Multinational extraction ventures in Africa are often nothing more than a modern reprise of colonial rapacity. Whether the natural resources are diamonds, titanium, copper or oil, more often than not they have proved to be a source of conflict and human destruction. Nowhere is this more clearly the case than in Sudan, where Western and Asian oil companies have become–quite literally–business partners with one party in Africa’s longest and most destructive civil conflict.
Sudan’s war, eighteen years old in its most recent phase, has seen more than 2 million people perish, overwhelmingly civilians from the south, where oil resources are located. As many as 4.4 million more have been uprooted, with many at acute risk from war-induced famine. The brutal National Islamic Front regime, which rules from Khartoum in the north, is the exclusive Sudanese partner and beneficiary of this multinational oil venture. It has conducted a savage military campaign to provide “security” for the companies involved in the development project.
In addition to the slow-motion ethnic cleansing that has gradually cleared the oil region of much of its indigenous population, Khartoum has waged a ferocious aerial assault on civilian life throughout the south, going so far as to attack international humanitarian efforts on a repeated and systematic basis. The motive is to destroy all those in the south who might threaten the oil revenues that sustain the regime’s grip (it came to power by deposing an elected government and enjoys very little popular support).
In August of 1999, the first crude oil from the Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company began flowing through a 1,000-mile pipeline that runs from the south to Port Sudan on the Red Sea, in northeastern Sudan. Partners in the Greater Nile project are Talisman Energy of Canada (25 percent), Malaysia’s state-owned Petronas (30 percent) and China National Petroleum Corporation (40 percent). Khartoum’s state-owned Sudapet has a nominal 5 percent stake but receives upward of 40 percent of revenues, which will eventually rise to 80 percent. These three foreign corporate entities are directly responsible for sending hundreds of millions of dollars annually to the Khartoum regime, which is spending close to $1 million per day on its genocidal war.
Amnesty International issued a devastating indictment of Sudan’s oil development last May (“Sudan: The Human Price of Oil”), and its findings will soon be amplified in a report being prepared by Human Rights Watch. Amnesty accurately captured the perverse nature of the “contract” between the oil companies and the Khartoum regime: “By turning a blind eye, in the name of security, to the violations committed by government forces and troops allied to them [the oil companies] indirectly contribute to violations continuing…. Amnesty International believes that companies are responsible for the way the local community is treated as a result of their operations.”
As Amnesty and others have pointed out, oil revenues have also given the Khartoum regime the sense that it is economically, and finally diplomatically, insulated. Various pronouncements by the regime have confirmed that Khartoum will use oil revenues to buy more lethal weaponry and intensify the fighting. Indeed, some officials in Khartoum have spoken openly of Sudan’s using oil revenues to create self-sufficiency in weapons production. Moreover, in a revealing coincidence, on the very day the first shipment of 600,000 barrels of crude left Port Sudan, twenty Russian-style T-55 tanks, supposedly bound from the Polish Army to Yemen, made their way into Port Sudan, almost certainly purchased with anticipated oil revenues. In the theaters of Sudan’s “low-tech” war, these will be military instruments of immense destruction.