BENTIU, South Sudan — Just last week this town was bombed and nearby the armies of Sudan and South Sudan fought over the oilfields of Heglig.
Heglig is Sudan’s main oil producing area, but South Sudan also claims the area, and seized it on April 9.
It was war.
But the skirmishes were brief, as South Sudan pulled its troops back from Heglig.
Now there is a tense standoff, and a renewal of the border war threatens. Sudan has declared a state of emergency along the hotly contested boundary with South Sudan. Sudan has also ordered thousands of southerners living in the north to return to South Sudan. Troops are massing on both sides at numerous points along the 1,100-mile frontier.
The two Sudans are locked “in a logic of war,” according to African Union mediator Thabo Mbeki, and events on the ground validate this view.
The Rubkona barracks just outside Bentiu town, 50 miles south of the border and close to the scene of an air raid by Khartoum’s jet fighters on April 23, the ramshackle buildings, tree-lined roads and shaded muster areas are bustling with soldiers.
So is the military hospital where the wounded are treated.
On the road to the border, only army trucks and striding soldiers move north. In the other direction comes a steady stream of civilians. The lucky few have loaded their meager possessions on vehicles, but most carry cooking pots and mattresses in their arms, on their backs or on their heads.
Overhead, the throbbing whir of Sudan’s Antonov bombers and the occasional roar of fighter jets are heard.
Bentiu itself is a dust-blown wasteland littered with rubbish, broken vehicles cannibalized for their spare parts, and little shacks of grass and wood. It is witheringly hot. A narrow ribbon of asphalt and streetlights that never come on are the only indications that Bentiu is at the heart of South Sudan’s lucrative 350,000 barrel-per-day oil industry.
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When South Sudan won independence in July, most of the oil in what had been Sudan was left south of the border, but the pipelines, refineries and export ports are all north in Sudan. A long-running row between Khartoum and Juba over the sharing of oil revenues led South Sudan to shut down its oil production in January.
“Sudan and South Sudan are teetering on the brink of all-out war from which neither would benefit,” said the Brussels-based International Crisis Group in a recent briefing note.
“A game of ‘chicken’ appears to be underway, in which both sides embark on risky strategies in the hope that the other will blink first. If neither does, the outcome will be disastrous for both,” warned the group. “Increasingly angry rhetoric, support for each other’s rebels, poor command and control, and brinkmanship, risk escalating limited and contained conflict into a full-scale confrontation.”
The most worrying escalation yet came on April 9 when southern soldiers of the South Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) — fighting alongside deadlocked Darfur rebels from the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) — moved north of Bentiu, crossed the border and marched on Heglig, the north’s most important oil field.
They beat back the northern Sudan Armed Forces (SAF), looted the town and held it for 10 days before withdrawing under military and diplomatic pressure.
Heglig, which produced around half of Sudan’s 110,000 barrel- per-day of oil, was left ablaze and in ruins, severing a vital lifeline for Khartoum’s economy.
For a brief period the two Sudans were at war, but with the southern withdrawal they have devolved to the previous status quo: a tetchy, heavily militarized stand off that threatens to erupt into deadly skirmishes at any moment.
“The slide back into war is not inevitable, nor in the national interest of either side, but each government is dominated at its upper ranks by military figures [fierce adversaries during decades of conflict] who are more at home plotting military strategy than on governance,” said Philippe de Pontet, Africa director at risk consultants the Eurasia Group.
De Pontet warned, “the structural interdependence of southern-based oil fields and northern-based pipelines no longer binds the two into pragmatic compromises,” partly because South Sudan has declared plans to build a new pipeline through Kenya.
While tension is highest north of Bentiu, it is rising elsewhere, too. Around 12,000 southerners languish in Kosti, a town in Sudan on the Nile River just north of the border. They hope for barges that will carry them on a days-long journey southwards to the southern capital, Juba, but the vessels’ arrival has been held up by yet another north-south row, this time over allegations that the south is using the boats to transport weapons northward to supply rebels groups.
The southerners in Kosti have been given a week to leave Sudan, according to the state-owned media, SUNA. “May 5th is the last day for southerners to stay in Kosti port. Authorities have taken measures to expel them to another place,” said the local governor.
The situation of the 12,000 southerners in Kosti who have been ordered to leave Sudan, could become a much bigger problem. It is estimated there are as many as 500,000 southerners in Sudan, whose future in the north is uncertain at best.
Foreign countries, including the US, which played a key role in brokering the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that was supposed to end decades of civil war, have been worried by the recent deterioration in relations and outbreaks of fighting.
US President Barack Obama issued a video message to the Sudanese people saying, ““All those who are fighting must recognize that there is no military solution. The only way to achieve real and lasting security is to resolve your differences through negotiation.”
Right now, as troops build up along the border and bombs fall almost daily, talk of negotiation appears little more than wishful thinking.