What do most Indians know about Sudan? That it's in north-east Africa, Egypt's southern neighbour and watered in parts by the Nile. What does Oil Minister Ram Naik know about Sudan? That he has recently clinched for the people of India a 25 percent stake in oil fields that produce 250,000 barrels per day, roughly equivalent to the country's biggest, Bombay High.
What neither the honourable minister nor sections of the media are telling the people of India is that the US$750 million (Rs. 3,750 crore) deal (one third of India's FDI for the last fiscal year) with Canada's Talisman Energy Inc. concerns an area where Sudan's Islamic military government has been waging a brutal war against its own people. Up to 2 million civilians have been killed and more than 4 million displaced in the south of the country, where the people are primarily animist and Christian "African Sudanese" who differ significantly from the ruling "Arab Sudanese" in the north in their race, culture, skin colour and often religion.
Impoverished Sudan, which once had the potential for feeding all of Africa, is one of the most serious crises in the world today. Power is concentrated in the hands of an oligarchy of religious extremists, that is bent upon imposing its ideology on the rest of the country, using rape, slavery, torture, and murder as weapons of war. Southern ethnic groups like the Nuba face daily threats to their lives, a "scorched earth warfare" to clear the oil exploration, extraction and transportation infrastructure of civilians, condemned by international civil rights groups, governments and the UN. In October 2001, US President George W. Bush extended the four-year-old sanctions against Sudan that include a ban on US companies doing business in Sudan. The White House press release specifically cited "continuing concern about its record on terrorism and the prevalence of human rights violations, including slavery, restrictions on religious freedom, and restrictions on political freedom."
It was exactly these concerns that fired a dogged campaign led by human rights and church groups in Canada forcing Talisman Energy Inc., Canada's biggest oil and gas producer, to give up its Sudanese asset (picked up in 1998 for US$270 million). These had turned into a public relations nightmare for the company in the face of a storm of accusations including a class action suit in the United States that alleges Talisman asked Khartoum in 1999 to remove villagers from the vicinity of its oil properties. Though its head Jim Buckee has defended his company on that charge, the barrage of criticism dragged Talisman stock down behind its peers; and in February 2001, then Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy sent a delegation to Sudan to assess allegations of human rights abuses. The result, the Harker Report, not only catalogued a long list of abuses, but also underscored the role of oil in the "extraordinary suffering and continuing human rights violations" and concluded that the "oil operations in which (Talisman) is involved add more suffering." By the middle of last year, Talisman had unofficially put its stake in the Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company (GNPOC), which includes a 4.8 million hectare concession and 1,500 km pipeline from the producing fields to Port Sudan on the Red Sea, on the auction block.
What is the role of oil in Sudan's politics? Revenue from Sudan's only producing fields, a joint venture of the China National Petroleum Corp (40 percent), the Malaysian state oil firm, Petronas (30 percent), the Sudanese state-owned Sudapet (5 percent) and the remaining 25 percent now with Indias Oil and Natural Gas Corporation, is being used to fund the civil war in southern Sudan and the Nuba mountains where Sudan's vast oil reserves and fertile lands are located. In addition, the roads and airfields built and maintained by Talisman and its international partners have served as strategic military assets for the Sudanese armed forces who use them to launch bombing runs and ground attacks on civilian targets. Finally, with the oil earnings the National Islamic Front government believes it can achieve "peace" on its own terms as was apparent at the doomed-before-they-started peace talks in Kenya this month.
The Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), the most prominent of the fractious southern rebel groups, has warned that India is making a "fateful mistake" by investing in oil in Sudan. SPLA spokesperson Samson Kwaje was quoted saying, "Morally it is wrong and the only solution that we can employ as the Sudanese people is to shut it down. To us, all oil installations in the country remain a legitimate military target. Let them [India] do what they can with Khartoum, whatever deal they can make, but they stand to lose at the end." In fact, the International Crisis Group, an international think-tank based in Brussels, released a report last month, written by John Prendergast, who served as African expert on the National Security Council under US President Bill Clinton, warning that the war in Sudan could escalate with both the government and rebels buying lethal new weapons. It said Khartoum's substantially enhanced oil revenues were paying for Russian MiG-29s, Australian air-boats and search and acquisition radar and other weapons that would intensify the conventional battles that between January and June this year, were the "bloodiest battles (so far) in Sudans history".
Sudan's oil revenues had enabled the Sudanese government to adopt "more brutal tactics" in driving civilians out of the oil areas, Prendergast said. Khartoum stands accused of bombing starving people waiting in line for humanitarian aid in the south, which has been in the grip of a man-made famine that killed 200,000 people last year. In October 2001, USAID administrator Andrew Natsios said in Washington, "As it stands today, oil has only helped to fuel tension, bitterness and war. The forced displacement of tens of thousands from around the pipelines has swelled. The abandoned and destroyed villages were readily apparent as we flew over the pipeline...the destruction of peoples lives could not be more apparent." None of this is apparently of any concern to Minister Naik. Asked during a recent visit to Canada whether India is concerned about Sudan's bloody politics, he told the Financial Post: "Every country has different concerns and our concern is to have oil equity."