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Making Sense of Sudan
by William Bowles Saturday, November 3, 2007 19:09

[I wrote this back in 2004 and given the continued propaganda around the ‘genocide’ taking place in Sudan, I thought it was worth republishing as nothing of substance has changed in the intervening years, except the discovery of yet more oil. WB.]

Have you noticed something missing in the media of late? Have you noticed how Iraq has virtually disappeared from front-page coverage to be replaced by the latest ‘Third World disaster’ – Sudan?

Conspiracy? Well if redirecting people's concerns to something less ‘controversial’ than Iraq can be a considered a conspiracy, then yes it’s a conspiracy. After all, who can’t fail to be moved by the obligatory images of starving Africans and the predictable headlines eg “Congress presses for armed action to halt Sudan ‘genocide’” (London Daily Telegraph 24/07/04). Millions have been raised for the ‘victims’ by an online Website for the latest catastrophe to beset yet another African ‘basket case’.

The build-up in the press coverage of Sudan to its present hysterical fever pitch must surely come as no surprise to most knowledgeable Africa watchers but the reality is that the present situation in Sudan is well over a quarter of a century old and much longer in the making. And of course it’s also no surprise that the West’s role in creating the current situation is noticeable by its total absence, but then what else is new in media coverage of the poor countries of the planet?

To say that oil is the principle cause of the current situation in Sudan is to state the obvious, although of course, the media would have us believe that this is yet another fantasy from the ‘conspiracy posse’. Were that the case with the media’s presentation of the situation, but as with virtually all events in the poor countries of the world, they are presented as further ‘proof’ of the superiority of the Western way of life and yet another example of ‘tribalism’, Christianity versus Islam, ethnic and/or racial divisions that prove what we’ve known all along, namely that without our intervention and ‘guidance’, ‘they’ are incapable of managing their own affairs and doomed to degenerate into some primitive, pre-civilised chaos.

In fact, the role of oil in the current crisis is entirely missing from media coverage of the situation. In listening to BBC coverage over the past couple of weeks I’ve yet to hear the word oil mentioned once in its coverage of Sudan and not surprising given the UK’s role in creating the current crisis.

Map of Sudan

Sudan is geographically Africa’s biggest country, with a population of around 39 million people and it also occupies an important strategic position, with Egypt to the North, Ethiopia to the East, Libya to the West and the DR of Congo, Uganda and Kenya to the South. And it has oil, lots of oil, much of it in the South where the current conflict has been raging for over twenty years [although recently, new deposits have been discovered in the East.]

Even the most superficial investigation of Sudan’s colonial inheritance reveals much about the roots of the current situation. Indeed, the current situation is the product of a classic example of British, ‘divide and rule’ tactics although the country has been long been divided between the relatively developed North and the undeveloped South prior to Britain ‘relieving’ Egypt of its Sudanese colony in the late 19th century.

“The British brought Northern Sudanese into the police, military, and bureaucracy, offering these posts as an incentive to Northern elites in order to induce them to defect from their loyalty to the Mahdi, who the British replaced. Because the Mahdi was never firmly established in the south, however, except for a few garrisons and the occasional raids, the British did not have the same incentive to educate, promote, and ‘develop’ Southern Sudanese and bring them into the state apparatus.” [1]

Then, in 1930, the British enacted what was known as the ‘Southern Policy’ that effectively treated the South as ‘African’ creating even more inequalities between the North and the South thus setting the scene for the conflicts that followed after a contest with Egypt over which country would retain influence following independence in 1956, a contest that Egypt lost.

In 1955 a mutiny in the South led by a corps of military officers was suppressed by the North and the defeated officers became the core of what to become the first of the Southern groups opposed to northern domination, the Sudanese African Nationalist Union. The first post-independence military coup came in 1958 with a civilian government returning to power in 1964 to be followed by another military coup in 1969 headed by Jaafar Nimairi.

