Sudan's history seems to substantiate the theory that oil-rich countries fail to develop politically. In their thorough analysis, Elke Grawert and Atta El-Battahani look at how oil has become a political factor in Sudan and how it has marginalised the people in the country's South

photo: AP
Sudanese dignitaries watch the first oil flow at pumping station No. 1 in central Sudan, in a test of the facility - oil has become a dominant factor in Sudanese foreign and domestic policy

​​The current distribution of power and wealth in Sudan is linked to the legacy of British colonialism (1898 – 1956). The British confined development projects to North Sudan and kept the South under a separate administrative status, effectively neglecting its needs. In the North, traditional and religious leaders enjoyed opportunities in a rent-based economy and in politics.

These forces took over state power after independence in 1956. The current government, which is dominated by the National Congress Party (NCP), is only the latest in a long line of regimes to defend economic and political privileges.

After independence, Sudanese politics was dominated by the riverine Arabised Muslim power bloc ("RAMP"). It tolerated the impoverishment of regions and peripheral areas far away from Khartoum, the capital city. Regional disparities and exclusion from wealth and power – whether real or perceived – led to tribal-ethnic tensions and armed rebel movements.

Decades of strife

In 1983, civil war in South Sudan was triggered by three policy changes instigated by Jafaar Nimeiri's military government:

  • The government dropped earlier secular principles in search of reconciliation with traditional, religious parties. The attempt culminated in Numeiri adopting Islamic Sharia law throughout Sudan, regardless of the religious predominance in any given region.
  • Moreover, the government unilaterally abrogated an agreement it had signed with the Southern Sudanese resistance movement in 1972. The agreement had granted that predominantly Christian part of the country regional autonomy.
  • Finally, the government attempted to exploit oil in South Sudan, without giving the region a fair share or compensation.

    All summed up, the RAMP leaders wanted to perpetuate their rule over all of Sudan, and the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) resisted such efforts.

    In 1985, a popular uprising overthrew the Numeiri regime. In 1988, a democratically elected government even started a peace initiative in the South. However, in 1989, the National Islamic Front (NIF) staged a military takeover, suspending the constitution and outlawing political parties. In power, the NIF started what it called a "civilisation project". The goal was to totally Islamise society.

    photo: AP
    Fragile peace - signing ceremony at U.N Security Council meeting in Nairobi, Kenya on 19 November 2004

    ​​The army, militias and "popular defence forces" began to wreak havoc in the South and the Nuba Mountains in the West. The government tolerated extra-legal land grabs by large-scale agricultural investors. Rural people were displaced for the sake of making space for oil exploration.

    Mediatory efforts and pressure by third parties, including western governments, helped to end, in 2005, the civil war in the South with the conclusion of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA). At the central level, a transitional government known as the "Government of National Unity" (GoNU) was formed, composed of NCP and SPLM, the civilian wing of the SPLA. The CPA was an attempt to reform the entire country, giving more say to those segments of the population that, so far, were marginalised.

    The control over the oil sector

    In spite of ceasefire having prevailed in South Sudan, the results are meagre overall. Partial success is mainly due to South Sudan having been granted a degree of autonomy. A regional Government of South Sudan (GoSS) has been re-established. It is run by an SPLM-dominated cabinet. There is a secular regional constitution, ensuring the population's right to hold a referendum on independence in 2011. Moreover, the SPLM's involvement in the GoNU has contributed to preventing the re-eruption of strife in the South.

    Wealth sharing, however, remains critical for future peace. The most sensitive issue is control over the oil sector. An oil belt runs through Sudan, along the border between North and South. Important oil fields are in the South. In the West, there are oil fields in areas, the affiliation of which is to be clarified by referenda in 2011.

    The CPA has tackled the issue, but not to much avail. According to the agreement, North and South each get half of the total oil revenues, after deduction of two percent for each oil-producing federal state. The CPA also provides for particular development efforts in the war-torn South. These measures are to be monitored by the United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) for six years.

    Two multi-donor trust funds were set up, one for Sudan as a whole and one for the South. Both are administered by the World Bank, they pledged $ 508 million in the first year. GoNU and GoSS were supposed to contribute a due share from their oil revenues. So far, however, there are hardly any tangible results on the ground.

    Reform programme stalled

    The first major setback was the premature death of John Garang, the SPLM leader who served as first southern vice president of Sudan. In South and North alike, the masses considered him a national hero who personally symbolised the hope for unity and prosperity. The Peace Agreement had become possible because of the moderate NCP faction's rapprochement with him. Further collaboration looked promising.

    Therefore, Garang's death in a helicopter crash July 2005 was a heavy blow. The moderates in the NCP have since been marginalised, whereas the influence of the hawkish faction has grown.

    The NCP has an obvious tendency to strive once again for the predominance of a narrow-based RAMP segment. Influential leaders promote ultra-right ideology and indulge in scare politics, making the majority population believe that African culture is threatening their Islamic-Arab way of life. Such identity politics is undermining the CPA vision of peace and unity, which had attracted support in the North.

    According to the CPA, several commissions were to be formed to tackle important tasks. Nonetheless, late last year neither the Civil Service Commission, nor the Land Commission, nor the Border Commission, nor the Petroleum Commission, nor the National Electoral Commission had been formed. The delay is another indicator of the hard-liners' growing influence. Originally, the Peace Agreement gave scope to trade unions and other interest associations, but, in practice, civil-society organisations are suppressed as soon as they raise political demands or criticise the government.

    The SPLM, on the other hand, has no clear profile in the GoNU, the core concern of which is control of natural resources. Several details of CPA implementation indicate the dominance of the RAMP forces:

    According to schedule, 65 % of the Sudanese armed forces were withdrawn from most areas in South Sudan by August 2006. However, the remaining troops were concentrated along the South-North border near the southern oil fields.

