A massive human catastrophe in the oil regions of Sudan’s Upper Nile Province looms ever closer. With Khartoum-instigated military conflict preventing humanitarian aid flights, with the UN’s Operation Lifeline Sudan in disarray, and with the World Food Program unable to bring to bear sufficient resources or resolve, the people of the region are about to perish in terribly great numbers.
Eric Reeves [April 17, 2001]
Northampton, MA 01063
Sudan has been continually stalked by the risk of famine during 18 years of civil war. This has led some to believe that things can’t get worse, as though Sudan’s fierce suffering and destruction were simply a constant quantity. Indeed, it has led Canada’s Talisman Energy to tout the effects of their very small-scale social service efforts in the immediate regions of the oil fields as incrementally improving the life of southern Sudanese. But the small scale of Talisman’s efforts at amelioration stands in stark contrast to the massive human destruction that their oil operations have wrought, and are continuing to generate.
Operation Lifeline Sudan has declared virtually all of the huge oil-rich Upper Nile Province as “red no-go” because of fighting between militia factions, a number of them armed by the Khartoum regime and encouraged to engage in immensely destructive internecine fighting. This is militarily the cheapest way for Khartoum to expand its scorched-earth warfare, which is now designed to clear the oil regions south of Bentiu (epicenter of the oil operations in Western Upper Nile).
The result is that the many tens of thousands of civilians already displaced by oil development expansion are now beyond the reach of Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS) food relief. The only hope is in non-OLS organizations, which continue to operate in tenuous and dangerous circumstance. Many of these have extremely limited capacity. This leaves huge areas in the province completely bereft of relief, even as human displacement because of oil development continues to expand.
This in turn has created a large and growing spill-over effect in neighboring Bahr el-Ghazal province to the west. Bahr el-Ghazal itself is acutely at risk of famine. Indeed, Bahr el-Ghazal will be one of the areas hardest hit by the impending famine that the UN’s World Food Program has estimated threatens almost 3 million human beings in southern and western Sudan.
And yet the World Food Program (itself part of OLS), despite its urgent warnings to donor nations going back months, seems incapable of managing its global resources in such a way as to minimize the effects of famine in southern Sudan. Though food can be trucked from Uganda into some of the affected regions, there is not nearly enough food or logistics pre-positioned in northern Kenya to aid those in the oil-rich Upper Nile Province. A crisis that the World Food Program saw coming months ago has not produced a commensurate response within the UN, or a borrowing against future resources to address a massive crisis now unfolding.
To be sure, the UN has been hampered by Khartoum’s interference with humanitarian efforts. The National Islamic Front regime has continued to bomb humanitarian relief efforts in southern Sudan; it has fomented internecine conflict; threateningly, it continues to hold two of the relief workers taken hostage by Khartoum-backed militia last month; and it is has, with unfathomable callousness, denied the reality of the famine crisis itself. Agence France-Presse reported two weeks ago [Mar 31] that Safaf Eddin Saleh (head of the government’s “commission on humanitarian aid”) had declared: “[The food situation in Sudan] is satisfactory and doesn’t cause worries.”
But the UN’s Operation Lifeline Sudan—including the World Food Program—must find the wherewithal to insist that emergency relief aid be delivered where it is needed in the face of massive famine. And they should be actively supported in this insistence by the United States and other donor nations. The failure to act decisively now will have, in the very short term, deadly consequences that will be measured in the many tens of thousands of human lives lost.
In short, the continued viable existence of Operation Lifeline Sudan depends on the actions it now takes. If it fails, if succumbs to the difficulties it faces, then Khartoum will have prevailed. For no one should mistake the regime’s ambitions: they want nothing more than to effect a shutdown of OLS. This was their ambition in last summer’s intensive aerial bombardment of humanitarian organizations working for OLS; and Khartoum was indeed successful in forcing a suspension of OLS. Their ambition now is to shut down OLS permanently, with catastrophic consequences for the southern populations.
Adding to the difficulties of humanitarian relief in southern Sudan is the absence of help from the European Community’s Humanitarian Organization (ECHO), which has refused to operate in territories controlled by the SPLA/M, but has also confronted the same security issues restricting access to non-SPLA/M areas of Upper Nile Province. The net result is that the European Community is contributing virtually nothing to famine relief in the most distressed regions of southern Sudan.
The famine of 1998, concentrated in Bahr el-Ghazal, killed an estimated 100,000 people. Absent concerted, effective relief intervention soon, this number may be surpassed in 2001. Such a catastrophe will occur not because it was unforeseen, not because the world is without the capabilities to avert it, but because of institutional weakness and a failure of concerned nations to confront Khartoum over its intransigent callousness.
History will record this as a moment defining of the world’s response to Sudan’s agony. That oil development interests are so palpably defining the present Sudan policies of Canada and the Europeans, as well as of China and Malaysia, is a moral obscenity.