Meanwhile, in the South a new group, the Southern Sudan Liberation Movement (SSLM), had some military successes and negotiations between the Nimairi regime and the SSLM followed, culminating in the Addis Ababa Agreement of 1972. The agreement however was not very sound and with the discovery of oil and gas in the South soon broke down.

To add to the woes of the country an economic crisis led to the intervention of the IMF and USAID and the Nimairi government, never very stable to begin with, was forced to bring Islamic-based political parties into the mix who introduced mechanised, cash crop economies into the South further exacerbating the inequalities between North and South. Struggles over water through the diversion of this precious resource from the South to the North via the proposal to build the Jonglei canal and the precise position of the ‘border’ between Northern and Southern Sudan so that the oil and gas would be relocated North of the ‘border’ led finally to the dissolution of the agreement in 1983.

A new Southern-based liberation movement emerged following,

“a mutiny, with a battalion of southern Sudanese soldiers refusing an order to move north in January 1983. By July, a new organization was established, the Southern People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), whose military wing, dominant in the movement as a whole, was the Southern People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), commanded by John Garang and with an important base in Mengistu’s Ethiopia.” [2]

In 1985, Nimairi’s regime collapsed following a popular uprising and a new coalition of Islamic parties emerged that expanded its mechanised farming in the South leading to further conflicts and as a result of Khartoum sponsored raids into the South. The SPLM after suffering a series of defeats regained the initiative and an unsuccessful war against the SPLM finally led to the fall of Sadiq al-Mahdi’s regime in 1989.

Then in 1991 the Mengistu regime in Ethiopia was overthrown and the SPLM lost its main military backer. An estimated 200,000 refugees returned from Ethiopia to the Sudan and ‘aid’ became a major weapon used both by the West and the central government in Khartoum.

Divisions within the Southern movements led to the Khartoum government taking over key oil producing areas in the South and it is here that the role of Western-owned oil corporations in contributing to the current situation really comes into its own.

The increasing clamour in the Western media to ‘do something’ about the situation in Sudan has, like mushrooms after a rain, magically manifested itself over the past couple weeks and one has to ask why after so many years, are the ‘civilised’ folk suddenly getting their knickers in a twist.

The current US policy extends back to 2001 when the Bush administration in a replay of British colonial policy in Sudan in the guise of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) based in Washington and funded by the US Institute for Peace, issued a study entitled “U.S. Policy to End Sudan’s War.” The report advocates together with the UK, Norway and Sudan's neighbours that Sudan be split in two.

“The gist of the report is evident even in the summary: sabotage ongoing peace efforts (which are anything but empty), hijack the process, and impose a modern version of the British colonial policy, of dividing the north from the south, into two distinct entities. A flow of international funds into the south, would establish political control over this region. The “leverage” which the United States is supposed to exert, is its ability to maintain punitive measures against Sudan, and exert pressure on its international partners in the oil sector”. [3]

There can be no doubt that the current situation is directly attributable to foreign oil companies anxious to gain control of the resource. The report states,

“Oil is fundamentally changing Sudan’s war. It is shifting the balance of military power in favor of Khartoum. It has prompted Khartoum to focus its military efforts, including forced mass displacements of civilians, on oil fields and the pipeline. Oil has become an integral element of Khartoum's external partnerships with states and corporations…”

Thus it was necessary to use oil as a lever over the Bashir government in Khartoum.

“The reason for the urgency is oil, which has been discovered in large quantities in the south of the country… The northern government has cut deals with Western and Asian firms to extract the oil… The partners involved in the ‘first round of oil development’ are Talisman Energy of Canada [since sold to China National Petroleum], Petronas of Malaysia and China National Petroleum. This cooperation has led to the construction of a pipeline to Port Sudan, and the recent Chinese construction of a huge oil refinery in Khartoum.”
Washington Post, March 16 2001.

The Washington Post continued,

“[that a] significant oil discovery on Block 5A, onshore Sudan… The first priority of the Bush Administration should be to slow or halt this oil development,” by pressuring the international partners, thus gaining ‘leverage’ over the Sudanese government, to force it to accept the new blueprint for ‘peace.’ In the CSIS report, it is simply stated, “Early consultations should take place with states whose oil corporations are engaged in Sudan.””

