International

The Coming Collision in Sudan

The carnage wreaked by resource wars in Southern Sudan through the eyes of those who have survived. Part two of two.
Garang and Gabriel Bol sit on the ruins of their tukul (hut) in Kakuma Refugee Camp. | Credit: COURTESY OF DAVID MORSE

Even before the Cessna touched down in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, I knew that we were on the front lines of what may someday be a huge war; that we were witnessing the opening skirmish in a series of resource wars in which countries like Sudan and Nigeria now figure prominently, but which may spread to most of Africa. Not only is this continent rich in mineral wealth; but the inhabitants of a number of its countries can still be driven from their land -- raped and killed -- with impunity. Today's resource-driven conflicts are but an extension of the slave trade as well as the ivory, gold, rubber, and diamond trades that have fed on Africa, undermining and corrupting its people's attempts at governance.

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Oil was the precipitating cause of the 21-year-long civil war in Sudan. The South had the oil; the North was the center of power. When the North first moved to seize the southern oilfields in the mid-1980s, a rebellion began -- and, immediately after that, came the attacks on southern villages that caused our “Lost Boys” to flee for their lives. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement, signed in January of 2005, was supposed to heal the rupture between North and South and divide the oil equitably.

In neighboring Darfur, the more immediate issue is water: water for grazing versus water for farming, the competition between herders and farmers exacerbated terribly by drought, global warming, and encroaching desert. Some of the poorest, most disenfranchised Arabs had no place to graze their herds, so they were easily recruited into the militias known as theJanjaweed, along with common criminals, and given license to steal, rape, and kill.

Oil and water don't usually mix. In this case they do. Neither Darfur, nor South Sudan can be understood in isolation. They are part of the same marginalized hinterland that is struggling with the central government in the North for access to resources.

Actions in the past few days have dramatized their connectedness. One of the Darfur rebel factions threatened to withdraw from peace negotiations. Why? Because of Khartoum's failure to honor the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in South Sudan. And while water triggered the conflict in Darfur, oil continues to fuel it. Oil pays for Khartoum's increasingly sophisticated arms purchases from Russia. Oil buys China's support at the UN Security Council, so that a culture of impunity can go largely unchecked. Oil buys the quiescence of the good citizens of Khartoum, who pretend not to know what is going on 500 miles away. Rumors abound that Darfur itself may contain oil reserves beyond those located in its southeast corner -- as well as valuable deposits of uranium and gold.

I had riches of my own. Traveling with Gabriel Bol Deng and two other “Lost Boys” through South Sudan offered filmmaker Jen Marlowe and me a privileged glimpse into the heart of Dinka society -- its elaborate handshakes, its female healers and dancers, its songs and genealogies. Marlowe captured much of it for the documentary film she is now editing and trying to fund. Even the painful moments -- the stark poverty, the belly hunger -- were part of our journalistic witness; an opportunity to assess the strength of a tenuous peace in a region that has been almost constantly at war for the better part of a century. It was also, we knew, a window that could slam shut at almost any moment.

Oil Does Not Last Forever

The fractures in the Comprehensive Peace Ã…greement, or CPA, seemed to be widening just in the weeks that we were traveling in the area.

“We are not getting all our oil,” cabinet minister Dr. Barnaba Marial Benjamin told me in his office in Juba, speaking of his government's $300 million budgetary shortfall. The problem -- as I had been hearing for two years now -- was that Khartoum was stalling on demarcating the border between North and South that runs through the northern reaches of the country's richest oilfields.

Benjamin also singled out Khartoum's failure to implement the protocols designed to resolve the dispute over Abyei, which holds some of the richest oilfields. “The oil we are getting is from the few wells which are deep inside the South.” So instead of sharing revenues evenly, as dictated by the peace agreement, he suspects Khartoum of taking 100% of the oil from all but those few wells. Lack of transparency and the presence of Khartoum's troops in the oilfields leave the South with no way of tracking the oil or auditing the revenues it should receive according to the CPA.

