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Sudan's conflict with South Sudan cuts both ways

The nations' failure to resolve a border dispute and a row over oil revenue has hit both economies hard, with businesses facing collapse and prices soaring.

May 13, 2012|By Alsanosi Ahmed and Robyn Dixon, Los Angeles Times
  • A Sudanese worker inspects the damage to an oil-processing facility in Heglig last month. South Sudan seized Sudan’s main oil field in the town in April, sparking intense fighting. Under strong international pressure, South Sudan withdrew.
A Sudanese worker inspects the damage to an oil-processing facility in… (Ashraf Shazly, AFP/Getty…)

KHARTOUM, Sudan — It has come to this: The Sudanese government is sending out text messages to the population begging for donations to help the cash-strapped military.

"Please help support the army," the messages plead. "If you want to contribute 10 Sudanese pounds, send number 10, and if you want to contribute 50 pounds, send the number 50."

This would not appear to an optimum moment to get into a war with its newest neighbor, South Sudan.

But pride on both sides of their disputed border is undermining hope of peace, analysts warn, with neither side willing to reach a deal on the oil both depend on.

South Sudan independence in July has cost Sudan three-quarters of its oil revenue, paralyzing the nation's economy. Small businesses face collapse, food and fuel prices are out of control and the unemployment rate is rising sharply.

Things aren't any better in South Sudan, which has shut down oil production in a row with Sudan over transit fees. Juba, South Sudan's capital, is beginning to look like a gold rush town where the gold has run out. Government ministers swan around in big SUVs, but the country has to rely on aid groups to run schools and hospitals.

Once bitter enemies in a 22-year independence war, each side seems convinced that if it just waits long enough, its neighbor's economy will collapse, leaving the opponent with no money to pay the army or buy the fuel and ammunition to fight a war.

"If there will be war after the loss of oil, it will be a war of attrition," Sudanese President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir said in an interview on state television after South Sudan's decision to shut down oil production in January. "But it will be a war of attrition hitting them, before us."

The countries' failure to resolve a border dispute that includes control of oil-producing regions and the row over oil revenue have hit both economies hard. Neither can afford the sanctions threatened by the United Nations if both sides do not cease border hostilities.

Some analysts say the African Union's ineffective peace mediation is to blame for the recent slide toward war. But others say the roots of the enmity go back half a decade to northerners' marginalization of southerners and others, leading to deep, reflexive distrust.

"It's ethnic, it's racial, it's religious. There's a religious difference between the north, which is largely Muslim, and the south, which is largely Christian. And then between the north and south, there is a view that there is an Arab north and a black African south," former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer wrote in an analysis last month on the website of the U.S.-based Council on Foreign Relations.

The crisis intensified last month when South Sudan seized Sudan's main oil field at Heglig, sparking fighting. Under strong international pressure, South Sudan withdrew.

While the two governments face each other down, Sudanese shopkeeper Mohammed Nour, who received one of the text messages, fears that his business is about to collapse for lack of customers.

Nour, 40, sits in his shop in Khartoum, Sudan's capital, day after day without a single sale. His business, selling curtains and carpets, thrived in the last decade during Sudan's oil boom, but has been hit hard by the economic collapse.

"If the market continues going this way, we will have to close our shops because we can't pay the rent or the taxes the government imposes on us," he said.

Nour said the government's economic failures were hurting ordinary Sudanese.

"They always take irrational decisions, because they don't feel what it's like for people like us, struggling to make a living," he said. "The market has been bad for more than a week now. We bought our current stock two months ago. We used to sell out in two weeks. Now our customers just have a look and leave."

Sudan's government recently ordered its departments to cut two days' salary for all employees, money that it says is needed to pay the army deployed along the border after recent fighting.

Prices for staples in the market have rocketed, while the Sudanese pound lost 20% of its value against the U.S. dollar, after Sudan and its southern neighbor tilted sharply toward war last month.

Alwaia Osman, 50, a mother of six in Khartoum, now struggles to buy basic foodstuff, let alone curtains. She senses the country's slide into crisis every day when she goes to the market and sees how the prices have risen in 24 hours.

"Today I want to buy beans, but I just found that its price increased by 5% from yesterday," she said. "If I come tomorrow, it will become more expensive again. Our income hasn't changed, but the prices keep going up. I don't know what we will eat if things continue this way for long."

Khartoum economist Hafiz Mohammed said the government seemed unable to take control of its budget or reduce the size of the bloated government and Cabinet, which has a stunning 170 ministers.

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