Darfur – blood, tears and …oil November 5, 2007Posted by Andreas in Politics, Society, South Africa.
There’s a slightly different version of the following in The Big Issue (on Cape Town streets now). The version in the mag comes with pics by Eric Miller, so do go and buy it!
Darfur – blood, tears and …oil
“They would arrive in the village, kill as many people as they could, displace the rest and then they’d start the looting and the burning” says Brian Steidle, a young former US marine who worked as an unarmed observer in Darfur, equipped only with camera and notebook, and whose story is told in the documentary The Devil Came on Horseback.
Most of us have heard about Darfur – snippets of information from the odd newspaper headline and the occasional sound bite from a TV or radio news broadcast. We know that something bad, some horrible human tragedy is happening there. Exactly who is doing what to whom, however, is less clear to many of us.
Darfur, which means “homeland of the Fur tribe”, is the westernmost region of Africa’s largest country, Sudan, and has been engulfed in a devastating civil conflict since the early 1990’s. In what the United Nations has described as ‘the world’s worst humanitarian crisis’, as many as 450 000 people may have lost their lives as a result of violence, disease and famine. Some 2.5 million people have become refugees in desolate, overcrowded and unsanitary camps throughout the region as well as across the border in neighbouring Chad, and between 700 and 2000 villages have been partially or completely destroyed.
In the beginning of 2003 armed Darfurian rebels, belonging predominantly to two groups, the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), started to attack Sudanese government facilities, such as military posts, police stations and army convoys. The rebels claim that the government, which has been dominated by a minority elite of ethnic Arabs drawn from tribes living north of the capital Khartoum since the country’s independence from Britain in 1956, is guilty of systematic neglect, racist discrimination and oppression of Darfur. They demand equality with the rest of the country and a fair share of the national resources.
The Sudanese army responded to the rebel attacks with a ruthless offensive from the land and air, bombing and raiding rebel strongholds and causing frequent casualties among the civilian population. At the same time, the government started to arm and finance ethnically Arab militias to fight the rebels.
Referred to as Janjaweed, or “devil on horseback”, these brutal militias have been accused of numerous atrocities against civilians, including public mass rapes, abduction of women and children, torture, mass killings, burning of whole villages, sex slavery, theft and destruction. There have been numerous documented cases of direct collaboration between the Sudanese army and the Janjaweed. In several instances, the army was observed to soften up a village by bombing it only to be followed by Janjaweed militiamen, on horses, in 4×4 trucks or even on foot, who slash, burn, loot and butcher their way through the settlement.
In the past, negotiations between the rebels and government have resulted in several ceasefire agreements, none of which have brought an end to the fighting. In May, the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague issued warrants of arrest for a Janjaweed leader, Ali Muhammad Ali Abdelrahman (also known as Ali Kushayb), and a Sudanese government minister, Ahmad Harun, the current Minister for Humanitarian Affairs. They face 51 counts of alleged crimes against humanity and war crimes, including the destruction of property, pillaging, rape and murder.
Although Ali Kushayb is thought to be in detention awaiting trial in Darfur, the Sudanese government has denied the ICC’s authority in the matter and refuses to hand over the two men. In a more promising development, in June, Sudan’s government agreed to permit the deployment of an African Union – United Nations (AU-UN) hybrid force, the United Nations African Mission in Darfur (UNAMID).
The tragedy in Darfur is frequently characterized as a war between black “African” rebels supported by the civilian population and “Arab” Janjawiid and government forces – a gross simplification and misrepresentation of the realities on the ground. As is the case with most civil wars, the situation in Darfur is considerably more complex than it first appears.
Darfur is home to a population of approximately 7.4 million multi-ethnic and multi-lingual people who co-existed in relatively peaceful harmony until the end of the millennium, although tribal rivalries, mostly over scarce grazing and water resources, occurred long before 2003.
According to writer and activist Alex de Waal, “Ethnicity in Darfur is fabulously complex. (…) Historically, Darfur was an independent sultanate. It had a structure similar to that of a string of states across Sudanic Africa. At its core was a ruling ethnic group (the Keira clan of the Fur), which had adopted Islam and used Arabic as the language of jurisprudence. (…)The Darfur Arabs are just as black, indigenous, Muslim and African as their non-Arab neighbours. To speak of an African-Arab dichotomy is historical and anthropological nonsense.”
In the words of Mahjoub Mohamed Saleh, editor of Sudan’s independent Al-Ayam newspaper. “The bottom line is that tribes have intermarried forever in Darfur. Men even have one so-called Arab wife and one so-called African. Tribes started labeling themselves this way several decades ago for political reasons. Who knows what the real bloodlines are in Darfur?”
Mahmood Mamdani, a professor at the Institute of African Studies of New York’s University of Columbia puts it this way: “all parties involved in the Darfur conflict – whether they are referred to as ‘Arab’ or as ‘African’ – are equally indigenous and equally black. All are Muslims and all are local. (…) In the ethnic sense, there are few Arabs worth speaking of in Darfur, and a very tiny percent in Sudan. In the cultural sense, Arab refers to those who have come to speak Arabic as a home language and, sometimes, to those who are nomadic in lifestyle. In this sense, many have become Arabs. From the cultural point of view, one can be both African and Arab, in other words, an African who speaks Arabic, which is what the ‘Arabs’ of Darfur are. For those given to thinking of identity in racial terms, it may be better to think of this population as ‘Arabized’ rather than ‘Arab.’” Mamdani and de Waal point out that both “Arabism” and “Africanism”, in a political sense, are fairly recent in Darfur.
