Disputed Oil Production in Southern Sudan

by Kristina Bergmann

Neue Zurcher Zeitung (conservative), Zurich, Switzerland, April 26, 2001

World Press Review July 2001


The Sudan People's Liberation Army has warned foreign oil companies against continuing their operations in southern Sudan. Human-rights organizations are also calling for a halt on oil production. They argue that the petroleum revenues have enabled the regime [of President Lt. Gen. Umar Hasan Ahmad al-Bashir] to intensify the civil war it is waging.

According to the findings of a United Nations report published recently, the forced oil production being undertaken by the regime has only worsened the civil war in southern Sudan. In his report, Gerhard Baum, a former German interior minister who recently toured Sudan for the U.N., called on all foreign oil companies with operations in Sudan to consider discontinuing them.

The army, according to eyewitness reports, forcibly clears areas surrounding the oil wells and then destroys the houses and villages to discourage the inhabitants from returning. This scorched-earth policy allows production in existing fields to continue unimpeded and allows new exploration to reach deep into southern Sudan.

Since Sudan began exporting oil just two years ago, the interest foreign companies have shown in exploiting Sudan's wealth of mineral resources has intensified.

The rebels of the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), who have been fighting for the independence, or at least the autonomy, of the South since 1983, have now threatened to attack foreign oil workers and the production facilities themselves.

According to the SPLA, the Sudanese government spends one-third of its oil income-which totals about US$500 million a year-subjugating the South. The steady rise in revenues has allegedly led to increasingly brutal military actions, particularly in the oil concession areas.

The SPLA, along with the National Democratic Alliance, a group of organizations with which it is associated, stated when the oil exports first began that they would not recognize the agreements made by the Sudanese government with the foreign firms.

So far, the two state-owned companies, China National Petroleum Corporation and Malaysia's Petronas, and the private Canadian firm Talisman Energy have largely ignored the criticism voiced by Sudanese opposition and human rights organizations. These three companies, along with the Sudan National Petroleum Corporation, were responsible for getting production started in southern Sudan.

Today they are producing 212,000 barrels a day. China also constructed most of the 1,600-kilometer- [ca. 395 mile]-long pipeline from the oil fields to the harbor in Port Sudan, and it built a refinery north of Khartoum. Both serve the lucrative export markets.

An explosion was set on the pipeline just weeks after it went into operation in Sept. 1999. The attack was not carried out by the SPLA, but by the Beja Council, an opposition group from northern Sudan.

Some observers from the human rights organizations thus surmise that the militarily strong SPLA has been receiving payments from the foreign oil companies for its restraint.

According to a report by the British organization Christian Aid, the Sudanese army has been reinforcing troop strength in various areas over the last weeks and months.

The reason for the buildup is reportedly the startup of operations in the eastern part of the Upper Nile province, as well as new exploration in the Thar Jath field, south of the previous primary production area near Bentiu.

While the Khartoum regime is busy in the southwest forming the Arab Baqara tribes into armed militias, its great success in Upper Nile has been winning over members of the Nuer tribe to its scorched-earth policy. According to eyewitness reports, villages have been bombarded and trees have been burned. Thousands of inhabitants, mainly Nuer and Dinka nomads, have been forced to flee.

According to a U.N. report, at least 600,000 people in southern Sudan are threatened with starvation this year. Khartoum maintains that it is using oil production to smooth the way for the development of the whole of southern Sudan.

The Swedish firm Lundin and OMV from Austria-aside from Talisman, the most important Western oil companies doing business in southern Sudan- adopt a similar tone. They claim to have made important contributions to the development of an infrastructure for the local population.

Talisman stated that what Sudan needs is not a relief effort, but long-term development assistance. Lundin also defends itself against the charge that it has made the civil war worse; it now has its statements formulated by a public-relations agency. Still, critics point out that the new streets are being used, aside from the tanker trucks, mainly by the army.

The new schools and hospitals are open only to southern Sudanese who support the Bashir regime, not to those siding with the rebels. The fight for and against oil has allowed traditional intertribal rivalry in the current production areas, especially between the Dinka and the Nuer, to be transformed into blind hatred.

The South Sudan Relief Agency (SSRA), an assistance organization headquartered in East Africa, which characterizes itself as independent and nonpartisan, confirms the positive effect of the presence of Western oil companies in the embattled territories.

It encourages Talisman and Lundin to stay. The withdrawal of Talisman, Lundin, and OMV would thus be a loss, not for Khartoum, but for the local population.

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