If we follow the dictum, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, we will end up being a nation of eyeless and toothless people

Oil and the Civil War in the Sudan

First let me take you back to the year 1998. The famine in southern Sudan was threatening the lives of more than half a million people, especially in Bahr El Ghazal Province. The famine provoked a serious debate into its causes. Most commentators in the United Kingdom accused the war of being the main culprit. In the House of Commons, a conservative MP stood up and said that the war in the Sudan, and all wars in Africa for that matter, are caused by the political vacuum left behind by colonial powers and wondered if something could be done about that! Clare Short, the Minister for Overseas Development, called the Hounrable Gentleman foolish to ask implicitly for the return of colonialism. The war and the famine, she said, are the responsibility of the leaders on both sides of the conflict. They have to stop the war now and everything would go back to normal. She sat down happy in the feeling that she had defeated the argument of her conservative opponent. The war, according to Clare Short, is all about African leaders! The BBC, however, knew better. Commenting on the pictures of emaciated southern Sudanese children, its newsreader described the war as between Muslim Arabs in the north and Christian Africans in the south. The war is thus a religious and ethnic war. All three interpretations belong to traditional schools of conflict analysis, which explain all armed conflicts in Africa as ethnic, tribal, cultural, religious, etc. Their advocates are happy to confine themselves in the infamous box! Their interpretations throw the stick of ethnicity at all conflicts and see there, it devours them all. This is not only imprudent, but could seriously hamper efforts at genuine conflict management and conflict resolution.



Since the firing of the first bullet in 1983, the reappearance of the war between northern and southern Sudan has generally been interpreted as a typical ethno-religious conflict emanating from differences between Muslims and Christians, or Arabs and Africans. While this categorisation may have served well as a description of the earlier conflict in the 1950s, and still has some bearing on how the war is being conducted and perceived, our opinion is that the nature of the conflict has changed. Conflicts are processes, not static events. And over the last five decades developments in the Sudan have gradually if consistently changed the nature of the conflict between the North and the South from being a classic ethno-religious conflict to one primarily over resources, with the economic and resource crisis in the North emerging as the driving force in the Sudanese civil war.


The two Civil Wars

The Sudan is a country at war with itself. Violent conflict is raging in four fronts in the Sudan, civil war in the South, high intensity conflict in the Nuba Mountains and high to medium intensity conflicts in the East and West of the country. To understand the turmoil of violence and dislocation, a differentiation between structural and direct causes of violence is useful. Structural problems are responsible for making the country susceptible to unrest, while the direct causes are the ones that actually precipitate violence.


Structural causes of violence

Countries of the Horn region in general and the Sudan in particular are plagued with inherent structural problems that are conducive to violent conflict, whenever immediate causes arise. These major structural issues are augmented and reinforced by resource and identity dichotomies. They collectively influence the state of war and peace in the Sudan. For example:

1. Poverty:

*The per capita income is less than a dollar a day

*68% of the workforce works in agriculture and animal husbandry; 9% in industry and 23% in service sector, compared to 1.8%, 21.2% and 77% respectively in the UK

  1. The post-colonial state:
  2. The post-colonial state failed to be the vehicle of development, peace and democracy. Instead it has become highly politicised, often a one-party clientelist

    state (EPLF in Eritrea, TPLF in Ethiopia and NIF in the Sudan). Such states are incapable of meeting the challenges of development, democracy and peace.

  3. Non-productive urbanisation:
  4. Contrary to the urbanisation process during the industrial revolution, the Sudanese urbanisation is the movement of people from areas of low food and physical security to urban centres, where food and physical security are relatively better maintained. Almost 40% of the young are unemployed and are thus available for other forms of exploitation, for example, recruitment in jihad and other military campaigns.

  5. Most people are thus doing the same things:
  6. Most people plant the same crops and rear the same animals. There is little structural differentiation in the national economy. This means that in time of crisis, very little help can be expected from other sectors of the economy, the way, for example, the United Kingdom is currently dealing with its BSE and Foot and Mouth crisis.

