Home | Comment & Analysis    Saturday 27 December 2003

Rebels, Religion and Oil

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By The World Today

Dec 01, 2003 — It’s a thirty seven-year conflict involving religion, ethnic origins, slavery and oil. But it could all be over by the end of the year. At least that’s the hope of United States Secretary of State Colin Powell, who flew in to East Africa urging agreement to bring peace to Sudan.

WHEN SUDAN’S FIRST CRUDE OIL FOR EXPORT poured out of the just- completed one thousand five hundred-kilometre pipeline and gushed into a supertanker at Sudan’s new Red Sea port in August 1999, the Islamist-military government was elated. The civil war, in its twentieth year, had until then made the development of oil - located beneath war-torn southern swamps and savannahs - impossible. The International Monetary Fund, which suspended Sudan in 1990 for failure to pay even interest on its enormous debt, reinstated it just days before this first crude flowed.

Whatever it did for the balance of payments, oil did not bring peace. Sudan, Africa’s largest country by geography and one of its poorest, has been battered by civil war for thirty seven of the forty seven years since the British left. The government - military or elected, Islamist or secular - has always belonged to a minority population, the educated Arab-speaking Muslim elite from the northern Nile Valley. Sudan’s thirty five million population - sixty to seventy percent African and thirty to forty percent non-Muslim - was economically, socially and politically marginalised.

Ever since Chevron discovered substantial southern oil reserves in 1978, the impoverished African south feared the oil refinery, pipeline, port, and other infrastructure would be located in the north, and it would be cheated of its potential benefits. That is exactly what has come to pass. Now peace talks are under way in Kenya, strongly encouraged by the United States, Britain and Norway - the Troika.

It seemed for a while that oil would prolong the conflict. Indeed, in 1999, oil in the ground became the main objective of government military actions - scorched earth campaigns intended to run southern pastoralists off their land. Oil above ground became a target of sporadic rebel attacks designed to scare off foreign oil operators, as was done in 1984 with Chevron. The military did its best to create a cordon sanitaire. Hundreds of thousands of southern Sudanese whose families had unsuspectingly lived with their cattle on the oilfields for centuries have been brutally displaced, without notice, hearing or compensation. Finally production began - on the military’s terms.

Conveniently, the new oil revenues, soaring from $547 million in 2000 to $805 million last year, enabled the Sudanese military to purchase attack helicopters and weapons that intensified the war and expanded oil ’protection’. Up to sixty percent of the revenues went to military spending, which increased by almost fifty percent in two years. Sudan bought sixteen attack helicopters from Russia between 2001 and 2002, more than tripling its fleet.

They were often used against civilian populations. In February last year, in plain view of international food monitors, helicopters targeted a relief distribution site in the oilfields, killing seventeen civilians and wounding many more. Seven died later of their wounds.

The government claimed that the attack was a mistake, but defended its right to secure oilfield safety. This provoked its most controversial foreign investor, Talisman Energy of Canada, privately to rebuke Khartoum for linking oilfield safety and civilian deaths. Within a year, however, Talisman pulled out, giving in to an international human rights campaign.

ABUSES

Human rights groups condemned Talisman and the other foreign oil investors for their role in oil development in Sudan, whose record of gross human rights abuses intensified when the Islamist government came to power through a military coup in 1989. By 1998, when Talisman stepped in, two million Sudanese - mostly southerners - were already dead and four million displaced because of the war, not to mention war-provoked famines and epidemics.

The human rights groups claimed that foreign companies operating in the southern theatre of war exacerbated the abuses; the companies built new oilfield airstrips, bridges and roads which were promptly put to military use. Successful operations by Talisman and its partners - Petronas Nasional Berhad of Malaysia (Petronas) and the China National Petroleum Company (CNPC) - produced a revenue stream that enticed the government to clear more civilians from their pastures and small sorghum fields. The pipeline attracted further companies to this new frontier, making remote fields economically viable.

As a result of the human rights drumming, Talisman sold out - not to a western oil company, but to yet another Asian state-owned oil firm, ONGC Videsh Ltd of India. Two European companies owning concessions to the south of Talisman’s followed suit this year. Lundin of Sweden and OMV of Austria - a large privatising state oil firm - sold to Petronas and ONGC Videsh respectively.

