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Africa

Battle over oil at heart of Sudanese conflict

©

Text by Sébastian SEIBT

Latest update : 2012-04-24

South Sudanese President Salva Kiir (pictured) said Tuesday that northern rival Sudan had declared war on his country. France24.com takes a closer look at a conflict with roots deep underground – in the oilfields.

President Salva Kiir, of the newly independent South Sudan, said on Tuesday that neighbouring Sudan had “declared war” on his country. Indeed, tensions between the two appear to be spiralling out of control: Sudanese air raids targeted the South Sudanese border region of Unité on Tuesday, according to reports, and ground attacks may be next.

Religious antagonism has certainly factored into frictions between the majority-Muslim north and the mostly Christian south starting in the late 50s.

But ever since South Sudan gained independence in July 2011, the north and south have been facing off over how to divide oil revenue.

“The oil question is the catalyst for this very old and complex conflict,” analysed Daniel Litvin, director of Critical Resource, a British consulting firm specialised in natural resources.

The matter is urgent, as both countries’ economies are largely dependent on oil. The agreement granting independence to the south stipulated that both south and north would receive 50% of the money coming in thanks to Sudanese oil. But neither the south, home to 80% of the two countries’ oil fields and responsible for the majority of daily oil production, nor the north, which controls the refineries and oversees exportation, is satisfied.

The conflict springs from this interdependence. “The main problem is that South Sudan thinks, rightly or wrongly, that the north is imposing exorbitant taxes for use of its pipeline,” Henry Hall, Africa specialist for Critical Resource, told FRANCE 24. Consequently, the south is looking to build a pipeline that would circumvent the north and instead go through Kenya and Uganda – much to the north’s annoyance.

Border tensions

But the oil problem is not merely a matter of dividing revenue. The biggest and highest quality oil sources are located along the border in regions over which both north and south claim sovereignty. South Sudan came under fire from the international community when on April 10 it asserted military control over the disputed Heglig oil field. Under international pressure, Salva Kiir’s armed forces withdrew from the site on April 20. Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir travelled to the oil field on April 23 and declared “with [South Sudan], one can only negotiate with guns and bullets”.

“All these incidents and the explosive context of fighting over oil have led many to conclude that armed conflict is indeed inevitable,” assessed Henry Hall. One world power that has reason to hope widespread violence is avoided is China. “[China] is the one that has made Sudan an important oil power,” Daniel Litvin noted. Beijing indeed imports 5% of its oil from Sudan, which is, after Angola, China’s second biggest African oil source.

For China, Sudan is an oil seeker’s dream, as it need not worry about competition from the US; Sudan is on the US list of countries financing terrorism. But with no end in sight to the conflict between South Sudan and Sudan, that dream is looking more and more like a nightmare.
 

Date created : 2012-04-24

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