The United Nations Security Council's decision to give Sudan and South Sudan another six months to put together a joint monitoring force in the disputed area of Abyei in the Blue Nile region, or see the withdrawal of UN peacekeepers was a demonstration of the "mild irritation" felt by the council. It now puts pressure on the two sides to sort out the problems that neither side has been able to address for six long years.
Six years ago, South Sudan overwhelmingly voted by 99 per cent to separate from the North and form its own country. Since then, the relationship between the two countries has swung from one diplomatic crisis to another. There remained, for quite some time, underlying threats of military confrontation after a major dispute erupted about oil revenues, which on two occasions brought oil production to a standstill. The unresolved issues left by the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005, namely the two areas, South Kordofan and the Blue Nile, means also that the future of the two countries are intrinsically woven together, perhaps more so now than when the two Sudans functioned as a united country.
The convenience of having a 5,000 strong UN peace keeping force in Abyei meant that neither side has been forced, as yet, to allocate resources or sort out the logistics needed to monitor the area considered geographically part of north Sudan but politically aligned to the South. Nor have the two countries had to do the work of agreeing on the official demarcation of the border to work out where one country ends and the other begins.
Ramping up the pressure on the two countries last week was the African Union whose High Implementation Programme (AUHIP) took over the task of trying to resolve outstanding issues between the two countries. They also seemed to be losing patience with Khartoum and Juba this week to the extent that AUHIP summoned the two sides to an emergency meeting in Addis Ababa to help resolve outstanding issues that have persisted ever since South Sudan gained its independence in 2011.
Many of those unresolved issues, which include: a joint border monitoring force in Abyei; a demilitarised zone; work to delineate and agree borders; travel rights and pension rights for South Sudanese citizens formally employed in the north of the country; were put on hold when South Sudan's civil war broke out in 2013 between the former Vice President Riak Machar, of the Nuer ethnic group and the President, Silva Kirr Mayadit of the Dinka, Bor.
Similarly, Khartoum's battle to put down the armed insurrection in the two areas, South Kordofan and the Abyei Blue Nile area contributed to the delay in dealing with bilateral issues.
In Juba, last week's failed assassination attempt on South Sudan's current first vice-president, Taban Deng, not only underlined the extent of the animosity that exists between factions of the Nuer tribe and the ruling Dinka ethnic group but also underscored that Khartoum, who hosted the ousted and injured Nuer First Vice-president, Riak Machar, in September 2016, has an important role to play in mediating a peaceful settlement for its southern neighbours.
During Riak Machar's visit to Khartoum for medical treatment, Sudan's government was keen to give the impression that it was not taking sides, but sources speaking on condition of anonymity to MEMO, confirmed that Sudan's government did speak to Machar and Sudan is playing a role, albeit not a military one, in assisting the Machar's rebel movement efforts against Juba's government.
One of the five conditions that the former US President Barack Obama cited in January this year for a permanent lifting of the sanctions against Sudan was that Khartoum minimise interference in the internal politics of South Sudan.
But last month, it was Sudan who repeated the accusation that its neighbours were interfering in its internal affairs. Sudan's National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) accused President Kirr of hosting meetings with the Sudan People's Liberation Movement – North Section (SPLM-N), the group fighting the Sudanese government in the two areas. Khartoum has repeatedly accused Juba and Cairo of giving military support to the northern rebels, the SPLM-N. These claims have been strenuously denied by both capitals.
Despite this, the situation between Juba and Khartoum has improved distinctly since the beginning of the separation between the two countries when a major dispute over payment for the use of the oil pipeline threatened to trigger armed conflict. One year after the separation, South Sudan shut down its oil production and its troops temporarily overran and captured the Hegleig oil field in the North.
In December 2012, a final agreement was reached on a number of issues. Most importantly, a settlement of the petroleum problem was secured while other accords included the free movement of citizens and trade. Moreover, the agreement allowed for the flow of oil to be exported again after costly suspensions of production that lasted months, causing substantial economic damage to both countries.
It was not, however, until June 2013 that Sudan's government announced its acceptance of proposals made by the head of the AUHIP, Thabo Mbeki, to deescalate tensions and begin the process of creating a demilitarised zone. That process was halted later that year when the civil war in the South erupted.
The loss of South Sudan has had a severe impact on Sudan's economy which had to plug a 75 per cent reduction in the country's petroleum wealth. Sudan has turned to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Countries to bridge the shortfall as well as increasing its burgeoning trade in gold which registered 37 per cent of exports this month. Meanwhile, South Sudan's economy has suffered from spiralling inflation and now faces a severe humanitarian crisis, mainly caused by the El Nino climate conditions and the entrenched political differences that have promulgated the civil war.
Sudan continues to be an important humanitarian outlet for the refugees pouring out of the South and crossing the border. Last week, the UN announced that the number of refugees in Sudan had reached 400,000, approximately a quarter of the total amount of the population that have been displaced by the civil war in the South.
Ironically, the presence of Southern Sudanese in big cities such as Khartoum resembles Sudan prior to the 2011 separation – with one major difference. Prior to 2011, the Southern Sudanese were agitating for rights to participate in the political process in the North or were campaigning for the autonomy and self-determination in the South. Today, the political frictions caused by the demands of power in the North have disappeared.
Southern and Northern Sudanese live together in areas on the outskirts of the cities. Some Southerners live separately in refugee camps; they are, for all intents and purposes, foreigners in a country where many of their children were born. They no longer have rights of citizenship. It may take a few more years for a solution to the civil war in the South to be achieved and for the fighting in areas of Sudan to come to an end. Until then, the futures of the two nations remain entwined and largely dependent on their ability to broker agreements on outstanding issues of conflict.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.