Benjamin's title is Minister of Regional Cooperation for the Government of South Sudan: He combines the roles of foreign minister and secretary of commerce. Sporting a subtly burnished golden silk necktie, and fluent in English, Benjamin is an energetic speaker who uses the full range of his voice -- which, when he complains about those northern troops in the southern oilfields, is both shrilly indignant and somehow endearing. One gathers that, in addition to his other roles, he is a lobbyist, importuning non-governmental organizations and friendly governments to help his impoverished but mineral-rich quasi-nation.

We are seated inside one of perhaps a dozen modular trailer-style offices parked near the site of a new complex of two- and three-story government buildings under construction. They may appear modest to a Western visitor, but for southern Sudan this constitutes a building boom, confirming the impression many southerners have that the government is focused on Juba, to the neglect of the countryside. Later, we will learn that Juba's road-building program is being curtailed for lack of funds, as is road-building throughout the South; and, in September, Darfur scholar and activist Alex DeWaal will email me on return from a trip to Juba, saying that he found the city on “a war footing.” He added, “It would be tragic and stupid if the internationals by focusing attention on Darfur blindfolded themselves to the prospects of an even greater tragedy that could be imminent in the South”

The situation is deteriorating as I write. But when we were in South Sudan, government officials were still trying to put the best face on things.

Only a year and a half had passed since I was last in Juba and yet the city was barely recognizable, its population having exploded from 100,000 to a million. On the previous trip, I happened to see the foundations being poured for Juba's first modern gas station -- probably the first in South Sudan. (In Kuajok, for instance, petrol is sold in glass bottles and jerry cans from stands.) Now, the capital's streets are full of cars. The airport has expanded rapidly. Our pilot, Captain Saleh, confirmed that the runways had been lengthened by at least a third to accommodate large passenger jets.

Sometimes, not far away, we could catch the throaty diesel roar of tanks engaged in maneuvers -- a reminder that, in this embattled land, fully 40% of the national budget goes to defense. A reminder that the war might come tomorrow

Back to Dr. Benjamin, who was explaining that, in 2006, Khartoum had paid the government of South Sudan a little over one billion dollars as its annual share of oil revenues, based on a production level of 300,000 barrels per day. With production expected to increase to half a million barrels per day in 2007, his government had assumed its share would rise to somewhere between $105 million and $115 million per month “But no!” says the minister indignantly, “We are getting less! One month it dropped to $44 million!” The government is forced, he says, to go begging, looking for grants from “our friends” to make ends meet.

Benjamin's explanation is passionate, if a bit simplistic. To begin with, Khartoum's own projections may have been overly optimistic, inflated by its bullish oil minister Awad Ahmed al-Jaz. A hard-headed report from the Economist this June calls al-Jaz's prediction of an increase of up to one million barrels per day next year “too rosy.” The country's original oilfields, which produce valuable low-sulfur oil known as Nile Blend, are already “maturing,” as indicated by a drop in production from the 300,000 barrels per day Benjamin cited to 254,000 barrels in the first quarter of this year. Higher in sulfur, the new Dar Blend now coming on-line is reportedly selling for only a third of the average international price of crude oil.

The knowledge that some of Sudan's best oilfields are already starting to decline should be sobering to all parties. It puts Khartoum's stalling into perspective. Oil does not last forever.

In the meantime, Khartoum's refusal to remove its troops from the oilfields only reinforces the South's worst suspicions. Benjamin hedges his words. He does not quite say that Khartoum is stealing the South's oil, or accuse Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir of “acting in bad faith” -- a charge leveled by the South's President, Salva Kiir Mayardit, last January during a public celebration of the second anniversary of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. Instead, Benjamin speaks of “certain elements within the National Congress Party” -- the ruling party in Khartoum -- who seem intent on scuttling the peace agreement.

He and his colleagues in the government wondered, he explained, if Khartoum had a “Plan B” in mind that prompted them to sabotage the CPA. “Well,” he said, as if addressing Khartoum directly, “Have you got another plan, by refusing to implement the CPA?... Why are you buying modern aircraft, MiG-29s and the rest? Whom are you going to fight? So have you a 'Plan B'? And that's why we say to the international community 'Help us, we don't know what the hell is going on.'”

