Heglig Conflict Revisited: Why did South Sudan withdraw from Heglig (Panthou)?


Juba, South Sudan– When South Sudan army, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, (SPLA) captured Heglig (Panthou) from the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF), on April 10th, 2012, South Sudanese were filled with overwhelming delight. In fact, some youth went on the streets to celebrate the SPLA victory over SAF in Panthou. On the onset of this victory and its celebrations, however, the international community criticized South Sudan for its decision to militarily takeover Panthou. For instance, the United Nations General Secretary, Ban Ki Moon, and the United States President, Barack Obama, each made a call to the President of South Sudan, Salva Kiir Mayardit, urging him to withdraw his army from the oil-rich Panthou.

When in response President Kiir assured South Sudanese that he was not withdrawing the SPLA from Panthou, the youth once again went on the streets to support their government’s decision. Some youth even volunteered to join the army to defend Panthou from being re-captured by the SAF whose Commander in Chief, Field Marshal Omar Hassan El Bashire vowed to do so.

Within a week, however, President Kiir reversed his decision and ordered an immediate unconditional withdrawal of the SPLA from Panthou, leaving it to SAF. His decision angered many South Sudanese, especially when Khartoum propagated that its military re-captured Panthou by force. Then, and even today, South Sudan populace could not understand why their government could make such a decision when things seemed to be going in favor of South Sudan at time. International actors and individuals who were following the Panthou crisis/conflict were as well puzzled by the South Sudan’s decision to withdraw its army from the area.


South Sudan seceded from the Sudan in July 2011, following the referendum on self-determination, in which 99% of South Sudanese voted for separation. The referendum was part of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) signed by the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), and the government of Sudan to end a two-decade war between the two parties. The CPA, signed in January 2005 created a six-year interim period during which South Sudan remained autonomous, but part of the whole Sudan which was under the national government leadership. The national government was made up of both South Sudanese and Northern Sudanese with President Al Bashir remaining the president, and the Late Dr. John Garang De Mabior, a Southerner who was then the Commander of the (SPLA) and the Chairman of the (SPLM), becoming the First Vice President. The Late Garang was also the president of the autonomous South Sudan during the Interim period. Also as part of the CPA arrangement, the South retained its military, the SPLA, while the North retained Sudan Armed Forces. The two sides contributed equal military units which together made up the Joined Integrated Units (JIU) to form the national army.

It was also agreed upon in the CPA that the disputed area of Abyei would be self-governing during the interim period, and that the people of Abyei would vote on a separate referendum on whether Abyei would join the South should the South Secedes, or remain as part of the North.

Events leading to the SPLA Capturing of Heglig (Panthou)

Sudan and South Sudan have not been very good neighbors since the South seceded from Sudan in 2011 and even before the secession. For example, before the referendum on self-determination, Sudan Armed Forces occupied the disputed area of Abyei by force triggering military confrontation between the North and the South. The Abyei conflict ended with the African Union intervention in which the African Union force occupied the region and providing the roadmap for the withdrawal of SAF and SPLA forces from the area. Although the African Union and the United Nations Security council forced SAF and the SPLA out of Abyiei, the area remains a potential conflict zone between the two countries up to date.

After the secession of South Sudan, some incidents involving the two countries proved that the two countries remain bad neighbors if not enemies. Both sides continuously accused one another for supporting the rebels fighting their governments. For example, when the Late General Athor Deng Dut defected from the SPLA and formed a rebel group to fight against Juba, the government of South Sudan accused Khartoum of supporting his rebels. Juba also accused Khartoum of supporting other Southern rebel groups under General Tangginya, the Late Col. Gatluak Gai, Oliny and General Yau Yau. South Sudan further accused Sudan of inciting tribal conflict among Southern tribes by arming tribal youth to fight tribal wars among themselves.

On the other hand, Sudan on many occasions accused South Sudan of supporting the rebels fighting Khartoum government. For example, when the former governor of the Blue Nile state, General Malik Agar who fought alongside the SPLA during the civil war defected and started fighting the Sudan government, Khartoum pointed a finger on South Sudan, claiming that General Agar was being supported by Juba. Khartoum repeated the same accusation when another former governor, General Adel Aziz of another Northern State, Kordofan, defected and declared war on Khartoum regime.

When General Malik Agar’s forces, General Abdel Aziz’s forces, together with the Darfur’s factions joined forces and opened a united front against the Sudan Armed Forces, Sudan accusation against South Sudan intensified and Sudan started issuing threats of retaliation against South Sudan. Khartoum’s threat later materialized when its forces started attacking the Southern border town of Jau on the ground and by air claiming that Northern rebels were using it for training under the protection of the Southern military. It is widely believed that it were these attacks that escalated to the final showdown between the SAF and the SPLA at the oil-rich border area of Heglig (Panthou) which eventually felt to the SPLA.