Ideally, for reasons of sovereignty and national security, the nation’s main natural resource should not rest so firmly in the control of three Asian state oil companies, with their own foreign policy agendas and domestic needs. But the persistent human rights campaign was an effective deterrent to other western companies considering investment.

PARIAH NO MORE

This squeeze on the fledgling oil industry coincided with serious peace talks. The government, under stringent unilateral sanctions imposed by US presidential executive order in 1997, badly wanted to improve its relationship with Washington. It sought to be promoted from the pariah status to which the US had consigned it in 1993, putting it on its list of countries supporting terrorism.

Sudan’s opportunity came on September 11 2001. It promptly offered counter-terrorism cooperation with Washington, including over-flight permission, something not immediately provided by many European allies.

US State Department personnel had already been allowed in to investigate whether the terrorist training camps it harboured when Osama Bin Laden was living in Sudan from 1990 to 1996 were still in place. Although it was widely denounced, the August 1998 American cruise missile bombing of a pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum softened up the Islamist government for this cooperation.

But there was a powerful new lobby in the US: the conservative religious movement took Sudan as its first foreign policy target. It railed against slavery and religious persecution of Christians. With the election of its favourite son, President George Bush, it gained a powerful ally.

Bush promptly appointed a special envoy for peace in Sudan, former senator and clergyman John Danforth. Within a year, Danforth had succeeded in moving much closer to peace than anyone thought possible.

The main parties to the war, the Sudanese government and the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A), went on to agree in July last year to a referendum for southerners on self- determination. They also agreed that sharia - Islamic law - would govern the north but not the south. For the next year and a half, they slogged through many other issues, but so far have not come to a settlement on sharing power and oil revenue.

ETHNIC DIVIDE

But the government’s key weapon, which gave it a toehold in the oil concession operated by Talisman on the north-south border, threatens to blow back in the face of peace. This weapon was not military but political: an ethnic divide and conquer policy in the south. The government supported a faction of the SPLM/A that split from the rebel group in 1991 along ethnic lines - part of the Nuer ethnic group which traditionally live in the oilfields. The Nuer, the second-largest southern ethnic group, took on the largest, the Dinka, which dominates the officer corps of the SPLM/A. The Nuer presence in the oilfields kept the SPLM/A out of the oil business. In this interlude, Talisman, Lundin, OMV, Petronas, CNPC and others decided to invest.

The governments success in playing the ethnic card began to break down, however. It weakened the Nuer faction by causing a proliferation of ’warlords’. Then the Sudanese military insisted on ’guarding’ all the oilfields, even in home areas of ex-rebel leaders, not allowing a role for the Nuer. Finally, ordinary southerners did not even receive the crumbs of the oil business: the government allowed CNPC to bring in ten thousand Chinese labourers to build the infrastructure.

The faction leaders may have been fool enough to believe the government’s promises, but they were not fool enough to miss the fact that none of them were kept.

The main Nuer faction first went on the military offensive to prevent Sudanese government troop incursions into ’their’ oilfields in 1999. Lundin and OMV had to suspend operations several times, for months at a time. They did not succeed in stopping Talisman, however. After almost three years of resistance, the main Nuer faction returned to the SPLM/A.

Numerous militias remain behind, out of fear and loathing for the SPLM/A commander in chief, Colonel John Garang. They have political differences as well. Paradoxically, the militias are avowed separatists and Garang is a strong proponent of a united Sudan.

ONE COUNTRY OR TWO?\In peace talks, the Troika and the international community have supported unity. The Sudanese government prefers unity, if only because the oil lies mainly in the south. Thus the agreed referendum on southern self-determination has a long waiting period - six and a half years after signature, an aeon in politics. The internationally accepted myth is that this will give the northerners time to convince the southerners, through internationally funded development projects, that they would benefit from staying with a transformed united country and would no longer be second-class citizens.

But can a tiger change his stripes? And will his victims suddenly want to live with him? Southern popular opinion is solidly pro- independence. The war, fought mostly in the south, has left enormous death and destruction. It also led to the resurgence of slave- taking, returning to the first relationship the north had with the south in the nineteenth century.

