Darfur: pawn in US-China oil war?

The patrician wonks at the Council on Foreign Relations raise the alarm in a January report that Africa will be increasingly strategic to global energy security in the coming century—and that China is beating the US to the punch in securing access to the continent’s fossil fuel resources. From Reuters, Dec. 7:

THE US faces stiff competition from China for oil supplies from Africa and Washington must take a more strategic view of the continent by investing more resources there, US experts say.

The influential US Council on Foreign Relations says in a report that Africa is growing in strategic importance, particularly for energy supplies, and the US should go beyond the usual humanitarian approach and view the continent more as a partner.

“By 2010, Africa could be providing the US with as many oil imports as the Middle East,” says Anthony Lake, co-chairman of the council’s task force, which wrote the report.

The report predicts Africa will have the biggest incremental increase in oil production of any region over the next two or three years and says China is gaining a greater foothold in oil-producing African countries.

“It is increasingly in US interests to locate new oil sources outside the Middle East,” says the report, pointing to west Africa’s sweet crude, which is easily transported to the eastern US.

China now receives 28% of its oil imports from Africa, mostly from Angola, Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan, says the report.

Chinese investment totals about $4bn in Sudan, making it Khartoum’s biggest foreign investor.

Beijing is becoming a bigger player on the west coast of Africa, the continent’s biggest oil-producing region.

China recently made a $2bn loan to Angola secured by future oil deliveries to win an oil exploration bid, and in July China and Nigeria signed a $800m crude oil sale deal.

The Bush administration has voiced concern that China is courting “rogue” states in Africa such as Sudan and Zimbabwe and ignoring their human rights records in favour of closer economic ties.

Lake says as the Darfur crisis worsened in Sudan in 2004, China used its position on the United Nations Security Council to dilute repeated resolutions on the crisis.

China has also courted President Robert Mugabe, who is seen by the US as having wrecked his country’s economy.

Beijing’s influence in Africa is likely to come up during talks next Monday and Tuesday between US Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick and key Chinese officials.

The state department’s point man on Africa also visited China recently and expressed US fears over its role in Africa.

The report calls for a US-Africa energy forum to promote co-operation and develop public-private partnerships.

Meanwhile the current issue of The Economist provides a country profile of Sudan, describing a “geopolitical scramble” now underway there. Excerpts:

Outside powers all seem to want a piece of Sudan. But none of them has been able to stop the government in Khartoum from continuing to mistreat its people


It is less than a year since the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) was signed between Sudan’s Islamist government in Khartoum and the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), the main rebel movement representing the largely Christian and animist south. Until the signing of this pact, the SPLM, which contributes the bulk of the legislators to the new parliament, had been waging a guerrilla war against the government. It was a war that began back in 1958 (with an uneasy break from 1972 to 1983) and which has devastated the whole of the southern region, killing some 2m people.

The peace agreement, which devolved almost all power on domestic issues to a new southern government, was designed to encourage the south to become a decentralised part of Sudan. But in six years’ time, if the agreement is honoured, the region’s long-term destiny will be decided by the southerners, voting in a referendum on full independence. They may decide to go their own way. Judging by current feelings, they will do so—if they are allowed to.

Juba, always the south’s main town, was further chosen as the future capital because it is the only town that retains a passable paved road—and even then, only just. With so little left standing (and there wasn’t much there to begin with), the southerners who are trying to rebuild this vast area are indeed starting from zero.

But they are not alone in their work. What was left of Juba’s infrastructure is now sagging under the weight of a new sort of colonial army, this time from the United Nations. The first few hundreds of UN staff have already arrived, the advance guard of a civilian and military deployment in the south that may reach 10,000, all there to make sure that the CPA works. The UN’s ubiquitous white land-cruisers rule Juba’s streets, and accommodation in the town is no longer to be had. The best option now is a tented camp on the edge of town on the banks of the Nile, a largely white-faced, blue-helmet enclave.

Another geopolitical scramble

So why has Juba become a city of such international concern while other African towns emerging from civil wars remain rotting? A measure of this is the fact that, in April, an international donor conference to support the CPA got promises of $4.5 billion. Again, why should America’s deputy secretary of state, Robert Zoellick, have visited Sudan four times this year, more times, as he quipped recently, than he has visited New York? The answer lies in the huge geopolitical interests at stake in Sudan, Africa’s biggest country, where every problem of the contemporary world seems to meet, from terrorism and oil through “failed states” and genocide. The canvas of issues, and opportunities, is so broad that it draws in the great, the powerful and the not-so-good.

The new powers of Asia, China and India, are in Sudan for the oil. China, with a 40% stake, is the biggest single shareholder in the consortium developing the industry, but the Malaysians with 30% and the Indians with 25% are not far behind. Almost all the oil produced goes to thirsty China: it is estimated that 4.5% of China’s oil needs are now being met by Sudan. On top of this, Khartoum is more or less being rebuilt by the Chinese, who bring all their own labour with them.

