Arch-foes Sudan and South Sudan will come under pressure to reach a partial deal to secure their border at talks next week to clear the way for a resumption of oil exports and prevent a slide into economic collapse and war, diplomats said.
The armies of both countries have already clashed along their contested 1,800km-long boundary since the South seceded last year without resolving disputes including over the ownership of oil-producing territory.
The landlocked South shut down its entire crude output in January in a further argument with Khartoum over how much it should pay to export through Sudan. The move cut off the lifeblood of both economies, Reuters reports.
The neighbours are expected to resume African Union-hosted negotiations in Addis Ababa on Sunday after reaching an interim agreement on oil payments this month. Sudan has said it wants a deal to guarantee security along the border before South Sudan starts pumping oil again.
Getting crude flowing would be a shot in the arm for both countries’ ailing economies and could help align their interests as they seek a more comprehensive deal to end border fighting, diplomats told Reuters.
Western and African diplomats said African Union (AU) mediators have proposed a partial security deal, leaving more complicated issues such the ownership of the symbolically important Abyei area to later.
“The plan is to get oil running so both can improve their economies and have an incentive to keep talking about the rest,” a Western diplomat said.
Faced with protests against spiralling inflation and harsh austerity measures, Sudan will likely agree to a partial deal to get oil production restarted, said Mahjoub Mohamed Saleh, editor of independent Sudanese daily Al-Ayam.
Sudan’s finance ministry has hailed the oil deal as a way to stabilise the economy, which was battered by the loss of three-quarters of the country’s oil production – roughly 350,000 barrels per day – with the South’s secession.
South Sudan depended on oil for about 98 percent of state revenues, and so will also be eager to resume exports.
“They (both) badly need the oil. Badly,” Saleh said.
Even with a deal it could still take months to restart southern oil exports, which mainly went to China. Industry sources say the two export pipelines were flushed with water after the shutdown to avoid jelling and some wells were not closed properly.
Still, diplomats have displayed more optimism than in earlier rounds of talks, which have been marred by deep mistrust between the two sides built up during decades of civil war and worsened by border clashes in April.
“It’s a different game now. Things have moved on since the fighting and a final deal is possible,” an African diplomat from a country involved in the talks said.
One of the key sticking points remains the demarcation of the border, along which at least five areas are disputed.
The U.N. Security Council has given the two sides until September 22 to solve all issues or face sanctions but with a long list of conflicts AU mediators want to focus initially on a security line to set up a 10-kilometre buffer border zone.
South Sudan has signalled support, while Sudan is only opposing the security line at one point which puts a 14-mile strip of land used by the Arab Misseriya tribe on the South’s side, several diplomats said.
“This is pretty much the only thing disputed. If Khartoum says ‘yes’, we’ll have a buffer zone,” a Western diplomat said.
African Union mediator Thabo Mbeki has sought to assure Sudan drawing the line will not mark the final border but Khartoum is worried it would lose the “Mile 14” strip.
“This is the richest pasture land for the Misseriya,” said Ayam editor Saleh, adding that at Sudan’s independence in 1956 maps showed it was part of the northern administration.
Sudan also wants assurances Juba will end support to rebels of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-North) operating in the border states of South Kordofan and Blue Nile.
Juba denies any link to the SPLM-North but many analysts and diplomats say Khartoum’s claim is credible.