Sudan may be desperately poor, but it does have oil. The country lacks the necessary technology to exploit its sought-after resource, and has invited foreign companies to do so. Such arrangements have become a model for "development": oil companies can pay their shareholders, build schools and hospitals for the local communities, and the host country grows richer.
But with oil, things are never so straightforward. This is especially true of Sudan, the largest country in Africa. It has been torn by a stop-and-start civil war since independence from Britain in 1956; the oil is in the mainly Christian and African south, where the many factions of the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) operate; the government, the SPLA's foe, is in the north, which is mainly Muslim and Arab.
The government receives US$1 ma day in royalties from foreign oil companies -- and spends US$1m a day on bombs and troops directed against the "rebels" in the south. Since 1956, an estimated two million Sudanese have been killed, more than five million have been displaced internally, and one million are now in exile.
Human rights reports agree: the war was partly started by oil exploitation. (It was presaged by the killing of three Chevron oil workers in 1984; the US company then pulled out.) The war escalated with the return of the foreign oil companies in 1997; the western companies sought government protection from the SPLA rebels who controlled much of the oil-rich land in the south. The government was only too happy to comply. Its "protection" of petroleum concession areas allowed for the looting and burning of villages and crops; and for rape, abduction and torture.
Thanks to this foreign investment, the government now has a military victory in its sights. Oil production stands at 200,000 barrels a day, and may reach 400,000 by 2005; estimates of defence expenditure have thus risen from US$373m in 1998 to $425m in 2000. Not surprisingly, last April, Sudan's president, Omar Hassan el-Bashir, turned down a ceasefire proposal from the SPLA, which called for oil production to be halted until a comprehensive peace deal was reached.
Defenders of the Sudanese government and the oil companies claim that there is no hard evidence to link oil revenues with military expenditure. Yet Amnesty International is in no doubt that "by turning a blind eye, in the name of security, to the violations committed by government forces and troops allied to them, [the oil firms] indirectly contribute to violations continuing".
One of the main oil companies in Sudan is Talisman Energy Inc, based in Calgary, Canada. When its CEO and president, Dr Jim Buckee, was challenged by human rights organisations at the firm's annual general meeting last May, he defended its record: "We share the same values as you do... we are doing good in Sudan." Yes, Talisman has spent C$ lm ([pounds sterling]435,000) on 15 development projects, including clinics, schools and wells. The problem is that they are mainly in garrison towns, and thus inaccessible to the rural people who need them.
Now Talisman faces a $1bn class-action suit, brought against the company by two US lawyers. The complaint was filed in New York on 8 November last year on behalf of four southern Sudanese people. But as Carey D'Avino, one of the prosecuting lawyers, told me: "We are seeking compensation for anyone suffering injuries and losses because of Talisman in or within 50 miles of the company's concession area in the Sudan."
In 1996, the US supported United Nations sanctions against Sudan, and in 1997 it imposed sanctions of its own, prohibiting companies on the New York Stock Exchange from doing business there. Yet when major oil companies began showing an interest in Sudan, they were exempted from the sanctions. The US also sent money and supplies to the SPLA; under the Clinton administration, the Usaid development agency financed a grant programme to the south of $lOm to support the "liberation struggle". Under George W Bush, food aid has been sent directly to the north for the first time in ten years. A peace envoy, Senator John Danforth, was appointed in September. Three months earlier, the House of Representatives had passed the Sudan Peace Act (now before a joint House and Senate committee, where Wall Street lobbyists are confident it will languish); this authorised a further $lOm for the southern rebels and included an amendment to prohibit foreign oil companies operating in Sudan from being listed on any US stock exchang e.
But 11 September changed all that. US diplomats at the UN sat by as sanctions against Sudan were lifted in exchange for information on terrorists. As Richard Boucher, the State Department spokesman, said: "We're not going to say, 'We won't accept your information on terrorism unless you stop bombing civilians'." No matter that Osama Bin Laden lived in Sudan for five years in the 1990s and still has major business interests there in banking, construction and agriculture; or that Sudan is home to terrorist training camps and serves as a safe haven for Islamic Jihad and Hamas.
In November, US sanctions were renewed for another year and Danforth was back, calling on the government of Sudan and the SPLA to make progress by mid-January, otherwise "I'm simply going to report to the president that we tried, we did our best and that there is no further useful role the United States can play".
The Sudanese government's determination to exterminate its enemies in the south is fuelled by revenues from foreign oil firms. These companies should be held accountable for human rights abuses carried out because of their activities. The only way to do this is to hit them where it hurts, by imposing tough new regulations on their involvement in developing countries.