Sudan: Open War for Oil Breaks Out Again

In April the long war for control of Sudan’s oil broke out again. South Sudan, which became an independent country in 2011, shut down all oil production in the oil fields which it controls and launched an incursion into Sudanese territory and captured the Sudanese town and oil field of Heglig. It is reported that oil facilities in Heglig have been destroyed. Sudan responded with a counter offensive, which appears to have recaptured Heglig, and launched bombing raids on South Sudan towns. Both sides meanwhile mobilised for war. In response to these developments, the US, which did not want to see its South Sudanese client embroiled in a war it was unlikely to win, tabled a UN Security Council motion demanding an end to hostilities. This motion, which was subsequently passed with backing by China and Russia, demanded both sides restart negotiations and reach an agreement on the border location and division of oil revenues within 3 months. If this was not accepted, mandatory economic sanctions would follow. Both sides appear to have accepted this resolution and at present (mid May) an uneasy truce exists.

The latest fighting is simply the continuation of the long war for control of Sudanese oil which has raged since 1983; a war which has been extraordinarily destructive even by Africa’s standards. It is estimated that 2.5 million people, most of whom were civilians, have been killed and 5 million have been displaced and become refugees. The independence of South Sudan was the result of an agreement, ratified in 2005, to end this long war. Following the agreement there was to be a period of 6 years in which there would be greater autonomy for the 10 states forming South Sudan, after which there would be a referendum on independence if the south still wanted it. During this 6 year period the oil revenues were shared equally between the north and the south.

The referendum duly took place in January 2011. An overwhelming majority were in favour, and South Sudan officially became an independent country with a seat at the UN etc. in July last year. At a stroke Sudan lost approximately 75% of its oil fields. Sudanese oil production is now approximately 500 000 barrels per day (bpd) but only 115 000 of this comes from wells in Sudanese territory. Both states are almost completely dependent on oil export for their revenues. Revenue from exports of oil represents 98% and 93% of the total for the South and the North respectively[i]. Under these circumstances it is not surprising that disputes have rapidly arisen over the location of the border, which passes through the oil fields, and the sharing of the oil revenues. The oil producing region of Abyei is claimed by both countries and has been occupied by Sudanese troops. The existing pipelines run north from the southern oil fields through Sudanese territory to Port Sudan on the Red Sea, and all the existing refineries are in Sudan. (See map below.) Sudan levied transit fees for southern oil passing through these pipelines, which the South disputed, and this led to the closing down of production mentioned above and the assault on Heglig. The Heglig field supplied approximately 55 000 bpd, or half of the oil which remained in Sudan. The war which now looms will produce further massive bloodshed and destruction of the existing oil facilities and other wealth.

Theatre of Imperialist Wars

The South Sudan war is one of many low level wars which continue to smoulder and periodically break into flame in this region of Africa. Within Sudan war still continues in Darfur[ii] and further west there is war in Chad. To the east there is a war in Somalia; to the south there is a guerrilla war in Uganda and the never ending war in the Democratic Republic of Congo[iii]. To the north there is war in Libya.

These wars are mostly surrogate wars between states with guerrilla movements confronting state forces. The guerrilla forces being armed and financed by the local states to further their local ambitions. The Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), the main force which brought about the independence of South Sudan, is supported by Uganda. Uganda has interests in South Sudan and hopes to get some of the oil of the South. The guerrilla movements in Darfur, the Sudan People’s Army (SPA) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) are supported by Chad. Sudan for its part is supporting and arming the Lord’s Resistance Army fighting in Uganda and South Sudan. Within South Sudan there are internal conflicts between the government and armed groups supported by the north in 9 of the 10 states which form the south. In Chad, Sudan is supporting the Union of Resistance Forces against the current government forces. However, these states are themselves clients of the major imperialist powers, and the arms money and training for the guerrilla forces come from their imperialist masters. The US, for example, armed and financed the SPLA via Uganda and Ethiopia and organised for it to be trained by Israel. Its previous leader John Garang was given officer training in the US. The US has ultimately guided and financed the breakaway of South Sudan. The US similarly supports SPA and the JEM in Darfur via Chad and Uganda. Sudan in turn is armed and protected by China and it is this which enables Sudan to support guerrilla movements against its enemies. These states are little more than the agents of their imperialist masters in the US, China or Europe.

The ultimate aim of these wars is a re-division of the resources of this region between the major imperialist powers. The wars are therefore what we would call imperialist proxy wars.

Chinese Challenge to US Dominance

China is now the world’s largest exporter of capital and is emerging as an imperialist rival to US in Asia, Africa and Latin America. In Africa, which was previously an area where US and European capital dominated, China is making massive investments. These generally take the form of infrastructure developments in return for raw materials. In the wake of these investments comes trade. China’s trade with Africa, which was $150bn in 2011, is now almost double that of the US, which was $82bn in the same period.

China has invested approximately $8bn in Sudanese oil and takes 60% of the production which amounts to 11% of China’s oil imports. In addition China has supplied Sudan with telecommunications, other infrastructure construction and services such as hotels. The immediate effect of the present crisis is that China has a shortage of oil, while the long term threat is that most of this investment will be lost and it will be permanently excluded from the oil fields of the south. To avoid this, China has been courting the new regime in South Sudan and urging its leader, Salva Kiir, who was actually visiting Beijing when the latest flare-up took place, to avoid war and return to negotiations. The oil installations in South Sudan are controlled by Chinese engineers of the Chinese National Petroleum Company (CNPC) who are now in a vulnerable position. China has sent a small force of “peace keepers” including infantry to the troubled border region[iv]. This has not prevented Chinese nationals being kidnapped.

