JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Sudan and South Sudan held high-level talks Monday seeking to resolve disputes over oil revenues and their shared border, the first negotiations since a dangerous slide toward war in April.
The talks in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, came after the United Nations threatened sanctions unless the two sides returned to the negotiating table and reached a peace deal. The move came after each side withdrew from disputed oil-producing areas near the border that they had occupied — South Sudan from Heglig and Sudan from Abyei.
The dispute saw South Sudan turn off oil production earlier this year. The move was meant to stop alleged Sudanese theft of oil, but it cost the south 98% of its oil revenue and plunged it into an economic crisis. Sudan's economy was hit when 75% of the country's oil went to South Sudan when it seceded last July.
With South Sudan's economy in tatters, food and fuel shortages and inflation reaching 80%, President Salva Kiir made the shocking admission that some $4 billion of his country's public funds had been stolen by government officials since a 2005 peace deal which saw the two countries agree to share oil revenue.
He offered an amnesty and anonymity to government officials who returned the money to the government.
Warning that South Sudan's international credibility was on the line, Kiir sent a letter to 75 current and former government officials dated May 3, according to Reuters and Associated Press.
In a country where government services such as schools and hospitals are in dire need, South Sudanese often complain about the level of corruption. Many government ministers and bureaucrats are driving around in fancy SUVs.
"We fought for freedom, justice and equality," Kiir's letter notes. "Many of our friends died to achieve these objectives. Yet once we got to power, we forgot what we fought for and began to enrich ourselves at the expense of our people."
"An estimated $4 billion are unaccounted for, or simply put, stolen by former and current officials, as well as corrupt individuals with close ties to government officials," says the letter. "Most of these funds have been taken out of the country and deposited in foreign accounts. Some have purchased properties, often paid in cash."
The World Bank has warned South Sudan officials that their nation is likely to run out of cash reserves by July. Western donors have warned that they will not make up the revenue gap caused by the shutdown of oil production, a move seen by many diplomats in the South Sudan capital of Juba as rash and even suicidal.
Senior government officials from both countries were present for Monday's talks, mediated by the African Union.
— Robyn Dixon
Photo: South Sudanese President Salva Kiir, center, is shown in an April 27 file photo as he is welcomed back to the country following an official visit to China. Credit: Michael Onyiego / Associated Press.