By Rose Sakala*
News of heightened tension over Higlig between Sudan and South Sudan does not come as a surprise; in fact what is surprising is the reaction of the international community which appears to have been surprised by the turn of events.
It is no secret that Higlig is a highly disputed area to which both parties have laid claims and counter claims. Throughout the period of the implementation of the CPA many South Sudanese had always expressed serious concerns at the presence of Sudan Armed Forces ( SAF) in Higlig and these concerns were heightened when SAF remained in Higlig following the 9 July 2008 deadline set for its withdrawal from South Sudan by the Comprehensive Peace Agreement ( CPA).
Whereas the SAF presence in Higlig appears to have been tolerated due to the fact that Sudan and South Sudan were still one country during the period of the implementation of the CPA, there must have been a realization by the international community that come separation, the status quo would no longer hold as it was no secret that Higlig was a highly disputed area between the North (Sudan) and the South (South Sudan).
It is now almost a year since South Sudan became independent and yet from the reaction demonstrated by the international community towards the rising tension over Higlig, besides calling for cessation of hostilities, there appears to be unpreparedness to practically address the situation. This raises serious concerns and brings to question how well informed the international community is by those who represent it on the ground. That the urge for separation among the Southern Sudanese was so strong to almost a point of “phobia” to engage in anything with potential to disrupt the implementation of the CPA should not have blinded the international community to the fact that once the referendum was over and South Sudan became independent, it would begin to assert itself as a sovereign state - it is in this context that the issue of Higlig should be understood.
Come 9 July 2011 the eyes of the international community should have been cast seriously towards the border areas in particular the contested pieces of land. The current events surrounding Higlig should serve as a wakeup call and an urgent one for that matter regarding areas such as Kafia Kingi, Magenis, Kharasana and others that are currently occupied by SAF and yet remain highly disputed between Sudan and South Sudan. Fire fighting will not help, neither will condemning one party or the other for some “illegal act”. Over and above sweeping the hot dust under the carpet will not help as the carpet will only catch fire.
That being said, it is now incumbent upon those on the ground to give the borders the attention they deserve and urgently correct the notion that Higlig or any other known disputed area for that matter belongs to one party or the other as such pronouncements by key players will only serve as a recipe for escalation of hostilities between the two parties as the parties lose confidence in the neutrality and impartiality of the international community, and become convinced that the only way to secure what is “theirs” is through force.
Speaking of loss of confidence, the reactions by the Southern Sudanese against the pronouncements made by the UN and AU over the Higlig issue speak for themselves. The reactions are a clear demonstration of how the South Sudanese currently feel towards these two key players, and the two would do well to revisit their approach to prevent any further erosion of confidence in their ability to assist the parties in an impartial manner.
What is required is a comprehensive approach to addressing the issues of the disputed areas rather than turning a blind eye to the realities on the ground and hope for the best as this will only serve to heighten antagonisms between the two neighbours, more so given that some of these areas are of significant economic value. Suffice it to mention that even where there is no economic value sentiments do run high over disputed pieces of land. The international community needs no reminder that about 70,000 lives were lost when Ethiopia and Eritrea confronted each other over Badme, a piece of land known to have no significant economic value.
What is urgently required now is to engage both parties so as to consolidate data from both perspectives. Such an approach will not only provide clarity over the issues in question, but will also assist in determining the way forward to addressing the disputes – i.e. the type of mechanisms that should be put in place to assist the parties, how such mechanisms should be identified and the process for addressing the disputes.
The initiative taken by the US Special Envoy Princeton Lyman to visit Khartoum and Juba is both timely and commendable as it is a move in the right direction. The move helps not only in fact finding and psychological assessment of the two parties, but also helps to calm down the situation thus providing a window of opportunity for initiatives to be worked out. It is therefore hoped that other members of the international community will not hesitate to support this positive move and speak with one voice.
That being said, time is of essence to prevent the parties from becoming restless, hence the international community would do well to act sooner than later. The following could be considered for inclusion in the dispute resolution process:
• Long before separation, several analysts and experts on the Sudan/South Sudan have been proponents of the establishment of a buffer zone between the two countries. This is a proposal that deserves serious consideration by the international community as such a zone will not only ensure that both parties are kept out of the contested areas, but this will also provide time and space for the issues to be addressed without any interference from any of the parties. Of course special arrangements for the extraction of oil would have to be put in place. Without a buffer zone as the case is now, each of the parties will no doubt be prompted to occupy contested land thus increasing the possibility of a serious confrontation between the two culminating in an all out border war not only with severe implications for the civilian populations along these areas, but also with potential to create more land issues through forceful occupation.
• The security zone should not only be administered by a neutral organization such as the UN, but particular attention should be paid to ensure that the countries represented are also neutral.
• Establishment of an Independent Border Commission comprising of experts such as the case was with the Ethio/Eritrean issue, with each party being represented by experts of its own choice and two neutral co chair persons picked by the international community.
Finally, many would agree that resolving the above disputes is no easy matter, but according these issues the priority they deserve and obtaining/providing an accurate picture of the parties’ positions on the issues, varied as they may be, will go a long way in assisting the key players to map the way forward to resolving the disputes. It is crucial to level the playing field so that both parties are assured of the neutrality and impartiality of those who have offered to assist them.
*Rose Sakala is Former Civil Affairs Team Leader and Head of Office UNMIS Sector III, Greater Upper Nile (Unity State, Upper Nile State, Jonglei State)
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Lusaka, ZAMBIA