New Internationalist

Over a barrel

Issue 401

Sudan’s rich oil reserves have generated many of the regime’s atrocities, whilst shielding its leaders from the consequences. Leben Nelson Moro lays them bare.

A Nuer man, his body almost entirely covered by bandages, was the sole patient in the men’s ward. When I met him he had spent nearly a month in this most basic of hospitals. His ordeal began in February 2006, when he sought a job at Petrodar, a Chinese- and Malaysian-owned company which was drilling for oil in Melut.

The Nuer man got into a brawl with four of the oil company’s security men. They tied him up with ropes, covered him with dry grass and set him on fire. ‘He suffered second-degree burns, but will live,’ the only doctor at the hospital told me. Local people were understandably shocked by the attack and left to wonder how such a crime could occur, over a year after the return of ‘peace’ to Southern Sudan.

This cruel incident brings back stark memories of the crimes committed in oil-producing areas during the long, bloody war in Southern Sudan between 1983 and 2005. I spent most of 2006 there, and local people were quick to point out that what happened to the Nuer man was nothing compared to the atrocities meted out by government soldiers, members of the Mukhabarat (government security) and private security agents during the war. Killings, evictions, rapes, torture and the stripping of assets were the norm then.

They told me it was no coincidence that a large proportion of the nearly two million Southerners who perished in the war did so in the oil areas. With most of the indigenous people dead or forced to flee, Chinese, Malaysian, Indian and Arab companies explored and extracted oil without fear of opposition. War enabled Sudan to become a major oil exporter.

Awash with petrodollars, President Omar al-Bashir has now turned his savagery to Darfur. The atrocities perpetrated there are the latest bid by the ruling Arab and Muslim élites to crush attempts by marginalized black Africans to gain equal access to power and a fair bite of the national cake. In its quest to keep power in perpetuity, the Government has monopolized the country’s oil resources and used the revenue to supply soldiers, co-opt opponents and enlist violent militias in its wars.

Sudan strikes oil

Oil was discovered in Sudan in late 1978 by US company Chevron in the southern area of Bentiu. At the time, President Nimeiry’s regime was facing economic collapse. He had borrowed large sums of money as part of the so-called ‘breadbasket policy’, which aimed to transform Sudan into the main producer of food for the Arab world.

But by the end of the 1970s Sudan had become less of a breadbasket than a basket-case. The country’s debts rose from $3 billion in 1978 to almost $9 billion in 1985. When he seized power in 1989, Bashir – a Muslim zealot – turned to Iran, Iraq and other Middle Eastern dictatorships for support. He also solicited assistance from extremist financiers, like Osama bin Laden, who lived in Sudan in the 1990s. But it wasn’t enough: Bashir came to rely on oil to rescue the economy and buttress his limping regime, which was kept in power by naked terror.

However, oil was already a source of bitter struggle. In 1983 the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) had attacked Chevron’s activities. The company responded by financing Arab militias, but security problems forced it to sell its assets cheaply in 1990 and get out of Sudan.

After that, Bashir’s relationship with the ‘bad guys’ of the world spoilt Sudan’s hitherto cosy ties with the American oil companies. In 1997 US President Clinton banned all Americans from engaging in economic activities with the Sudanese regime, which it accused of supporting international terrorism.

Other Western companies willing to operate on Bashir’s terms were still welcome. Big Oil from Canada and Europe, including Talisman and Lundin, got involved in the late 1990s. Disregarding burgeoning reports of abuses in oil-rich areas, Mr Buckee, the Chief Executive of Talisman, claimed that its involvement was a ‘positive engagement’, bringing ‘Western values’ with it. The Dinka and Nuer civilians who fled to desolate camps in northern Sudan experienced these ‘values’ as death, displacement and violence.

Reverend Michael Mayuol, a priest from Pariang, a Dinka area, told me that over 95 per cent of the 500,000 Dinka population were killed or displaced between 1983 and 2004. First, Arab militias and Government soldiers devastated the area. Many people refused to leave, but a Kala azar (visceral leishmaniasis) pandemic ravaged the communities because health facilities had been destroyed and aid workers banned. Oil companies were then able to operate ‘in peace’. This pattern was repeated in other oil areas all over Southern Sudan.

