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Mutual interests can help Khartoum, Juba coexist.

The cooperation deals between Sudan and South Sudan, ratified last week, open a new chapter, not only in the tumultuous relations between the two countries, but are also "epoch-making in terms of the remaking of the African continent," according to Thabo Mbeki, former president of South Africa and the lead mediator between Khartoum and Juba.

After half a century of bloody wars and mistrust between the two countries that ended with the dismemberment of Sudan, the two countries now stand the best chance to base their relationship on mutual interests, instead of clashing ideologies.

The agreements signed are referred to as post-separation issues that should have been tackled after last year's referendum, but foot-dragging and different calculations led to the delay. This delay raised the prospects that Sudan's People Liberation Movement (SPLM), the former rebel organization that rules South Sudan now, will use its newfound independence as a launching pad to affect regime change in the north. This assumption has received some credence, following the military advance of the SPLM into the Heglig oil-producing field last April. The SPLM's move came at the heels of shutting oil production in South Sudan in order to deny Sudan the transit fees, following a dispute between the two states. It is worth noting that the shutdown will have more negative impact on South Sudan, as it depends entirely on oil revenues to run its affairs. However, the decision was taken, in the context of exercising economic independence, and therefore the people of South Sudan should be ready to sacrifice for that end. Whilst in Sudan, this decision was seen as yet another provocative push to aggravate the economic shock, caused by the separation, and stir political change.

These two steps, however, created some changes in SPLM's international image. In a sense, the march into Heglig, which was met with international condemnation, took a toll on SPLM's high moral ground and its standing as a victim, subject to Khartoum's violence. Furthermore, the decision to shut down oil production raised questions about Juba's responsibility, especially since donors indicated they would not make up for the lost income.

But that decision proved to be effective in pushing the two countries to face and tackle the harsh realities dictated by the deteriorating economic situation. As such, cooperation has become a necessity and not a choice.

The eight agreements, covering economic, security, political and border issues are unique because they follow more or less what the European Union has been doing over decades, and what the African Union in its new format is hoping to achieve. As such these agreements break new ground in the continent, as the first of their kind between two independent African states.

The question, of course, remains whether the agreements will be implemented and whether the 2125-km-long borders will be the testing point for the intended cooperation, or another reason of tension and war. The cities on the borders of the two countries host a large population and have oil wealth, agricultural land, water resources and animal husbandry. But at the same time these are the areas reeling from political and security tension as a result of unresolved border issues, in particular Abyei, which is being dubbed the Kashmir of Sudan.

However, settling the border issues is not a prerequisite to maintaining a functioning relationship between the two countries, based on mutual interests. Sudan has border disputes with Egypt to the north, and Ethiopia to the east, which have been on the negotiating table for decades, but have not been an obstacle in normalizing relations.

Success in this endeavor puts to test the whole rationale that mutual interests should help in gradually advancing peace and security at the expense of confrontation and belligerency. That remains to be seen.

-- This article is exclusive to Arab News.

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Publication:Arab News (Jeddah, Saudi Arabia)
Geographic Code:6SUDA
Date:Oct 24, 2012
Words:647
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