Agreeing to Disagree

Despite the cynicism in the media, the recent agreement between the Sudans is significant and should be celebrated.

Sudan President Omar Al-Bashir (L) and South Sudan President Salva Kiir (R) shaking hands after signing the oil and border security agreement in Addis Ababa.

The recent deal signed between Sudan and South Sudan has solicited a mixed reaction from the international media. The BBC were happy to hail the Addis Ababa talks which produced the deal a success, Sudan Tribune reported a failure and CNN sat on the fence. The mixed reaction was the result of confused expectations surrounding the talks, some happy to see them as a solution to the short-term economic disaster looming over each country, whilst others wanted the settlement they felt should have got in 2006, but instead got the poorly named Comprehensive Peace Agreement.

As the week wore on and the story passed from the news to the comment and analysis sections, opinion firmly sided with the cynics. One notable cynic, writing for the Guardian, denounced the agreement as déjà vu, dismissing it as the product of “mutual economic self-interest being satisfied”.

Such viewpoints are correct to highlight the flaws in the agreement. For example it will do nothing to resolve the humanitarian emergency on the border or to settle the issues surrounding the disputed territories. Yet despite these reasons we should not dismiss the agreement as a cause for celebration.

We should celebrate for two reasons. Firstly, the agreement has the ability to resolve the short-term security issues discussed in my last post. South Sudan is heading for a very dark place, with many claiming that the government will have to stop paying army salaries soon. The fragmented, unwieldy and abusive national army (SPLA), a mix of former Khartoum and Juba backed militias, are held together by a patronage network reliant on state finance. With the added oil revenue and investor confidence this agreement could bring, there is reason to be hopeful that the SPLA will remain intact for the time being.

The second reason is about our expectations. Quite rightly many critics will not celebrate enthusiastically until a full comprehensive agreement is signed between the two countries, but for the time being this is not possible. Neither President is in a position where he can make the compromises necessary for such an agreement. Economic collapse, ethnic violence and coup-rumours are rife in both countries. Any President who would like to keep his head firmly on his shoulders would be wise to avoid appearing weak in such a context. In light of the context surrounding the deal, it really is the best outcome we could have realistically hoped for. We should be happy with it, and not depressed by the critiques of blue-sky thinkers.

I have written before about the fashionable cynicism is the aid world, and it has been better (and more comically) documented by other blogs. In this incident it has blinded us to recognising a good thing. The uber-cynics who truly believe the agreement will come to nothing are failing to appreciate the devastating impact of the last 6 months without oil, and nothing drives cooperation like a regimes survival instinct.

Tom Dawes

Follow me on Twitter: @teddydawes

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