The CPA, the minister emphasized, is an international agreement. Its implementation should be monitored by all its signatories. It was signed onto not only by the two warring parties -- the Sudanese People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), the political arm of the southern rebels led by John Garang, and the National Congress Party (formerly the National Islamic Front), representing the Government of Sudan -- but also by the UN, the European Union, the African Union, the Arab League, and individual nations including the United States, which helped broker the treaty. “I should not have to shout this from the rooftops! You don't give birth and then forget You need to nurse it, see that it grows properly.”

The peace, he said, cannot “grow properly” if the flow of international aid to the South slows to a trickle, as has happened. The attention concentrated exclusively on Darfur, the catastrophe du jour in the West, has been a disaster for the South. Most of the money pledged by wealthy nations at the Multi-Donor Trust meeting at Oslo in 2005 and specifically earmarked for development in the South has been diverted to humanitarian aid in Darfur.

In a second interview, I was joined by Gabriel Bol Deng, who asked Dr. Benjamin what his government was doing to “support our brothers and sisters in Darfur.” The minister assured him that the SPLM supports the delivery of humanitarian aid and the deployment of UN troops in adequate numbers in the region; but, he stressed, the marginalized people in Darfur “need a political settlement.” The CPA offers “the nucleus of peace that can spread throughout the Sudan.” By the same token, “If the peace process in the South collapses, then the whole country goes back to war.”

During a brief audience with President Salva Kiir Mayardit, I asked about the charge of “bad faith” he had leveled at Khartoum. He denied only that he had hurled the accusation in anger at Bashir personally. “I did not abuse him,” he said.

This seemed to catch the essence of his government's official stance toward its former enemies, and now partners, in the new Unity Government -- an edgy bluntness combined with an attempt at surface equanimity: It is not Bashir personally, not even the Bashir regime, but rather “certain elements” that are sabotaging the CPA.

Under this studied calm lurks a grim principle of asymmetrical warfare: When a guerilla operation goes conventional, it loses its chief strength, its ability to hit the enemy and disappear. In any future conflict, the South and the other hinterlands of Sudan will be vastly outgunned. Just as Khartoum's oil pipelines and other infrastructure were once vulnerable to a ragtag rebel guerrilla army, now Juba is vulnerable to the well-armed North's superior airpower -- which makes Benjamin's reference to 'Plan B' ominous indeed.

A Collision Course in the Sudan

Is a political resolution of the North-South impasse even possible?

Pagan Amum, the Secretary General of the SPLM, claims to think so. More sedate than I remembered him from an interview in 2005, he was nonetheless clearly determined to remain publicly optimistic. A heavyset man with a thin goatee who has charge of the SPLM's daily workings, he spoke softly about the prospects of achieving peace throughout the whole of Sudan via the political process enabled under the CPA.

Just as the old Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) is “transforming itself into a modern conventional force,” he insisted, so the SPLM is “transforming itself from a rebel movement into a political party that can organize on a national scale -- not just in the South, but in the north, the east, the west,” it will be able to compete with the National Congress Party for control of the central government, he said, even in time for the national elections (officially scheduled for 2008, but almost certain not to happen until 2009, after a necessary census is conducted).

In preparation for elections, he claims that an SPLM organizing campaign has already registered 600,000 members, with a goal of two million. “SPLM is the political party that can actually achieve a united Sudan, on a new basis -- a Sudan that can be for all Sudanese.”

Back in 2005, I had heard Amum spin out a similar vision of a secular Sudan, committed to gender equity and religious freedom -- over beers at a table in the outdoor Afex Café, a hangout for SPLM bigwigs and NGO workers in the heady days of the then-new peace when a young almost-country was drafting its new constitution. The tables were in a mango grove overlooking a bullet-riddled, rusting barge half sunk in the White Nile. In those days -- even given the mysterious death of the movement's charismatic if autocratic leader, John Garang, in a helicopter crash three weeks after his installation as vice president of Sudan -- and before this grinding poverty-in-peace had taken its toll, it was easier to dream of, and sound convincing about, a Sudan that might help democratize and unify the whole of Africa.

