Published March 2001




[I]t is entirely possible and feasible that oil interests in this area have exacerbated the uprooting of people from their homes.At this point in time, however, there is unfortunately far too little information available.

Nicholas Siwinga, Deputy Country[Nicholas Siwinga] stopped short of laying the blame at one party's door.


As a consequence of a flurry of interest following a 14 February 2001 news article by Reuters on allegations of civilian displacement within one of the oil-producing areas of southern Sudan, outside observers are uniquely in a position to assess the claims made by people such as Roger Winter and Dr Eric Reeves, the American academic campaigning to secure international sanctions on Sudan and divestment from the foreign oil companies involved in the Sudanese oil industry, and others. Dr Reeves' credibility as a commentator and researcher has already been extensively questioned in "The Return of the 'Ugly American': Eric Reeves and Sudan". The credibility of his claims about Sudan have been undermined further by recent comments made by the United Nations World Food Programme which is active in those very areas of Sudan about which Mr Reeves makes his assertions.

What Has Been Claimed

  • In a typical assertion, for example, Dr Reeves claimed on 12 February 2001 that Sudanese government forces were conducting "literal scorched-earth all directions from Bentiu". He further claimed that villagers have been forcibly displaced north of Bentiu, that east of Bentiu "many civilians have been displaced" and that south of Bentiu there has been "immense destruction" in pursuit of forced displacements. He also alleged that there had very recently been "ferocious new civilian destruction and displacement" in the immediate vicinity of Bentiu, in Unity state. Dr Reeves stated that "oil development efforts are expanding very rapidly, and the consequences for civilians have been - and will continue to be - devastating". Dr Reeves also claims that the Government has displaced all the population around the oil fields, "orchestrating a ferocious scorched-earth policy in the area of the oil fields and pipelines." These claims are typical of allegations of displacement at the behest of the Sudanese government and oil companies that Dr Reeves has been repeating for the past eighteen months or so.

  • Roger Winter, executive director of the United States Committee for Refugees, has claimed that "ethnic cleansing linked to oil development in southern Sudan is causing massive civilian displacement" in southern Sudan. He has also alleged that "tens of thousands of Sudanese civilians have fled from southern Sudan's oil region during the past year as the Sudanese government seeks to expand its oil operations".

What the World Food Program Has Said

What the World Food Program has pointedly stated for the record with regard to allegations of deliberate, oil development displacement is:

[o]ur position on displacement around the oil fields in Sudan is that we have witnessed an increasing number of the internally displaced people who have required food assistance in these areas. These are indeed people forcibly removed from their homes due to war.

The World Food Program further stated that:

As southern Sudan remains embroiled in almost 20 years of civil war, which is rendered even more complex by widespread inter-factional and inter-tribal fighting and militia activities, tragically, populations are being displaced almost continuously. The oil-rich area of Sudan has seen a great deal of population displacement and in fact, is currently one of the most insecure areas in Sudan. Therefore, it is entirely possible and feasible that oil interests in this area have exacerbated the uprooting of people from their homes. In what way? This is precisely what the Canadian government and other parties have been investigating, and what WFP and other humanitarian agencies are most anxious to know. At this point in time, however, there is unfortunately far too little information available. (emphasis added)

What the World Food Programme has said, therefore, is that despite having been involved in the oil fields for some considerable time and in considerable force there is "far too little information available" to assess whether "oil interests in this area have exacerbated the uprooting of people from their homes". Indeed, as a subsequent Reuters article stated, Mr Siwinga "stopped short of laying the blame at one party's door". It should be noted that the World Food Program has a total of 300 staff working in the Southern Sector operation. At any one time they have over 120 staff in the field in southern Sudan "assessing needs and organizing airdrops and food distributions".