The Troika has invested heavily in time and money in helping - or strong-arming - the parties towards an agreement. If successful, it would be a very bright spot in Bush’s Africa and foreign policy.

PACT BETWEEN DICTATORS

One of the main controversies is that only the main two fighting forces are party to the talks; neither was chosen in free and failelections. Northern political parties, which repeatedly won elections in democratic times, and southern militia leaders threaten that as long as they are excluded, the agreement will be no more than a pact between ’two dictators’ - which they are not obliged to recognise.

The Troika understood the downside of limiting talks to the two parties. But if the war was to end, then the principal contestants had to agree, by no means an easy task. The Troika also feared an ’open sesame’ effect. Sudan is enormously diverse. Its hundreds of ethnic groups and religions cannot sit comfortably at the table, and would multiply the difficulties.

RIGHTS AND DIVERSITY

Also controversial is the absence of any provision for human rights accountability. The Troika has not made serious accountability or truth proposals, and the parties - which have terrible human rights records - do not want to end up in jail. But this would be a big step backward from other recent African agreements providing some form of justice at war’s end, or at the very least, disclosure.

Indeed, one of the chief causes of the war’s persistence and spread beyond the south - to central Sudan in the 1980s, the east in the 1990s, and the west this year - is that the ruling Islamist- military party does not respect diversity among Muslims and Arabs, much less the country’s African majority. There are gross abuses of the rights of the majority. If the government could abandon its central programme of Islamising and Arabising the people and agree to real multi-party democracy and human rights, peace might have a chance.

That is a big if. The government recently blew its chance to show it has changed. It failed to come to peaceful agreement with the marginalised people in the western region of Darfur and is seeking a military solution to land problems instead.

Not only the government must change its stripes: the biggest challenge faced by the military-dominated SPLM/A is to convert itself into a governing political party, and allow power sharing and multi-party democracy in the south. There are hints, however, that the rebels are preparing a single-party government for the southern region, with no coalitions and no reconciliation with southern enemies, particularly the militias.

The Troika has secured the commitment of the government and SPLM/ A to share positions with those not already within their ranks. After all, this is a war that no one has won militarily. While the government is astonishingly making noises about democracy, transparency and accountability, Garang has not even paid lip service to political pluralism, aside from assurances that he is ’reaching out’ to other southerners. The SPLM/A shunned a church- organised south-south reconciliation meeting in late May and ignored civil society groups as well as the militias.

While the Troika has kept to the successful negotiating strategy of not breaking rank on any issue, cracks have begun to appear over the approach to southern militias. The US considers south-south politics almost byzantine. Britain, which is more capable of such analysis because of its history in Sudan, has taken a hands-off position, saying that the two parties will have to resolve these issues. But history suggests that the parties are not eager to share the spoils, particularly if they are sweetened by the greater oil production that peace offers.

The SPLM/A runs a major risk: if it does not even attempt to reconcile with the ex-rebel militia leaders entrenched in their home areas, these proud commanders will not disarm. A cut-off in government support will not immediately finish them, as Sudan is awash in weapomy - and intrigue. Hardliners in Khartoum still reject the notion of giving their long-time enemy, Garang, the post of vice- president.

The militias now insist on being called ’armed groups’ rather than the derogatory term ’militias’, which suggests that they are ready to make a deal, but not on their knees. The time is ripe for bold new measures, in the spirit of peacemaking and wrapping up the entire war in the south.

Until then, the militias remain a potential tool in the hands of the Islamist government awaiting its chance to undermine the peace agreement and press on with the Islamisation and Arabisation crusade. Unreconciled southern militias offer a sure-fire means of stirring up southerners to fight each other again, and thus prevent a self-determination referendum. Making sure this peace agreement is not simply another marker in a continuing war remains a major challenge.

Jemera Rone is Counsel/Sudan Researcher at Human Rights Watch, Africa Division. She is launching her new book Sudan, Oil, and Human Rightsat Chatham House on November 25.

Copyright Royal Institute of International Affairs Dec 2003



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