  7. Environmental degradation:
  8. The too-many-people-doing-the same-thing-syndrome means that damage to the natural environment is being reinforced and aggravated year in, year out. Degraded land is promptly abandoned and the tractors moved into adjacent and far away lands. There are however, scarcely any virgin or no-mans land left. The indigenous owners resist the encroachment of mechanised agriculture and often violent conflicts erupt between absentee landlords supported by the government and the local people. If the tractors fail, tanks move in. Examples: movement of mechanised agriculture into south of the Blue Nile, into the Nuba Mountains and towards the South proper. (See map)


  9. Land scarcity:
  10. The land available to traditional farmers has dwindled due to allocation of huge tracts to large-scale mechanised farming owned by absentee landlords. 9m hectares are owned by 8,000 families, while 4m hectares belong to 4m traditional farmers! In one single public announcement in 1993, the government distributed some 7m hectares in southern Darfur alone. One Galal El Dien Issa Mustafa was granted 439 thousand hectares, about half the land area of Lebanon!

  11. Uneven development:
  12. The overall situation is further compounded by uneven distribution of resource endowment. Resources are unevenly distributed and unevenly shared. Water is scarce in the plains around Jebel Marra and the Nuba Mountains in western Sudan; and although there is more rain in southern Sudan, the soils are not as good as in the North.

  13. Climatic variations:
  14. Since 1967, rainfall has been erratic and has decreased to half its annual average. The beginning of the Sahel drought coincided in the Sudan with the establishment - with support from the WB - of the Mechanised Farming Corporation, MFC. The scissors effect of draught and land scarcity has left deep wounds in rural Sudan and people took up arms against their perceived enemies, mainly the state and its allies the Sudanese business class, the so-called the Jellaba.

  15. The low status of women
  16. Women social, economic and political status is one of the major structural impediments to economic and social progress. In all countries of the Horn and in the Islamist Sudan, very few women are allowed a significant share in public life.

  17. External players:

Economic policies of Multinational Companies, the MNCs, the IMF and the WB have encouraged export agriculture against the requirements of the country's food security. For example, during the famine years 1982/85, the Sudan exported 621,000 metric tons of sorghum, the staple food of the people, to the European Union (EU) and to Saudi Arabia for animal feed. The IMF's country representative called the plunder "the Sorghum Success Story in the Sudan" He praised the government of the Sudan for exporting sorghum and earning so much foreign currency!


Resource and identity problems

In addition to these structural problems which beset the Sudan, deep rooted, traditional identity dichotomies (ethnic, cultural and religious differences) between North and South play an important role in inciting violence in the land. On top of all that, new and far-reaching resource issues emerged during the 1970s and 1980s, which rendered the South immensely lucrative in the eyes of the northern Jellaba. The discovery of oil in Bentu in the South, the digging of the Jonglei Canal, the prospects of some 10m hectares of former swamp land made cultivable and the possibility for the military - at last - to move their motorised armed convoys by land from Khartoum down to Juba without encountering the bottle neck of the Sud swamps. The fragile edifice of the Sudanese society began to collapse under the strain of the impact of expanding and compounding resource and identity problems.


Culture, identity and conflict

The relationship between culture and development although indirect and sometimes intricate, can yet be discerned albeit with great difficulty.

In this context, culture shapes the material and spiritual forms, which social and material development takes and is in turn enriched by the progress of this development. Culture is thus both a medium and a tool of positive social change. Problems, however, begin to arise when culture or rather cultural differences are used not as a tool of progress, but as a weapon to settle disputes in a violent way.

People go to war because they are - or they perceive themselves to be - disadvantaged in the distribution or ownership of - or right to - the available social, economic and natural resources. Others fight to keep or enlarge their real or perceived advantages.

The real or perceived material advantages (or disadvantages) are the primary causes of violent conflicts. Yet, few nations or groups of people would go to war openly under the banner of this or that material interest. Neither need nor greed is a good pretext to maim and kill. Loftier reasons are sought and found. Ethnic, cultural and religious differences are cited and in the process, cultural diversity becomes a cultural divide.

When people are satisfied with their living conditions, which seem to be beneficial for all, cultural diversity is seen as a blessing to the nation, but when competition over resources increases because of need or greed, cultural differences are twisted into cultural divides and violence erupts along cultural faultlines.

And because violent conflict is a major disruption to social development, it is important to make it difficult or impossible to manipulate cultural differences as pretext for waging war.