Sudanese oil was originally discovered and exploited by the US oil company Chevron, but it pulled out of the country during the early stages of the civil war in 1985. The oil fields were later taken over and developed by the Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company (GNPOC), a consortium in which the Chinese National Petroleum Company (CNPC) dominated. Certain US interests would dearly love to regain control of this source of oil and to have the ability to prevent the Chinese using it. Hence US support for independence of the south and support for the construction of a new pipeline to the Kenyan port of Lamu. A southern pipeline through Kenya to Lamu would substantially weaken Sudan and make much of the existing investment in pipelines and oil refineries valueless. The Sudanese oil fields are, however, thought to be much larger than the existing discoveries indicate and to extend north/west from South Sudan to Chad. If this is, in fact, the case a great deal of this undiscovered oil will lie in Sudanese territory. The US would therefore prefer to install a friendly regime in Khartoum which would give it access to all the Sudanese oil fields. It has been trying to bring about regime change in Khartoum for over 2 decades but this has been frustrated by the Chinese. Their development of the oil resources has given the regime the resources to fight the US backed insurgencies and US resolutions at the UN to impose an oil embargo have been vetoed. The US has, however, made as many problems as it could for the Sudanese regime. It has imposed sanctions on the regime since 1996 proscribing any US investment there. It has branded the regime as a sponsor of terrorism, while, of course, at the same time as sponsoring guerrilla wars inside Sudanese territory. It has ensured that the Sudanese President Al Bashir has been indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court, and a warrant for his arrest has been issued. The US promise to lift sanctions if the regime agreed to the breakaway of South Sudan has not been fulfilled.

African Oil

The US struggle for control of Sudanese oil is part of a more general struggle for African oil. Walter Kansteiner, the US Secretary of State for African Affairs from 2001 to 2003 stated the US position as follows:

African oil is of national strategic interest to us and it will increase and become more important as we go forward……..We don’t see anything stopping the Chinese increasing their equity participation in oil and think it probably would be problematic if they were the dominant player.[v]

African oil in 2008 amounted to 21% of all US oil imports[vi] and it is estimated this will rise to 25% by 2015. In 2007 the US military set up a new command centre AFRICOM to protect US interests, particularly oil interests, in Africa. This command centre draws on US military resources throughout the European theatre and North Africa while a new US naval base has been established in the islands of Sao Tome & Principé. This base is strategically placed to protect US oil interests in the Gulf of Guinea. All this indicates the seriousness with which the US is preparing to frustrate Chinese advances and to both protect and expand its interests in Africa. The recent war in Libya, which represented a direct setback for Chinese oil interests in the country, is an indication of the type of confrontation which lies ahead.

Wars Caused by Capitalism

The developments described above are a symptom of a more general development, namely the challenge of a rising imperialist power to the domination of existing imperialist powers. It is a struggle, sometimes open, sometimes hidden for control of resources, just as we have seen in Iraq and Afghanistan. The real motive forces behind this need to be explained.

Although local causes can be advanced to explain the wars in Sudan and throughout the region, killing on such a scale and over such long periods and across the continent cannot be explained by a series of contingent causes. On the contrary such wars must express some deeper general malaise. We argue that they are an expression of fundamental problems in the capitalist system of production. In particular they express the increasingly desperate competitive struggle of capitalist powers for cheaper sources of raw materials and energy while at the same time, the struggle to exclude their rivals from these things. This struggle, in Marxist economic terms, represents a struggle for a greater share of the surplus value produced by the world’s workers. This, in turn, is required to offset the law of the tendency for capitalist profit rates to fall. These wars are therefore, an indirect expression of the fundamental problems which lie at the heart of the capitalist system of production. With the decline in profit rates and the consequent sharpening of competition such wars become more and more frequent. Periods of peace become temporary intervals during which new wars are being prepared. The only long term peace which capitalism can offer is the peace of the grave.

The stupidity of these wars would be evident to any observer who did not view them through the lens of what capitalism presents as realism. Instead of sharing resources and developing them for the benefit of all we see a war which lasts decades and leaves 2.5 million people dead. Under capitalism a weaker country’s possession of resources becomes a curse instead of a benefit, as these resources are continually fought over. The Democratic Republic of Congo where war over minerals has left 5.5 million dead is a fine example of this, but so are the wars in Iraq and Libya. Of course, as we have seen above, these wars are stoked up and controlled by imperialist powers, who are quite happy to wade through rivers of blood to get their hands on the oil. Any talk of sharing the world’s resources or common development is considered absurd, or even insurrectionary, since we live in a world whose rules are determined by capitalism’s need to extract a profit.

Can there be a more graphic illustration of the urgent need to overthrow the capitalist system than the agony of Africa? Global capitalism is taking the world to disaster. We need to replace it with a system where resources will be developed for the benefit of all the world’s people.


[i] Figures from BBC 4/7/2011

[ii] See “Genocide today – oil tomorrow” RP 33

[iii] For an analysis of the war in the Congo see “Behind the slaughter and looting stand imperialist interests” RP 48.

[iv] Reported in Financial Times 21/2/12

[v] See “Behind the smell of blood in Darfur lie imperialist interests” RP 40

[vi] See

Thursday, May 24, 2012