When Sudan peacefully split into two countries in July, the world stopped paying attention. The tension seemed to be over: Khartoum had accepted the loss of its southern half, the new nation of South Sudan was born, and decades of civil war had apparently been finally settled.
Yet instead of bringing peace, the birth of South Sudan has triggered a domino-like chain of conflicts in the disputed border regions between north and south. Those conflicts, in turn, are giving power to the hardliners on both sides: army generals who have seized power in Khartoum and rebel forces which are pushing for a new battle against the northern regime.
Two months after the south’s secession, the two countries are teetering on the brink of total war. Fighting has flared up in the contested border regions, the north is using brutal military tactics to impose its will on those regions, and crucial talks on unresolved disputes have broken down. Clashes and street protests have even spread to Darfur and East Sudan, broadening the front lines of the conflict.
“There is a real possibility of a new era of protracted civil war in Sudan,” the International Crisis Group warned in a new report.
“Fighting could expand quickly within Sudan and spill over into South Sudan,” it said. “The conflict in Sudan may spiral out of control and engulf the region.”
Khartoum has already wielded its military power to seize control of the disputed regions of Abyei, Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile over the past few months. Satellite images suggest that about 3,000 northern troops are massing in Blue Nile for a potential assault on rebel forces. “The satellite images reveal a wall of armour, including what appear to be main battle tanks, towed artillery, infantry fighting vehicles, armoured personnel carriers and troop transports, apparently accompanied by half a dozen Hind attack helicopters,” said a report by the U.S.-based Satellite Sentinel Project.
Reports by human-rights groups have documented how Khartoum’s air force has killed and maimed dozens of civilians in an indiscriminate bombing campaign in Southern Kordofan, forcing thousands of civilians to flee to caves and mountaintops, where they live in harsh conditions. “The Sudanese government is literally getting away with murder,” said a recent report by Amnesty International.
Across the disputed border regions, hundreds of thousands of ordinary people have been displaced from their homes – including 25,000 who fled from Blue Nile state into neighbouring Ethiopia in recent days, according to the United Nations refugee agency.
In an ominous sign of looming war, hard-line army generals in Khartoum appear to have led a “soft coup” within the ruling party, and their preference is for military tactics, rather than peace talks. Rebel forces in Darfur and Southern Kordofan, meanwhile, have forged a new alliance against the Khartoum regime, adding fuel to the tensions.
International pressure might be the only way to prevent full-scale war in Sudan. Yet the international community, especially the United States, seems to have lost interest in Sudan following the official independence of South Sudan in July.
The fate of the disputed regions, including Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan, was supposed to be settled by “popular consultations” in the border regions, according to a peace agreement between the south and north in 2005. But those consultations were never properly held, and both sides seem to be switching back to military tactics now.