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Oil Wealth Fuels Repression In Sudan

by Katy Salmon

Most oil profits spent on military buildup
(IPS) NAIROBI -- The recent Sudanese government attack on food aid distribution in western Upper Nile shows that Sudan's search for peace has become inextricably intertwined with the development of its oil industry.

The Feb. 20 attack on Bieh, in which 17 civilians were killed, was the second clearly verified air attack on civilian targets in the oil-rich region in two weeks.

On Feb. 9, the village of Nimne, also in western Upper Nile, was bombed by government aircraft, killing five civilians, including an employee of the international health agency Medecins Sans Frontieres.

Rights groups argue that the government is pursuing a scorched earth policy to clear the area of civilians and make it safe for wealthy foreign investors.

The Bieh incident marks a serious setback for peace efforts as it led the U.S. government to suspend talks with the Khartoum government.

"The deliberate killing of 17 civilians by a government Sudanese army gun-ship appears to indicate that the government is not seriously committed to peace," noted the U.S. peace envoy to Sudan, John Danforth, in an article published in the St. Louis Post.

Many argue that oil is behind Khartoum's apparent lack of commitment to peace.

Over the last few years, oil has transformed Sudan from an economic basket case into a promising oil exporter. In 2000, the government earned $500 million from oil. Production is currently over 200,000 barrels a day and is expected to double by 2005.

Much of this new found wealth is being pumped into military spending aimed at safeguarding the oil installations and decimating the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), against which it has been fighting for the last 19 years.

"The government doubled its arms purchases and military spending during the year after the Port Sudan pipeline was completed and increased domestic production of ammunition and small arms," according to a recent report by the non-governmental organization, the International Crisis Group (ICG) entitled "God, Oil and Country."

The SPLA believe the Sudanese government deliberately bombed the people of Bieh to put an end to the blossoming U.S. initiative. The government of Sudan had agreed to halt bombing of civilians as one of Danforth's four confidence-building measures to test the warring parties' desire for reconciliation.

"The government is not committed to a negotiated cease-fire. It would like the U.S. to end its role in trying to secure peace for the people of Sudan. They did it deliberately," says George Garang, SPLA spokesperson in Nairobi.

Garang believes the government wants to prolong the war indefinitely so that it can continue to amass oil wealth.

"They think they can thrive when the war is going on -- as long as they are pumping oil and making the area safe for multinational oil companies to come and explore and exploit. They are looting. And if the war is stopped they may not be able to loot," he says.

"God, Oil and Country"
Oil also has increased the rebels' commitment to the battlefield. "The SPLA recognizes that it must disrupt the government's control of oil, or at least prove it has the capacity to mount a substantial attack on the oil-fields vulnerable to international pressure," argues ICG.

In 2001, the SPLA stepped up its attacks on oil-field areas. "We have begun hitting targets around Bentiu (oil fields) with small units. We have developed crack units to undertake these operations. We will keep hitting there and in the Adar oil fields (in southern Blue Nile)," an SPLA commander told ICG in July 2001.

"We will impede their production and raise their cost of doing business. We hit 25 trucks of one of the oil companies recently. This affects the calculations of these companies," he said.

Later that month, an offensive south of Bentiu caused the Swedish oil company, Lundin to suspend its Sudan operations.

The SPLA hope that other multinational investors will be scared into following suit. "As long as they do not heed our call to evacuate the area, they remain legitimate targets. We have the right to hit back because the oil revenues are being used by the government to buy weapons and kill our people," says Garang.

In Aug. 2001, the SPLA penetrated deeper north into the oil fields than previously to attack the Heglig production facility in Southern Kordofan. Although there are disputes over the amount of damage caused, the offensive had a serious psychological impact on the government because the area is outside the traditional administrative borders of the south.

In a statement released after the Bieh attack, the government itself admitted the incident was in response to increased rebel activities in the area.

"In the framework of this escalation imposed on us, there have occurred some regrettable mistakes, which are not intentional, through which innocent civilians have become victims, and we promise to work hard to terminate and not repeat them," said a foreign ministry statement.

However, they will have little choice if the SPLA continue to disrupt their oil-drilling business.

ICG rates the SPLA's chances favorably. "The SPLA is in the best position it has been since oil began flowing to disrupt operations. The insurgents have recently acquired new heavy weaponry that will enhance their potential for success around the oil fields," it argues.

The rebels' hand is also strengthened by the reunion of Riek Machar's Sudan People's Democratic Front (SPDF) with the SPLA in January. "As long as Nuer commanders (i.e. SPDF) are not hitting the SPLA from the rear, moves against the oil-fields become more realistic," says ICG.

Until the international community recognizes that oil is now the driving force behind the war, future peace initiatives are likely to be as short-lived and ineffectual as Danforth's.

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Albion Monitor March 30, 2002 (

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