Khartoum may have once backed Riek, but Riek also once betrayed Khartoum. Interests are not fixed over time. Today’s paradox is that while Khartoum has enjoyed and encouraged some instability in South Sudan, even after independence, too much instability in South Sudan hurts Khartoum’s interests. An existential threat to the government in Juba (much like an existential threat to the government in Khartoum) brings for the other side destabilising uncertainty, the possible retraction of existing commitments on oil, trade and cooperation, and security complications in the borderlands.
The Sudan-South Sudan relationship is not only about oil. Khartoum had little choice but to publicly back the government in Juba. To take Riek’s side would mean isolation in the region, particularly from the IGAD member states, and from the broader African Union membership. To back Riek would antagonise the west, probably halt the current overtures of debt relief, and further set back prospects of the normalisation of relations with the United States. Even if Riek captured all the oil fields, it is clear that the SPLA would be mobilised to retake those areas and heavy battles would ensue, making it doubtful Riek would be able to ensure oil production could continue.
Khartoum is not blind to the implications of an unconstitutional removal of government in Juba. The SRF has declared this as its objective in Sudan; should that alliance ever come closer to achieving this aim, Khartoum and the NCP could hardly count on regional or international sympathy if it had backed a similar overthrow in its southern neighbour.
The South Sudan crisis is also an opportunity for Khartoum. Helping Juba with its security problems could mean further concessions in future – whether on oil revenues, the international border, Abyei, or in further isolating the SPLM-N in South Kordofan and Blue Nile.
Supporting the status quo of the Salva Kiir presidency has to be the default position for Omar al-Bashir. What surprises about recent events is Juba’s invitation for Khartoum to engage in its domestic affairs so publicly and so forcefully. Part of this was pragmatic: Juba needed to ensure there was no possibility of Riek agreeing a deal with Khartoum, so agreeing its own deal first pre-empts any move Riek may try or have tried to make.
But Juba’s proposals seem to have gone further than even Khartoum first imagined. Before Bashir landed in Juba, senior NCP figure Ibrahim Ghandour appeared to rule out a SAF military engagement in South Sudan that wasn’t under the auspices of IGAD. After Ali Karti’s announcement, that may no longer be the case. As Eddie Thomas observed to Al Jazeera, this appears to be ‘the government in Juba…mortgaging its nationalist credentials.’
I can only conclude the government in Juba really feels, as both Kiir and information minister Michael Makuei have said, that neither the broader international community nor the IGAD region has sufficiently backed the government position. The historic enemy of first resort is now the ally of last resort. In the short term, a deal with Khartoum may save Salva Kiir’s government. Beyond the crisis, however, it may in time give new life to the criticisms raised by Riek, Pagan Amum, Deng Alor and company at their December 6th press conference:
Salva Kiir has surrendered the SPLM power to opportunists and foreign agents who fought against the SPLM during the war of liberation and during the CPA implementation. These actions by Salva Kiir undermine the hard won independence and sovereignty of the Republic of South Sudan.