Sudanese capital, on Jan. 6 to meet with Kiir and said he wouldn't support the insurgents. When rebel militia crossed into Sudan seeking refuge, the authorities disarmed them.
Relations between Kiir and al-Bashir have improved in the past year after they resolved a dispute over oil transit fees and border security that sparked a 15-month freeze on production until it ended in April.
Over the long term, Khartoum “would like a government in Juba that forswears any support to those fighting the Khartoum regime, that honors the oil agreement,” former U.S. special envoy to Sudan Princeton Lyman said via e-mail.
Khartoum also wants Kiir's government to drop claims to the oil-producing region of Heglig, where the two countries fought battles in April 2012, and demands for a referendum in the disputed region of Abyei to decide whether it joins South Sudan or Sudan, he said.
“Khartoum benefits from a weakened south, but not one that is unable to have the oil flow,” Harry Verhoeven, a Sudan analyst at Oxford University, said. “Bashir's money, for the time being, is on Salva to make that continue.”
As Kiir's forces battle insurgents led by his former vice president, Riek Machar, oil production has dropped. When pumping facilities in South Sudan's Unity state were damaged by fighting, al-Bashir's government pledged to help restore output.
While the South Sudan government says oil production has fallen to 200,000 barrels a day from 245,000 barrels a day, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week that most output has stopped.
Companies including China National Petroleum Corp. and India's Oil & Natural Gas Corp. have evacuated employees from the country. South Sudan has sub-Saharan Africa's largest oil reserves after Nigeria and Angola, according to BP Plc data.
Rebel forces “appear to be in control” of Malakal, the capital of oil-rich Upper Nile state, Farhan Haq, spokesman for United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, said Thursday in an e-mailed statement. Bentiu, the capital of Unity state that was recaptured by government forces last week, experienced “heavy shooting and shelling,” he said.
The death toll from the fighting is approaching 10,000, according to the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, while 83,900 have fled to countries including Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Internally, 468,000 people have fled their homes, according to the UN. About 66,900 people are sheltering in UN bases across South Sudan.
Disputes within South Sudan's ruling Sudan People's Liberation Movement, or SPLM, erupted in July when Kiir fired his cabinet, including Machar, who said he planned to seek the party's leadership.
The violence broke out on Dec. 15 with gunshots at a meeting of the ruling party in Juba. Kiir then accused Machar of trying to stage a coup, a charge Machar denies, and arrested 11 prominent politicians, including Pagan Amum, the former SPLM secretary-general, and ex-Cabinet Affairs Minister Deng Alor.
Both sides are guilty of “mass atrocities,” UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Ivan Simonovic said Friday in an e-mailed statement.
During a four-day visit to South Sudan, he'd received “reports of mass killings, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances, sexual violence, the widespread destruction of property and the use of children in the conflict,” Simonovic said. “One month of conflict has set South Sudan back a decade.”
Government and rebel negotiators in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, are in the “final stages” of agreeing on a ceasefire, Mabior Garang, a spokesman for the insurgents, said Friday.
“As soon we've reached an agreement on cessation of hostilities then we'll discuss the detainees issue and it will be signed as a comprehensive package,” he said.
The arrests have pleased Khartoum, which views figures such as Amum and Alor as loyalists of SPLM founder John Garang, who died in a helicopter crash in 2005, according to El Gizouli. Garang called for the overthrow of al-Bashir's government and a united Sudan rather than independence for the south.
Sudan regards Amum as a key supporter for the rebels who are fighting its forces in the border states of Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan, while Alor champions the adhesion of the disputed region of Abyei to South Sudan.
“So the current situation where you have all the 'Garang boys' in prison, this is a very good situation for Khartoum,” El Gizouli said.
With assistance from Mading Ngor in Juba and William Davison in Addis Ababa