Although the Janjaweed and the Sudanese army are responsible for by far the largest proportion of atrocities and human rights abuses committed in the region, the rebels have not always been angels and are responsible for several attacks on villages and killings of innocent civilians. Some observers allege that Darfurian rebel groups have received support, including US-supplied arms, from Chad’s “president for life”, Idriss Deby, who launched his own military take-over of power from Darfur in 1990. Today, Khartoum is accused of supporting anti-Deby rebels who operate a military camp in West Darfur.
Another factor that is often overlooked, but plays a central role in the Darfur conflict is access to scarce resources. While traditionally that meant mostly rights to water and grazing, today it means –surprise, surprise – oil.
Sudan is Africa’s seventh biggest oil producer (after Nigeria, Libya, Algeria, Angola, Egypt, and Equatorial Guinea). According to American journalist David Morse, “Oil revenues to Khartoum have been about $1 million a day, exactly the amount which the government funnels into arms – helicopters and bombers from Russia, tanks from Poland and China, missiles from Iran. Thus, oil is fueling the genocide in Darfur at every level.”
At the moment, companies from China, Malaysia, the USA, India, France, the UAE, Sweden and elsewhere are actively producing or exploring for oil in the country. Sudan is now China’s fourth biggest source of imported oil. The Chinese have built an oil pipeline, as well as factories, highways and the Friendship Conference Hall in Khartoum, and they own 50% of an oil refinery in the city. Since 1999 China has invested at least $15 billion in Sudan and The China National Petroleum Company is Sudan’s largest single foreign investor.
The realisation that foreign investment and revenues help the Sudanese government to finance the ongoing civil war in Darfur has led to international calls for disinvestment. In June this year, Desmond Tutu called for international sanctions to force the Sudanese government to end the Darfur crisis. “I support wholeheartedly the imposition, in the face of intransigence, of specific targeted sanctions on Khartoum”, said the Nobel Peace Prize laureate. “Especially when they are targeted, sanctions are effective, they worked for us.” Currently existing punitive measures against Khartoum include certain restrictions against Sudanese government officials and an arms embargo. Tutu has asked for these measures to be intensified and for countries to stop their companies from investing in Sudan.
Earlier this year, Shikaya, a Cape Town-based non-profit organisation promoting education for human rights, peace and democracy, launched the South African branch of the International Sudan Divestment Campaign. Shikaya director, Dylan Wray argues that “during apartheid citizens from all over the world protested in various ways to end the human rights abuses that were taking place in our country. It is now South Africa’s turn to speak out for citizens of another country that are in need.”
Although a number of international companies have indeed left, some South African companies are still operating in the country. Cell phone provider MTN and South Africa’s state-owned oil company, PetroSA, are increasingly coming under public scrutiny for their investments in the strive-torn country.
In January 2005, PetroSA won a contract to explore for oil in northern Sudan and it currently holds an 80% stake in an exploration area called Block 14, the remainder being controlled by Sudapet, the national oil firm of Sudan. Although PetroSA’s Sudanese activities are still only in the exploration phase and not yet producing any oil, activists point out that the fees paid by the company to the allow it to carry out the exploration activities flow directly to the Sudanese government.
According to the South African Darfur Divestment Campaign, “PetroSA invests in Sudan’s oil industry; the majority of Khartoum’s revenue from this oil goes to Sudan’s military; Sudan’s military is prosecuting the Darfur genocide, considered the worst humanitarian crisis in the world today by the UN.” There are precedents for oil companies divesting from Sudan: in 2003, the Canadian company Talisman was forced to sell its shares in an oil consortium as a result of mounting public pressure.
Neil Lewis, PetroSA’s General Managing Director: Image and Communication, cited having only started his job three months ago and being extremely busy with helping to organise the recent National Energy Summit as reasons for not being able to answer my queries regarding his company’s involvement in Sudan. I am yet to receive comments he promised to send via email.
In July 2006, MTN bought the parent company of Areeba, a Sudanese mobile operator, re-branding it as MTN-Sudan. With more than 1.4 million subscribers, the company is now Sudan’s leading cell phone operator. In the words of Reuters reporter Andrew Heavens: “for them, the vast expanses of Sudan’s western Darfur region are not so much a disaster zone as one more unexploited mobile phone market waiting to be tapped.” Perhaps not the kind of corporate behaviour one would expect from a company with a Board of Directors that includes such luminaries of the South African struggle as Cyril Ramaphosa and Mamphela Ramphele. At the time of going to print, numerous email queries had yet to receive a response from MTN.
After the genocide in Rwanda and Burundi the international community vowed that this sort human tragedy should never be allowed to happen again. While well intended, such sentiments have been unable to stop what is happening in Darfur today. The sense of helplessness and frustration that many involved in searching for a solution experience is best expressed in the despairing words of Brian Steidle, the ex-US marine, whose photographs of atrocities in Darfur did much to bring the crisis to the attention of the western media: “in Darfur, my camera was not nearly enough.”