Sudan: One Part Oil, Two Parts Religion Equals A Deadly Mixture

The war in Sudan is the most violent kind of war, a civil war. It pits the predominantly Muslim, authoritarian north against a largely Christian South. Yet, as many analysts describe the differences between the two and focus on the religious and cultural differences, another perhaps even more important dynamic is involved. That dynamic being the control of Sudan's rich oil reserves and the wealth that it brings. This is an extremely brutal war that has seen people killed in large numbers, rape and the wanton burning of homes and entire villages are many of the atrocities that is seen in this civil war.

The problem of Sudan, like many of the conflicts in Sub-Saharan (Black) Africa are inextricably intertwined with the vast and rich natural resources contained in Africa and the need for the west to exploit them to maintain their lavish lifestyles. Sudan is no exception. While many western analysts, and pundits seek to portray this conflict in purely religious and ethnic terms, casting this society and by insinuation, most of black Africa as being somehow less developed and primitive, it is the influence of many western governments and corporations, that pit black against black for control of the resources coveted by Westerners that is at the root of this and many of Africa's conflicts. While many western governments really do want to end the carnage in Sudan and wish to bring peace, there are important religious and economic dynamics that have prevented this, and will in all likelihood, continue to do so.

The current government in Khartoum is led by General Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir, who in 1989 who overthrew a transition coalition government. He was re-elected in a tainted election in 1996. Previously, Sudan was ruled jointly by Britain and Egypt until 1956 when a Parliamentary republic came to power. Unfortunately, the country has been afflicted with political instability ever since. The cessation of hostilities did not end with the Addis Ababa agreement, which ostensibly ended Sudan's first civil war. However despite the agreement, tensions brewed between the Muslim North and the largely Christian and those who hold to traditional religions (commonly called animists) of the south. The Muslim north, ruled by a small group of elitists who do not wish to share power with anyone, resisted change and sought to impose a strong central government based on Islamic law. Thus, they sought to subjugate the south. The simmering tensions ignited fully when the government formally implemented Shari'a (Islamic) Law (under Nimeri, deposed in 1985). Guerilla activity at the time was increasing and Sadiq al-Mahdi came to power after a year of transitional military rule. The military coup was welcomed by much of the population because it was viewed that it might end corruption. After more turmoil, indecision and brutality, Bashir came to power. In 1994, he began a far reaching military campaign to destroy the SPLA (Sudanese Peoples Liberation Army) which represents much of the political interests in the south. This caused over 100,000 refugees (at the time) to flee the country, many going to Uganda.

It is important to note that the dynamic's of the situation is changing from one of the Muslim north against the Christian south to one of various interests from all over the country supporting or tacitly assisting the SPLA against the government. Therefore, it is somewhat simplistic, (but not altogether untrue) to cast this conflict in terms of Muslim Vs. Christian. The Northern part of Sudan is made up of about 35% ethnic Arabs and the rest are of African descent. Additionally, there are about 2 million Sudanese, who are originally from the South presently living in the North. Furthermore, a large number of Sudanese are neither Christian or Muslim but adhere to more traditional African beliefs. The Government while representing a small minority of people, is nevertheless highly organized and extremely effective in maintaining its political power. However, it must be noted here that the entire north-south dynamic began with the British policy, during the joint UK-Egypt rule, to divide the north from the south to prevent the economic integration of the two in order to place a check on the north's Islamic/Arab power.

A Brutal Conflict

This is one extremely brutal conflict where civilians are deliberately targeted in order to contract the SPLA's support base. Over two million people have died and four million have been displaced as a result of the Sudanese civil war over the past 18 Years. The Government has resorted to a scorched earth policy and has used famine as a weapon in this despicable war. Its actions seemed designed to depopulate regions essential to Oil Conglomerate exploitation as well as demoralize the population that supports the SPLA. The oil companies, which use the roads and airfields that are also used by the army are also fueling the war by injected one million dollars a day into the governments coffers. The stark reality here is that the oil rich south has not benefitted from the oil revenues and the oil has become a curse to them, in that its presence has caused their villages to be burned, their sons to be murdered or enslaved and sent to Islamic 're-education camps' and themselves to become refugees in what is essentially becoming an oil war. Geography requires that the oil must be transported via pipeline from the south for export.

Government troops typically arrive using a combined ground and air assault, using trucks and Russian built helicopters. Entire villages are razed to the ground in these assaults and the loss of life has been extensive. The government has been correctly b lamed for the majority of the atrocities that occur in Sudan, however ,the SPLA is not without blame.

Oil companies such as Canada’s Talisman Energy, Sweden’s Lundin Oil, Malaysia’s Petronas and China’s state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) are business partners of the government of Sudan.

Under contract, oil revenues are shared between the companies and the Sudanese national oil company Sudapet.

(Christian Aid)

China and Malaysia alone have over 60% ownership in the consortium Developing Sudanese oil. China provides diplomatic cover for Sudan via its seat on the UN Security Council Credit and a huge market. Sudan receives bridge loans from Malaysia to service its IMF Debt.

The regions players have also helped stoke the fires of hatred and war. Egypt Libya Kenya Uganda, Ethiopia and Eritrea all have interests in the outcome of the conflict and those interests do not necessarily mean assisting in finding an end to hostilities. Deep mistrust, fear of the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, Fear of Sudan becoming regionally dominant with its enormous resources and the coveting of Sudan's rich natural resources all play a role in the policies of the regions governments.

The Government has raised the stakes in this war and increased its militant Islamic rhetoric, however, the real political interest of the Government appears to be

  1. keeping the nation unified

  2. ensuring oil exploitation continues

  3. Finally, further conversion to Islam of the population, (though this is the far less important of the three goals and appears to be more of a means to bring about the first two goals.)

The Sudanese conflict is one that is almost certain to continue for the foreseeable future. This is largely because of the intractability of the issues that will not allow either side to surrender. Those in the south will never submit to an Islamic regime and will never countenance the continued exporting of its oil without any financial remuneration to continue. Those in the north, drunken with power and wealth and blinded by the rewards of religious violence, will never let power slip away. This has led a few observers to comment that the only real solution would be partitioning the nation, something that the Oil companies and the Islamic government will never allow. This is the dilemma that afflicts this regional conflict. As long as the players involved now hold sway in the government and insists on rigid Islamic law, those in the south will have no choice but to resist the death.

The Northern Government over time may begin to see its power wane, provided it is not significantly assisted by outside interests, wishing to prop up the Islamic regime or protect lucrative oil contracts. The central governments enemies are no longer found only among the south but are now in all parts of the country. The removal of the current regime in favor of a moderate or secular Government may not prove to be a panacea as many believe, as the oil factor would figure in prominently in any future governments policies. Additionally, the belief that peace is possible with the current regime in place is wishful thinking. Calling on the international community to help stop the slaughter is a cry on deaf ears... as long as the oil flows. However, should serious disruption of the oil flow occur for a sustained or indefinite period of time, a new impetus for international efforts at mediation may indeed occur. Massive famine and starvation have led the international community to send aid, billions of dollars worth. However a concerted effort at mediating a just workable and lasting peace has not been forthcoming, despite this unfolding human tragedy. The reality, however unfortunate it may be, is that the only way for the International community (US or EU led) to put Sudan as a higher priority is to have the oil flow seriously disrupted or fall into the hands of even more radical elements that threaten the outflow of oil and western geo-political strategy.

By Mark S Watson