The connection between oil development and the exacerbating of catastrophically destructive civil war in Sudan has long been clear and authoritatively documented. But very recent developments make even clearer that the imperatives of oil development not only require further human displacement and destruction, but also present to an increasingly unified southern military opposition a stark set of alternatives. Either Khartoum’s oil production capacity is destroyed in Western Upper Nile or the regime’s war on southern civilian populations will continue and escalate indefinitely. Thus for Austria’s OMV oil company to declare that “we’d like to resume our activities soon in Block 5a” (OMV board member Helmut Langanger, Reuters, March 7, 2002) is the equivalent of declaring that the company would like to see Khartoum’s genocidal campaign succeed quickly. Block 5a will permit the “resumption of activities” only when the terrible ambitions that lay behind the now infamous attack on Bieh have been fully realized.
Eric Reeves [March 8, 2002]
Northampton, MA 01063
Oil exploration activities in Block 5a south of Bentiu have been suspended because of insecurity posed by the military threat of increasingly united southern opposition forces, primarily the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and Sudan People’s Defense Forces (SPDF), now operating as one. The most contested part of Block 5a is the critical oil road leading from Bentiu—epicenter of the oil regions—to Leer, and ultimately to Adok on the White Nile River. As a consequence, villages near the oil road have been targeted by Khartoum in an intensifying effort to remove all the indigenous populations. It is a continuation of brutal scorched-earth warfare that has already been documented in this part of southern Sudan by an extremely well-researched report from Christian Aid (“The Scorched Earth: Oil and War in Sudan,” London, March 2001).
The now widely reported attack on Bieh (February 20, 2002) is but one more example of the kind of attack that Christian Aid noted in comprehensive detail for the period leading up to early 2001. The attack on Bieh saw Khartoum’s helicopter gunships, one hovering at low altitude, direct rockets and heavy machine-gun fire into a crowd of largely women and children, desperate with hunger, gathered to receive aid from the UN’s World Food Program. It now appears that over 50 people died in the attack, numerous tukuls were destroyed (photographic evidence, provided by a humanitarian assessment mission, is available), and the humanitarian mission abandoned. The UN had filed flight plans with Khartoum; the attack took place in broad daylight; it was witnessed by workers for the UN’s World Food Program, who could clearly see the faces of the helicopter pilot and gunner.
The Khartoum regime has said various and contradictory things about this attack, and of course has promised to halt them. But despite the relatively high profile of the Bieh attack, there was nothing of particular note, except for the fact that it was so conspicuous, so authoritatively witnessed, and came at a time when some international attention had become focused on Sudan’s struggle for peace. But as for the nature of the attack, there was simply nothing out of the ordinary. There have been hundreds of Biehs.
The most basic reality of oil development in southern Sudan—whether it be in Lundin’s and OMV’s Blocks 5a and 5b, or Talisman’s, Petronas’s, CNPC’s Blocks 1, 2 and 4 (mainly north and west of Bentiu)—is that security is conceived of by Khartoum in terms of human destruction and displacement. The savage logic is that if the peoples of the oil regions (primarily Nuer and Dinka) are destroyed or removed, there will be no way for the southern opposition to sustain itself. In fact, there is a great deal of evidence that Khartoum’s genocidal policies of scorched-earth clearances have only stiffened the resolve of the southern peoples to defend themselves. This is certainly one of the critical elements in the re-unification of the SPLA and the SPDF, and the increasingly strong people-to-people reconciliation of Dinkas and Nuers.
But companies like OMV of Austria, Lundin of Sweden, Talisman of Canada—corporate representatives of supposedly enlightened Western democracies—are well aware of how security is provided. Lundin and OMV know that if they are to resume operations in Block 5a, the ambitions represented by the savage attack on Bieh will have to be replicated many times over, whether from the air or on the ground. They also know full well that the fighting directly related to “securing” their concession access will depend on the continuing denial of humanitarian access to Western Upper Nile, especially in the areas close to their oil road. As of March 7, 2002 every site along this oil road has been denied access by Khartoum, despite the hundreds of thousands of food- and medically-distressed people affected by these and other humanitarian flight aid bans.
