By Phil Gasper | June 11, 2004 | Page 8
A HUMANITARIAN disaster of catastrophic proportions is continuing to unfold in the western Sudan province of Darfur. "We estimate right now if we get relief in, we'll lose a third of a million people, and if we don't, the death rates could be dramatically higher, approaching a million people," said Andrew Natsios, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development after an emergency United Nations (UN) meeting last weekend.
Yet the U.S. government is more interested in brokering a deal in Sudan's decades-old civil war between the central government in Khartoum and rebels in the south of the country--because there are oil profits to be made.
The crisis in Darfur was caused by the central government. Over the past 16 months, it responded to an uprising in Darfur by the Sudanese Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) with massive repression and brutality.
The two rebel groups, which draw their support from Darfur's impoverished Black African population, are fighting for autonomy and against years of neglect and discrimination by the central government, which is led by Arab Islamists. Rather than negotiate with the insurgents, the government launched a full-scale attack on the civilian population, killing thousands, destroying villages and much of the agricultural system, and creating 1 million internal refugees.
More than 120,000 Sudanese Africans have fled across the border to neighboring Chad, one of the world's poorest countries. According to human rights groups, 60 percent of the African villages in Darfur have been destroyed. The attacks have been carried out by both the Sudanese army and a 20,000-strong local militia known as the Janjaweed (meaning "men on horseback"), recruited from Darfur's Arab population.
The SLA and JEM were initially formed in response to Janjaweed attacks, following a long history of tensions between African pastoralists and Arab nomads. The central government has taken advantage of these antagonisms and provided the Janjaweed with arms and equipment.
The army and militias work hand in hand. Numerous African villages have been bombed or attacked by helicopter gunships, preparing the way for Janjaweed raids. The militia shoots civilians indiscriminately and is responsible for widespread acts of rape. According to Mukesh Kapila, the UN humanitarian coordinator for Sudan, "This is more than just a conflict. It is an organized attempt to do away with a group of people."
The tactics employed in Darfur by the Sudanese government are similar to those it has used in its 20-year civil war with the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA) based in the south of the country. Arab-African conflicts have a long history in Sudan, but they were deliberately manipulated and intensified during British colonial rule from the late 19th century to the 1950s.
Britain's policy of divide and rule left African areas of the country in the south and west economically undeveloped. Civil war between the north and south broke out in 1955, a year before Sudan's formal independence, and lasted until 1972.
War resumed in 1983 and intensified in the late 1990s when a 1,000-mile pipeline was constructed to connect Sudan's southern oilfields with Port Sudan in the north. With assistance from foreign oil companies, the Khartoum government carried out a scorched-earth policy, destroying all African villages near the pipeline.
The result was a famine in 1998--which was made much worse by the government's policy of blocking aid to the south. By last year, over 2 million people in the south had died, and over 4 million were refugees.
But Western governments now prefer a more stable environment to gain access to Sudan's oil reserves, currently estimated at over 2 billion barrels. This is why they have pressured the central government into peace negotiations with the SPLA.
Talks are continuing in Kenya, and the two sides are close to an agreement that would give the south a more equitable sharing of Sudan's oil revenues, political autonomy and an eventual referendum on independence. The rebel groups in Darfur would like to negotiate a similar agreement, but instead, the Khartoum government has conducted its massive campaign of ethnic cleansing.
The U.S. government has imposed sanctions on Sudan since the mid-1990s and classifies the country as a "sponsor of terrorism." But Washington has quietly been mending fences with the regime--because of Sudan's oil resources.
Thus, while Washington verbally condemns the human rights abuses in Darfur, it is far more concerned that negotiations with the SPLA are successful--to allow better Western access to the oil. According to Georgette Gagnon, Africa Director of Human Rights Watch, "Most of the international community has been very concerned with ensuring the north-south talks don't fall apart, [so] they have been tiptoeing around this Darfur problem to some extent."
As a result, it is far from clear that the Sudan government will feel obliged to allow humanitarian aid to reach Darfur in the next few months--or that Western governments will provide the necessary funds to pay for it. Jan Egeland, the UN under-secretary general for humanitarian affairs, says that the organization still needs another $100 million for the rest of the year.
That's less than what the U.S. government spends in one day on the occupation of Iraq. "This is exactly what it would take to avoid massive death and starvation," Egeland told Reuters news agency. "If we don't get it all, so many people will perish. It is as dramatic as that."