Sudanese Talk of Return to War as Al-Bashir Threatens South

Sudanese President Umar al-Bashir
Sudanese President Umar al-Bashir, right, vowed to retake the area in what he said would be “the decisive battle.” Photographer: Ashraf Shazly/AFP/Getty Images

April 19 (Bloomberg) -- The escalation of fighting between Sudan and newly independent South Sudan along their disputed border is deepening concern among residents in the capital, Khartoum, of a return to full-scale war.

Clashes between the two armies have intensified since South Sudanese forces occupied the disputed oil-producing region of Heglig on April 10. Sudanese President Umar al-Bashir today vowed to retake the area in what he said would be “the decisive battle.” The fighting is the worst since South Sudan gained independence in July following a 2005 peace agreement that ended a two-decade civil war. Both sides accuse each other of arming rebels fighting to topple their governments.

“The whole scenario reminds me of the dark days of civil war with South Sudan,” Jihan Hassan, a 54-year-old housewife, said yesterday at her apartment in the affluent Khartoum district of Riyadh, as she listened to a state television anchorman shouting, “we give our lives as the price of glory.”

An oil dispute between the two countries and the occupation of Heglig have led to a cut in crude production to less than 100,000 barrels a day from the 490,000 barrels a day before the south’s independence. Most of the crude is pumped by the China National Petroleum Corp., Malaysia’s Petroliam Nasional Bhd. and India’s ONGC Videsh Ltd.

Resources and Oil

“The south should have learnt a lesson. We gave them the whole country with resources and oil, but they didn’t get it, and if they don’t, we will give them the final lesson by force,” al-Bashir told a rally today in El-Obeid, the capital of Northern Kordofan state. “We will not give them an inch of our land, and whoever puts his hand on Sudan, we will cut it.”

Sudanese forces attacked southern troops four times in the past 24 hours, including an offensive in the Heglig region, South Sudan’s military spokesman, Philip Aguer, told reporters today in Juba.

South Sudan isn’t in a state of war with Sudan and decided to move its troops into Heglig to stop attacks by the Sudanese army on its forces, Information Minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin told reporters today in Juba, the capital.

“The Republic of South Sudan is not in the state of war nor is it interested in war with Sudan,” he said.

Al-Bashir’s government has been fighting rebels formerly aligned to South Sudan’s ruling party in the border states of Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan since the south gained independence.

Bomb Attacks

The authorities Juba, as well as the U.S. and the United Nations, have accused Sudan of bombing targets in the south. Sudan says it hasn’t carried out any bomb attacks.

Andrew Natsios, George W. Bush’s former envoy to Sudan, said the current tensions may lead to full-scale conflict.

“I think there is a high risk of war which would be, if it takes place, very bloody, with high casuality rates on both sides,” Natsios said yesterday in an e-mailed response to questions. “And it would probably mean the collapse of the Bashir government which is increasingly weak and losing control. It is, however, not inevitable.”

The Sudanese National Assembly on April 16 adopted a resolution designating South Sudan an “enemy” and vowed to act with “all means” to end the occupation of Heglig. Benjamin today called the “enemy” designation “a declaration of war.”

“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,” the Brussels-based International Crisis Group said today in an e-mailed statement. “If neither does, the outcome will be disastrous for both.”

Drumbeat of War

State television has intensified the drumbeat of war in recent days, repeatedly showing a photo montage of al-Bashir, army troops and scenes of fighting set to Sudan’s national anthem, Nahnu Jundullah Jundulwatan, or We’re the Army of God and of Our Nation.

The tension has sent the black-market price for $1 soaring to 6 Sudanese pounds, double the rate at the central bank of Sudan.

“I’m shifting my savings into dollars, everyone I know does,” said Ahmed, a 32-year-old taxi driver who refused to give his second name. “The war is around the corner and you never know what will happen.”

The UN Security Council on April 17 discussed imposing sanctions against both countries to force them back from the brink of war, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice told reporters in New York.

Inflation Accelerates

The specter of long lines for food and fuel that occured during the war years returned to Khartoum last week. Hassan’s 24-year-old daughter Amany said she spent three hours one morning waiting to fill up her tank.

“During the civil war, we used to see long queues for food and fuel shortages, and people used to hide their sons to keep them away from fighting,” Hassan said. “I have two nephews, and we’re really scared they might take them to fight in Heglig.”

With the loss of oil revenue and rising prices, the central bank yesterday said it will take “urgent measures, including increasing the legal reserve and issuing sovereign bonds to control inflation, maintain currency stability and increase foreign reserves.”

Sudan’s annual inflation rate increased to 22.4 percent in March as food costs climbed, the Central Bureau of Statistics said.

Action Demanded

Presidential adviser Mustafa Osman Ismail told reporters yesterday in Addis Ababa that the Sudanese public was demanding action against South Sudan.

Hafiz Ismail, an economist and Sudan director of Justice Africa, a London-based human rights roup, said the public support for al-Bashir’s government is weakening.

“Prices are soaring and imports have become more expensive due to the loss of oil revenues, shortages of foreign currency, a devalued currency that hinders international trade,” he said yesterday in a telephone interview from Khartoum. “With all these problems why would people trust the regime or support it?”

Hassan’s daughter Amany says her generation no longer supports the government’s calls to mobilize young people fight the “enemy.”

“This is not our war; they can no longer fool us with fighting over oil revenues which directly go into their pockets,” she said. “They’re playing politics with the regime in South Sudan, so let them fight over their own interests, we’re not part of this.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Salma El Wardany in Khartoum at selwardany@bloomberg.net; Jared Ferrie in Juba, South Sudan at jferrie1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Antony Sguazzin at asguazzin@bloomberg.net