  • The NCP has taken over the Ministry of Energy and Mining, although it was originally allotted to the SPLM in the power sharing negotiations. That move led to disappointment throughout the country.
  • The GoNU has prevented UNMIS from monitoring the peace process in the oil-rich Abyei region at the inner-Sudanese border. We learned this through our research; the information was confirmed by the United Nations.

    Precarious status quo

    The NCP is apparently doing what it can to slow down the peace process, while consolidating a precarious status quo. It is dominating the GoNU and diverting attention from the CPA in South Sudan. New wars in other marginalised areas of the country seem more important now, for instance in Darfur. So far as peace in the South is concerned, the international public is no longer on the alert.

    Inside the GoNU, the SPLM is weak. It has not insisted on timely implementation of the CPA. Its weakness stems from several factors. One is certainly the difficult and slow process of turning a popular movement into a proper political party. Another is that leaders have mostly concentrated on the SPLM's dominant role in the GoSS, the main concern of which seems to be regional security. The regional assembly earmarked 27.5 % of the budget for security, justice, law and order.

    The GoSS is under pressure. It is struggling to control underpaid soldiers who used to fight for the liberation army and still carry arms. Moreover, the fear of the current ceasefire failing is not far fetched. That may happen if elections in 2008 lead to a NCP loss, or if the referendum in 2011 goes in favour of Southern independence.

    There are ten federal states in South Sudan, and they are implementing the CPA at different speeds. Late last year, some did not even have an operational government yet, because appointing political representatives involves power struggles between parties, party factions and other influential forces.

    Often, militia leaders were given government positions or state-assembly seats as reward for agreeing to dissolve their armed groups or integrating them in the national armed forces or the SPLA. According to our observations, the number of local official bodies was greatly increased in order to thus accommodate aspiring leaders' needs.

    The oil-producing states are at an advantage. On top of oil revenues, they also enjoy the attention of the mostly Chinese or Malaysian petrol companies active in the region. These companies are interested in a viable road infrastructure. But gasoline is still very expensive for local consumers. Oil is mostly exported, channelled through a pipeline to the Red Sea harbour of Port Sudan.

    Meanwhile, important land issues remain unresolved. The oil fields are in areas to which refugees and displaced people want to return. Non-violent solutions are needed to balance the competing interests of oil investors and returning peasants and pastoralists. The investors, however, are backed by the GoNU as well as by militias. In the State of Jonglei and pockets of Upper Nile State, violence still flares up occasionally – involving militias, warlords, regular troops and armed local residents.

    Disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration of armed groups are proceeding slowly. Neither the GoNU, the GoSS nor international organisations are carrying out such programmes with sufficient commitment, continuity or funds.

    Conclusions and recommendations

    The CPA is a negotiated attempt to solve cultural, economic, social and political conflicts by an institutional formula. It was intended to empower the largely marginalised South and other regions. The idea was to genuinely devolve powers from the central level. A reformed judiciary and specialised commissions for key policy areas were meant to accompany constitutional-political reform in the period of transition, and international peace-keeping forces were put in charge of monitoring.

    The results, however, are disappointing. The people of Sudan have not witnessed a peaceful, gradual restructuring of power relations. Rather, the post-CPA period is best understood in terms of stalled democratic transition and precarious peace. Privileged sections of the RAMP, currently represented by NCP, mistakenly believe that peace would mean giving up too much of their economic gains. In truth, inclusion of so far marginalised groups would enhance stability, and growth could make the economic pie bigger.

    Therefore, it is imperative to impress on the leadership of NCP that, in the long-term interest of its clientele, a more open polity is essential. Some factions within the NCP resist any move towards a more accommodative political system. They must be challenged by the collective will of the GoNU, the opposition parties and civil society.

    The CPA formula for sharing power and wealth, unfortunately, has not been successful so far. The challenge is to help a fragmented society recover from war. In this context, it may prove more sustainable to bank small-scale, locally accepted institutions rather than on large, nation-wide schemes. Rather than to fight over the precise distribution of wealth, it would make sense to boost growth and thus increase GDP through integrated development programmes based on oil and aid.

    If such programmes focused on regions marginalised so far, they could lay the foundations for lasting peace by making sure there is enough wealth for everyone to get a share.

    In any case, it would be utterly wrong to pay attention only to those who use violent means. If pressure groups and segments of the population that express their interests peacefully are neglected, a society already prepared to use violence will become even more so. More groups will take up arms, if only in the hope of being considered in future peace agreements. Sudan must escape from this vicious circle, and international organisations can play a crucial role by supporting approaches to peaceful solutions.

    Foreign policy-makers from abroad, international organisations, local and national intellectuals, critics, rights-oriented groups and professionals in Sudan and the diaspora must cooperate closely. In the worst case, the international community would support an institutional process that can only strengthen the power of a narrow elite unwilling to include hitherto oppressed groups in any sense of democratic participation.

    There is a real danger of the Darfur conflict diverting the international community's attention from the north-south peace process. That process must be back on track soon – or violent conflict is likely to break out again in South Sudan too.

    Elke Grawert / Atta El-Battahani

    © Development and Cooperation 2007

    This article was previously published by Development and Cooperation.

    Elke Grawert works at the Institute of World Economics and International Management of Bremen University. She coordinates the research project funded by Volkswagen Foundation.

    Atta El-Battahani teaches political science at Khartum University. He is working on the German African research project "Governance and social policy in the Sudan after the Peace Agreement of 9 January 2005 – local, national and regional dimensions".


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