The Russians, who also have oil interests, probably have military deals with the Sudanese government as well. In its new spirit of “owning” more of Africa’s problems, the African Union (AU) is desperately trying to keep the peace in the war-ravaged western region of Darfur. NATO helps by providing logistics. The UN and the EU (particularly Britain) are committed both to preserving the peace in the south and to feeding the 2m refugees in the west. Hundreds of international NGOs help with feeding and protecting the refugees.

None of it makes the government nicer

The United States has so many different agencies and branches of government involved in Sudan, sometimes in apparent contradiction of each other, that it is often hard to follow who is doing what. The CIA is co-operating with the Sudanese government on anti-terrorism, though it is still on the State Department’s list of countries that sponsor terrorism. And while USAID spends billions of dollars developing the south, Congress has maintained trade sanctions against Sudan for years and, indeed, has just renewed them.

The trouble is that for all the money being poured into Sudan, and for all the new engagement with its once despised Islamist government, nothing much seems to be shifting the behaviour of the government towards its own people. This, after all, is the same government that, in 2004, Colin Powell, then America’s secretary of state, accused of genocide in Darfur. Although the situation there improved after that, there has been plenty of evidence in the past few months that it is slipping back into horror. So much so, indeed, that last week the UN’s secretary-general, Kofi Annan, declared it to be in a state of anarchy.

The Sudanese government was, in effect, let off the hook by the peace agreement in the south. The agreement is what everyone hopes will hold Sudan’s self-destructive forces in check. But the fear is that while the southern peace may have legitimised the Khartoum government in the world’s chancelleries, making it a negotiating partner, even an ally, of the West, it has also given it licence to carry on killing its own people in western Sudan—and now in the east as well, where a rebel group recently opened up a new front.

Outside involvement in Sudan is complex and contradictory. The regime in Khartoum has become expert at playing on those divisions—a trend that holds little promise of relief for the millions of refugees in Darfur who still live in daily fear of the government and its surrogate killers. Yet relations between the West and Sudan have travelled a long way over the past two decades. One way to reflect on the changes is to take a drive up the main highway out of the capital heading north, leading eventually to the Red Sea city of Port Sudan. This is the road that was built in the early 1990s by Osama bin Laden and his construction company, at that time honoured guests of the government.

Mr bin Laden was welcomed in by Omar al-Bashir, who had seized power in a coup in 1989, with the support of the National Islamic Front, led by Hassan al-Turabi. With its support for Saddam Hussein during the first Gulf war and its willingness to play host not only to Mr bin Laden but also to Carlos the Jackal, another sort of international terrorist, Sudan quickly became a pariah state.

President Bashir’s government ramped up the southern war that it had inherited from its predecessors. The black African south of Sudan has always been a distinct region from the Arab north; the British had ruled it as such before leaving in 1956. As independence loomed, Britain even considered detaching it from the north, to fit into a new East African federation. But in the end, the new nation of Sudan was born as a unitary state, and almost immediately the southerners began their guerrilla war against what they saw as a remote, racist and oppressive government.

Under pressure from foreign governments, Mr bin Laden was expelled from the country in 1996, but most Sudan-watchers agree that the real turning point in the West’s relations with Sudan came in August 1998 when the United States fired cruise missiles into a pharmaceutical plant that it claimed, wrongly, was producing chemical weapons for al-Qaeda. Fearing more of the same, or even an attempt at “regime change”, the government began to back-track, seeking re-engagement with the West. Mr Turabi, viewed by many as the evil genius of the regime, was placed under house arrest.


On September 6th 2001, Mr Bush formally launched his initiative to push the government to come to terms with the SPLM, a step that was largely taken, argues John Eibner, a member of Christian Solidarity International who has long campaigned against slavery, “as a result of domestic pressures that had built up in America”. With the backing of the unusual political coalition of America’s white evangelical churches and its black civil-rights movement, Mr Bush’s initiative was mainly responsible for producing the CPA, which was signed on January 9th 2004.

The Bush administration is now the CPA’s most important financial and political backer. It is also deeply engaged with Sudan at other levels. Even before the attacks on New York and Washington on September 11th 2001, Sudan had begun to spill its very useful beans on al-Qaeda. This intelligence rapprochement reached its climax this spring when the head of Sudan’s intelligence service, Salah Abdullah Gosh, was feted in Washington, DC, for a ten-day debriefing by the CIA. The agency is said to have marked out a piece of land in the outskirts of Khartoum, on which it will build a big listening-post to monitor events in the Horn of Africa.


Even in the south, almost all the SPLM members of parliament express scepticism about whether the northern government seriously wants to make the peace agreement work, let alone whether it wants to bring peace to other parts of Sudan. The point of the CPA, in its own wording, is “to make unity attractive to the south”; that is, to give the south as many reasons as possible to stay as a devolved part of a greater Sudan. All the international actors involved want Sudan to remain a unified state, not least because they fear the bacillus of national disintegration spreading to other rickety African states.

Some more equal

There is no doubt that the carrying-out of the CPA was affected by the death in August, in a helicopter accident, of the charismatic John Garang, the leader of the SPLM who negotiated the agreement on behalf of the south; his star-shaped tomb is just outside the parliament building in Juba. But Coldau Ding, a veteran SPLM leader and now a member of the new parliament, argues that “up to now we have not seen the fruits of attractiveness”.

