The agreements between Sudan and South Sudan reveal the complexity of separating two nations while testing the African Union’s ability to contain the troubles without external help

On a cloudy Sunday morning this September, a gaggle of reporters and photographers walked past a large, stuffed lion to sit amid a collection of bone china and assorted curios in a waiting room of the Presidential Palace in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa.

Somewhere in the vast palace, Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir, the President of Sudan, was in conversation with Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, discussing, no doubt, the imminent presidential summit with Salva Kiir Mayardit, the leader of South Sudan.

These are difficult times for the two Sudans. Last year, when South Sudan seceded from its northern neighbour after decades of conflict, it did so with two-thirds of the region’s oil, but no oil processing or transport facilities, and barely 100 km of asphalt road. Sudan, by contrast, was bereft of its principal source of foreign exchange, and saddled with $40 billion of outstanding external debt.

Yet the summit was as much a test of the facilitators as of the participants. Hailemariam Desalegn was presiding over his first international summit after taking office after the death of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who ruled Ethiopia for 21 years and oversaw a muscular and interventionist foreign policy. Meanwhile, Thabo Mbeki, former South African President and pan-African statesman, was determined to illustrate that the African Union could contain the fallout of the division of Sudan, till recently the continent’s biggest country, without external supervision.

Oil deal

The summit was expected to address a number of post-secession issues, most importantly an oil-agreement that would give South Sudan access to northern ports and processing plants. In January this year, a dispute over transit fees had lead to the suspension of all oil production in the South and, as every reporter in the palace had noted, denied South Sudan 98 per cent of its state revenues.

“What’s the remaining two per cent?” asked a wondering hack as the crowd rushed to observe Mr. Bashir, brandishing an elegant walking stick inlaid with blue enamel, make his way out of the palace and into an armoured SUV bound for the Sheraton Hotel. The pattern continued for the next four days as reporters watched the Presidents get into and out of cars, conference rooms and hotel elevators even as spokespersons insisted that a deal was likely to be concluded “tomorrow.” The crucial oil deal had been hammered out in August, granting South Sudan the right to process and transport the oil for between $11 and $9 a barrel depending on the pipeline in use; but the Presidents struggled to find a consensus on the exact contours of a safe demilitarised zone between the two armies or the status of Abyei, an oil-bearing territory claimed by a settled community allied to the south and itinerant Arab pastoralists from the North.

Most evenings, a pianist in the Sheraton lobby played darkly appropriate tunes like Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” and the Casablanca classic, “As Time Goes By,” as delegates and negotiators swapped desultory gossip; in the outdoor Office Bar, an American diplomat shuffled awkwardly as a singer with a peroxide-blonde comb-over sang Adele’s breakout hit, “Rolling In the Deep,” the lyrics ominous for anyone striking a deal on behalf of a country emerging from war — “Finally I can see you crystal clear./Go ahead and sell me out and I’ll lay your ship bare.”

“And where are you from?” a South Sudanese official asked this correspondent, who replied that his family settled in New Delhi after the Partition in 1947. “Ah, the British,” he replied sagely, “Always, they cause the problems.” The problem, in this instance, being the opposite of the subcontinental experience; in Sudan, the ethnically diverse south and predominantly Arab north were united into one political and administrative unit with catastrophic results.

Test for Africa

When the press was finally ushered into the high-ceiling ballroom on the fifth day, the agreements signed offered an insight into the sheer complexity involved in separating two nations. “When I arrived here on the 22nd of September,” said President Kiir in his address, “I thought I would then proceed to the U.N. General Assembly in New York. I came to be surprised that things were really very difficult.”

Apart from the expected deal on oil and a demilitarised zone, the countries hammered out procedures to finalise international boundaries, to interconvert currencies, to share historical and government archives, preserve cultural heritage sites, and pay pensions and retirement benefits to government workers who served one government only to find it replaced by another.

The South also agreed to pay the North $3.028 billion as a one-time transitional financial agreement and the two countries agreed to jointly lobby for a reduction in Sudan’s $40 bn external debt, failing which the two countries will resume negotiations to agree on how best to apportion the sum.

Perhaps the most heartening agreement, for a region destroyed by civil war, is the Cooperation Agreement that commits both states to resolving all outstanding issues through peaceful negotiations; yet, diplomats suggested, both sides would first have to overcome half a century of mistrust.

In his closing comments, Mr. Mbeki spelt out the stakes of the past week of negotiations. “These two countries are very critical to the future of our continent,” he said, “If they fail, the continent will fail and if they succeed, Africa will succeed.”

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