Chinese takeover

China has played a critical role in the oil-fuelled boom in Sudan. After Bashir visited President Jiang Zemin in 1995, co-operation blossomed. Sudan now supplies 10 per cent of China’s oil. Production has risen to 500,000 barrels per day and is predicted to jump to a million barrels within two or three years. This year’s revenues from oil will exceed $4 billion.

A combination of intense pressure by human rights activists over ‘ethnic cleansing’ in oil-producing areas and harassment by rebels compelled most Western companies to withdraw in the 1990s. This left the way clear for the Chinese National Petroleum Company, Petronas (Malaysia) and ONGC Videsh Ltd (India) to become dominant.

Unlike Western companies, Asian companies were immune to domestic criticism and wholeheartedly supported Bashir’s regime. A geologist from Southern Sudan explained to me the complicity of Chinese companies in Government efforts to wipe out the Dinka in 2000: ‘I was based at a Chinese camp in Heglig in Southern Sudan. We [workers for the Chinese company] were guarded by Sudanese soldiers. Every time we went to the field to study seismic activity, the soldiers went ahead and “combed” the area, which meant shooting into the bush with big guns to cause the natives to flee. Then the soldiers informed the Chinese that it was safe. We moved into the area and did the required work. In some places we found deserted villages, burnt huts and bodies of the dead. The Chinese acted like mercenaries and never cared for the wellbeing of local people.’

The complicity of Asian companies enabled Bashir to export oil in significant quantities for the first time in August 1999. His regime declared the oil bonanza ‘a sacred gift to the faithful’. The predominantly Christian Southerners, labelled kuffar (infidels) by the jihadist leaders of the country, could not expect to share in the oil wealth.

Bashir uses the majority of the oil revenues to supply his army and allied militias with sophisticated weapons. These are mainly bought from China and Russia, including Russian MiG 29s and HIND attack helicopters, and Chinese Shenyang fighters and supersonic jets. These weapons, particularly Antonov bombers and Chinese helicopter gunships, were extensively used in Southern Sudan and are now being employed in Darfur, to devastating effect.

China also assures Bashir political protection. On several occasions China and Russia, keen to protect oil and arms deals, have sabotaged UN Security Council attempts to impose harsh sanctions on Sudan for its actions in Darfur. In this way oil has shielded Bashir’s regime from internal and external threats.

Oil in Darfur is bad news

In April 2005 the Sudanese regime announced that its Advanced Petroleum Company (APCO) had found abundant quantities of oil in South Darfur. So far, APCO has invested about $30 million.

In June 2005 the BBC reported that an entrepreneur, Friedhelm Eronat, had purchased oil rights in Darfur. Before concluding the deal, in October 2003, Eronat had allegedly swapped his US passport for a British one, allowing him to do business freely with the regime. While the British Government has taken a high profile role in the diplomatic effort to end the atrocities in Darfur, British companies – such as Rolls Royce, Weir Pumps and Angus Fire – have been quietly supplying important parts for Sudan’s oil industry all along. If business is involved, the British Government is clearly ready to turn a blind eye to the actions of its citizens.

I’m concerned that new oil operations in Darfur will fuel further fighting. The Darfur rebels have rejected oil exploration in their region as they do not profit from it. To drive home this point, the National Redemption Front claimed responsibility for an attack on the Chinese-operated Abu Gabra oilfield in Southern Darfur last November. Though it produces only 10,000 barrels per day, this is the first time that a Darfur rebel group has targeted oil activities, and will be seen by the Government as a significant escalation in the fighting.

The discovery of oil in Darfur will probably make matters worse for the Darfurians, judging by the bitter experience of the Dinka and Nuer people in Southern Sudan. Even after the end of the war, with the ‘Comprehensive Peace Agreement’ promising to share Sudan’s oil with the South, the victims of oil exploitation have not witnessed any significant change in their desperate situation.

Leben Nelson Moro is a Southern Sudanese refugee. He specializes in oil in Sudan at the University of Oxford. He has written on forced migration, ethnicity and the politics of oil.

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