Report of an Investigation into Oil Development, Conflict and Displacement in Western Upper Nile, Sudan (2001)

Report of an Investigation into Oil Development, Conflict and Displacement in Western Upper Nile, Sudan (2001)
By Georgette Gagnon and John Ryle  •  October 2001  •  With a letter to the Economist, May 2001  •  Posted 2015  •  3,321 words

Report summary

This report documents and places into context an intensification of armed attacks on civilians in key areas of Sudan’s contested oil region in Western Upper Nile during 2000 and 2001. The attacks were carried out by Government of Sudan (GoS) forces and local pro-government militias and by rebel forces of, or aligned with, the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Army (SPLA) and the Sudan Peoples’ Democratic Front/Defence Force (SPDF). A significant new development in the period 2000-2001 is a higher number of direct attacks on civilians by the armed forces of the Government of Sudan.

The report concentrates on the operational area of the Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company (GNPOC), the oil consortium that comprises the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), Petronas Carigali (the national petroleum company of Malaysia, or its subsidiary Petronas Carigali Overseas Sudan Berhad), Sudapet (the Sudan state petroleum company) and Canada’s Talisman Energy (Talisman). As noted in the preliminary report of this mission, the investigators found that there was an increase in the number of recorded helicopter gunship attacks on settlements in or near this area. Some of these gunships have operated from facilities built, maintained and used by the oil consortium. The attacks are part of what appears to be a renewed Government of Sudan strategy to displace indigenous non-Arab inhabitants from specific rural areas of the oil region in order to clear and secure territory for oil development.

Control of the oil region of Sudan is contested between the government and several rival non-government groups. Most of the rural areas in the GNPOC concession have been outside the control of the Government of Sudan since the start of the current civil war in 1983. These areas have been intermittently controlled and administered by two rebel movements, the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) (under the overall command of Dr. John Garang de Mabior) and the former South Sudan Independence Movement/Army—SSIM/A—(under Dr Riek Machar Teny). Today, control of the non-government areas of the concession is divided between the SPLM/A and commanders aligned with the Sudan Peoples’ Democratic Front/Defence Force (SPDF), a successor movement to the SSIM/A.

For a short period in the late 1990s, a peace agreement between the Government of Sudan and Riek Machar’s SSIM/A allowed for the extension of government authority into some of the rural areas of the concession, enabling expansion of oil development and completion of the pipeline from the oil fields north to Port Sudan. SSIA forces had joined the government and were formed into the South Sudan Defence Force (SSDF). The collapse of this peace agreement in 2000, the growing conflict between Government of Sudan forces and the former SSDF/SSIA forces, now regrouped as the Sudan Peoples’ Defence Forces (SPDF), and the increased presence of the SPLA in the area have apparently prompted a modification of the government’s military strategy. The new strategy in Western Upper Nile, this report suggests, is both more violent and more territorially focused, involving coordinated attacks on civilian settlements in which aerial bombardment and raids by helicopter gunships are followed by ground attacks from government-backed militias and government troops. These ground forces burn villages and crops, loot livestock and kill and abduct people – mainly women and children.

The increased intensity of the attacks, and the increased importance of oil in the war economy, has provoked attacks on oil installations by anti-government forces and further intensification of military activity on all sides. Pro-government and anti-government forces in conflict with one another have burned and looted villages in all areas of Western Upper Nile.

The known involvement of oil companies in the conflict extends to the documented use of their facilities by Government of Sudan armed forces. The oil companies are therefore, knowingly or unknowingly, involved in a government counter-insurgency strategy that involves the forced displacement of local people from rural areas of the concession.

Following the finding by the Canadian Assessment Mission to Sudan (the Harker mission) in December 1999 that helicopter gunships and Antonov bombers of the Government of Sudan had armed and re-fueled at Heglig and from there attacked civilians, Talisman acknowledged formally that its Heglig airstrip had been used for military purposes. (Heglig is a government garrison town that is the center of Talisman’s oil operations in Sudan.) In January 2000, the company stated that it had received undertakings from the Government of Sudan that military use of the Heglig airstrip would be limited to defensive purposes. However, in its Corporate Social Responsibility Report released in April 2001, Talisman conceded that in spite of what it described as its advocacy efforts regarding the use of oil infrastructure for offensive military purposes, “there were at least four instances of non-defensive usage of the Heglig airstrip in 2000.”