The World Food Program is infinitely better placed as a source on the reality of events within southern Sudan than people such as Eric Reeves and Roger Winter for several reasons. Firstly, WFP is on the ground within the very areas Reeves and Winter make long distance claims about on such a regular basis. WFP has to deal with internally displaced people, and it is part of their job for obvious reasons to ascertain as much as possible what has caused the displacement of those whom they feed. Secondly, the WFP is probably as close as one can get to a neutral and independent observer on events within parts of southern Sudan. This is clearly not the case with Reeves and Winter, both of whom are supporters of the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) and both of whom serve as anti-Sudanese propagandists within the United States (Roger Winter, for example, has openly admitted that with regard to Sudan he was "not neutral in this situation", and that he "promotes" the "demise" of the Sudanese government). To them the Sudanese oil industry is a strategic target which must be discredited whenever and wherever possible. An obvious way of trying to do this is to attribute any and all civilian displacement in Sudan's oil-producing areas to either the Sudanese government or the oil companies involved within the oil industry, while conveniently ignoring the fact that the SPLA has brought the war to these areas. Thirdly, it can be safely assumed that the WFP also has no wish to see the continuation or prolongation of the Sudanese war. This is once again in stark contrast to Messrs Reeves and Winter who are lobbyists for an escalation in the Sudanese conflict.

While undoubtedly fully aware of the claims made by Dr Reeves, in its 23 February statement the World Food Program would appear not to have confirmed them. It did state that "WFP provides food assistance to displaced people in a number of locations in Unity state including Bentiu and Rubkona."

Dr Reeves, on the basis of allegations made by questionable sources - as well as "sources" that he declines to name - has been making his discredited claims about the situation in the oil fields for some eighteen months. From his office in Massachusetts he presumes to know exactly what is happening in these areas, alleging "devastating" "oil development efforts" when even the full-time humanitarian agencies such as the WFP state there is "far too little information available" to draw a conclusion yet. This "ivory tower" arrogance has characterised much of Dr Reeves' "work" on Sudan.

The distorted picture presented by Dr Reeves of events within the Sudanese oil fields on occasion appears to ignore the fact is that there is an ongoing civil war in Sudan in which the SPLA is an active participant. That war has intensified in some parts of southern Sudan, including those that fall within the oil producing areas, because one side to the conflict, the Sudanese People's Liberation Army has chosen to target these oil fields (as can be gathered from Associated Press articles such as 'Sudanese Rebels Plan to Intensify War Around Oil Fields" ). Unsurprisingly, the Sudanese government has defended these areas as it would presumably have defended any areas of strategic importance. Intense fighting has ensued. There has been considerable displacement within the war zones: Sudanese civilians in these areas have done what civilians have done in every war - they have left areas in which fighting is taking place.

And in a further indication of the reality within Sudan, these civilians, when displaced, have tended to move towards government areas and not away from them. Three million southern Sudanese refugees have deliberately trekked hundreds of miles to seek refuge in northern Sudan. Perhaps as many as two million of these southern Sudanese refugees live in and around Khartoum. It is against this background that one should assess Reeves' claim that the Sudanese Government is "conducting [a] genocidal war". If Khartoum, a "ruthless", "cruel and vicious regime" was actually engaged in a "genocidal war" against southerners, as Dr Reeves would have us believe, why would three million southerners voluntarily trek one thousand kilometres to seek safety and refuge in northern Sudan - most of them in Khartoum itself - especially when the could have far more easily slipped across much closer borders into Uganda or Kenya, to be amongst their own ethnic groups? Similarly, tens of thousands of civilians displaced by the fighting in oil producing areas have chosen to head towards government-held areas and towns.

What people such as Dr Reeves would have the world believe is that every displacement of civilians within these areas is a premeditated action in support of "oil development efforts", while studiously ignoring the fact that the actions of the SPLA rebels they support have themselves displaced countless civilians. Dr Reeves is all too plainly selective in which "displacements" he is interested. He also appears not to be concerned about the SPLA's "bombardment" of civilians. His credibility continues to be damaged accordingly.

Espac Published by The European - Sudanese Public Affairs Council Copyright © David Hoile 2005
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