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Oil fuels Sudan war, bishops say

Nairobi, Kenya

The audience at the Sudan Catholic Bishops’ Conference had waited with much anticipation. Yet when Anna Kima’s turn to speak came, she could manage only a handful of sentences.

It’s not that Kima is inarticulate, introverted or too nervous to address a gathering. But she said that what she witnessed on a recent visit to her birthplace in Mankien in Sudan’s Unity State, now effectively taken over by multinational oil corporations, was “too painful to describe.”

She reported that many deaths, displacements of huge proportions and the cries of children were among the heart-rending experiences she had faced there. Kima alluded to the use of chemical weapons in the Sudan conflict.

Macram Max Gassis, bishop from El Obeid in the Nuba Mountains of central Sudan, said, “We Catholic bishops are united in mind and heart that oil business is fueling the war in Sudan. There is no way we shall shy away from this reality” (see NCR, Nov. 17, 2000).

The Sudan conflict, in its broadest context, pits the Arab and Islamic North against the African Christian and traditionalist South. The war, with causes deeply rooted in the country’s colonial past, dates back to 1955. The current phase began in 1983 and has claimed an estimated 2 million lives.

Hundreds of thousands have been forced into exile as refugees, while an estimated 4 million remain internally displaced in their motherland. Sudan has the largest internally displaced population in the world.

Caesar Mazzolari, Catholic bishop of the Rumbek diocese in Nairobi, Kenya, was another speaker who struggled to tell his story. His see is home to an estimated 250,000 Sudanese civilians displaced from the country’s rich oil fields.

As has become the norm at gatherings about Sudan today, the oil issue was prominent during the Sudanese bishops’ meeting, held in Nairobi, Kenya, Aug. 23 to Sept. 1. At the end of their meeting, the bishops reiterated their stand that under the present circumstances, Sudan’s oil business was undesirable.

Since Sudan began exporting crude oil in August 1999, the implications of the multimillion-dollar business on the country’s civil war has been the subject of great debate. While the Khartoum government, its sympathizers and multinational corporations with stakes in the business have defended it as a long-overdue blessing that would turn around the African state’s economy, others have viewed it as a curse on the nation.

“We are neither against development nor oil revenue, but all these must wait till there is just peace,” said Kima, who identifies herself as a Nuer, Sudan’s second largest ethnic group. Most of the oil deposits lie in Nuer territory.

The oil business, analysts and eye witnesses say, has seen the Khartoum regime pursue a “scorched earth” policy to clear the local villagers from the areas where oil has been discovered. Reportedly, the regime rakes in $2 million in oil revenue daily, a development many believe has caused the Islamic government to lose whatever incentive it had in pursuing a peaceful solution to the conflict.

Since the completion of the 1,650-kilometer pipeline from Unity State to Port Sudan on the Red Sea, observers estimate that hundreds of thousands of villagers have been terrorized into leaving their homes in Upper Nile.

In a statement at the end of their Nairobi meeting, the Catholic bishops said, “We witness displacement of our flocks from their homelands, driven away by helicopter gunships, Antonov bombers and government troops and militias in order for oil companies to work in relative security.”

According to Catholic leaders, foreign oil companies accept the protection of regular troops and militia who commit human rights abuses with impunity.

“Since oil began to pump through the pipeline 18 months ago, there have been thousands of deaths and displacements,” said Dan Collison, head of Christian Aid’s Sudan program, in a detailed report, which his organization released last March.

Haruun Ruun, executive secretary of the New Sudan Council of Churches, said that oil is a principal factor in the protracted civil strife: “The sharing of resources, especially oil, is one of the root causes of the 18 years of war in Sudan. We ask the government of Sudan and the oil companies to immediately suspend all oil-related action until there is a peace agreement providing a fair share of resources,” he said.

The main corporations involved in Sudan include The Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company, a consortium that includes Canada’s Talisman Energy (25 percent), the state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation (40 percent), Malaysia’s Petronas (30 percent) and Sudan’s state-owned Sudapet (5 percent). These companies are currently operating in the Heglig and Unity oil fields.

Operating in neighboring Block 5a are Sweden’s Lundin Oil, OMV of Austria, Petronas and Sudapet. The Gulf Petroleum Corporation of Qatar, China National Petroleum Corporation and Petronas operate in the more easterly Adar oil field while France’s TotalFinaElf owns an as-yet-unexploited 120,000 square kilometer concession in the south of the country.

As if to confirm the government’s financial stake in the conflict and its lack of interest in peace, Sudanese president Lt. Col. Omar Hassan el-Bashir celebrated 11 years at the helm last year with the inauguration of a plant manufacturing a wide range of military hardware. He hailed the plant as the greatest achievement of his presidency since he took power in a 1989 coup.

Last year, Sudanese government planes bombed civilian and humanitarian targets in the rebel-held territory 152 times last year, according to records by agencies working in the region. The aerial attacks occurred an average of three times a week during 2000. The tempo has continued unabated, and this year’s figures could as well surpass last year’s.

In the meantime, the situation in the vast rebel territory remains largely desolate. Hardly any infrastructure exists. Poverty, disease and mass ignorance reign supreme as countless populations roam the jungle unsure of what tomorrow holds for them.

According to Peter Adwok Nyaba, Sudanese geologist and author of the award-winning Politics of Liberation: An Insiders View, the use of oil to further subjugate the Southern population goes back to former President Gaffar Numeiry’s tenure from 1969 to 1985. “When the oil was first discovered,” Adwok said, “the government chose to be vague about its exact location. It then went ahead to replace the African names of the oil fields with Arab lexicon to permanently erase any African claim to these locations.”

Charles Omandi is a journalist working in Kenya.

Related Web sites

Christian Aid in Sudan

Churches in the Sudan


Sudan Catholic Information Office

National Catholic Reporter, September 28, 2001