Regime change through force? The temptation to prosecute an all-out war between the Sudans should be resisted on all sides

John Siebert Defence & Human Security

John Siebert

The Ploughshares Monitor Summer 2012 Volume 33 Issue 2

The secession of the Republic of South Sudan from the Republic of Sudan in July 2011 did not resolve the complex issues left over from the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) process that took effect in 2005.

The past year has brought intensifying military confrontations in disputed border areas, made worse primarily by a breakdown in negotiations on cooperation in the oil sector. South Sudan has most of the oil reserves and Sudan has all the pipelines and refining and shipping facilities. Currently South Sudan is refusing to ship its oil north until an agreement on pricing is reached. Each state has become a desperate economic hostage to the other.

Recently in The New York Times respected historian Gérard Prunier (2012)1 presented a breathtaking option: regime change in Sudan through an all-out war effort. He wrote:

The rebels battling Mr. Bashir’s government are waging a real battle for freedom, and their de facto alliance with southern Christians could finally bring Sudan’s endless conflict to a close. War is a tragic affair, but the brave Sudanese men who have chosen it as a last resort deserve to be allowed to find their own way toward a Sudanese Spring, even if it is a violent one.

In short strokes Prunier makes the case for a just war in which the rebels in the marginalized areas of Sudan—the Darfuris in the west, the Bejas in the east, and the people of South Kordofan and Upper Nile—combine forces with South Sudan. By force of arms they will end the tyranny of the National Congress Party (NCP) led by President Omar al-Bashir, who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court. For Prunier, the constant war against Sudan’s own citizens can only end when the NCP is defeated militarily.

Prunier is mistaken. The temptation to prosecute an all-out war in the Sudans should be resisted on all sides.

While South Sudan under UN Charter Article 51 has the right to act in its own defence against incursions by military forces from Sudan, that right is restricted by determinations of the Security Council. The UN Security Council has long “remained seized” of this situation. In 2012 alone there have been three UNSC Resolutions (2035 on February 17, 2046 on May 2, and 2047 on May 12), all of which condemn the use of force by all sides. More specifically Resolution 2046 condemns actions by any armed group “aimed at the forced overthrow of the government of either Sudan or South Sudan.” This wording also denies rebel forces within Sudan a just rationale for attacking Khartoum to bring down the NCP.

Prunier’s justification for a grand coalition of forces against Sudan goes beyond self-defence to become a rallying cry against genocide, using responsibility-to-protect language:

Mr. Bashir recently referred to the black leaders of South Sudan as “insects” and insisted that Sudan “eliminate this insect completely.” For those who remember Rwanda and the racist insults hurled by Mr. Bashir’s janjaweed militias during their brutal attacks in Darfur, his vile words should be a wake-up call.

The threat by President al-Bashir may be real. If it is, the international community in the form of the UN, led by the Security Council, should act. To date, it has not—and perhaps for the wrong reasons. But in any event, an R2P military intervention would have as its primary goal the protection of civilians and not regime change.

Not all peaceful and viable alternatives to war have been exhausted. Internationally mediated negotiations are still being undertaken to resolve outstanding conflict issues and prevent further armed violence within and between the Sudans. Former South Africa President Thabo Mbeki heads the African Union High-level Implementation Panel for the CPA in the Sudans. His efforts are bolstered by support from the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), the seven-member regional body in the Horn of Africa; the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Sudan; and the UN Interim Security Force for Abyei. The U.S. and others are making active use of carrots (financial and other aid) and sticks (sanctions) to encourage negotiated solutions to the admittedly long list of conflicts.

Prunier dismisses UN and U.S. efforts at further negotiations. He sees negotiating with al-Bashir as “merely a polite way of acquiescing to evil.” Certainly, the occupation of Abyei in 2011 and current aerial bombardments of South Sudan make trusting Sudan’s leadership difficult for the international community at the moment.

In the longer view, however, the creation of South Sudan in July 2011 itself was the culmination of a decades-long civil war and then a six-year transition period. Sudan has given up much in the peace process, even if much remains to be implemented, including demarcating 80 per cent of the border between the two countries, the sharing of oil revenues, and determining the citizenship status of northerners in the south and vice versa, and the status of military forces that were aligned with South Sudan’s fighting forces but are located in Sudan.

The current road to peace is much too long. But even if a military intervention produced regime change in Sudan, negotiations between Sudan and South Sudan and between Sudan and dissatisfied minorities would still be necessary. And after the inevitable chaos and loss of lives and property before order was restored, there is no guarantee that the new regime would be less militant.

Then there is the question of whether a united force of disaffected groups within Sudan could work together, and if the military forces of South Sudan could work with them. It has proved difficult even for the various rebel forces in Darfur to combine their military or diplomatic efforts. Imagining a sudden convergence of interest and leadership from Darfur, the East, and South Kordofan and Upper Nile states is a stretch. This type of alignment has never happened before in Sudan. Why does Prunier hope it can happen now?

Into this volatile mix he throws another tantalizing ingredient. African Muslims in Sudan could be joined by Arabs in Sudan in throwing out the NCP: “Many Arabs across northern Sudan have become fed up… and are quietly waiting for a chance to join the revolt begun by non-Arab Muslims.” If such a popular convergence were to come about, the question of regime change would potentially be in the proper hands—the hands of the people of Sudan. Even in such a scenario, the role of South Sudan in providing direct or indirect military assistance to rebel or insurgent forces would remain highly questionable.

The anticipated benefits of waging war against the NCP must be proportionate to the expected evils or harms that would take place. Prunier believes that a scenario in which South Sudanese soldiers join with their rebel or insurgent counterparts in the north in fighting Sudanese soldiers is preferable to the current situation in which primarily civilians are dying in a protracted low-intensity conflict that results in recurring humanitarian disasters. However, nothing in the history of warfare in the Sudans points to any real possibility that fighting will be largely restricted to troops. That is part of the horror of violence in this wracked corner of Africa.

And what of the likelihood of success? The prospects for one side to prevail militarily are poor. Both Sudan and South Sudan are capable of making successful short-term military incursions into the other’s territory. It is very unlikely, however, that either is capable of a sustained push into the other’s capital, holding substantial territory on the way and effecting regime change—with or without local rebel or insurgent support.

It is not simply a matter of saying war is bad and to be avoided at all costs between Sudan and South Sudan. The prospect of a successful “just” war is simply too remote.

War, as Prunier states, is always tragic. Tragedy is compounded when the promised benefits are so unlikely to be achieved. Prunier’s advice should be rejected. The difficult processes of negotiation in the Sudans must continue. International pressure to keep all sides at the negotiating table must be maintained and intensified. Only in this way can the temptation of war be resisted.

1. Gérard Prunier is the former director of the French Center for Ethiopian Studies and the author of numerous books and articles on African history, including Darfur: A 21st Century Genocide.

Prunier, Gérard. 2012. In Sudan, give war a chance. The New York Times, May 4.

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