South Sudan faces new war over oil (David Blair in Malakal, Upper Nile State)
Southern Sudan covers an area three times the size of Britain but has less than 13 miles of tarred road and is one of the poorest places on earth Photo: PETER MARTELL/AFP
South Sudan faces new war over oil
The Daily Telegraph, August 15, 2009
By David Blair in Malakal, Upper Nile State, southern Sudan
The gunmen who raided the cluster of mud huts beside the White Nile struck with merciless efficiency.
By the time they vanished into the night, hundreds of homes had been razed, 11 people lay dead and the village's inhabitants faced starvation, having lost all their precious cattle.
"Everyone is on his own now," said Jamuth Nyading, a 42-year-old Sudanese herdsman, who gathered his two wives and 12 children and fled to the nearby town of Malakal. "You cannot cultivate, you cannot herd cattle, you cannot go fishing in the Nile without risk of being killed. We can't go back, not only because of fear, but also lack of food."
Mr Nyading's ordeal would be grimly familiar had it taken place in Darfur, the region of western Sudan blighted by civil war and awarded the dubious blessing of world attention for the last six years.
Instead, he abandoned his home in southern Sudan, an area supposedly at peace since a landmark agreement four years ago ended decades of fighting.
Struck in January 2005, this "comprehensive peace agreement" was hailed as a moment of genuine hope. A rapturous signing ceremony brought down the curtain on the longest and bloodiest civil war in African history, pitting Sudan's Arab, Muslim north against the black tribes of the south, who include Christians and followers of traditional African beliefs. The south had bitterly resented Khartoum's rule, claiming the northerners' attitudes had changed little since the days of slavery - when southerners were seen as heathens fit only for serfdom.
Entirely separate from Darfur's troubles, this ethnic and religious faultline inflicted suffering on a scale that almost defies comprehension, claiming two million lives during two spells of conflict, the first of which began a few weeks before Sudan won independence from Britain in 1956. The second round of this war between north and south, lasting from 1983 until 2005, started when an earlier peace deal collapsed.
Today, people in southern Sudan fear that history is repeating itself. The calm that has prevailed since 2005 is breaking down, while the "comprehensive peace agreement" is steadily unravelling.
This year, more people have been forced from their homes in the south - and more have died violently - than in Darfur. Some 214,000 refugees have fled their villages across the 10 southern states, while the death toll probably runs into the thousands.
Only a fortnight ago, some 185 people were shot and speared to death in the southern Jonglei state in a single morning.
The central question is why all this fighting has suddenly begun. The south has always suffered tribal skirmishing, generally over cattle and grazing. Mr Nyading is from the Shilluk tribe, while the raiders who destroyed his village in Upper Nile state were from the Dinka people, their traditional rivals.
But this time, observers claim to detect a hidden hand, stirring tribal enmity with much bigger stakes in mind. The renewed hostilities may be aimed at sabotaging a referendum set for January 2011 over independence for the south. The region's future has wider importance, for large oil reserves lie beneath its lush plains.
Those reserves are coveted by the north as a resource to sell to China, whose appetite for Sudan's oil has given Khartoum a financial and diplomatic windfall.
During the civil war, when rebels from the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) fought President Omar al-Bashir's regime, the north deliberately ignited ethnic conflict in the south, arming some tribes to fight others. Ministers in the Government of Southern Sudan, which has enjoyed autonomy since the 2005 peace agreement, believe Khartoum is back to its old tricks.
"We suspect with some evidence that our partners in the north are still training, arming and sending to southern Sudan the former militia groups who fought alongside them during the war," said General Oyay Deng Ajak, a former SPLA chief of staff who now serves as the south's regional cooperation minister.
"There is an increase in weapons and supplies coming into southern Sudan from the north. Somebody, somewhere is coordinating this operation and we very much suspect it is our brothers in Khartoum."
Both north and south know the clock is ticking. If the referendum goes ahead in January 2011, as laid down in the peace agreement, few doubt the south will choose to break away and a new country will emerge in the heart of Africa.
But the south has about 75 per cent of Sudan's 6.3 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, giving the north a vital interest in preventing it from seceding. One way would be to stir violence across the south, to the point where the situation is too unstable for the referendum to be held.
"They want to make southern Sudan ungovernable," said Gen Ajak. "They want to discredit us and tell the international community 'these people cannot govern themselves and if they become independent, they will be a failed state'."
China's interests are closely aligned with Mr Bashir's. Beijing has invested heavily in developing Sudan's reserves, which provide beween seven and ten per cent of China's imported oil. The China National Petroleum Corporation, a state energy giant, is exploiting the most productive fields, including those in the south, and Beijing has also built a 900-mile pipeline linking these reserves with Port Sudan on the Red Sea.
To guarantee these supplies, China needs Sudan to stay united. President Hu Jintao has duly sold weapons, including jet fighters, to Sudan's armed forces and given Mr Bashir consistent diplomatic support.
Either way, the referendum carries huge risks. If the poll is delayed or cancelled, Gen Ajak said that people in the south would feel cheated and another war could start. If, however, the referendum goes ahead and the south chooses independence, the north may launch a war to hold onto the oil.
Some believe the recent violence amounts to the opening shots of this new conflict. The claim of a "hidden hand" behind at least some of the killing is supported by independent evidence.
A ship recently arrived in Malakal having travelled up the Nile from Khartoum. A 30-year-old man, who saw the vessel being searched, told the Sunday Telegraph that it contained Kalashnikov assault rifles and ammunition, hidden beneath a cargo of food.
Another 20-year-old man said the national army had tried to recruit him for a monthly salary of £200. Those who sought to entice him said they had been ordered to sign up 400 southerners in Malakal alone. These recruits, once in Khartoum's pay, could be used to destabilise their homeland.
The bitter mistrust between the SPLA and their old enemies in Khartoum has already cost lives in Malakal. The town's muddy streets were pounded by heavy artillery and tanks in February when a day of fighting between the two sides left at least 60 dead. A school was bombarded, killing about a dozen children. The United Nations is now digging shelters for its staff in Malakal.
However, there is no conclusive proof of a high-level decision in Khartoum to cause turmoil in the south. The region, which covers an area three times the size of Britain, possesses less than 13 miles of tarred road and is one of the poorest places on earth.
Yet the Government of Southern Sudan chooses to spend 30 per cent of its budget on the military - independent estimates say this figure may be nearer to 60 per cent - while health, education and development get only 28 per cent.
These priorities suggest the south is arming for war, leaving foreign aid agencies to conduct development work. But the recent violence has disrupted even the aid workers' efforts. "We're looking to do longer term, more sustainable interventions," said Maya Mailer, a policy adviser for Oxfam. "But when this insecurity takes place and people are displaced as a result, we're pulled back into doing emergency programming."
In Malakal, many fear that another war is inevitable. A local chief, who asked not to be named, said his people were caught between the SPLA and Khartoum. "Every community is being divided by the two governments, so people who are on one side are encouraged to attack the other side," he said.
The chief's own village was raided in December, an incident he blames on Khartoum's allies. "The people are bribed with money and guns to attack their own people. They are our own relatives who attack us," he said.