Khartoum and Juba have only adrenaline to compensate for their loss of oil. In their frenzied attempt to secure the highest returns conceivable from the unsustainable resource, their joint placenta as it were, the governments of Sudan and South Sudan are now effectively plunging into its flames. The allegory of burning moths would have been suitable were it not for the profuse blood been shed at the altar of oil.
To the empiricist the current war between the two countries flakes layers of ideological camouflage from an essential dispute over oil. Through this prism a retrospective investigation of the 1983 insurgency led by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M), the ruling power in the independent South Sudan today, could come to the conclusion that Bentiu was responsible. The capital of ‘Unity state’, a name cynically conferred on the region by President Nimaryi, was expected to host Sudan’s first refinery and enrich the coffers of the regional government of southern Sudan in Juba through corporation and export tax. Nimayri, however, chose to enstrange his southern Sudanese allies, his partners in the 1972 Addis Ababa peace agreement, and accommodate the Khartoum establishment bosses with whom he had reconciled in 1977 after years of confrontation that peaked with the 1976 trans-Saharan coup attempt orchestrated by the Umma Party, Hassan al-Turabi’s Islamic Movement and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) figure, Hussein al-Hindi, under Qaddafi’s patronage. In 1980 the rayes ordered the construction of the promised refinery in Kosti on the White Nile, but the promise remained just that. He was deposed by a popular uprising in 1985 before he could reap the profits of Chevron’s 1978 discoveries near Bentiu and Heglig. The next rayes, President Bashir, built three refineries, the largest in Khartoum, and two smaller facilities in al-Obeid and Port Sudan, nodes in an export pipeline extending from the oil fields to Port Sudan on the Red Sea.
This narrative, by its very empiricism, shortcuts the decisive question of why the successive Khartoum regimes behaved as they did, included in glory is the Anglo-Egyptian colonial order they inherited composite with extractive economy and state ideology. The standard answer to this question is race, religion and culture, as can be read in any news article on the Sudans. The racial argument, however, turns a construct into an essence, and does little to explain the dynamics which, for instance, led Paulino Matip, today the SPLA’s second in command, and his captains, to side with the northern jallaba against the SPLA/M. It was Matip’s militia that secured the Bentiu and Heglig oilfields for exploration and production. When the SPLA briefly captured Heglig in August 2001 it did not battle the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) proper but Matip’s army. Peter Gadet led the SPLA’s operations at the time, the same man who under Matip commanded the militia force which cleared the entire area of its human occupants to make way for the industry. Gadet formed the South Sudan Liberation Movement/Army in April 2011 with the objective of overthrowing the SPLM government in Juba. He dropped the plan four months later to re-join the SPLA, and was named last month deputy commander of Juba’s disarmament campaign in Jonglei. Khartoum has no Matip this time and failed to lure Gadet.
Whether the ever elusive 1956 border passes north or south of the Heglig oil field is today of only rhetorical significance, material for the chauvinist propaganda in Khartoum and Juba. The concrete border rips right through it, and its landmarks are the disputed terms of oil division between the two countries. Harry Verhoeven, speaking to Reuters recently, chose the term “war of attrition” to describe the current military confrontation between Juba and Khartoum. The, attrition, however is not only mutual but self-defeating. The oil industry of the Sudans is like the corpus of the believers in the famed hadeeth, if one organ is harmed the others follow suit. The stakes are high, sure, but not beyond the reach of the marketplace. Until Khartoum and Juba are knocked back into bargaining with words corpses will do the communication.