Now, for all his talk of grassroots organizing, Amun seemed to lack either a real plan or deep conviction when it came to a unified Sudan. (My traveling companion Deng later pointed out to me that Amum had tellingly staffed his office only with members of his own Shilluk tribe.) When I asked the secretary general whether his optimism was now somewhat “manufactured,” he denied it and pointed to recent, (exceedingly modest) “achievements”: The National Oil Commission, charged under the CPA with overseeing oil contracts and revenues, had, after two long years, finally met; Khartoum had formally agreed to withdraw all 14,000 of its troops from the South by July 9, 2007, then only a few days away.

I didn't know which to find more astonishing, Khartoum's announcement that it would withdraw its troops from the oilfields (which I had not gotten wind of), or the idea that Pagan Amum believed it would actually happen.

The jointly constituted Boundary Commission that was to settle the division of the oil lands was, he also pointed out, finally going to meet. “They have given us a firm date that, by February of 2008, the boundaries will be demarcated.” Could he believe that, either -- when Khartoum's promises have so famously been written in disappearing ink? And where was his outrage, given that five years had passed without boundaries being demarcated in a region where Khartoum was assumedly pumping the oilfields dry?

Over two months later, back in the U.S., Deng expressed his growing impatience as the situation deteriorated. He found himself incensed at the gap between the lofty rhetoric that officials like Amum continue to spout and their inability, or unwillingness, to deliver services to the villages of the South, to the people. “During the war, the SPLA were stealing their cows or eating off the same plate with them. Now they need to give something back!”

Even if the organizers of SPLM's political campaign actually succeeded in challenging Khartoum's dominant National Congress Party, it seems unlikely indeed that its hardliners would ever voluntarily relinquish power at the ballot box. It's worth recalling that Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir came to power in a military coup in 1989, the fifth coup since Sudan achieved independence in 1956. Historically ungovernable, Sudan has little experience with democracy.

The vote Sudanese are eyeing most warily is a plebiscite in 2011, also authorized by the 2004 peace agreement, in which southerners supposedly will be allowed to vote on secession. Originally intended as a safety-valve for those southerners who came to the negotiating table doubting that any sort of agreement for a unified Sudan would work, the 2011 deadline is raising ever more apprehension as it grows closer.

Will the North allow the South, with its oil reserves, to pull out of the federation?

Virtually everyone in the region considers such an outcome inconceivable. Not peacefully, anyway. But if some of the benefits of “peace” don't arrive soon, most think the South will vote overwhelmingly to secede -- and if the crisis in Sudan hasn't already hit a full boiling point, it will then.

That North and South are on a collision course is clear to all. On a bus-ride to Nairobi, I sat next to a woman who killed the boredom of the 14-hour trip by confiding to me her black-market scheme to smuggle cigarettes from Kenya into South Sudan. She expected to make lots of money and then hoped to eventually move up to smuggling gold. She described the border crossing-points, gave me phone numbers, “They wouldn't check you,” she said, clearly dreaming that my white skin would make me a perfect mule. “But,” she cautioned, “you've only got three years. You make your money and get out. That's when they vote. And then they will go to war.” She mimed an explosive poof! with her hands.

Final Ironies, Saving Graces

A word about corruption in the new government. We encountered evidence of petty corruption firsthand. When it came time to leave Kuajok and settle our account at the Warrap State Safari Guest House, for example, we found that the SPLA colonel with the two-year-old who held me a gunpoint had disappeared and stuck us with his $56 bar tab. “That's corruption,” said Chris Koor Garang, but he paid the bill, not wanting to cause trouble.

Political patronage is rampant in the SPLM. Jobs are handed out to relatives, former rebel commanders, and party loyalists, undercutting efforts to create a professional bureaucracy based on merit. Larger scale corruption came to light last March, when South Sudan's minister of finance and economic planning, Arthur Akuien Chol, was charged with skimming public funds by vastly overcharging the government for Toyota Land Cruisers. President Kiir placed Chol under house arrest, reiterated a “zero tolerance for corruption” policy, and in July reshuffled his cabinet. Efforts are said to be underway to eliminate “ghost” civil servants from government payrolls.

