20 October 2005

Sudan: Oil Sector Proves a Hard Nut to Crack

Khartoum — For geological engineer Farouq Kam, Sudan's 21-year civil war didn't really end in January when the country's Islamist government signed a peace agreement with rebels from the Christian and animist south. It just took on a more subtle hue.

"The war is not over...It is not necessarily going to be fought in the bush of southern Sudan anymore. But another war has just started, with other tools. And that is the war of tricks," he told IPS. At the heart of this conflict, lie Sudan's coveted oil resources.

January's peace deal stipulates that oil wealth is to be shared by government officials and former rebels of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) from the south. This area will now enjoy autonomy under the guidance of a regional government; the rebels also form part of a national transitional government.

However, control of the key Ministry of Energy and Mining, which deals with oil production and revenue, was awarded to President Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir's National Congress Party (NCP). This decision outraged many in southern Sudan, where most of the oil resources are located; they saw the move as a precursor to being denied their share of oil revenue.

Kam, who hails from the southern, oil-producing state of Bentiu, is a member of the Nuer ethnic group -- which issued a press statement recently to publicise concerns about the division of oil income. Under the peace accord, regional government in the south will receive 50 percent of oil revenue, the central government 48 percent -- and oil-producing areas the remaining two percent.

Some claim that the decision to yield over control of the energy ministry was motivated by SPLM leader and newly-appointed vice-president Salva Kiir Mayardit's desire to get the interim government up-and-running. The administration was inaugurated towards the end of last month, after delays sparked by disagreements over which group should manage critical ministries such as the energy portfolio.

"It's really a show of good faith," says Abendego Akok, head of the Juba University Centre of Peace and Justice Studies, located in the capital -- Khartoum. "The government was formed. We are now looking forward."

But even the most optimistic concede that the secrecy surrounding the oil industry is problematic. Figures on oil production are not disclosed.

"It's not transparent, so they do what they want. They don't do what the people want," claims Edriss Yousif Ahmad, a former member of parliament who is currently vice president of a group of activists in the strife-torn province of Darfur -- in western Sudan.

Akok agrees.

"No academic in the Sudan will tell you that he has read something about oil, oil revenue, how the contracts are signed, where it is sold," he told IPS. "We are unaware of all the structures of the oil ministry. If you deceive yourself that you know, that is a big lie."

Kam alleges that south Sudanese may also find other aspects of the oil sector hard to grasp, as they have been locked out of the industry.

"We have never been represented as far as the oil companies are concerned. We don't have people in the manpower (labour force). Our people are not allowed to work, even as manual labour -- leave away the qualified (personnel)," he says.

Adds Akok, "Most of the oil fields are in the war-affected areas, so they were under the Sudanese army. So the access to the oil fields is not so easy because they are considered to be military...areas."

Sudan's peace agreement provides for the formation of bipartisan commissions which will act as watchdogs to prevent corruption in government.

But such commissions cannot be established until the formation of a regional authority in the south is complete. Furthermore, commission members will not be elected but appointed, by Mayardit and al-Bashir. The undemocratic nature of this process has cast doubt on whether the commissions will be seen as legitimate.

In Ahmad's view, the development of strong regional authorities offers the best hope of ensuring fair play within the oil industry.

"We have to make strong regional governments against a weak central government," he told IPS. "Now we have a strong central government and weak regional governments. It's a problem."

The situation is made all the more fraught by the fact that after the six year interim period has elapsed, southern Sudanese will vote on whether they want to remain united with northern Sudan -- or secede to form their own nation, a move that would decisively place southern oil resources beyond the reach of Khartoum.

Sudan's new government faces many additional challenges. Southern militias which were not aligned with the SPLM still roam the region, while in Darfur, government stands accused of committing humanitarian violations against its own people and supporting brutal militias to crush dissent. An estimated 200,000 lives have been lost in the Darfur conflict.

More than two million died during the war in the south, which embarked on civil conflict to prevent religious domination by the Muslim north, as well as ethnic and economic marginalisation.

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