Khartoum Savours the Sweet Smell of New Money

African Church Information Service
April 17, 2001

War, drought and reckless oil exploitation threaten the lives of millions of people in the Sudan. The ruthlessness, even by Sudanese standards, of the war in the Nuba Mountains is the consequence of several factors.

A major reason runs as an almost straight line along the main road to the largest Nuba town, Kadugli - an oil pipeline. Vanessa Gordon watches oil money bubble in Khartoum and discovers some tough dilemmas confronting those who want to help.

It is the very pipeline, which shunts oil from the newly developed oilfields south of the mountains to its destination in northern Sudan. The pipeline, marked every 500 meters by yellow or red warning signs, is buried under a low vault of earth changing from black to dusty red as it ploughs through different soil types.

Whatever its colour, the pipeline is watched over by military check points every five kilometres with additional mobile units walking up and down the road at all times.

This pipeline, running an amazing 1,600 kilometre, is the vulnerable main artery of the Sudanese government's newly found riches and rebels must be kept away from it at any cost.

As the war continues in the mountains, aid workers and local leaders in lower lying towns such as Kadugli and Dilling expect a continued influx of displaced people from the war zones. Government forces are on the offensive and seem bent on extending the security perimeter around the pipeline and access roads to the oil operations.

Reports from churches and local authorities in Upper Nile, some 200 km further south of the Nuba Mountains and in the oil areas, confirm that they need assistance for some 60,000 people displaced by continued fighting in the area.

The last couple of years the Sudanese army and allied militias have been waging a savage war in Upper Nile, leaving the areas around oil installations and supply roads virtually empty of the original population. Hundreds have been killed in attacks on civilian villages.

Tens of thousands have been forced to flee their homesteads. In some of the worst documented cases, children, women and elderly have been burned alive, trapped inside their huts as they were torched by army and militia soldiers.

When asked to explain what is going on in his home area, an elder leader from Bentiu in Upper Nile lapses into a convoluted tale of personal rivalries between renegade rebel gangs, government instigated plots and ferocious looting parties defying all control but their lust for booty and price money.

Details of his tale may be beyond the comprehension of most outsiders but the conclusion is not to be missed. While oil valued at as much as US $ one billion per year is being pumped out under their very feet, large sections of the local Nuer and Dinka population are worse off than they ever were before.

Starved and displaced, the legitimate owners of this oil rich land are at the mercy of the bush and the occasional relief agency.

In a camp for displaced not far from the Nuba mountains, an angry chief cannot hold his tongue: "What kind of a life is this. We were forced to flee our land and now we just sit here waiting. Waiting for what? ".

The chief, a tall man of maybe 50 years, speaks with a booming anger and backs his words up with hefty punches in the air. The eyes are bloodshot and his breath reveals the source of some of this unusual courage in the face of high ranking security personnel - several glasses of a cheap local brew.

But his anger and indignation should not be dismissed as just a drunkard's ravings - the brew only helps him state what others fear to even whisper.

Recently detailed reports from journalists, human rights organisations and the British charity Christian Aid have presented first hand testimony to the fact, that the oil exploitation is causing massive human suffering and has deepened the crisis in Sudan.

At the end of March, the UN's Human Rights Raporteur for Sudan, Gerhart Baum returned from a visit to Sudan and reported that "I gathered further evidence that oil exploitation leads to an exacerbation of the conflict with serious consequences on civilians".

Churches and rights organisations have launched a campaign to hold companies in countries like the UK, Sweden and Canada accountable for their involvement in the Sudanese oilfields.

Other major foreign players include Chinese and Malaysian companies as well as British and German suppliers of pipelines, pump stations and other essential equipment.

Among the allegations against companies such as Sweden's Lundin Oil or Canada's Talisman Energy are eyewitness accounts to the effect that oil company roads and airfields are being used by government forces when they attack people living in the oil areas.

The Sudanese government and the foreign companies dismiss the reports of human rights violations and atrocities tied closely to their activities. Carl Bildt, a former Swedish prime minister and currently a UN representative to the Balkans, sits on the board of Lundin Oil. (also see Focus On Sudan in AANA Bulletin 14/01 of April 9, 2001).

In a March 22 press statement, Bildt stated that he was "convinced that the foreign presence and not least the oil are possibilities for peace and development in Sudan in the long term".

Approaching Khartoum on the main road from the Nuba Mountains and the oil fields further south, its hard to imagine the war zone one has just left behind. Traffic in Khartoum seems to have at least doubled over the last years.

Fuel trucks, nowhere to be seen in the days of hyper inflation and fuel queues in the mid 1990s, race up and down main roads supplying sparkling new fuel stations in the suburbs and in towns down the course of the Nile.

On the outskirts of the capital, homes the size of small hotels and built in lavish Saudi Arabian style, pop up where once were just sandy dessert. A few Internet cafes advertise along the road to and from the airport.

In the city centre music from restaurants and computer game shops add a new layer to the street noise and the frequent prayer calls radiating from an ever increasing number of minarets and mosques across town.

Money has returned to Khartoum on a scale challenging the times before 1989, when a National Islamic Front instigated military coup put the current President, Omar al Beshir, into the old palace down by the Blue Nile Promenade.

Something else may be changing too. The stern faced Islamic Sharia code so vigorously enforced only a few years ago seems to be slowly giving way to the kind of sneaking Westernisation which comes with the smell of new money and spoiled Upper Class kids.

The displaced, like 99.9 percent of the Sudanese population, live way outside the oil bubble's posh mansions, and cannot even dream of ever hanging out in Internet cafes. Where they live, not even snail mail would reach. ?

* The writer, Vanessa Gordon, has covered events in Sudan for more than a decade. She just returned from a visit to government controlled parts of the country.