Deng is a big fan of President Kiir -- who is not only Dinka but grew up near his childhood village, Ariang. Deng likes his humility, his rough-hewn quality; but Kiir, he says, is in “a hard place. If he tries to get rid of the people who are corrupt, they will turn against his leadership. He's in a hot-seat, and it's up to him to take bold steps.”

In short, it seemed that, yes, corruption in the new state exists, but no, it is not yet rampant; not, for example, as in neighboring Kenya where bribery is commonplace at every level of government and society. At the moment in South Sudan, nepotism, tribalism, and cronyism are the most persistent impediments to professional efficiency -- and, of course, lack of funds. A further impediment to the smooth functioning of government is its very newness: Virtually every agency is working with draft laws, while the various state constitutions go through the process of approval, and this, for instance, hinders the writing of contracts for activities like uranium prospecting that might actually produce funds for the fledgling quasi-state.

While we were flying home from Nairobi, the July 9 deadline for Khartoum's pullout from the southern oil fields came and went without action. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon waited six weeks to express his disappointment to the Security Council, calling on Khartoum to live up to its obligation under the CPA. Months later, however, the northern troops still have not budged, nor are they likely to without vigorous international pressure.

Thus far, the “war” between South and North is only a war of words, though it is escalating. Asked about his northern colleagues, President Kiir upped the ante in speaking to the New York Times. “They are cheating us,” he said bluntly.

The three Dinka men, those former “Lost Boys” we traveled with -- so intimately familiar with the costs of war -- have returned to lives in Syracuse, Tucson, and Chicago. They remain intent on completing their educations here and doing what they can to nurture the peace there. Deng, who later confessed to me that he had secretly hoped to break ground on the school he plans to build at Ariang, now realizes it is going to be a much longer process than he ever imagined. It will have to include such obvious, but major, educational tasks as training teachers -- and other projects that, in many societies, would have nothing to do with starting a school, such as bringing clean water to Ariang. “A school is not just a building,” Deng comments. At the end of December, when his own semester is over, he plans to return to Ariang.

Chris Koor Garang has learned the same lesson when it comes to bringing a functioning clinic to the town of Akon. It's one thing to build a structure, quite another to staff and equip it. Right now, the clinic building in Akon is locked up and unused for lack of funds. So Garang is spending time raising money. Next spring, he expects to help train nurses, though in conjunction with what organization he has not yet decided.

Samuel Garang Mayuol -- the only one of the three who had no clear plan of his own as we began -- came away with a clear sense of mission, once he saw the circumstances in which his people subsisted. As soon as he can afford to, he expects to return to drill wells so that his village, Lang, will have clean water. For now, he sits on the board of a nonprofit calledLost Boys Rebuilding Southern Sudan.

The irony of their personal situations is far from lost on these men. For all the wrenching upheavals and suffering they endured, they have obtained educations and material advantages of which they would never have dreamed, had they not been torn from their lives. In fact, it's that very awareness which drives these three extraordinary young men, but it's worth remembering that they are among the fortunate ones. Not all their peers who accompanied them to the U.S. have fared so well. Some have never recovered from the endless traumas involved in their flights and escapes, from the loss of family, of society, of everything that matters deeply to a child. Some are simply ordinary people, who have been terribly damaged; some are descending into alcohol and drug abuse.

And what of that two-year-old, playing with the pistol in the bar in Kuajok? In 2011, he will be six -- exactly between the ages of Garang and Mayuol when they fled into the night. Will that child have a school to attend? Access to medicine? A childhood? Or will he end up traumatized, at one end or the other of a gun, the victim of another resource war? Unless the international community can widen its spotlight from Darfur and take an active role in monitoring implementation of the peace agreement in South Sudan, the answer already seems painfully clear.

Morse traveled to South Sudan with support from the Nation Institute's Investigative Fund and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and wrote this article during a residency at Blue Mountain Center.

About the reporter

David Morse

David Morse

David Morse is an independent journalist and essayist whose work primarily focuses on Sudan.

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