South Sudan’s Justification for Taking over Panthou

At the initial stages of its occupation of Panthou, South Sudan’s justification for militarily taking over Panthou was very simple and straight forward. South Sudan claimed that it attacked and captured Panthou as a matter of self-defense from the Sudan Armed Forces. The SPLA explained that SAF was using Panthou as a military base to launch ground attacks on the SPLA inside South Sudan, therefore forcing the SPLA to counter-attack and capture Panthou. Refering to the capturing of Heglig, President Kiir claimed that “This was to ensure the security of Panthou (Heglig) so that it would not be used as a springboard for launching further attacks into the territory of the Republic of South Sudan.”

When the international community blamed South Sudan for occupying the supposedly Sudan’s Heglig, the government of South Sudan retaliated by claiming that Panthou initially belonged to South Sudan based on the 1956 border demarcation, and that it was only annexed to Sudan in 1978 after oil was discovered there. And to build a better case, South Sudan produced a new map of South Sudan that includes Panthou based on the 1956 borderline. With this tool, South Sudan threatened to take the status of Panthou to the international court of arbitration. Following the withdrawal of the SPLA from Panthou, the Minister of Information in the government of South Sudan, Dr. Marial Benjamin explained that ‘We… expect that the final status of Heglig and other disputed areas will be referred to international arbitration on the final determination of their status.’

The Analysis

South Sudan’s decision to withdraw from Panthou is complex and reminds me of the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. Two writers, Graham Allison and Philip Zelikow, in their book, “Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis,” wrote:

History offers no parallel to those thirteen days of October 1962, when the United States and the Soviet Union paused at the nuclear precipice. Never before had there been such a high probability that so many lives would end suddenly. Had war come, it could have meant the death of 100 million Americans and more than 100 million Russians, and millions of Europeans as well.

The Panthou situation was as serious as that of the Cuban missile crisis in a way. Just as the United States and the Soviet Union were at the brink of war during the 13 days the Soviets had their missiles deployed within the range of the American mainland, there was no doubt that both Sudan and South Sudan were preparing for a full scale war during the 10 days the South Sudan army occupied Panthou. On the side of Sudan, President Al Bashire himself declared that ‘Either we end up occupying Juba or you end up occupying Khartoum but the boundaries of the old Sudan can no longer fit us together, only one of us has to remain standing.’ The President further added that liberating Heglig would be the first step toward such a destiny. Furthermore, he called on Popular Defense Forces (a paramilitary group) to help the national army liberate Panthou and to subsequently capture Juba.

In South Sudan, President Salva Kiir asked all South Sudanese to come to the defense of Panthou. The government of South Sudan also called upon the states bordering the North to contribute 1000 young men and women each to help defend Panthou. On their side, South Sudanese young men and women volunteered to join the military to fight in Panthou. The youth was responding to the call by their president who urged all South Sudanese, and especially the youth to “forget ‘tribal conflicts’ and unite to confront a more pressing danger.”

All these signs from both countries are good indications that not only were both sides preparing for a full scale war, but for a war that was going to be very devastating. Had this war took place, both sides were going to unleash human waves and use all the powerful weapons they had in hand to capture or defend Panthou. Therefore, looking at the Heglig conflict, one would be tempted to compare it to the Cuban Misile crisis to better understand why the government of South Sudan decided to withdraw its army from the area.

The Cuban missile crisis is very similar to the Panthou conflict in some ways. First, the Cuban missile was one of its kind during the Cold War. It was the only event during the cold war that almost brought the two superpowers of the time, the United States and the Soviet Union to an all-out nuclear war. Nuclear weapons were never used in a large scale before and the outcome of an all-out nuclear war between the two superpowers was estimated to be very devastating as Allison and Zelikow wrote. In comparison, the Panthou conflict was inevitably going to lead to an all-out war between Sudan and South Sudan had South Sudan not withdrawn from the area. This was evidenced by the fact that both countries were seriously preparing for a full scale war during those ten days the SPLA occupied Panthou. Therefore, if such a war materialized, the magnitude of its destruction would have been unprecedented in the history of the struggle between the SPLA and the SAF, including during the civil war.

Second, the level of threat the Soviet’s missiles capable of reaching the United States from Cuba posted could no longer be kept secret from the American public by the US government; it reached every living American at the time, thus putting high pressure on President Kennedy’s government to act decisively and within the shortest time possible. This was the case with the SPLA capturing of Panthou. All Sudanese were informed about the capturing of Heglig and demanded that their leaders do all it takes to re-capture the oil-rich Heglig. To show how serious the situation was, the Sudanese Minister of Defense was put under investigation for his failure to defend Panthou and for failing to re-capture it within the shortest time possible. Therefore, Al Bashire’s and his entire regime’s reputation and survival rested on the status of Heglig. So for President Al Bashire and his regime, re-capturing Panthou was a matter of death and survival and he was bound to do whatever it takes to regain his reputation by re-capturing Heglig. This was well spelled out in his desperate threatening speeches during the conflict, including calling South Sudanese “insects” that needed to be sprayed.

