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South Sudan Oil Dispute Raises Specter of War

  • Gabe Joselow

South Sudan and Sudan have been engaged in a war of words since the south stopped pumping oil to the north in a dispute about pricing. Both sides have warned that a return to violence is a possibility.

South Sudan is retooling its armed forces - working to strengthen the former rebel Southern People's Liberation Army into a more formal military.

Soldiers here at the Bilpam military base in Juba could be called into battle sooner than expected, if a bitter oil dispute with Sudan turns from a war of words into action.

The south shut off oil flows to the north, claiming Sudan has stolen millions of dollars worth of crude. Khartoum says it confiscated the oil to compensate for unpaid transit fees.

South Sudanese Deputy Defense Minister Major Majak D'Agoot said such actions represent a serious threat to the new nation.

“I don't want to pinpoint it to any particular source, but anything that tends to threaten our core interests as a nation of course will have to be responded to,” said D'Agoot.

Although Major D'Agoot did not specifically say Sudan was the primary threat to South Sudan, outside his office a statue of former SPLA General John Garang points firmly toward the north.

Amanda Hsiao of the Enough Project says the oil shutdown also could provoke Sudan to take action.

“With the South saying that, one: they're willing to break of relations completely with the North; two: that they will seek alternative pipelines so that their oil doesn't have to flow to the north, Khartoum is left with very little options in terms of dealing with its economic situation. Remember it's a regime that has few friends in the international community,” said Hsiao.

South Sudan declared independence from the North last July, following decades of civil war that killed more than one million people.

Sporadic fighting has continued. In the past year, Sudan has bombed areas near the border where it suspects Southern-backed militias to be active, including an attack on Abyei in May of last year that displaced up to 100,000 people.

The leaders of both nations have said a return to war is a possibility.

On the streets of Juba, a rapidly developing capital, businessmen are nervous about the prospect of violence.

Michael Toma sells automotive supplies at the Jebel market.

“In my own opinion, I for one think war - I don't want to rule out war because war is inevitable. However, I'd like to ask the two authorities to work together and come into dialogue so we can reach a harmonious conclusion that's going to benefit either country,” said Toma.

Others, like Simon Gatdier Yieh, say if Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir wants war, he will get it.

“If the Bashir came with the peace then our president will talk to the Bashir in a peaceful manner. If the Bashir wants to fight with the people of South Sudan we are ready, even now we are ready,” said Yieh.

Both countries are dependent on South Sudanese oil and, as a prolonged shutdown continues to drain their two economies, tensions are bound to increase.