The present investigation concludes that the incidence of military usage has been considerably higher and that it has continued. The pattern of military usage is one of intentional targeting by gunships of settlements – without regard to whether they are occupied by civilians or combatants – in non-government controlled areas in and around the concession. The Government of Sudan is the only warring party with access to combat aircraft, ie helicopter gunships and aircraft that can be used for aerial bombardment.

The investigation has determined that at least two of the government’s helicopter gunships have been based at the oil facilities in Heglig. Defecting soldiers from the Government of Sudan army base in Heglig and civilian victims of gunship attacks testified to the investigators that gunships had flown regular sorties from Heglig to attack civilian settlements.

The investigators obtained eyewitness accounts from people attacked by gunships in non-government controlled areas of the concession throughout 2000 and 2001. These eyewitnesses identified flight patterns of the attacking helicopters that indicated they came from and returned to Heglig and other oil facilities in the concession.

The incidence of other human rights violations in and around the concession area escalated in 2000 and early 2001. The investigation documents a range of abuses connected with forced displacement of the inhabitants of the area. Defecting soldiers from the Government of Sudan’s military base at Heglig testified that they had been ordered to participate in ground attacks on non-government controlled settlements around Pariang (a government-controlled garrison town in the concession). This was part of an attempt to force the inhabitants out of the area. The soldiers said they had been instructed to kill civilians and any persons believed not to be loyal to the government. This, they stated, was for the purpose of securing the oil fields for development.

There were also a significant number of attacks and counterattacks on settlements by armed groups aligned with the SPLA/M, and by those aligned with the SPDF, the successor movement to the SSIM/A. (Since mid-2000, some of the latter have been supplied with ammunition from the government garrison in Bentiu.) Attacks, such as the attack in February 2001 on Nyal, a UN relief hub and SPDF command center, by Peter Gatdet Yaka, a commander aligned with the SPLA, have been documented in other reports, most comprehensively by Human Rights Watch (Presentation, “Oil and Human Rights in Sudan”, Jemera Rone, Sudan Researcher, Human Rights Watch at Fifth International Conference on Sudan Studies, Durham University, UK, August 31, 2000). There were at least five recorded attacks in 2000 and 2001 on oil installations or infrastructure by non-government forces (SPLA) in Western Upper Nile. (Three of these attacks occurred subsequent to the field research for this report.)

The effect of attacks from both Government of Sudan and non-government forces is to force the inhabitants of the area to flee their homes and move to other locations. These displaced persons become dependent, in most cases, on emergency aid. They are forced to choose among the following alternative places of refuge:

  • Non-government controlled areas to the south and west respectively in former Lakes province (Rumbek and Tonj Counties) or in Northern Bahr-el-Ghazal
  • Non-government controlled areas deeper in the swampland of Upper Nile (both within and outside the concession area)
  • Government-controlled towns in the concession (primarily Bentiu and Pariang)
  • Towns and commercial agricultural areas of Northern Sudan, far from Dinka and Nuer home territory

This forced displacement and concomitant loss of livestock is severely disruptive to the economy of Western Upper Nile. The inhabitants of the area, whose mode of life is based on agro-pastoralism and fishing, depend on access to a range of natural resources in order to survive: dry season and wet season grazing grounds, dry season fishing areas, and wet season agricultural areas that are close to permanent villages. Freedom to move among these areas is essential to the agro-pastoral economy. Attacks on rural communities have a cumulative effect: repeated incidents of destruction of property, looting of livestock and loss of grain reserves make survival in the conflict-affected areas more and more difficult, eroding survival strategies to the point where displacement is the only option that remains.

Forced displacement from Western Upper Nile connected to oil development continued unabated in 2000 and early 2001. This continuing process of displacement has repeatedly interrupted the agricultural cycle and reduced livestock numbers, bringing the inhabitants of some areas close to destitution.

Conflict between the two rebel movements operating in Western Upper Nile and between those rebel movements and government-backed militias has also continued to be a significant cause of violent disruption of the lives of the civilian inhabitants of the area. But direct military action by government forces—in conjunction with pro-government militias – has now become an equally important factor.

