The existence of big oilfields in Sudan’s war-ravaged Darfur region has added a new twist to a bloody, two-year-old conflict, potentially turning the quest for peace into tussle over resources.
Sudan announced in April that its ABCO corporation – which is 37 percent owned by Swiss company Clivenden – had begun drilling for oil in Darfur, where preliminary studies showed there were “abundant” quantities of oil.
The news has prompted some humanitarian experts to wonder whether oil could be guiding Khartoum’s actions in Darfur, where a scorched-earth policy against rebels’ communities has left tens of thousands dead and forced at least 2 million from their homes.
“There’s some speculation that one of the reasons that these land grabs are going on is to get the African tribes off the ground so they can be controlled by the government in Khartoum,” Ken Bacon, president of U.S. advocacy organisation Refugees International, told AlertNet.
Sudan’s main oilfields are in the south and disputes over oil prolonged negotiations to end 20 years of civil war there. In contrast, the presence of oil in Darfur comes as a surprise to many in the humanitarian community.
The big question now is whether oil will give a motive for warring parties to speed up moves towards peace or make the conflict even harder to solve.
“The issue of oil in Darfur isn’t very different from the issue of oil anywhere else,” said Mike Aaronson, director general of British NGO Save the Children. “It’s potentially a tremendous blessing, and potentially a tremendous handicap.
“It’s not without reason that people talk about the oil curse. The reality is that many countries that have the greatest mineral wealth are also the ones with the conflicts.”
’OIL COULD LUBRICATE PEACE’
Rebel movements emerged in Darfur in early 2003, calling for inclusion in their fair share of power and an end to marginalisation from centralised Khartoum decision-making.
Sudan’s government responded with attacks on villages and by backing militias – derogatively called “janjaweed” – drawn from nomadic herders that have been accused of carrying out atrocities and even committing genocide.
Bacon of Refugees International was optimistic that the promise of large profits could provide a good reason for Khartoum, rebels and foreign governments to work towards peace.
“The current conflict obviously makes drilling right now a little risky, and I think it’s going to inhibit the development,” he said.
But he added: “The existence of oil should give both sides an incentive to stop fighting. Now there’s much more at stake, and when the fighting ends almost everybody can realise benefits from that.
“I hate to use this term, but oil should lubricate the peace talks.”
Bacon said if the government and rebels were smart, they would come to an agreement to share the oil wealth, similar to Khartoum’s peace deal with the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) in southern Sudan.
“In the south, I think the existence of oil was a powerful force behind the settlement, because the government realised it couldn’t fully exploit the oil while the fighting was going on,” he said.
“Some of the oil fields were on the dividing line between north and south, but a lot of them are in the south, so they agreed to this deal that divides the oil revenues fifty-fifty.”
Even so, Bacon said there was a lot of speculation that the government doesn’t want any division in Darfur.
It’s unclear to what extent Darfur’s rebel groups were aware of the oil under their feet. Experts say their original motives for rebellion were exclusion from political power, lack of roads, schools and water infrastructure.
“They were really arising up about marginalisation and lack of government attention, lack of resource sharing,” Bacon said. “It’s a very Khartoum-centric government… I don’t think this was provoked over oil.”
Bacon said rebels’ families suffered as the Sahara Desert spread southwards and nomadic herders in the north – who tend to be regarded as “Arabs” – were forced further onto the farming lands of sedentary villages in Darfur.
Aaronson said he hoped SPLM leader John Garang would be able to put pressure on rebels in Darfur to negotiate for peace.
Bacon said oil could give the rebels a bargaining chip, although they were not as organised as the SPLM.
“If I were the rebel groups, and the oil is on tribal lands, I would demand some sort of revenue sharing with the tribal groups that were driven from the land,” he said.
“There’s several rebel groups, dividing like cells… They don’t seem to have a very coherent sophisticated view of what their demands are. Oil could help them focus their demands or it could further fragment them.”
Save the Children’s Aaronson said southern Sudan’s peace process was successful largely because of U.S. pressure, and the same could happen in Darfur. “It’s because America and the other countries need the oil,” he said.
Bacon said Khartoum was experiencing an investment boom, dominated by French, German, Swiss and Middle Eastern companies, and a massive Chinese stake in oil. He said there were rumours of gold in Darfur, giving plenty of incentives for investors to push for peace in order to extract wealth from the area.
The United States has maintained a trade embargo against Sudan since 1997, so there is no legal U.S. investment in the country.
Cliveden, the biggest stakeholder in ABCO corporation, is a Swiss company, but an investigation for British television Channel 4 revealed that Cliveden’s chief executive, Friedholm Eronat, swapped his U.S. passport for a British one shortly before signing an oil deal with the Khartoum government in October 2003.
Although U.S. companies have no direct interest in Sudanese oil, that doesn’t mean oil isn’t an issue of importance to the government.
“Obviously as a rapacious consumer of oil, the U.S. benefits at some level from every increase in the world’s oil supply,” Bacon said.
“It’s the amount of oil that determines the price, so we would benefit from more oil coming on line and we would certainly benefit in a budgetary sense from anything that ended the fighting and improved humanitarian conditions in Darfur.”
Aaronson said Washington should be congratulated for its role in bringing the north-south conflict to an end, and he hoped it would put its weight beyond solving Darfur’s problems.
“When the U.S. decides to take a situation seriously, things get done – that’s the reality.”
A U.N. resolution in March called for wider sanctions on the Khartoum government, but Bacon said he thought the oil finding meant the likelihood of strict sanctions being placed on Sudan was low.
“There are too many countries with economic interests,” Bacon said. “Even though the country’s at war, the Sudanese economy is growing quite rapidly – at five or six percent a year – there’s an investment boom, and building boom, a real estate boom in Khartoum, and some people hope that there’ll be one in the south as the peace agreement takes hold.
“It’s difficult to get seats to fly to Khartoum, so many people are going there – businessmen – but the rest of the country is desperate.”