The Oil and the Glory

The oily subtext of South Sudanese independence

Resource curse theorists say that oil inherently creates evil within states. What they actually mean is that how oil revenue is shared — or not — often creates the evil. Such is the subtext in this week’s referendum in southern Sudan on whether to secede. In order for the breakaway from Sudan proper to go ...

ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images
ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images

Resource curse theorists say that oil inherently creates evil within states. What they actually mean is that how oil revenue is shared — or not — often creates the evil. Such is the subtext in this week’s referendum in southern Sudan on whether to secede.

In order for the breakaway from Sudan proper to go through, and in a relatively happy way, the oil-rich southerners must conceive a profit-sharing formula that satisfies the northerners, and the northerners mustn’t be greedy. The region’s long history of violence — including the ambush of 10 would-be voters today — makes many people doubtful, reports the Arab News. But international attention may help – for example, my colleague Joshua Keating weighs in on the import of the on-site presence of actor George Clooney.

For O&G purposes, one of the most interesting angles is the role of China, which in Sudan has tried unsuccessfully to appear inconspicuous as it violates its long-declared dictum against interfering in the internal politics of other states. At Al Jazeera, Donata Hardenberg writes that China’s huge Sudanese oil interests make it the country’s most self-interested international player, and notes that Beijing recently hedged its bets by upgrading its two-year-old local mission in the breakaway south to a full-fledged embassy.

Some 24,000 Chinese live in Sudan, where China has invested some $15 billion, all of it in service of the 300,000-odd barrels of oil the China National Petroleum Corp. produces each day in the petroleum-rich southern province of Abyei, whose oil is shipped 930 miles north to Port Sudan.

Voting ends Saturday, and then the north and south must talk through whether the split will take place. Who gets what will play a big role, and China’s intentions will be important. For example, China has hinted that it may help finance infrastructure for Sudan, including a competing 875-mile pipeline that would take the south Sudanese oil to the Kenyan port of Lamu. As part of any deal, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir may want assurances that the proposed new pipeline won’t materialize, but that if it is built, the profit-sharing mechanism will hold.

Whatever the case, oil will remain at the center of any secession deal, and the question of whether peace holds afterward, John Campbell writes at the Council on Foreign Relations:

The oil-rich province of Abyei has already proven to be a flashpoint and will likely continue to be. Here, as in other troubled parts of Africa, ethnic, religious, and economic boundaries coincide, and there is space for outsiders to stir the pot. Both northern and southern politicians claim the territory, an area where nomadic pastoralists, the Messiria, and farmers, the Ngok Dinka, collide. The former are predominately Muslim with ties to Khartoum; the latter are Christians and Animists who look to Juba. The International Tribunal at The Hague divided the province, but al-Bashir has not accepted its judgment, and some southern politicians are insisting the entire province should become part of southern Sudan.

Even if he shows good faith over the referendum, al-Bashir will need to watch his back in Khartoum against forces upset with the apparent softening of his stance. Just before the referendum, the Sudanese Comprehensive Conference, an umbrella of opposition parties to al-Bashir’s ruling National Congress, publicly accused the president of failing to maintain national unity. International Muslim opinion will also impact Khartoum’s response to south Sudan’s secession. Thus far, however, the Organization of the Islamic Conference and the Arab League have been largely silent.

Already this tribal backdrop in Abyei has revealed itself, Bloomberg’s Matt Richmond and Jared Ferrie report. Violence over the last few days in Abyei has killed some 20 people in all, pitting the Misseriya tribe, which identifies with the north, against the Ngok Dinka, which associates itself with the south.

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