The conflict in Western Upper Nile has seriously impeded the aid operation in Sudan. Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS), the United Nations-led emergency relief operation, has a tri-partite agreement with Government and rebel movements to operate in both government and non-government controlled areas of South Sudan. But OLS access to airstrips in rebel-controlled areas has been progressively reduced by government flight denials and by the danger of aerial bombardment from government aircraft. In government-controlled areas (which are supplied by road from the North), access by displaced people to available food relief has also been limited: in April 2001, the United Nations’ World Food Program reported that malnutrition rates in government-controlled Bentiu town were among the highest in South Sudan. (It was not clear to what extent these statistics reflected newly displaced persons from non-government controlled areas.)

In spite of claims to the contrary in oil company reports, this investigation, while unable to gain access to government-controlled areas of oil development and following numerous enquiries, is not aware of any evidence that significant economic or other benefits from oil development are accruing to indigenous communities in Western Upper Nile. There is no independent verification of claims that the Government of Sudan is using oil revenues to assist the civilian population in Talisman’s concession (or in Southern Sudan in general). The two western oil companies operating in the area, Talisman and Lundin Oil of Sweden, have announced that they are sponsoring humanitarian assistance projects in areas around government towns and outposts. In the case of the government itself, there are no reports of government-funded development projects in Western Upper Nile.

Oil revenues do correlate, however, with visible increases in government military expenditure. For example, the Government of Sudan recently established, with Chinese assistance, three new factories for the manufacture of arms and ammunition near Khartoum. The contribution of oil revenues to the establishment of an arms manufacturing capability has been acknowledged in statements by several Government of Sudan officials (although this has been denied by other government spokesmen). On April 30, 1999, Agence France- Presse quoted a statement in the official newspaper Akhbar al Youm by Hassan al Turabi, a then high-ranking representative in the ruling National Congress, that the government would use earnings on oil exports to finance weapons factories. According to Hassan al Turabi: “We are currently building several factories to produce our needs in weapons, and we plan to manufacture tanks and missiles to defend ourselves against conspirators.” (“Sudan to Manufacture Tanks, Missiles: Assembly Speaker,” Agence France Press, Khartoum, April 30, 1999). Government ministers including Hassan al Turabi then claimed that the oil revenue would be used for construction and development. (“Dr. El-Turabi: Oil for War Is a Ridiculous Disinformation,” Al Rayaam, Khartoum, May 6, 1999). But on July 1, 2000, the Al-Shar Al-Syasi newspaper quoted army spokesman General Mohamed Osman Yassin saying that Sudan “will this year reach self-sufficiency in light, medium and heavy weapons from its local production,” thanks to its “unprecedented economic boom, particularly in the field of oil exploration and exportation,” (“Sudan to Achieve Self-sufficiency in Weapons: Spokesman”, Agence France Press, Khartoum, July 1, 2000). The new, intensified and more geographically focused nature of government military strategy is also, as argued in this report, clearly linked to oil development.

On the government side the pursuit of the war and oil development has involved the forcible recruitment of young teenagers into the armed forces. The investigation found that Southern Sudanese in their early teens have been conscripted into the armed forces of the Government of Sudan and trained at a military camp near Heglig, and that they are currently providing security in areas of oil development. (The use of child soldiers elsewhere in Sudan – by all warring parties – has been documented by several organizations, eg at The SPLA has recently renounced the practice.

The investigation finds that oil development in Upper Nile has exacerbated civil conflict and assisted the war aims of the Government of Sudan, facilitating violations of human rights by government forces and government-backed forces. Talisman’s claim that it serves as a positive influence on the Government of Sudan and its policies is not supported by the findings of the investigation; the evidence suggests that the company has been unable to achieve such constructive engagement.

Similarly, Talisman’s argument that oil-company sponsored relief and development projects benefit people in the concession must be assessed in the context of these same companies’ involvement in the government’s war effort, even if unknowing and unacknowledged. This is particularly important in that those relief projects address social and economic problems that are themselves largely the result of government military policy in the oil fields.

The displacement of the rural population, the oil-company sponsored relief and development projects and oil development itself all contribute to a counter-insurgency strategy that has been consistently pursued by the Government of Sudan in the areas of South Sudan that border the government-controlled North. Western Upper Nile is one of these areas. Oil companies operating there are part of this government strategy, whether they like it or not.

