South Sudan: Yes, another war for oil

Amid ongoing fighting in South Sudan, the Wall Street Journal on Jan. 7 notes that two of the regional powers supposedly attempting to head off further escalation through a "diplomatic effort" are Kenya and Uganda—whcih were "recruiting investors to back an oil pipeline in South Sudan in December when a rebellion upended the world's newest nation." Most reportage reads as if the "upending" came out of nowhere, but when a precursor rebellion broke out in Jonglei state last March, we noted widespread theories that Sudan was quietly backing it to interrupt plans for alternative pipeline routes through Kenya or Ethiopia, which would break South Sudan's reliance on old enemy Khartoum for getting its crude to market. So we may now be looking at a proxy war for South Sudan, pitting US client states Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia against Sudan. On the ground, the Dinka (the group most closely linked to the ruling faction) are pitted against the Nuer (whose legitimate grievances may be exploited by Khartoum). Of course the model of a ruling clique controlling oil wealth and distributing it in clientelist manner to build a power base is what is really at root of the conflict—and neither side has any interest in challenging that.

Sudan Tribune notes that fears over an interruption of the oil flow have already caused South Sudan's currency to plunge on the "black market" (that is, the real market). Some oil fields in Unity state are already under the control of rebels loyal to former vice president Riek Machar. The Chinese and Indian companies operating there have evacuated their workers, although exports have supposedly not been affected yet.

Of course the oil flow has been interrupted before by Sudan and South Sudan being unable to agree on terms. As UAE's The National recalled on Dec. 22: "Throughout 2012 and the first quarter of this year, South Sudanese production was almost entirely halted, taking some 300,000 barrels per day off world markets. This was one of five largely unrelated but coincident crises—with Iran, Libya, Syria and Yemen—that disrupted at times 2.7 million barrels per day of production, supporting oil prices and allowing the Arabian Gulf countries to produce at record levels." With South Sudan relying on oil for 98% of government revenues, Juba finally had little choice but to concede to fees of $24 to $26 per barrel, close to Khartoum’s original demand. Oil exports finally resumed in April, "possibly giving Mr Kiir the political confidence to remove his rival, Mr Machar, who had become increasingly critical of him, from his vice-presidential post in July. But the country was still struggling under some $5 billion of debt incurred during the shutdown."

Members of Uganda's parliament are meanwhile demanding answers from President Yoweri Museveni after he deployed troops to South Sudan without seeking parliamentary authorization. Museveni has warned Machar against rejecting the government's ceasefire offer, saying the nations of East Africa could move in to "defeat" him. "If he doesn't we shall have to go for him, all of us," he said, referring to regional bloc IGAD. More than 200,000 civilians have already been displaced by the fighting, the big majority of them facing horrific conditions at improvied camps. The UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) is providing protection to an estimated 10,000 at two of its compounds. (Africa Renewal, BBC News, Jan. 9; Pambazuka News, Jan. 8; VOA, Jan. 1; Al Jazeera, Dec. 31)

If you're looking for forces to support in South Sudan, please don't line up behind one or the other of the warring factions. There are citizen peace initiatives that are mobilizing, that seem to merit our solidarity. Organized labor and civil organizations on Jan. 8 held peace march in Juba, calling for a halt to hostilities. One banner pictured in The Guardian from the elctrical workers' union called on South Sudanese to "denounce strongly and condemn use of force to change the system."

John Prendergast, writing in HuffPost, says South Sudanese have established what he calls a "decentralized think tank" called Fresh Start South Sudan "to discuss governance, peace building, social services and future prosperity." He also notes "campaigns that emphasize alternatives to violence," including "I Choose Peace" and "My Tribe Is South Sudan." States Prendergast: "These initiatives deserve greater attention and our logistical and financial support as well."

We are a little skeptical of such technocratic terminology as "think tanks" and "governance," but we note that these appear to be from Prendergast, not the groups in question. We are also wary of grassroots initiatives being co-opted by the NGO complex, and groomed into bogus peace efforts that merely prop up an oppressive status quo. But these still may be signs of hope, and we'd like to know more…