Sudan: Oil, Water, and Guns

Kazembe Balagoon Oct 6, 2004

After 37 years of civil war in Sudan, the United States government is finally taking notice. Secretary of State Colin Powell, backed by United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, has demanded that the Sudanese government disarm the Janjaweed Arab militia groups charged with raping and killing thousands of African herders and farmers.

While there are no U.N. peacekeeping troops in the Sudan, 200 French soldiers have taken up positions in nearby Chad to deal with the refugee crisis. The current war in Sudan is rooted in oil, water and empire. Its major players are holdovers of the Cold War now locked in a global struggle over natural resources and spheres of influences in the Middle East.


Sudan is the largest country in Africa, bordering Chad, Egypt, Congo, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Libya, the Central African Republic, Kenya and Uganda.

Since independence in 1956, Arabized Africans and Muslims from the north and the capital Khartoum have dominated Sudanese politics. Autonomy was granted to the nomadic farming Nuer and Dinka peoples in the south, who largely practice Christianity and animist beliefs. As the central government imposed Islamic law and ended autonomy for the south, indigenous Africans armed themselves primarily in the form of the Sudanese People Liberation Army (SPLA), now the Sudanese Liberation Army (SLA).

The SPLA received funding from the Marxist regime in Ethiopia and the Soviet Union. At the time, the Sudanese government received major funding from the United States to battle Soviet influence.

To disrupt the SPLA, the Sudanese government in the north armed Arabic nomads, who became known as “Janjaweed,” Arabic for “armed man on a horse.” It is estimated that between 30,000 and 50,000 Sudanese have died in the conflict.


In 1974, Chevron began exploring for oil in the southern part of Sudan. The SLA, seeking to disrupt the economy of the central government, attacked oil fields and workers, forcing Chevron to pull out. In response, the Sudanese government has led a further drive to displace indigenous populations from the oil-rich South.

U.S. oil interests have been barred from doing business with Sudan since President Bill Clinton declared the country a terrorist ally and bombed Khartoum in 1998. The issue of displacement and enslavement of Africans in Sudan has been a major issue for American Christian groups, which have called for ongoing sanctions against Sudan.

The Bush Administration is following a policy of engagement with Sudan, while hedging its bets by supporting southern groups under the umbrella of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). Recently, the U.S. has provided the NDA with $3 million while backing a peace plan between the SLA and the government in Khartoum.

On the international front, pressure on multinational petroleum companies has been effective. Talisman, a Canadian oil corporation, was forced to abandon its interests in Sudan after various protests.

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