Samuel Marshall writes from Khartoum: The long running feud between the Republic of Sudan and the Republic of South Sudan has descended into a shooting war again. Last year, the Republic of South Sudan broke away from the north. Sudan was always an artificial country. Under British colonial administration the Arab speaking Muslim north was lumped together with the African mainly Christian south. The African south wanted to leave Sudan when it was granted independence from Britain. London refused.
So why are they fighting again? It’s about oil again. ‘Oil is a curse’, one Khartoum commentator said. The problem is that 75 per cent of the oil is in the south and the pipelines to take that oil run north to Port Sudan on the Red Sea. Needless to say the southerners would like to have their own pipeline – to Kenya and the Indian Ocean. That would deprive Khartoum of leverage and revenue.
The other problem is that much of the oil is in the border region between the two countries. Even worse, no final border was agreed when the south became independent. The main oil centre is Heglig. The north regards it as theirs but the south disputes this. So the south raided Heglig to take it over. Khartoum sent in troops and drove the southerners out. Over a thousand bodies of dead soldiers were counted.
About 98 per cent of the south’s revenue comes from oil. However it stopped pumping oil through the pipelines in January. President Salva Kiir is now in China on an official visit. He has told President Hu Jintao that the north has declared war on his republic. President Omar al-Bashir has stated that the time for negotiations is over. The south only understands guns and ammunition.
So what can the Chinese do? They have been close allies of President al-Bashir and are now trying to promote relations with President Salva Kiir. China is the major importer of Sudanese oil and is developing infrastructure in the north. There are many Chinese technicians in the oil fields.
China has prided itself in not interfering in African politics. It is only interested in business. It is now discovering that you cannot separate politics from economics. The Chinese argument is quite simple. They will say to both sides: ‘We need the oil and you need the revenue. Let’s come to a deal’. Can it be that simple? Beijing may have to provide an incentive: say extend loans and help develop the south. Will they consider building an oil pipeline to the Kenyan coast? This would exacerbate their relations with Khartoum. The north is in the weaker economic position. So it will need compensation.
An option which President al Bashir may be contemplating is to occupy militarily the oil resources south of the border. The Chinese would advise against this. It is not certain that Khartoum has the military strength to achieve this objective. Anyway if the north managed to occupy the oilfields, the south would resort to sabotage.
This is the most difficult political problem the Chinese have yet encountered in Africa, apart from Libya. If they cannot broker a settlement, they lose the oil and will have to buy it elsewhere. If they fall out with President al-Bashir they stand to lose their extensive investments in the north. The rich oil region of Abyei is claimed by both states. A reasonable settlement would be to split oil revenues 50-50. Can the Chinese talk the two sides round so that a compromise can be reached? The Arab north will not tolerate Europeans or Americans interfering in their affairs. The best bet for peace rests with the Chinese.