“The Military Situation in Sudan’s Oil Regions: An Assessment”
The military security for oil operations in southern Sudan has become extremely precarious. The suspension of all activities in Block 5a by Lundin Petroleum (as well as by their Malaysian and Austrian partners) is but one sign of the increasing threat posed by the southern military opposition. Various reports from the region, wire reports, press releases by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army and the Sudan People’s Defense Force, and other intelligence suggest the distinct possibility of a rapid deterioration in the overall security situation. There may in fact be a collapse of security in key areas of the oil concession blocks of the Greater Nile project (comprising Talisman Energy, Petronas of Malaysia, China National Petroleum Corp.). Given the number of vulnerable targets, oil production could be greatly diminished, if not halted altogether.
Eric Reeves [January 24, 2002]
Northampton, MA 01063
It remains the case that independently verified intelligence concerning the military situation in Western Upper Nile is exceedingly difficult to come by. Very few news reporters venture into the areas of actual conflict; nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) offering humanitarian assistance in southern Sudan sometimes provides glimpses of the military situation, though there are many constraints on their ability to speak openly. Reports from Khartoum and the southern opposition are often radically at odds with one another.
Nonetheless, it does seem possible to create a mosaic from the information and reports that do emerge. Collectively, available intelligence suggests that the southern military opposition has made very significant progress in preparation for the dry-season offensives that typically begin in mid-January. Early confrontations in both Western Upper Nile and Central Upper Nile seem to have resulted in substantial losses for Government of Sudan (GOS) forces (see below).
Without question, the most striking military development is the continuing reconciliation of Nuer and Dinka forces, as well as other tribal groups, which have for so many years been effectively pitted against one another by Khartoum. The very recent formal reuniting of Riek Machar (Sudan People’s Defense Force/SPDF) and John Garang (Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement/SPLA/M) marks the culmination of almost a year of such efforts at military-to-military reconciliation. These efforts constitute the most significant military development of the last five years, with the exception of oil revenues that have permitted Khartoum to expand dramatically its military purchases.
The consequences of reconciliation were strikingly evident in the last fighting season, and will be much more so this dry season. Indeed, the suspension by Lundin Petroleum and its partners of their operations in Block 5a (south of Bentiu) was clearly dictated by a deteriorating military/security situation. An SPDF press release (January 22, 2002) speaks of the military operations that forced Lundin’s suspension, and also speaks of the capture of a great deal of valuable oil exploration equipment (pictures of the captured equipment, with SPDF soldiers, accompany the press release). It should be recalled that it was only the 1997 agreement between Khartoum and Riek Machar, along with his military forces, that permitted the GOS to begin to establish the military security upon which oil development is now dependent. It is simply impossible to overstate the significance of Nuer/Dinka military reconciliation, symbolized in the reuniting of Garang and Riek.
At the same time, there are reports of significant defections on the part of forces previously loyal to Paulino Matip, the notorious pro-government militia leader who has been instrumental in much of the scorched-earth warfare in the oil regions that has served Khartoum’s effort to create a cordon sanitaire. The loss of men and materiel from Matip’s militia forces would be an extremely severe blow to the larger security effort in the oil regions of Western Upper Nile (Matip’s forces have been used to buffer GOS regular forces from the SPLA.)
Actual military encounters seem to have been limited to this point in the dry season, though SPLA claims about two major battles suggest that GOS forces have already suffered significant losses. Khartoum’s response to the SPLA claims has come only today with the thoroughly incredible claim that, “[Western Upper Nile is] almost 100 percent under government control with only a few pockets here and there still occupied by the SPLA” (Muhammad Ahmed Dirdiery, Charge d’Affaires at the Sudanese embassy in Nairobi; as cited by the UN Integrated Regional Information Networks, January 24, 2002).
This claim does not comport with any report from any independent organization operating in southern Sudan. It comports with none of the independent human rights reports from the ground in southern Sudan. It contradicts many statements made by Khartoum about the military situation in southern Sudan. It is transparently false, and designed only to reassure the international oil companies that are presently at greatly increased physical risk.
Indeed, the suspension of all activities by Lundin Petroleum (along with its Austrian and Malaysian partners) makes it simply undeniable that very large areas of Western Upper Nile are most emphatically not under government control. This is true for large sections of the Greater Nile concession areas as well (see “Report of an Investigation into Oil Development, Conflict and Displacement in Western Upper Nile, Sudan,” October 2001, by Georgette Gagnon [Canada] and John Ryle [United Kingdom]).
