Oil Fields Open Up New Front in Civil War


Fierce fighting erupted recently in Sudan’s south, leaving scores of people dead and prompting the emergency evacuation of about 25 international aid workers, the largest such evacuation in this nation’s long civil war.

But the fighting in Upper Nile province was not between rebels and government troops. Instead, it involved two factions that are both on the side of the government.

What has prompted this war-within-a-war? “It has a lot to do, in my personal opinion, with the oil,” said one of the evacuated aid workers.

There is growing suspicion among aid workers and diplomats in Sudan that the conflict between local pro-government warlords in Upper Nile, as well as recent intensified government raids to push back rebel enclaves in neighboring Bahr el Ghazal province, is part of the jockeying for political control of Sudan’s newest strategic area, the oil fields around Bentiu, 450 miles southwest of Khartoum.


In fact, some analysts believe, the fast-approaching dream of an oil bonanza for Sudan could be one of the main factors prolonging the 15-year war in this impoverished country, bringing yet more famine and misery to southern Sudan this year. In Khartoum, the capital, officials barely conceal their glee at the oil riches that they expect to begin flowing next year after the completion of Africa’s longest oil pipeline.

But in the south, where the drilling concessions are located--surrounded by a phalanx of government troops--rebels see the oil, along with all the other mineral riches and natural resources of the region, as rightfully theirs and vow to keep fighting attempts to extract it.

Despite the raging war, a $1.2-billion pipeline is being built across nearly 1,000 miles of some of the harshest terrain on Earth.

The conduit goes from southern Sudan up to Khartoum on the Nile River and then crosses the desert eastward to the Red Sea at Port Sudan. The route avoids areas near the Ethiopian and Eritrean borders where rebel forces are strong.


When the first phase of the pipeline is finished in mid-1999, officials say, its capacity is expected to be 150,000 barrels of crude oil a day. In 2000, after the next phase, that would increase to 250,000 barrels a day.

Meanwhile, the government has finished an oil refinery in Khartoum and, in May, began work on a $638-million refinery at Jaili, 44 miles north of the capital.

President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir boasts that the petroleum sector was dormant when he came to power and that his government has attracted more than $3 billion in petroleum investments.

No one knows how much oil Sudan possesses, but the U.S. oil company Chevron estimated a decade ago that it has at least 3.5 billion barrels of reserves. That is not a large amount on a world scale, but it’s enough to make Sudan more than self-sufficient. Chevron spent about $1 billion developing the fields around Bentiu in the late 1970s but withdrew from all its operations after a 1984 rebel attack killed four employees.


As Sudan’s Islamic regime marked the start of its 10th year in power June 30, there was a buoyant mood in Khartoum that the oil would be the cure for many of the government’s woes.

Making the country self-sufficient in oil “is an important turning point in the history of Sudan,” Bashir said in his speech marking the anniversary of the military coup that brought him and his colleagues from the National Islamic Front to power in 1989.

The practical immediate benefit of the oil pipeline and refinery would be a $400-million annual savings to the government, the sum Sudan now pays to import fuel.

The government says that money would go mainly to development. “We will use the proceeds of the oil to rehabilitate what the war has devastated in southern Sudan,” Bashir has promised. But a Western diplomat noted, “Of course, it will make the task of financing the war go more easily.”


The regime faces myriad problems. Besides a teetering economy, it is criticized by political dissidents, attacked by rebels in the east, south and west of the country, saddled with U.S. trade sanctions imposed last year and at loggerheads with most of its nine neighboring countries.

But with oil, Sudan’s government hopes that it can survive its political and economic difficulties and perhaps buy new friends abroad.

“It is what this government is actively counting on--if they can hang on until the oil starts to come,” said one Western observer in Khartoum.

Daniszewski was recently on assignment in Khartoum.