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Another war for oil over the horizon; With China on the other side, in Africa?

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Many Americans still wonder why we went to war against Iraq. Perhaps it was mistaken intelligence. Others have suggested it was initiated to control oil supplies. Even if oil was not the covert casus belli the Iraq war has, and will continue to have, marked effects on U.S. oil imports. Another struggle – perhaps over oil – looms in Africa. Whether this will involve us in hostilities or not depends on leaders in Washington and in China.

At the moment humanitarian concerns are focused on the Darfur region of Sudan. Many have forgotten that a bloody and protracted war was fought only a little earlier in Sudan, between northern and southern regions. The southern region is largely non-Arab with English speaking elites. When Britain granted independence to Sudan the Muslim Arab northern region, with the capital in Khartoum, dominated the southern region. Civil war between the regions broke out in 1955 and continued for 17 years.

In 1972 the Addis Abba Accords granted the southern region much more internal autonomy but peace did not last long. In 1982 Khartoum imposed strict Islamic Sharia law in the south as in the rest of Sudan, and suspended constitutional guarantees. A second civil war broke out. Almost 2 million people, mostly in the south, died in this war, many were taken north into slavery, and 4 million displaced. This war was fought until January, 2005, when the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed.

This was not just a war about ethnic differences; it was also about resources. The south is not only less arid; it has 80 percent of the proven oil reserves of the country. The Peace Agreement stipulated that oil revenue would be divided equally between north and south. It also stipulated that at the end of six years a referendum would be held in the south: independence or continued union with the north. That is three years from this January 9 and the maneuvering has begun.

The referendum requires a census of the population and that census cannot take place until the border between north and south is clearly drawn. But the Khartoum government has refused to withdraw troops from the disputed region. The southerners also claim that the Khartoum government has sidelined southern ministers and has not handed over 50 percent of the oil revenues. In September the southerners pulled out of the unity government.

The big, new kid in the neighborhood, displacing Egypt, Russia, and the U.S., is China. Not really new to the area but newly voracious for oil. Sudan is not the only place in Africa that China has established a major presence in its quest for oil and other resources as well as for markets. China continues to invest billions of dollars in many sub-Saharan countries using foreign exchange gleaned from their exports. Since 1996 China has signed on to approximately 30 oil and gas deals, involving 14 African countries, ranging from building refineries to importing crude oil. They are pushing hardest to control the oil of Sudan and have helped build the Sudanese military.

During the Clinton administration Osama bin Laden was based in Khartoum and Sudan was considered a major backer of terrorist activities. In 1996 the U.S. provided $20 million in military equipment – supposedly non-lethal – through Ethiopia, Eritrea and Uganda – to support groups trying to overthrow the Khartoum government. This included support materiel for the Sudan People's Liberation Army of the south. During this tumultuous time American oil companies moved out of Sudan and China moved in.

China has had little regard for human rights issues in the countries in which they wish to expand their interests. They have supported tyrants such as Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. When questioned about this, Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Zhou Wenzhong is quoted as saying "Business is business." The phrase and the attitude are borrowed directly from 1890s capitalists. This has paid off for the Chinese on a short-term basis but may not do so in the long run.

Much of China's activity in Africa can be treated as normal commercial competition although big-power relationships are involved. Such activities need not lead to hostilities. In Sudan the situation is different. Talks between the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) in the south and the Khartoum government broke off in September. The SPLM has promised to start civil disobedience protests on January 9 unless there is more progress on revenue sharing and the independence referendum. Some SPLM leaders now talk of allying with Darfur rebels in a potential assault on the Khartoum government. Conflict is likely.

Let us hope China's leaders and our leaders are exerting themselves to head off such conflict. Otherwise we will be pulled into supporting opposite sides in another very nasty war very soon. 

Many Americans still wonder why we went to war against Iraq. Perhaps it was mistaken intelligence. Others have suggested it was initiated to control oil supplies. Even if oil was not the covert casus belli the Iraq war has, and will continue to have, marked effects on U.S. oil imports. Another struggle – perhaps over oil – looms in Africa. Whether this will involve us in hostilities or not depends on leaders in Washington and in China.

At the moment humanitarian concerns are focused on the Darfur region of Sudan. Many have forgotten that a bloody and protracted war was fought only a little earlier in Sudan, between northern and southern regions. The southern region is largely non-Arab with English speaking elites. When Britain granted independence to Sudan the Muslim Arab northern region, with the capital in Khartoum, dominated the southern region. Civil war between the regions broke out in 1955 and continued for 17 years.

In 1972 the Addis Abba Accords granted the southern region much more internal autonomy but peace did not last long. In 1982 Khartoum imposed strict Islamic Sharia law in the south as in the rest of Sudan, and suspended constitutional guarantees. A second civil war broke out. Almost 2 million people, mostly in the south, died in this war, many were taken north into slavery, and 4 million displaced. This war was fought until January, 2005, when the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed.

This was not just a war about ethnic differences; it was also about resources. The south is not only less arid; it has 80 percent of the proven oil reserves of the country. The Peace Agreement stipulated that oil revenue would be divided equally between north and south. It also stipulated that at the end of six years a referendum would be held in the south: independence or continued union with the north. That is three years from this January 9 and the maneuvering has begun.

The referendum requires a census of the population and that census cannot take place until the border between north and south is clearly drawn. But the Khartoum government has refused to withdraw troops from the disputed region. The southerners also claim that the Khartoum government has sidelined southern ministers and has not handed over 50 percent of the oil revenues. In September the southerners pulled out of the unity government.

The big, new kid in the neighborhood, displacing Egypt, Russia, and the U.S., is China. Not really new to the area but newly voracious for oil. Sudan is not the only place in Africa that China has established a major presence in its quest for oil and other resources as well as for markets. China continues to invest billions of dollars in many sub-Saharan countries using foreign exchange gleaned from their exports. Since 1996 China has signed on to approximately 30 oil and gas deals, involving 14 African countries, ranging from building refineries to importing crude oil. They are pushing hardest to control the oil of Sudan and have helped build the Sudanese military.

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Bob Williams is an emeritus professor of the University of California. He and his wife live on their ranch in northern California. He has written op-ed pieces for local papers regularly for the past four years.

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