The report concludes that there is, among other urgent issues, a pressing need to establish long-term, international, independent, large-scale, expert, on-the-ground, field-based monitoring of the effects of the war and oil development. Accurate, cross-checked information is hard to come by. One-off research projects such as the present report are of limited value; a long-term, continuing programme is required. Such a programme would monitor the response from non-government forces and violations of human rights in the conflict on all sides. It would provide a real-time response to incidents of war and offer the possibility of preventing and/or providing early warning of abuses. To be effective, the monitors would need to have free access to and freedom of movement within government-controlled and non-government controlled areas.

In the present circumstances, oil development and the associated presence of foreign oil companies in Sudan is damaging to the people of the oil areas. For their part, the companies effectively assist the Government of Sudan war effort, thus exacerbating the suffering of the inhabitants of the oil area and making the prospect of peace more unlikely. Only a radical change in their relation to the government could provide any justification for the oil companies’ continued presence in Sudan. As the major providers of infrastructure and – by their own account – social services in Western Upper Nile, the onus is on oil companies to demonstrate that they are behaving as responsible corporate citizens rather than as mercenary commercial organizations. This applies particularly to companies that espouse human rights and good corporate practice, and particularly Talisman, which has called attention to its adoption of the International Code of Ethics for Canadian Business. Support for a monitoring regime as outlined above should be one of the preconditions for the continued involvement of foreign commercial enterprises in Western Upper Nile.

As the oil company most vocal in its claims for the benefits of oil development, Talisman, despite its vaunted commitment to human rights and good neighbourliness in its area of operation, has neither instituted nor encouraged the establishment of an independent, expert, long-term, field-based monitoring regime. In the absence of such a regime, the self-proclaimed attempts by oil companies and government agencies to mitigate the damaging impact of oil development cannot be adequately measured or assessed. In its absence, all mediation efforts in the war are compromised by lack of accurate information. Finally, without such a monitoring regime and without a concerted diplomatic effort involving coordinated action by donor countries to incorporate the findings of such a monitoring regime into negotiations with warring parties, oil development in Sudan can only continue to contribute, as it does now, to major human rights violations. ★


Letter to the Economist, May 2001

SIR – Jim Buckee (Letters, May 19th) asserts that there is no fighting or displacement of civilians in the Sudan oil-concession area where his company, Talisman Energy, operates. This is untrue. In April, I visited Talisman’s concession area in Western Upper Nile on behalf of a number of Canadian and British non-governmental organisations. I travelled to the large part of the area that lies outside government control. Neither Talisman nor Sudan’s government co-operated in this investigation. I heard numerous eye-witness accounts of attacks on civilian settlements by government bombers and helicopter gunships, government troops and pro-government militias. Several of the gunships operate from oil facilities at Heglig, built and maintained by the consortium of which Talisman is part. This was acknowledged recently in Talisman’s own compliance report, a fact that seems to have slipped Mr Buckee’s mind.

Mr Buckee claims that there has been a population increase in Talisman’s area of operation but the expansion is not a sign of prosperity. It is the opposite: further evidence of the violent displacement of civilians from rural areas.

John Ryle, London


A comment on the report

From “Corporations, Conscience and Conflict: Assessing NGO Reports on the Private Sector Role in African Resource Conflicts” by Scott Pegg and Alissa Wilson, presented to the 43rd annual meeting of the International Studies Association New Orleans, LA, USA, March 2002, Third World Quarterly 24:6, December 2003

“Arguably…the single best representative of this genre is Report of an Investigation into Oil Development, Conflict and Displacement in Western Upper Nile…. Written by Georgette Gagnon, an international human rights lawyer, and John Ryle, an anthropologist, this is perhaps the most methodologically sophisticated and informed NGO report yet written. This report forthrightly discusses the problems faced by researchers trying to do fieldwork in conflict zones and openly acknowledges its own methodological limitations. Echoing Mary Kaldor’s arguments on the importance of population displacement as the key war strategy in Bosnia-Herzegovina, [the report] describes scorched earth tactics and the burning of villages in Western Upper Nile, Sudan as “an intermittent terror tactic, part of a general strategy designed to make particular rural areas hard to live in and their inhabitants frightened to stay.” Academics interested in assessing the potential of using NGO reports for their own research or corporate leaders interested in assessing their potential to damage their company reputations should start with this report… Scholars interviewed for this project, including a former head of the Sudanese Studies Association, said they did not know of any academic articles on the role of the oil industry in the Sudanese civil war. Most, however, described Report of an Investigation into Oil Development, Conflict and Displacement as essential reading on the subject.”