In the past week, South Sudan has made news for two extremely contrasting steps. At the start of the week, the Government of Sudan confirmed that the South Sudan army had, indeed, repulsed Sudan forces at the disputed border, pushed 70 km into Sudan and occupied Helgeg, home to the largest and most important oilfield remaining in the hands of Khartoum.
At the end of the week, South Sudan became the 188th member of the World Bank family and formally received acceptance into IMF.
Both institutions pointed to the impoverished country as a test case for new thinking on reversing poverty and social decay. The hope of fighting poverty remains totally hostage to how Juba deals with the news at its border.
After months of disputed incursions and accusations, we have the startings of a full-scale war. South Sudan forces have pitched in Sudan territory and are inviting the Sudan army to what they call “the killing fields”.
And Khartoum is gleeful about the invitation, promising not only to “chase them away,” but also to “liberate the citizens of South Sudan from SPLA” which they now call an insect trying to destroy their country.
The rumbling drums of war in the swamps of Sudan are as unnecessary as they are inevitable. When tempers rise and people go to war, the rationale of the engagement and the potential cost tend to be submerged in self-pontification and pointing fingers.
Trying to demonise the opponent and justify committing your youth and resources to a costly campaign blurs the logic of placing a cost to the war. It will be a long time before Khartoum and Juba can assess whether the expanding conflict was ever really necessary.
It is left to their neighbours and friends, with the benefit of distance from the emotion of war, to tell them how wasteful their brinkmanship is going to be. Khartoum lost its most important source of revenue when it surrendered to the independence of the south.
With its depleted resources, going to war sets its economy many years back. South Sudan, one of the poorest places on earth, is in dire need of a socio-economic revolution.
The inflation of expectations from citizens robbed of their human worth by the decades-long confrontation with Khartoum can never be met by spending the modest resources available on military equipment and going to war.
The dividend of liberation is beating tanks into plough shares. Instead, social investment is giving way to the purchase of weaponry.
For South Sudan’s neighbours to the south, her liberation was warming to our hearts, not just because it was less suffering to a people who look like us, but also because we foresaw stemming of refugees into our territories and business opportunities in a neighbour endowed with amazing natural resource wealth and acute human resource under-development.
The escalating war not only reverses the gains of liberation, but threatens to shut down the emerging optimism of the land of opportunity. Returnees may soon start reversing their steps. All reason points to the futility and irrationality of this war.
Yet this confrontation was always long coming. For Khartoum, the reluctant surrender to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was grounded in a reality that the alliance formed by SPLA, SLA of the Beija Hills and the Red Sea District to the east, and the liberation movements in Darfur, South Kordofan and Nuda Mountains were unravelling El-Bashir’s hold on power.
He had to split the opposition by negotiating with the most powerful of the groups. But also Khartoum had the residual hope that total independence of the South was not likely.
The passing on of John Garang and the overwhelming push for independence by the South achieved a victory which left a bitter after taste in the northern military.
For El-Bashir, the political cost of resource and territorial loss was always going to haunt him. Recent posturing on taxing fuels transport through Sudanese pipeline, skirmishes with militias in regions of Sudan that supported SPLA, and obstinacy on how to deal with Abyei and the disputed boundary, played out in the background of a regime that needed to be convinced that the loss of the South could not be with such swift finality.
For South Sudan, the war follows another logic. Poor governments which come to power by the force of arms are always confronted by a key challenge.
How to demobilise war veterans and depreciate their material rewards while addressing the inflation of popular dreams from the citizenry. For Juba, the revival of ethnic animosity and military adventure by generals defeated in the democratic experiment compounded this challenge.
Is such circumstances, a military adventure is always a welcome avenue of externalising the soldiers’ attention and postponing an ultimate solution of transiting combatants from a military to a civilian organisation.
While the two Sudans destroy their weak economies, their friends must remind them that an alternative route would deliver more benefit to their people and neighbours. Juba would then look to building on its new membership to the Bretton Woods institutions.
Dr Kituyi is a director of the Kenya Institute of Governance firstname.lastname@example.org