Attacking the cultural values of a group is usually followed by physically attacking members of that group. Pogroms and hate campaigns against the Jews, the Arabs, the lower casts, the gypsies, the black peoples, the indigenous people, the Red Indians, the Muslims, the Catholics, the Protestants, the Sikhs, the Hutu, the Tutsi, the Armenians, etc. have all been used and/or are still being used to discriminate culturally against the one group (ethnically, religiously etc.) in order to limit or deny the access of members of this or that group to social, economic and natural resources. This is one obvious reason behind the ethnic discrimination of southerners, Nuba and Ingessana peoples in the Sudan. All three peoples are up in arms fighting for their human, social and economic rights.

Cultural, ethnic, race and religious discrimination is a major tool of economic exploitation and social repression. The cold violence of discrimination can easily turns over into hot violence of repression. Whether latent or raging, violence is inherently antidevelopment.


The resource factors

The gradual depletion of large tracts of land in the North through unsustainable large-scale mechanised farming, denuding of forests and grazing lands, erratic rainfall and the mismanagement of water resources have all conspired to lower the productivity of the central plains, the major source of wealth and subsistence in northern Sudan. For the first time, the Jellaba and their state became immensely interested in the natural resources of the South, namely, land, oil and water. Oil does not only fuel the Civil war in the Sudan. It is indeed the most potent of all the causes that collectively precipitated the bloody conflict. That is why it s impertinent to conduct a proper analysis of the conflict in order to identify the its root causes. Without a scientific and holistic conflict analysis attempts at conflict management and conflict resolution can at best be ad hoc. Our research into the raging 2nd civil war shows that it is primarily a conflict over resources and secondarily an identity conflict.



The Lure of Oil, Water and Land

The Oil

In April 1981 Chevron announced the discovery of commercial deposits of oil in the Unity Field in its south-western concession. Recoverable reserves from Unity and the adjacent Heglig fields were officially estimated at about 236 million barrels. Confirmed oil reserves for the whole of Sudan are estimated at 2,000 million barrels. This is enough to earn the country some $10,000m or cover its projected energy needs for ten years.

Original plans to process the oil locally were deferred in September 1982. Instead, with Chevron's encouragement, the Nimeiri government opted for the construction of a refinery and an export terminal south of Port Sudan, linked to the oil fields by a 1,400-km pipeline.

This sudden reversal of policy alerted people in the South to the probable intentions of Nimeiri and his backers among the Jellaba. One of the first acts of the SPLA was to attack Chevron's oil field operations, forcing the company to suspend work in February 1984.

It is my contention that the NIF coup of 1989 against the democratically elected government was carried out with an eye on the potential oil wealth of the Sudan as the financial pillar for their regime in the Sudan and the means to spread the Islamist revolution in Africa and the rest of the world. A few months after the coup, INF businessmen established a company in the Bahamas to trade in Sudan oil, later sold to Pakistani-Canadians who sold to Talisman.

In early 199, the NIF conducted a scorched earth policy in the Nuba Mountains. Africa Watch exposed the curious fact that the Islamist regime was not only destroying Churches but also Mosques and were killing and displacing Muslims and Christians from large areas in the Mountains. It became obvious later that the regime was deliberately depopulated a huge corridor through the Mountains in to safeguard the pipe lines that were to be laid through that corridor! The same scorched earth policy was later implemented with utter ruthlessness in western Upper Nile, where the worst atrocities of the whole Civil war are being perpetuated.

Since then, large deposits were discovered in many areas mainly in the South. Extracted oil is transported through 1600km pipeline to the Red sea ports for exportation. To secure the uninterrupted flow of oil, the government has waged scorched earth military campaigns. Indiscriminate killing and burning are in full swing all over the exploration and extraction areas. The Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company, GNPOC, is made up of the Chinese National Oil Corporation, CNPC, with 40% of the shares; the Malaysian Petronas Carigali Overseas, which holds 30%; the Canadian Talisman Energy Inc. with 25% stake and Sudapet with only 5%! The Lundin Oil AB, a family-owned Swedish oil company based in Geneva has struck oil in block 5a. Lundin is the major operator there with 40% of the shares. ( A leading member of Lundin Board of Directors is an EU peace envoy to the former Yugoslavia. There he is working for peace, in the Sudan he de facto prolongs the war!) Other stakeholders in this concessions are Petronas with 28.5%; OMV of Austria with 26% and again Sudapet with only 5%. The British companies Weir (Glasgow) and Rolls Royce supplied the pump stations.

