Territorial Disputes: The Republic of Sudan and South Sudan

Territorial Disputes: The Republic of Sudan and South Sudan


By: Lauren Webb

At the end of September and three weeks of negotiations, the leaders of Sudan and South Sudan reached a “border deal,” which settles transportation fees for oil and establishes a demilitarized buffer zone. However, the border deal stopped short of actually settling the core issue of the shared border: over one year after South Sudan’s secession, nearly 20% of the border has yet to be demarcated.[i]

Decades of Civil War

To understand the current border dispute, it’s necessary to examine the origins of the state of South Sudan, the world’s newest country.

For the greater part of 50 years, the central government (representing the North) and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (representing the South) waged two civil wars. Conflict initially stemmed from the post-independence dominance of the North, which was predominately Muslim, over the South, which was predominantly Christian and animist, and the central government’s discriminatory policies. The conflict was further complicated by the North's desire to retain control of oil and other valuable resources located in the South.

After several decades and an estimated 2.2 million deaths in the Second Sudanese Civil War (1983-2005), both sides entered into a cease-fire and Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2005.[ii] As part of the agreement, the people of Southern Sudan voted in a referendum in 2011 and seceded to create the new state of South Sudan. The agreement, however, did not resolve the nine disputed areas along the border or the transportation fees to be paid by South Sudan for oil.

The oil fees proved to be most pressing early on. In 2011, South Sudan offered Sudan $1 per barrel and $2.6 billion, while Khartoum demanded $36 per barrel. When Sudan began to divert oil from the pipelines, South Sudan shut down its oil production.[iii] This hurt both countries economically, as oil production accounts for roughly 98% of South Sudan’s state revenue.[iv] Fortunately, pipeline transit fees were resolved in last month’s talks and production will re-start in the coming months.

The Disputed Areas

The Abyei region is likely the most contentious region claimed by both sides, due to its high level of oil production and the Greater Nile Oil Pipeline, which travels through Abyei to connect the Heglig Oil Field to the Red Sea. The issue in Abyei is not just oil, but ethnic, as two groups (one nomadic) claim the area for grazing.[v] In May 2011, after the January 2011 referendum was postponed indefinitely in Abyei (there was dispute as to whether or not nomadic groups should be permitted to vote), Sudan’s military seized the area. UN peacekeepers arrived in the area in June 2011, but a referendum has yet to be held and Abyei’s status remains ambiguous.

The South Kordofan state of Sudan includes Heglig, a town claimed by South Sudan as part of Warrap. Heglig is an important claim for both states due to its oil field. In 2012, both countries were on the brink of war over Heglig, beginning in March with an attack by South Sudan on the oil fields.[vi] The African Union mediated negotiations in June 2012, eventually leading to September’s talks.

Renk and Jabalain Counties, claimed as part of the Upper Nile and White Nile states, respectively, are valuable for grazing, agriculture, and oil reserves. Tribal communities from both countries have traditionally used this land and continue to migrate across the disputed borders as necessary for seasonal grazing, making it difficult to establish a clear border.[vii] A similar trend occurs in the disputed county of Megenis and town of Kaka, both claimed as parts of the Upper Nile and South Kordofan states. Although some groups have settled in these areas, several groups continue to migrate for seasonal harvests and to find water sources for cattle.[viii]

Additional disputed areas include the Bahra al Arab River, which is necessary for agriculture on both sides of the border, and Kafia Kingi, which is believed to be a source of copper and uranium deposits.[ix]

For safety and security

In 2008, Andrew Natsios wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine that leaving Abyei’s status unresolved in the CPA left “the potential for a local commander to initiate hostilities, which could quickly degenerate into general war, is still dangerously high.”[x] Sadly, this remains true today. The major flashpoints in the border disputes between Sudan and South Sudan have been those important to oil development, such as Abyei and Heglig. In these regions, a resolved border will be particularly important for both security and economic reasons. Moreover, the Abyei region was promised a referendum in 2011—a promise that has yet to be fulfilled. A fair referendum, accepted and respected by both sides, in Abyei is vital to the resolution of their shared border.

However, it is important to note that much of the disputed area is vital to citizens on both sides. In those regions, such as Renk, Jabalain, and Megenis, both countries should commit to an open, demilitarized border. Such a decision will preserve the economic livelihood of their people while also reducing the risk of additional flashpoints that can occur when local military units are stationed.

Of course, resolving the border dispute will not solve all of the problems Sudan and South Sudan face. Oil may remain a recurring issue, and a comprehensive strategy for handling the citizenship of those displaced in the civil wars is necessary. But until both countries can establish mutually accepted borders, the risk of renewed aggression and conflict will remain, no matter what other agreements are made.

Lauren Webb is a junior at Emory University majoring in Political Science and History. She is spending the Fall semester at Kansai Gaidai University in Hirakata, Japan. Her research and academic interests focus on India, China, and Japan, with a particular interest in the U.S.-Asia relationship.

[i] Kimenyi, “Future Engagement Between South Sudan and the Republic of Sudan,” The Brookings Institution, n.d.,

[ii] John Prendergast and Colin Thomas-Jensen, “Blowing the Horn,” Foreign Affairs, March 1, 2007,

[iii] Andrew S. Natsios, “Sudan’s Oil Crisis Is Only Bashir’s First Problem,” Foreign Affairs, February 1, 2012,

[iv] “Bashir to Meet S Sudan Counterpart in Summit,” Aljazeera, September 19, 2012,

[v] James Copnall, “Sudan: Why Abyei Is Crucial to North and South,” BBC (Khartoum, May 23, 2011), sec. Africa,

[vi] Katrina Manson, “Cross-border Violence Threatens Sudan Deal,” The Washington Post, March 27, 2012, sec. World,

[vii] Sudan: Defining the North-South Border, Africa Briefing (Juba/Khartoum/Nairobi/Brussels: International Crisis Group, September 2, 2010), 6–7,

[viii] Ibid., 8.

[ix] Ibid., 8–9.

[x] Andrew Natsios, “Beyond Darfur,” Foreign Affairs, May 3, 2008,

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