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The forgotten oil war in Sudan

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“The issue of oil in Darfur isn’t very different from the issue of oil anywhere else,” says Mike Aaronson, director general of British NGO Save the Children. “It’s potentially a tremendous blessing, and potentially a tremendous handicap. It’s not without reason that people talk about the oil curse. The reality is that many countries that have the greatest mineral wealth are also the ones with the conflicts.” *

The forgotten oil war in Sudan is again in news. Fresh clashes between Sudan People's Liberation Movement units and fighters from the Misseriya community in the oil-rich Abyei region have left scores dead and the two sides trading blame over who was responsible for the latest skirmishes.

The deadly clashes in the volatile Abyei region provoke fears of renewed conflict as tension between the north and south as vicious tug-of-war continues over rights to the Abyei region.

Fighting in the north-south border region of Abyei stopped following the signing of the January 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which ended 21 years of war that reportedly claimed the lives of an estimated two million people and displaced some four million.

The relative quiet has facilitated the exploitation of oil reserves in the region. U.S. oil companies have known about Sudan’s oil wealth since the 1970s when Chevron discovered big oil reserves in the south. The corporation estimated that "Sudan had more oil than Iran and Saudi Arabia together."

Tellingly, just as the long war in southern Sudan drew to an uneasy close, rebels in the western region of Darfur, organized in the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army (SLM/SLA) and Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), rose up against Khartoum, in 2003. The rebel groups have ties with pro-west former rebels in southern Sudan who fought a decades-long civil war against the central government. The war in Darfur did not come out of the blue, of course. It is known to have major yet untapped substantial oil reserves. Sudan announced in April 2005 that its ABCO corporation – which is 37 percent owned by Swiss company Clivenden – had begun drilling for oil in Darfur.

The mass media in the Britain and France and US writes a great deal about the suffering in the Darfur region. But it writes very little about the economic interests these three countries have in the oil recently discovered in this part of Africa.

The corporate oil companies and the Pentagon cannot justify an intervention against Sudan based on wanting to dominate the country’s natural resources. They must resort to humanitarian slogans. "Stop Genocide" or "Protect the Rights of Ethnic Minorities" has a better ring.

People in the United States and the West have been bombarded regularly with the alleged crimes committed by the Sudanese government. By most media accounts, at least 200,000 people have died in Sudan’s Darfur region since the conflict began in 2003.

Whatever the real numbers are, no doubt there is a humanitarian crisis. Lack of food, water and arable land in the region has contributed to the situation. But even the United Nations acknowledges that the conflict is not "genocide." A five-man panel UN mission led by Italian Judge Antonio Cassese reported in 2004 that genocide had not been committed in Darfur, rather grave human rights abuses were committed. It is a war stemming from the economic realities of Sudan.

The Bush administration, insisting that genocide has been going on in Darfur since 2003, has sought deployment of United Nations peacekeepers in Darfur to replace an ineffective African Union force. Sudan resisted the U.N. troops until President Bush announced on May 29, 2007, that he was imposing new unilateral economic sanctions against Sudan for failing to allow the deployment and end its support for the janjaweed militia. Three weeks later, Sudan announced it had reached a deal with the United Nations to allow an international force of 20,000 troops to shore up a struggling 7,000-member African Union force.

The United States has maintained a trade embargo against Sudan since 1997, so there is no legal U.S. investment in the country. Cliveden, the biggest stakeholder in ABCO corporation (exploring oil in Darfur), is a Swiss company, but an investigation for British television Channel 4 revealed that Cliveden’s chief executive, Friedholm Eronat, swapped his U.S. passport for a British one shortly before signing an oil deal with the Khartoum government in October 2003.

Chinese connection

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Author and journalist. Author of Islamic Pakistan: Illusions & Reality; Islam in the Post-Cold War Era; Islam & Modernism; Islam & Muslims in the Post-9/11 America. Currently working as free lance journalist. Executive Editor of American (more...)
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