Here it should be borne in mind that the past reliability of government and SPLA claims is also strikingly at variance. The SPLA has again and again, in commenting on military actions, put itself on record in ways that are subsequently corroborated or independently verified (sometimes by independent journalists). The Khartoum regime, on the other hand, has repeatedly been caught out in egregious lies and fabrications. Subsequent and conflicting statements from the government itself have often revealed any number of these. The fall of Raga in western Bahr el-Ghazal last year to the SPLA provided numerous examples of foolish and self-contradictory prevarication by Khartoum.
[An SPLA/M press release of this morning (January 24, 2002) reports on a very serious violation of the just-negotiated Nuba Mountain cease-fire by GOS forces; as this situation clarifies, it is likely we will have considerably more evidence of Khartoum’s bad faith and duplicity.]
With this as context, the SPLA press release of this week should be regarded as of particular significance, especially for security in the Bentiu area (Bentiu lies north of Lundin’s Block 5a and largely south of the Greater Nile projects Blocks 1, 2, and 4).
The SPLA reports that on January 14, 2002 they repulsed a very large force of GOS troops and militia allies, numbering several thousand. The engagement took place between Bentiu (a major GOS garrison town) and Nhialdiu (about 20 miles to the southwest). Though supported by two helicopter gunships, GOS forces were repulsed with many casualties according to the SPLA. The number of GOS and militia soldiers killed was put at 310, with 39 taken prisoner. According to the SPLA, large numbers of automatic rifles, machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades, and mortars were captured.
In a separate action, in Central Upper Nile, the SPLA claims that earlier in January its forces engaged two government convoys: “a flotilla of barges on the Bar el Zeraf and a land convoy from Malakal town advancing towards Leer” (Leer is at the southern end of Lundin’s elevated all-weather road). The SPLA claims that the battles lasted several days, culminating in the sinking of two barges on the River Zeraf and the dispersal of the land convoy. A total of 218 troops were killed.
The reports, if accurate, represent very significant GOS losses in Western and Central Upper Nile. They will also surely have a debilitating effect on GOS troop morale, which is by all accounts very low, even as SPLA morale continues to grow. Given the extremely difficult nature of armed conflict in the oil regions, morale is a critical component of military success and power.
The Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company (GNPOC) comprises Talisman Energy of Canada (25% shareholder), Petronas of Malaysia (30%), and China National Petroleum Corp. (40%). GNPOC operates in Blocks 1 (“Unity”), 2 (“Heglig”), and Block 4. Heglig, the nerve center of GNPOC facilities and infrastructure, was successfully attacked by the SPLA last August, though the amount of damage remains a disputed issue (Talisman Energy did not permit independent observers or journalists to travel to Heglig to make an assessment).
The result of this attack was evidently a tightening and augmenting of the security perimeter around Heglig. Inevitably, this redeployment of forces left other areas more vulnerable—part of the security problem for Lundin in the more southerly Block 5a. But a tighter and more secure perimeter around Heglig is not an adequate solution to the larger security problem confronted by GNPOC and the GOS. For the oil infrastructure, including production and exploration wells, is scattered over vast tracts of acreage, even as most of the concession areas are not under GOS control. The SPLA, and increasingly its allies in the southern military opposition, have the tremendous tactical and strategic advantage of being able to strike when and where they wish. The element of surprise will always be on their side.
For this reason, it is impossible to predict where the next attacks will be—only that such attacks are inevitable. Given the vulnerabilities of oil infrastructure, there are a number of likely targets: the widely dispersed oil drilling rigs (production and exploration); the facilities in Unity Field (Block 1, and more southerly than Heglig); the oil pipeline and its critically important pumping stations; Heglig itself (the SPLA is reported to have acquired surface-to-surface missiles, with a range that could easily reach Heglig from a very considerable distance, though with unknown accuracy).
Attacks could also focus on the security forces themselves, and the often vulnerable convoys supplying them, and the garrison posts in the general Bentiu area. This has been the primary strategy in previous seasons, though it is much more likely that this dry season will see direct attacks on oil infrastructure rather than the forces securing them. SPLA leader John Garang, in a recent interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, was unambiguous: “We are not going to allow these oil fields to stay. It’s only a matter of time before we shut down all the oil fields” (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 20, 2002).
The SPLA and the southern opposition generally is fighting with a sense of heightened urgency, well aware that the GOS is acquiring sophisticated military hardware (e.g., MiG-29s, HIND helicopter gunships, Russian help in building tank factories in Sudan) that may eventually tip the military balance in the oil regions. This sense of urgency, along with the freedom to choose the time and place of attack, make even more consequential Nuer/Dinka military and political reconciliation. Moreover, southern unity makes increasingly likely defections of forces from remaining pro-government militias, further weakening Khartoum’s military posture.
In short, it would seem distinctly probable that the oil facilities of Talisman Energy and its GNPOC partners will suffer serious and significantly destructive attack in the near term.