Darfur, the international community unanimously agrees, is “the worst humanitarian crisis of our time”.

One million people have been internally displaced in Darfur, western Sudan, while 200,000 face annihilation in their refuge in Chad. The region symbolises the laggardness of international response and half-heartedness of intervention in crises when national interests take priority over human suffering.

Even as the systematic killing and displacement of black Africans by the Janjaweed militia of Arab extraction defined the racial motive in the conflict, US Secretary of State Colin Powell and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan have refused to acknowledge that it is genocide. (Powell calls it ethnic cleansing.)

Alarm was raised about a year ago by humanitarian agencies, which pointed at the collusion and covert support of the Janjaweed and intransigence of the Sudanese government in denying relief access to victims.

It was not until last week that pressure intensified. Powell was in Sudan reading the riot act to President Omar El Bashir. The threat of immediate sanctions was reinforced by the presence of Annan who toured Darfur.

Interestingly, Powell’s travel and arms sanctions threat is directed at the Janjaweed and not Bashir’s administration, sending mixed signals on why the US is hesitant over a direct confrontation with the Bashir regime.

Analysts have explained renewed US vigour in forcing the Sudanese out of intransigence on a new moral sensitivity for victims of violence in Africa. This revisionism clearly contradicts recent US behaviour in response to conflict in Africa.

Throughout the period, civil war bonfires were alight in west and central Africa, and the US has only expressed outrage. Other than the intervention that forced Charles Tailor into exile in Nigeria, the US has been satisfied with occasional condemnation.

There are now questions on what makes Sudan special. As the war against terror has intensified, Sudan, once a pariah state, has been coddled by the US. Where the US has been hard on the so-called terrorist states of Iran and Syria, it has embraced El-Bashir’s regime. Sudan was removed from the list of terrorist countries and sanctions imposed by the Clinton administration lifted. An unlikely candidate because of ongoing systematic human rights violations in Darfur, the Sudan gained membership to the UN Human Rights Commission.

Pundits are quick to point at the ongoing peace process between the Khartoum regime and John Garang’s Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) as the reason the US is not ready to go bare-knuckled against El-Bashir. The US has invested heavily in the Nairobi-based process and there is manifest desire to see peace return to Africa’s largest country.

However, the US involvement is not a newfound whim of philanthropy by Washington. There is a deliberate strategic national interest: access to oil. Since the Clinton administration, the US has been angling to diversify its oil supplies away from the turbulent Middle East region.

Though Saudi Arabia oil reserves outstrip all production in Africa, the potential for oil reserves in Africa is far greater against the fear of decline in the Middle East. Furthermore, African oil is nearer to US, hence cheaper to transport. Besides the turmoil in the Arab region, the Middle East is not only expensive in terms of transportation and political uncertainty, it is far more costly to police given that the US maintains the largest military presence in the region.

The US monitors the oil routes and production as well. The situation has been made worse by the invasion of Iraq, which prompted hardline militant groups to target the $250 billion reserve oil facilities in Saudi Arabia and Iraq.

The war against terror, whose by-product has been increased terrorist threats on US access to Arab oil, has spurred the urgency for alternative sources for the black gold. Oil producers in sub-Saharan Africa are now sought after as allies and Libya now exports oil to the US. The original “you are either with us or against us” mantra in the war against terror has petered as the economic reality of access to oil has hit home.

The US has increased policing of the West Africa’s oil producing region. The US carrier USS Harry Truman has been deployed on Africa’s Atlantic coast under an exercise dubbed “Summer Pulse 04”.

The US passes off the exercise as part of the war against terror, but the reason is the oilfields off the west coast of Africa, described as the fastest growing source of oil over the past 10 years.

The US strategic interests in Africa are in the unveiling of the “Africa Doctrine” last year, which involves stability of oil states and therefore energy security. One of the pillars of the doctrine is the African Coastal Security Programme announced in April 2003, weeks before the invasion of Iraq. To ensure stability in the supply of oil, the US is helping the Nigerian military contain civil unrest. And Nigeria has received four of seven military ships.

Despite insistent denials by US Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, Mr Walter Kansteiner, the signs are that a navy base is likely in the Gulf of Guinea, possibly on the Island of Sao Tome, where America is funding a deep-sea port. The US oil interests target Africa’s 20 per cent oil contribution to the world market and 60 million barrels of proven oil reserves west of the continent.

In June 2002, the BBC quoted oil industry sources confident of deep-water discoveries that would boost the production on the Atlantic rim for old players like Nigeria, Angola, Gabon, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, and newcomers like Sao Tome.

Sudan falls into this orbit not for its current production levels but for its potential to supplement the Gulf of Guinea oil belt. With peace imminent in southern Sudan, Darfur can only be an inconvenience to a possible link line from Chad to the previously “blood oil” in Southern Sudan.