British involvement is via BP Amoco’s $570 million investment in China National Petroleum and it’s British companies that have supplied critical equipment for the oil pipelines. [4]In addition, the report makes it clear that two regional initiatives one launched by Egypt and Libya in 1999 should be sabotaged,

“Regional initiatives hold little promise for ending Sudan’s war. Although the IGAD peace initiative has had certain achievements on which any future initiatives should build, IGAD cannot be relied on to persuade Sudan’s warring principals to enter into serious negotiations… A new, robust extra-regional mediation agency is required if a credible peace process is to begin in Sudan.” [5]

The CSIS report even suggests that the ‘experience’ gained,

“that draw on the Bosnia, Kosovo and West Bank/Gaza experiences”

be used as the basis for an international conference that would bypass the Egyptian/Libyan initiative.

And throughout the period from 2001 to the present, the US has been pressuring John Garang, the leader of the SPLA to reject negotiations with the Khartoum government in spite of the fact that they had been making some progress toward a resolution of the crisis.

The war has now spread to other regions where more oil was discovered in 2002, in the West and East of the country. Of course, this history and background to the current situation is entirely missing from media coverage of the current situation and whilst there can be no doubt that the Khartoum government has instigated much of the current mayhem, the SPLA has also committed its fair share of abuses. But the central issue here is the role played by the US and other Western countries in doing all they can to make sure that regional initiatives fail.

A massive (581 page) report by Human Rights Watch published in 2003 entirely ignores the role of the US in the creating the current situation. Indeed, the report cited above, “U.S. Policy to End Sudan's War” produced by the CSIS and funded by USAID is not mentioned at all by the HRW report, a convenient omission given that its objectives collide with that of HRW’s report. [6] The entire thrust of the HRW report whilst focusing on the role of Western oil corporations, disconnects their actions from that of the Western governments with the exception of an attack on EU policy, which is strange given that the title of the report is “Sudan, Oil and Human Rights”.

Instead, the report paints a picture of US ‘concern’ over the human rights abuses of the Khartoum government, quoting president Bush,

“We must turn the eyes of the world upon the atrocities in the Sudan. Today, I have appointed a special humanitarian coordinator, USAID Administrator Andrew Natsios. He will provide the leadership necessary to ensure that our aid goes to the needy, without manipulation by those ravaging that troubled land. This is the first step. More will follow. Our actions begin today-and my administration will continue to speak and act for as long as the persecution and atrocities in the Sudan last.” [7]

In the report’s “Conclusions and Recommendations” foreign oil companies are singled out and it calls for their withdrawal from Sudan but there is not a single reference to US policy in encouraging the dismemberment of the country.

The latest propaganda coming out of the West that accuses the Khartoum government of “genocide” is not borne out by aid workers’ reports on the ground. [8] But if the actions of the Khartoum government can be officially defined as genocide, this will give the West the basis for direct military intervention sanctioned by the UN that will inevitably lead to partition of the country along the lines of the CSIS recommendations cited above.


1. The Forgotten Conflicts in Sudan by Justin Podur, Znet, March 14, 2004. A review of The Root Causes of Sudan's Civil Wars by Douglas H. Johnson, James Currey, Oxford, 2003.

2. Ibid

3. Is Bush Sudan Policy Becoming A Colonial Grab for Oil? by Muriel Mirak-Weissbach, Executive Intelligence Review March 30, 2001.

4. Britain backs ugly war for oil by Julie Flint, The Observer, Sunday April 16, 2000

5. See note three above.

6. Sudan, Oil and Human Rights.

7. Remarks by the President to the American Jewish Committee, National Building Museum, Washington, D.C., May 3, 2001,

8. BBC Radio 4, Today programme, 26 July 2004.

The original, published on July 27, 2004, can be found at

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