Finally, it was the Soviet Leader, Nikita Khrushchev who was holding the key to war and the key to peace during the Cuban missile crisis. If Khrushchev decided to reject the United States request to remove his missiles from Cuban, the US would have been left with no other choice, but to strike the Soviet missiles sites in Cuba, triggering full war between the two states. But thanks to Nikita Khrushchev, he choose peace and re-deployed his missiles out of Cuba. During the Heglig conflict, it was President Salva Kiir of South Sudan who was holding the key to war and the key to peace. If he decided not to withdraw his forces from Panthou, Khartoum would have had no choice, but to try by all means possible to re-take Heglig which would have meant full scale war between the two Sudans. President Kiir’s decision to withdraw the SPLA from Panthou undoubtedly defused a full scale war between Khartoum and Juba.


There is no doubt that when the government of South Sudan made a decision to withdraw the SPLA from Panthou, the average South Sudanese was angry, and the ordinary international individuals who were following the Heglig conflict were puzzled. But looking closely at how the states survives in real international politics, one may as well realize that the government of South Sudan then made the right decision to withdraw its army from Panthou.

Frist and foremost, the people of the two Sudans are tired of war as they just got out of one of the most destructive wars in Africa, and returning them back to the same situation they were in less than a decade ago is something that the presidents of the two countries always think about when faced with crisis like that of Heglig throughout the implementation of the CPA. During the Heglig conflict, president Kiir himself reiterated: ‘I always say we will not take the people of South Sudan back to war, but if we are being aggressed [attacked] like this we will have to defend ourselves.’ President Al Bashire on his side blamed South Sudan for the then looming war, accusing South Sudanese of choosing “the path of war” and warning that “war was not in the interests of either South Sudan or Sudan.” Therefore, as a leader who cares about his people, President Kiir accepted the fact that he was the only one holding the key to peace and war and decided to open the door to peace to avoid the unnecessary suffering of the people of both Sudans.

Second, if President Kiir and his government decided to hold Heglig and even advance further North and create other fronts as the President threatened during the conflict that his troops were to be heading to Abyei if SAF does not pull out, still there was one more obstacle South Sudan would have faced. Statehood comes with international responsibilities, and South Sudan then being perceived as the aggressor by the international community in the Heglig conflict would have been expected to take full responsibility for taking such action. Prior to SPLA capturing of Heglig, South Sudan did not have any concrete claim over Heglig, at least in the eyes of the international community, and that is why there was no arrangement for SAF to pull out from the area as was the case in Abyei and other disputed areas. And as such, South Sudan was clearly the aggressor and that is why world leaders such as President Obama and regional and international bodies, such as the African Union and the United Nations called up on South Sudan to withdraw immediately. Had South Sudan ignored this call to withdraw from Heglig and continue the war against the North, this would have been self-suffocation by the government of South Sudan as this might have resulted in consequences like arm embargo and sanctions from the international community. At the same time, such refusal to heed to the international demand would automatically have given Khartoum an upper hand over Juba in the international politics as the world would have just sympathized with Sudan and sees South Sudan as the violator of international laws, norms and ethics.

Unless one really wanted South Sudan and Sudan to go back to full scale war and cause unnecessary suffering of the people of South Sudan, and at the same time creates a bad image for South Sudan in the eyes of the international community, the decision to withdraw the Sudan People’s Liberation Army from Heglig was the right decision at the time. Such a decision defused what would-have been a devastating war between the North and the South, saving thousands of lives which would have been lost in such a war.

Overall, Heglig conflict ended in the victory for  South Sudan, both militarily and politically. Militarily, the SPLA was tested and proved very strong. The people’s army was capable of executing its national duty which is to defend the national borders of South Sudan against external aggression. It effectively destroyed SAF’s units in Heglig that were launching ground and air attacks inside South Sudan, and as a result, those attacks have ceased completely. Politically, the decision to withdraw the SPLA from Heglig when the world begged President Kiir to do so have created a suitable atmosphere for South Sudan to maneuver with in the international political environment. After withdrawing from Panthou, South Sudan was seen as a young nation that respects international laws, norms and ethics, and this in fact paved the way for the recent Addis Ababa agreement which resulted in the cooperation between the two Sudans to resume oil production and to work on other economic and security arrangements. Thus it is crucial to understand that state survival needs more than just military power; it as well needs political maneuvering, and withdrawing from Panthou was a rewarding political maneuver by South Sudan.

*Thon Agany Ayiei holds an MA in Security Studies from the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California and works in Juba. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
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