Border Clashes Shut Down Oil Production as the Two Sudans Prepare for New Round of War

Andrew McGregor

April 19, 2012

In response to South Sudan’s surprise occupation of its northern neighbor’s most productive oilfields, Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir announced on April 12 that South Sudan had “chosen the path of war” (Sudan Tribune, April 12).

Heglig MapWith the support of the United States, South Sudan declared its independence in July 2011 without having first reached an agreement with Khartoum on vital issues such as oil revenues, transfer fees and border demarcation. Juba’s occupation of the Heglig field goes well beyond applying pressure on Khartoum; it deprives its northern neighbor of revenues, foreign currency reserves and fuel. It also places an already unpopular regime in a corner from which it may feel it necessary to return to a state of war for its own survival. Khartoum might be able to buy peace with Juba and the return of Heglig by looking favorably on Southern claims in other border disputes, but this would be a humiliating response by a military/Islamist regime that cannot afford to show any weakness. In the meantime, the Sudanese pound is rapidly dropping in real value and lineups for petroleum products are growing longer by the day.  However, South Sudan, which possesses no refineries, is also suffering a rapid decline in the value of its currency and is running short of hard-currency reserves needed to purchase refined petroleum products, much of these reserves having already been spent on Juba’s massive re-armament program and expansion of its military.

Chinese-made APCs in Mombasa Port awaiting shipment to South Sudan

The South Sudan maintains that Heglig was part of the southern region according to administrative divisions existing at the time of independence in 1956 and now appears to be rejecting a 2009 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague that Heglig lies inside the northern Sudan rather than the South. The Heglig oil fields, which are in gradual decline but still provide over half of Sudan’s remaining oil production, are operated by the Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Co. (GNPOC), a Chinese, Malaysian, Indian and Sudanese consortium. China, a major arms supplier for Khartoum, is reported to be shipping arms and other equipment to South Sudan through the Kenyan port of Mombasa (Nairobi Star, April 8).

The occupation of Heglig is the latest stage in a growing battle over Sudan’s oil wealth. Khartoum lost roughly 75%of its oil production with the separation of the South Sudan, where most of the oil is found. However, the only outlet for this oil is via pipeline through the north to Port Sudan, which gave Khartoum the idea of replacing its lost revenues by charging transfer fees of $36 per barrel rather than the going international rate of $1 per barrel as well as siphoning off significant amounts of southern oil for its own use. Juba turned off the taps in January in protest even though oil exports account for 98% of South Sudan’s budget (see Terrorism Monitor, March 22). Khartoum has not backed down on the transfer fees, so Juba has apparently decided that if South Sudan must do without oil, so must Sudan.

South Sudan’s information minister has indicated a withdrawal of Khartoum’s forces from the disputed Abyei region would be among the conditions required for a South Sudanese pullout from Heglig (al-Jazeera, April 12; for Abyei see Terrorism Monitor Brief, May 27, 2011). On March 15, South Sudan President Salva Kiir told an audience in Wau that border demarcation cannot begin until Khartoum acknowledges the Abyei region belongs to South Sudan. [1] President Kiir has been unresponsive to international pleas to pull his forces back, complaining that he has been unable to sleep because of telephone calls from international leaders: “The UN secretary-general [called] yesterday; he gave me an order… to immediately withdraw from Heglig. I said, “I’m not under your command” (al-Jazeera, April 12; Sudan Tribune, April 12).

The Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) maintains their advance into Heglig came in response to an incursion into the oilfields of South Sudan’s Unity State with two brigades of Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) regulars, 16 tanks and various pro-Khartoum militias. The SAF were defeated by the SPLA’s 4th Division under General James Gatduel Gatluak and pursued as far as Heglig, where they have remained (Sudan Tribune, April 11). Sudanese forces are reported to be moving on Heglig gradually, with SAF spokesmen citing delays caused by mines laid by South Sudanese troops (Sudan Tribune, April 15).  

Sudan’s military maintains that the SPLA were joined in the April 10 attack on Heglig by fighters belonging to Darfur’s Justice and Equality Movement (JEM). An AFP reporter said they had observed dead bodies in Heglig bearing JEM insignia and two destroyed land cruisers with JEM emblems. JEM denied the allegations, providing the unlikely suggestion that the SAF may have dressed their own dead in JEM uniforms (AFP, March 28). In June, 2011 the Darfur-based rebels claimed to have carried out a long-distance raid on the Heglig Airport.

The SPLA claims to have shot down one of Khartoum’s Russian-built Mig-29 fighter jets during an April 6 air raid in the Heglig region, though this was denied by an SAF spokesman (al-Jazeera, April 6). According to South Sudanese intelligence and other sources, Mig-29 air strikes targeted a strategic bridge in Abiem-nhom County in Unity State, a target at Ajakkuac in Warrap State and the main bridge in Bentiu (capital of Unity State), killing five people and wounding five others (Sudan Tribune, April 11; April 14; April 15). The SPLA does not yet possess a combat-capable air force, but is believed to have plans to develop an air arm for their military.

Sudan’s defense minister, Abd al-Rahim Muhammad Hussein, says the SPLA offensive is part of a cooperative effort with components of the recently formed Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF) to occupy Heglig and the South Kordofan capital of Kadugli (Sudan Tribune, April 11; for the SRF, see Terrorism Monitor, November 11, 2011). The SRF includes JEM and the SPLA-North, which operates in Sudan’s South Kordofan and Blue Nile States. Hussein said SPLA-North forces in South Kordofan consist of 22 battalions of 500 men each, while JEM and Darfur’s Sudan Liberation Movement – Minni Minnawi (SLM-MM) have a combined 125 Land Cruisers across the South Sudan border in Bahr al-Ghazal preparing to launch cross-border attacks (Sudan Tribune, April 11). While the deployment of large numbers of Darfur rebels in the border region of South Sudan cannot be confirmed, it is consistent with Khartoum’s claims of greater cooperation between the rebels and the SPLA over the last year. If JEM actually was involved in the attack on Heglig, it would be the first sign that the SRF alliance was becoming a military reality with the support of Juba.


1. “The Crisis in Abyei,” The Sudan Human Security Baseline Assessment Project, Small Arms Survey, March 28, 2012,

This article was first published in the April 19, 2012 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.