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Sudan Oil Dispute Raises War Rhetoric

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A deepening oil dispute between South Sudan and Sudan has raised hostility to a point where leaders of both countries have suggested there is the strong possibility of a conflict.

Last week, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, speaking on national television, said his country is closer to war than to peace with South Sudan without progress on an oil deal.

His comments followed similar remarks from South Sudanese President Salva Kiir, who has warned that fighting could erupt if Sudan does not meet the south's terms.

Dispute over pipeline transit fees

The dispute stems from South Sudan's use of Sudan's pipelines to transport its oil abroad. The south began shutting down its oil fields last month after accusing the north of stealing $815 million worth of southern-produced oil. Khartoum said it confiscated the oil to compensate for unpaid transit fees.

Asked about the possibility that the dispute could lead to war, South Sudanese Deputy Defense Minister Majak D'Agoot told VOA that Sudan already launched the first attack.

“Isn't it an aggression? How could an independent state be obligated to share its resources with another country? Where does it happen? Is it that some external force or some former colonial master is trying to continue to exercise hegemony and control over the people of South Sudan and their resources? What could be the basis for that?” asked D'Agoot.

The north and south fought a 21-year war when Sudan was a unified nation, and the sides skirmished as recently as last May in the disputed, oil-rich Abyei region.

Old scores remain unsettled

Before the current oil shutdown, South Sudan was producing about 350,000 barrels of oil per day. But without refining capacity or a port to ship it from, the landlocked country relies on pipelines that extend through the north to reach international markets.

Khartoum is seeking revenue to replace the estimated $7 billion it lost with South Sudan's separation, in which the South took three-quarters of Sudan's oil production.

In addition to the oil dispute, the two nations also have failed to reach a final agreement on the final demarcation of the border.

D'Agoot said the Defense Ministry is working on turning the Sudan Peoples' Liberation Army [SPLA], a former rebel force, into a more formal, standing army to face future threats.

“Anything that stands in the way of securing the security of our natural resources, securing ourselves, securing our people, securing our land, it stands to be a source of threat," said D'Agoot. "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.”

While D'Agoot did not want to pinpoint which nation poses the biggest threat to South Sudan's sovereignty - outside his office, in the middle of the military base - a statue of the former SPLA General John Garang points firmly toward the north.

Article by Gabe Joselow, VOA News