200,000 barrels are exported daily, soon to increase to 400,00 b/d. Already the oil is covering the running costs of the civil war, some $400 per annum. Above all the creditworthiness of the Sudan has shot up. Once again, sales people are coming to Khartoum offering everything from Chanel No. 5 perfume to helicopter gunships. China, Malaysia, Austria, several east-European countries including Russia, Poland, Bulgaria and Ukraine are all cashing in. Even the European Union is now engaged in a so-called critical dialogue with the Sudan! The oil areas have become both: extraction and killing fields. The omens are bad for the people of the Sudan, especially in the South.

The construction of the oil pipeline explains the scorched earth policy practised by the regime in the Nuba Mountains and the costly alliance with the Nuer, Matip faction.

The Water

Since the beginning of the century the idea of constructing a canal to drain the Sudd marshes of the White Nile at Jonglei has been debated by developmentalists and environmentalists. Motivated by the desire for more water downstream and the prospect of uncovering a vast expanse of fertile land, the Jonglei canal is one of the most intensively researched water projects in the world. What has always been conspicuous by its absence, however, is any serious assessment of how the local people - some 1,700,000 Dinka, Shilluk and Nuer, Murle, Bari and Anuak directly and indirectly affected by the project - actually felt about it. (3)

Actual construction of the Canal began in 1978 as a joint Sudanese-Egyptian project in collaboration with the French CCI Company. Aimed at conserving some 4 billion cubic metres of water evaporating annually the operation was forcibly suspended in 1984, having completed 250km of the proposed 360km, following a series of attacks on the construction site by the SPLA.

Egypt desperately wants the additional water represented by its half share in Jonglei (some 2b cubic metres), to help grow more food for its burgeoning population. Before the expansion of mechanised farming, the Sudan was not under the same pressure to obtain water. Since the mid-1970s, however, water has become a limiting factor for agricultural expansion in many parts of northern Sudan, since: new irrigation projects need more water.

The 450,000 Dinka, Shilluk and Nuer who were directly affected feared the drastic changes the Canal would bring to their way of life. They could not accept the prospect of life without the migration to the toich (swamp area) during the dry season, when they would find fish and improve the milk yield of their cows. They also feared the prospect of alien people being settled in their midst, and the possibility of conflict. Rumours that Egyptian farmers would be sent to the canal area sparked student riots in Juba in November 1974. There was justifiable mistrust of the project from Southerners who saw the North and Egypt benefiting while their own lives were irreversibly changed, and not for the better. By drying out the swamps and taking away the "grass curtain", the canal would open up the entire Sudd area for mechanised farming, the domain of the Jellaba, and also allow the north to move military equipment and troops into the South with greater ease. Thus the project's giant earth-excavating machine, the biggest in the world, was one of the SPLA's earliest targets, much to the chagrin of the governments of Sudan and Egypt.


The Land

The fertile savannah plains of acacia trees and tall grass are where the "bread-basket" was envisioned. More predictable rains make these plains suitable for sorghum, millet, maize, sesame, groundnuts and cotton. The huge expansion of large-scale mechanised farming which constantly devours new land, spread into southern Kordofan and the northern parts of Upper Nile province. The owners of the mechanised farms, having exhausted vast tracts of the north, pushed inexorably southwards into the area inhabited by the Nilotic tribes, the major cattle economies of the South. Having seen how the Nuba were squeezed off their land in southern Kordofan, the local people were hostile to this incursion, and their response was the same.

The NIF government is planning the distribution of some 17m feddans in the Jonglei among its supporters. In one single day, the government allocated 16,5m feddans in southern Darfur to its clientele.


The dynamic nature of identity. The inversion of ethnicity (identity) from perception to cause of violence

At the beginning of 2nd Civil War in 1983, the causes that precipitated the new conflict were clear for every one to see. The SPLA attacked concrete targets: the oil installations, the digger at Jonglei, the tractors of absentee landlords. The South was defending its resources from the onslaught of the Jellaba and their government. Soldiers of the SPLA and members of the SPLM were convinced that the war was all about the exploitation of resources taking place along the traditional faultlines of ethnic affiliation. However, when asked 15 years later, many Southerners belonging to the same category of people, responded that war is mainly about Arabisation and Islamisation.