One major cause of irritation is the lack of co-operation on oil. Three large fields lie in the south’s territory and, under the peace deal, the revenues from those fields are supposed to be split equally between the government in Khartoum and the south. Until now, however, the south, according to Mr Ding, has seen only a “small advance” from the north, even though the money is needed urgently. A joint north-south oil commission, which was called for by the CPA, has finally been set up to try to resolve the oil disputes.

Although not mentioned in the actual text, the map accompanying the piece shows the “oil concession areas”—huge swaths of the country, primarilly in the south, but some straddling the border of “South Sudan” and Sudan proper. One spills into Darfur—the southeast corner of Darfur, not West Darfur where the worst of the violence is, but still Darfur.

The Fur and other indigenous Black Africans of Darfur have (obviously) every reason to want greater autonomy from the Khartoum regime. But have their still-mysterious guerilla groups been cultivated by the West (particularly the US) as a further means of pressuring the regime—and possibly (despite The Economist’s presumption that all outside powers want a united Sudan) to bring about a regional autonomous (or independent) government which would grant easier access to US oil concerns?

Just asking.

Then there are the Eastern Front rebels alluded to in the text. They, like the Darfur rebels, were left out of the talks that resulted in the CPA. They are shown on the map controlling a small autonomous zone flush against the border with Eritrea. From Reuters, Dec. 2:

Eritrea and Sudan will start talks next week on opening their common border, closed in 2002 when Khartoum accused Eritrea of supporting Sudanese rebel groups, a senior Sudanese official said on Friday…

An article on Eritrea’s Information Ministry Web site, shabait.com, reported Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki saying: “It is the responsibility of both countries to create an atmosphere conducive to cooperation under conditions of peace and stability.”

Sudan and Eritrea have exchanged accusations of supporting insurgents on each other’s territory. The SPLM benefited from Eritrean support during its 21-year civil war against Khartoum.

And while Eritrea denies armed support for eastern rebels, it admits to helping with administration and logistics.

But Khartoum has an incentive to cooperate with Eritrea and eastern rebels, since increasing Sudanese oil exports must pass through eastern Sudan and out via Port Sudan.

Peace talks between Sudan and the Eastern Front rebel group are expected to begin in Libya later this month.

For its part Eritrea has a domestic stake in reopening the borders.

In March, a U.S.-funded food security report said closed borders with Ethiopia and Sudan meant a loss of about one-third of Eritrea’s traditional food markets, and contributed to an escalation of grain prices in Eritrea.

We have noted that Eritrea’s control of Africa’s Red Sea coast immediately north of the potential chokepoint of the Strait of Djibouti makes it geo-strategically placed—and the escalating repression there could make it a convenient target for a “regime change” offensive.

So, plenty of fodder for regional conflagration in Horn and Sahel, alas, despite recent moves towards peace in Sudan.

See our last post on Sudan and the politics of the Sahel.

  1. ” regime change ‘ offensive…????……on Eritrea??????
    Let me get this straight. Whose moronic idea is it to even contemplate a ‘jack move ‘ on Eritrea ? Why…. because it has been nothing but honest in its stance against the belligerent (and caniving) actions of the west. You seem to think that after all you read about Eritrea ( regardless of you actually seing it or not)and Ethiopia you would rather consider a ‘regime change’ for Erina. That point alone proves to me this website was not created for the well-being and furthering development of human understanding. It is based on greed, selfinterset and basic LIES. It is this kind of ignorance that is making this world what it i becoming. The breeding ground for terrorists like bill weinberg.
    P.S. I used to live in Ethio, parents deported to Ere (1998), i escaped into kenya. now in canada….. ( i seen it all….all of it!!! yu cant fool me…) Erena forever!!!!!

    1. Yep, that’s me, card-carrying terrorist
      “Terrorist”? That’s quite an accusation these days. You should be more careful.

      Now tell me, did you really grasp from what I wrote that I would support a US-backed destabilization of Eritrea, or that I am warning of it? Having looked over this website, do you really think our goal is to support the Bush administration and its plans to remake the world? You aren’t paying any attention at all, are you? You just jump to conclusions based on your own prejudices. What “self-interest” could a struggling writer in New York City such as myself possibly have in the destabilization of Eritrea? Has Isaias Afwerki indoctrinated you into thinking that the whole world—including every last soul in Ethiopia and the United States—wants to destroy your country? Why don’t you read our mission statement?

      1. “..card carrying terrorist..’
        At first glance all I saw was, “…’regime change offensive’..”. I had to jump at that. You see everything is sensitive right now, especially with the latest situation with UNMEE and all. I apologize for not being thorough and undermining your goal put forth in your website. As i said we are all watching things unfold and it very important who says what about who…..especially if your last name ends with a ‘…berg’ ( ..just a joke). In any case I hope you ignore my unwarranted comment, and put it aside as a nationlist who is blinded by dedication.

        “Strugglin student”
        H T
        UVIC, Victoria BC