Similarly, Talisman Energy operates in its concessions only because of the Biehs of the past. These have been reported in considerable detail by a variety of human rights organizations and missions, including the UN Special Rapporteur for Sudan and by a Canadian assessment mission (“The Harker Report”), commissioned by then Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy. The latter gives us a clear sense of how the attack on Bieh had many, many precedents in Talisman’s concessions:
“Another humanitarian worker was in Gumriak, at the Medair compound, when the May attacks [in Ruweng County, abutting and overlapping Talisman’s concession area] began. Before he was evacuated on May 12, 1999, he witnessed, and lived through, bombings and frequent runs by helicopter gunships. He was sure that many civilians died, though he could not give an estimate.”
“What [this humanitarian aid worker] saw on these trips has made a strong impression, one of tukuls still burning, food stocks and seeds inside, huge numbers of tukuls destroyed, particularly along the road linking Tajeil, Gumriak, and Padit.”
“The [Ruweng County] offensive was characterized by bombing runs and helicopter gunships flying low enough to kill people, and make the survivors afraid to cultivate.”
“From April to July 1999 [from before to after the offensive], the decline in population in Ruweng County seems to have been in the order of 50%. Gumriak declined from 9,474 to 5,274, Mankwo from 20,572 to 9,438, Bomadol from 8,088 to 3,288.” [Harker Report, pp. 48-49]
In the larger context of oil development in southern Sudan, Talisman is just as complicit in the Bieh attack as OMV and Lundin; they simply have the advantage of many of their Biehs occurring earlier in their particular concession locations. It is the height of hypocrisy for Talisman CEO Jim Buckee to make readily available a letter he wrote to Khartoum, condemning the Bieh attack in Block 5a. For precisely the same sorts of military attacks are occurring in various of Talisman’s concession blocks, especially in Block 4, where the company’s newest exploration efforts are concentrated. This has been amply documented by a number of recent reports on Talisman’s concession areas, most authoritatively in “Report of an Investigation into Oil Development, Conflict and Displacement in Western Upper Nile, Sudan,” Georgette Gagnon (Canada), John Ryle (UK) October 2001:
] “[T]he investigators found that there was an increase in the number of recorded helicopter gunship attacks on settlements in or near [Talisman’s oil development] area. Some of these gunships have operated from facilities built, maintained and used by the oil consortium [Talisman Energy, China National Petroleum Corp., Petronas, and Sudan’s Sudapet]. The attacks are part of what appears to be a renewed Government of Sudan strategy to displace indigenous non-Arab inhabitants from specific rural areas of the oil region in order to clear and secure territory for oil development.”
“The new [Government of Sudan military] strategy in Western Upper Nile, this report suggests, is both more violent and more territorially focused, involving coordinated attacks on civilian settlements in which aerial bombardment and raids by helicopter gunships are followed by ground attacks from government-backed militias and government troops. These ground forces burn villages and crops, loot livestock and kill and abduct people—mainly women and children.”
And the reports continue to come in. Julie Flint—very likely the most experienced journalist working in southern—reports for The Guardian (UK) [March 7, 2002] with a dateline of Ngop, Western Upper Nile:
“A few miles away, Wahamed Duar shelters from the blazing sun under a thorn bush where he now lives with his wife Nyadar. For the second time in two years he has been blasted out of his home near Rier, site of the most productive oilfields in western Upper Nile.
“‘They bombed with helicopter gunships all day long, from morning to night,’ he said. ‘Then soldiers came and took all our properties. They took women and children and burned the village. They took all the cows. If they caught you, they cut your throat.'”
Oil development requires “security” for the oil companies to operate. Khartoum continues to believe that it can achieve this “security” by means of massive civilian destruction and displacement. The logic of their military strategy in the oil regions has not changed, and will not change so long as Western countries like Austria, Canada, and Sweden allow their oil companies to continue operations. For of course these operations send massive oil revenues to Khartoum, which has vastly expanded its military purchases, especially of helicopter gunships. These, in turn, will be deployed to the southern oil regions for the purpose even greater human destruction. It is an extraordinarily vicious circle of death and suffering for the people of the south.
That these people refuse to acquiesce in their own genocidal destruction should not surprise anyone. That their own military ambitions are presently focused sharply on destroying oil development infrastructure also has an obvious and compelling logic.
Oil development now directly, fundamentally, and unambiguously fuels the war in southern Sudan, already the most destructive conflict in the world today. The clarity of this situation requires forceful and concerted action by those who wish to stop the war. It requires especially that countries like Canada, Sweden, and Austria demand that their own national corporate participants in this genocidal destruction suspend all operations pending a just peace.
We have no lack of clarity or information about the meaning of oil development in southern Sudan. We have only the international community’s appalling willingness to countenance its horrific consequences.