Thus the perception of the war as an identity war between Muslim Arabs and Christian Africans resurfaced to take root in the minds of many Southerners. Identity inverted from being a perception of the conflict into an inherent cause of it; from being an abstract social and political category into a concrete social force. Effect has inverted into cause. That is why enduring, old, conflicts are difficult to resolve because the initial causes are constantly being augmented by the inversion of feelings (perceptions) into the causal sphere.

The Inversion of Ethnicity (Identity) from Perception to Cause of Violent Conflict

I found a plausible explanation for this inversion of perception into cause in studies concerned with animal and human behaviour respectively. Studies in human behaviour revealed that people usually judge options according to the size of the effort they invested into that option rather than the size of expected returns, what human behaviour scientists called the Sunk-cost Fallacy. In animal behaviour, scientists found the reverse tendency, animals chose the option with the highest future benefit and thus do not follow what they termed the Concorde Fallacy.


Ethnicity as Perception ---- time & cost ------ Ethnicity as Cause

Human Behaviour Animal Behaviour

‘Sunk-cost Fallacy’ ‘Concorde Fallacy’

(To judge options according (To judge options according

to size of previous investments to future benefits not past

rather than the size of expected returns) investments)

Human beings often chose the sunk-cost option

Animals select according to the size of expected returns

The inversion of ethnicity in time is probably due to the sunk-cost fallacy. "We will not give up now, not after we have sacrificed so much. We will not betray our dead! We will not go back."

(The human and animal behaviour scientists were unaware of their respective research until a chance meeting in Oxford in 1996!) (4)


External Players

The influence of outside powers is growing in proportion to the decline of Sudanese power. In spite of oil revenues, the wastage of continuous warring has arrested economic and social development leaving the country in a weak relationship vis-à-vis foreign donors and trade partners.

While most external players support the unity of the country, they nevertheless hold different visions for the Sudan. In the Gulf, the Islamists vehemently support the colonisation of the south, which they perceive as a frontier of Islam and Arab culture. Africa is viewed as an arena for conversion, where Islam and Christianity, as well as the Muslim world and the West are in competition. There is even a perception that the forceful invasion of southern Sudan is a defensive move, to safeguard a legitimate interest within an accepted sphere of influence. The webs of personal relationship between northern Sudanese and the Arab world bind ties of ideology and culture even closer. Thousands of Sudanese professionals are working in the oil-economies in the Gulf. Sudanese-Saudi Business conglomerates have built up holdings on both sides of the Red Sea, and venture capital from the Gulf has flown into developments into the South, particularly agro-business and oil. Religion, culture and economic interests have therefore combined in support of an aggressive and uncompromising government policy towards the South.

This show of pro-Islamic, pro-Arab support is rounded off by the national governments of Iraq and Libya, for whom the Sudan is one of few available partners in their international isolation. While Libyan and Iraqi support is valuable for sections of the military and of the government, it also attracts the wrath of the superpowers, illustrated by the cruise-missile strike on Khartoum on 20th of August 1998. In response to attacks on the US embassies at Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, the US Navy bombed the site of an alleged chemical weapons factory belonging to Usama bin Laden. More importantly, Sudan as a ‘certified’ supporter of international terrorism is ineligible for US overseas assistance and has no trading privileges.

Egypt, the most important partner in the Arab world, however, does not support aggressive Islamisation. Not only is the Egyptian Government under serious pressure from a violent and powerful fundamentalist movement at home. Its overriding concern is to secure the free flow of Nile waters on which the country is dependent. In the case of Egypt, the aspirations of Islam and the expansion of Arab culture are secondary to the pragmatics of survival. The country’s historic ambition has been to ensure the stability and co-operation across the Nile valley. It therefore holds links with all parties involved, by maintaining relations with the government as well as supporting conferences of the opposition. Egyptian influence has contributed to the resolution of SPLA leader John Garang to insist upon a united Sudan, against calls among his followers for southern secession.

