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Fields of Control: Oil and (In)security in Sudan and South Sudan

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By Laura M. James

I. Introduction and key findings

Oil and security in Sudan and South Sudan are, in the words of one former oil minister, ‘two faces of the same coin’.1 At the international, regional, national, state, and community levels, it is possible to trace how oil exploration, extraction, and exploitation have contributed to insecurity, both directly and indirectly.

More rarely, these activities have temporarily improved security, often through patronage or subornation. At the same time, security levels have an impact on oil production, as fighting provokes shutdowns or, more subtly, deters future investment.

This Working Paper reviews the historical linkages between oil and security in Sudan and South Sudan, and provides an overview of the key actors in the sector. After considering the security impact of the political and economic dimensions of oil production, it examines the more direct relationship between oil and violence, assessing the current situation within and between the two states as well as at the local community level as of mid-2015. It then identifies the similarities and differences between the Sudanese and South Sudanese oil ministries’ approaches to human security, and the impact of the current civil conflict.

The key conclusions are:

• The oil–conflict nexus is widely acknowledged as a global phenomenon, yet in Sudan and South Sudan, it has been intensified by an accident of history and geography: the location of most of the oilfields along the volatile former colonial border between the two countries.

• Under recent peace agreements, the Sudanese and South Sudanese governments have to some extent harnessed the oil industry to promote security between the two countries, based on the common interest established by South Sudan’s possession of most of the oil and Sudan’s control of the export infrastructure. At a subnational level, however, oil, patronage, insecurity, and civil conflict remain closely bound together.

• Barring major new discoveries in the future, oil production in Sudan and South Sudan has probably already peaked. The economic and political adjustments to declining revenue, some of which have already begun, could further boost insecurity in both countries.

• The oilfields have been an important prize in the civil conflict that broke out in South Sudan in December 2013. While the rebels have not captured the oilfields, their activities have significantly diminished the government’s cash flow. The violence was initially exacerbated by oil-linked community discontent in Unity and Upper Nile states. The ongoing fighting has also further contributed to environmental degradation and poor community relations in the oil areas.

• There are rumblings of ongoing community discontent in Sudan, particularly among Missiriya groups, which have been responsible for pervasive lowlevel insecurity that has been hindering oil operations. The government has made partial efforts to address this, and has thus far succeeded in limiting the unrest, but not in eliminating the underlying causes.

• Since late 2013, relations between Sudan and South Sudan have been unusually cooperative, based on a common interest in keeping the oil flowing. This rapprochement remains vulnerable, however, not only to potential economic pressures and new disputes when the oil agreement expires at the end of 2016, but also to cross-border aspects of ongoing civil strife in both countries, combined with local tensions.

• Sudan’s poor management of the oil sector has led to corruption, overcentralization, and environmental degradation, causing serious grievances among the local communities. This dynamic has to some extent been mirrored in the new state of South Sudan. While Sudan’s efforts at improvement remain largely nominal, South Sudan has managed to put in place strong legislation in line with international best practices. There has been no effective implementation, however, and the prospect of progress receded when the civil conflict began.

The bulk of the research for this paper was carried out in January–April 2014, with further work conducted in April and October 2015. Given the lack of transparency in much of the oil sector in Sudan and South Sudan, this research is based on cross-referencing of the widest possible range of sources. These include not only official publications and unpublished internal reports, but also interviews with policy-makers, advisers, and officials. Due to poor security conditions, the author was not able to visit the oil areas and interview community members directly; however, she drew on secondary sources to ensure that their voices informed the analysis.

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