Problems that oil created than it solved in Sudan

Southern Sudan as marked in red

Southern Sudan became officially independent from its Northern sister on 9 July 2011, this after a long and devastating war between the two sides which took millions of lives and displaced many others. Even after that independence, peace has not completely been recovered as issues of borders and sharing oil revenues are not yet fully settled. 

As more and more mineral resources are getting discovered across the African continent, and the supply and demand for commodities becoming increasingly fierce among nations, it is worth looking at critical case studies of how things can be wrongly handled. For those following for example ongoing conflicts in Central Africa region where Rwanda, Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo are involved, this Sudanese reference can only bring a different perspective of their learning. 

The following text that I share here was written back in 2000 by South Sudanese Friends International [SSFI], a Southern Sudanese grassroots’ organisation. And the document is part of a longer report one can access by clicking at the link shown at the end. 

Oil in Sudan – June 25, 2000

The Problem

If oil is discovered in your backyard, that is ordinarily cause for rejoicing. Not so in southern Sudan. There, oil has been not even a mixed blessing– it is a curse. Because of the oil, the Khartoum government has preferred anarchy to local government in southern Sudan. To the extent that the oil has actually generated revenue, that revenue has been used up in the war, along with many lives of both northern and southerners. The South has lost the schools it once had and gained nothing but the roads and pipeline needed to remove the oil. If the oil suddenly disappeared, Sudan would be a far happier country.

The biggest problem is that oil has created an incentive for the Khartoum government to oppress southern Sudan. The first civil war in Sudan was ended by the Addis Ababa Agreement of 1972. This agreement was known worldwide as the textbook example of a successful resolution to a civil war. Southerners accepted that Sudan was a united country, in which the northerners would inevitably control national and international policy because of their majority of population and wealth. Northerners accepted self-rule for the south, including allowing the south to have a freely elected government even thought the North continued under the Nimeiry dictatorship. The situation was not perfect, as Sudan continued to have the same problems of poverty and corruption as most African countries, but at least there was peace and a reduction in complaints of northern colonialism.

Oil disrupted this equilibrium. After it was discovered in the late 1970’s, President Nimeiry decided to break the Addis Ababa Agreement. He announced that the oil would not be refined in the south, dissolved the southern elected government, split the south into three provinces, and in 1983, in a surprise move, imposed Islamic law on all of Sudan. The point of Islamic law seems to have been not so much religious as to please northern factions that Nimeiry previously had not thought worth conciliating at the expense of southern support. If he was going to ruin his relations with the south by taking all the oil, he might as well please some people in the north by imposing Islamic law. In addition, if Sudan was an Islamic state, non-Moslems would be denied political positions– and so southerners would be denied any influence on how the oil money would be spent.

Predictably, civil war broke out in 1983. Southern army units mutinied, the tribes armed themselves and created new militias, and Marxist Ethiopia seized the opportunity to support rebel groups. This was not a conventional war of north against south, however, but a war with many sides, of which the northern army was only the most powerful. The northern regime armed Arab and southern militias and bandits, and the southerners themselves were organized in numerous groups, varying in their motives from a desire for freedom, lust for power, Marxist ideology, defense of the local village, and simple banditry. This war has continued to the present time.

The importance of the oil is in two things. It seems the Khartoum government would be happy just to control the oilfields and transportation for oil, which included pipelines and roads. This has two consequences. First, the Khartoum government has been content to leave the south in anarchy rather than spend enough money to “win” the war. This leaves the south in constant warfare, with violence that is both bad in itself and prevents economic development, a result possibly worse than a northern victory. Second, since the Khartoum government does want to protect the oil, it has been ruthless in doing so. People living near the oil have been forced to leave, and the government has kept up the war so as to protect the oilfields.

The main– perhaps the only– beneficiaries of the suffering are the foreign oil companies. They get to drill the oil and take a share of the profits. The division of labor in the oil-company-government partnership is that the oil company extracts the oil and the government prevents opposition to the extraction, splitting the profits. Other entities also benefit: e.g., Goldman Sachs provides financing and the government of Canada gets taxes from Canadian oil companies. All these parties bear moral blame. In fact, it could well be that they benefit more than the government of Sudan, which must spend much or all of its share of the profits on the army– a production expense.

To read more on the same subject, please click here and access the full report.


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