A counter weight to these Islamic and Arab interests is provided by the national governments of Eritrea, Ethiopia and Uganda. All three governments resent the ruthless arabisation and Islamicisation policies of the NIF government, a danger they also have to contend with at home Ethiopia has been supporting the SPLA since its inception, and ensured the dominance of the military wing within the movement. At that time it also provided bases for the Sudan Alliance Forces and had ferried troops and materials to Uganda. When in 1991 the new EPRDF government expelled the SPLA temporarily from Ethiopia, they were invited by President Yowerri Museveni to set up bases in Ugandan. Not only have these served as a springboard for attacks against government positions in Equatoria province. The SPLA have also conducted joint offensives against units of the Lords Resistance Army, operating with Khartoum’s backing from within Sudan. Since independence, Eritrea has provided bases for the SPLA, the SAF and the Beja Congress, which has enabled the opposition to take the war to the north. (5)

A dual role is played by the west, supporting both government and rebels. The US provides covert support to the SPLA, while France has been delivering military assistance to Khartoum. Humanitarian relief provided by Non Governmental Organisations in response to the famines in southern Sudan, and co-ordinated under the programme Organisation Lifeline Sudan (OLS), has fed both government garrisons and SPLA fighters. Fundamentalist Christian groups in the US, meanwhile, have funded the opposition forces more directly.

Far more significant, until the mid-1990, however, has been the role of the international financial institutions (IFIs), particularly the World Bank. Loans were made available on favourable terms to the Sudanese government to finance the expansion of commercial agriculture into the south.

Overseas interests are therefore to be regarded as one root cause in the continuation of the conflict.


The way forward:

The only way forward must lead to lasting and just peace, respect in law and practice of democracy and human rights and the pursuit of sustainable development for all. One of the obstacles slowing the realisation of these aims and objectives is the weakness of the political opposition. The NDA has been partly paralysed by Saddig El Mahdi and his petty manoeuvres during the time he was abroad. Now that he has returned to Khartoum, Saddig is trying hard to reconcile his party and any one who so wishes with the NIF regime. The situation is further complicated by the split in the NIF between Turabi the spiritual leader and Bashier the president, by the forced though slight opening up by the government and by the increasing oil wealth.

The flow of arms purchased by oil money does threaten the SPLM/LA in the field, but the expected return of Riek Machar to the fold may help redress this imbalance. The SPLM is further encouraged by the signing of The Memorandum of Understanding with Turabi's faction.

The state of war and peace is further complicated by the unsynchronised attempts of regional and international initiatives to mediate in the conflict

  1. The IGAD Initiative (insists on self-determination for the South)
  2. The Egyptian/Libyan (drops self-determination altogether)
  3. The new US administration (divided between a strong Christian lobby, which supports the Christian South and the business and diplomatic lobby which advocates moderation in face of growing weakness of the NIF fundamentalism)



It is very difficult to foresee future developments. Too many subjective and objective factors are in interplay in the Sudan now. The growing oil wealth does provide the current regime with both a strong reason to wage war as well as the means to do so. Oil has also the mysterious power of softening the stance of active and potential business partners, even western countries, towards Islamic fundamentalism in the Sudan.

One internal indicator for the changes going on is that in the near past people were taken by force into military service. Today, many poor unemployed youth join the service voluntarily. There is both money, loot and safety in being a soldier.

The 1st military regime lasted 6 year (1958 to 1964)

The 2nd military regime lasted 16 years (1969 to 1985)

The current regime is already almost 12 years old and still going on.

It is my firm conviction that in all the uncertainties that cloud the political sky of the Sudan, one thing is becoming increasingly reliable. The Islamic project of the National Islamic Front has failed in the Sudan. It is only a matter of days, months or perhaps years before the regime must either fundamentally transform or perish.


Mohamed Suliman


October 2001




  1. Africa Watch, Denying the Honour of Living - Sudan, a Human Rights Disaster, London 1990
  2. M. Duffield, Sudan at the Crossroads, IDS Discussion paper No. 275, Sussex University 1990 (p8).
  3. George Tombe Lako, The Jonglei Canal Scheme as a Socio-economic Factor in the Civil War in the Sudan, in African River Basins and Drylands Crises (editor, Darkoh) OSSER 1992
  4. New Scientist, Call it quit, vol. 158, issue 2135, page 40
  5. The chapter on External Players was taken with slight modifications from: Klein A.,

the State of War and Peace in the Horn of Africa 1998, IFAA publication March