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Oil companies still oppress southern Sudanese after the return of peace

Leben Nelson Moro critically assesses the impacts of oil after the return of peace in South Sudan. He reviews the situation of the the Dinka of Paloich, Melut County, and the Shilluk of Manyo County, two counties which are part of the oil-rich Upper Nile State.

The Government of Sudan (GOS) and Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) concluded the landmark Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2005 to end 22 years of fighting. A root cause was the contest over oil resources in the south of the country.

The agreement guarantees southern Sudan a 50 per cent share of oil revenues from oil extracted in the south. Implementation of the CPA promises not only an end to the violence, but also economic prosperity for the Dinka, Nuer and other indigenous people, who have suffered massive atrocities – including summary killings, ‘ethnic cleansing’ and looting of livestock and other property – at the hands of Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and allied militias.

Oil development has rapidly expanded since peace returned to southern Sudan, bringing huge rewards to the government. Sudan began exporting oil in August 1999, when production was 150,000 barrels per day. Now, production is about 500,000 barrels, expecting to rise to 1,000,000 barrels per day in two to three years. This year’s revenues from oil will exceed US$4 billion. Economic growth is expected to be about ten per cent. Clearly, the country is witnessing an economic boom fuelled by oil.

The indigenous people of the oil areas, however, have languished in abject poverty. Oil companies have appropriated their lands without paying compensation, and have largely excluded them from employment opportunities. Indeed, some indigenous people, whom I interviewed in 2006, claim that their living conditions have deteriorated.

This article critically assesses the impacts of oil after the return of peace on the Dinka of Paloich, Melut County, and the Shilluk of Manyo County, two counties which are part of the oil-rich Upper Nile State.

Relocating Dinka of Paloich, Melut County

Prior to oil development, Paloich was an insignificant location along the Melut-Malakal road. The local people inhabited about 220 villages before the war, according to Laila, the MP representing Melut and Renk counties.

During the war, Paloich was occupied by the SAF. Most of the local people were killed or forced to flee. Most of the killings and displacement were carried out to protect oil companies from SPLA attacks. However, violence, lack of water, roads and markets in nearby areas compelled destitute and displaced people to seek shelter in the garrison town, which had water and other basic services provided by oil companies.

After the government and the SPLA agreed on a ceasefire in October 2002, Paloich town rapidly expanded. All-weather roads, built by oil companies, connect Paloich to several large towns. Commercial vehicles regularly ply the road linking Melut and Renk, well connected with Khartoum and other northern towns.

The transport and oil companies attract traders from the north. The prospects of employment in oil companies drew a horde of job seekers. Paloich was transformed into a bustling town, by war and the presence of oil companies.

The people of Paloich, however, are restless and burdened by memories of a terrible past and burgeoning new problems. In March 2006, I ventured into a residential area close to a Paloich police post. Many huts were under construction by people who had just returned. Most returnees stay with relatives until they were able to build their own houses. Some humanitarian assistance had flowed to returnees to help them to become self-supporting. According to the UN World Food Programme (WFP) Office in Malakal, lack of land was one of the key factors compelling returnees to depend on humanitarian assistance.

Close to the police post, there was a huge open pit. A community leader, who showed me around the town, said that oil workers had removed human bones from the pit, sparking protests by the local sheik (chief) and other elders. The army had rounded up all the people opposed to the action of the oil companies. So, the local people were silenced and the oil companies continued throwing away the remains of the dead they uncovered.

Since peace has returned, nothing has been done to relieve the trauma of the people, who suffered the desecration of graves by oil companies.

On the outskirts of the residential area, a Chinese factory was apparently producing construction materials. My local informant said the residents of the area were worried about the impact of the factory on their health. ‘We demonstrated against the factory but the Chinese did not stop the fumes from poisoning our environment’, he lamented.

It appears , an oil exploration company working in Sudan, hoped to quell the rising anger through relocating the local people elsewhere. Without consulting the local people, Petrodar selected a new site, situated about five miles south of Paloich town, and named it ‘New Palouge’. A school, primary health care unit and a mosque were built in the new location. Most of the people required to relocate were Christians or believers in local religions. Why a mosque was constructed, instead of a church, was a puzzle to many.

Petrodar dispatched vehicles to Paloich, under army escort, to move the local people to the new site. But no one agreed to board the vehicles, and they returned empty. According to Laila, the MP, the local people resisted the relocation for several reasons: firstly, they were not consulted. Secondly, the new location belonged to the rival Agwer Dinka clan called Pidhe. Thirdly, the new site was too small and was always under water during the rainy seasons. Fourthly, no compensation for losses suffered by the local people was given or promised.

Evidently, Petrodar and the ministry of energy and mining still conducted ‘business as usual’ despite the achievement of the CPA. But local civilians of Paloich were determined to get adequate compensation before considering leaving their ancestral villages. Some of these civilians had lived in the north during the war. They had learned about the generous compensation packages provided by the government to northerners asked to leave their homes to make way for national projects. They wanted the same treatment as displaced northerners.

For many of the people asked to relocate, the dramatic arrival of trucks, escorted by the SAF, was reminiscent of the violent relocations of southern displaced persons from Khartoum to desolate camps under the guise of urban renewal or re-zoning. In fact, rumours spread in Paloich that the people who carried out the brutal relocations in Khartoum had moved to Paloich to do the same thing.

The intention of Petrodar to relocate the people of Paloich to ‘New Palouge’ to make way for expansion of oil operations has failed so far. This failure was to be expected, for Petrodar had not changed the old habits of appropriating land without paying compensation during the war years. The company did not involve the local people in the decisions. Instead, it brought in the army to intimidate and coerce the people to move. Unsurprisingly, the local people refused to budge, instead, insisting on adequate compensation in line with the CPA.

Expanding seismic activity disrupts lives of the Shilluk of Manyo County

Rapid increase in seismic activity in the oil areas has disrupted the lives of many communities recovering from the ravages of war. The experiences of the Shilluk population of Manyo County illustrate this problem.

Manyo is one of the four counties comprising the Shilluk kingdom in Upper Nile. It has about 200,000 people, who depend on agriculture, fishing and Gum Arabic.

Petrodar crossed the Nile in March 2006, and began seismic exploration in Manyo County. Without adequate prior consultation, Petrodar workers made many seismic lines through large parts of Manyo. A southern geologist informed me, ‘these straight paths/lines go for hundreds of kilometres, destroying crops, fruit trees, and houses in their way’. The people of Manyo have lost acacia trees, from which they tape ‘Gum Arabic’, as well as houses and other property. Local leaders said that the Chinese recorded the damaged assets, and promised to pay compensation, but nothing has happened.

In fact, Petrodar held a meeting with the local people, but only after seismic work was already in progress. Most probably the meeting was held to soothe rising resentment; but it was a fiasco. According to Nazir or Paramount Chief Ogwal, who represents the Shilluk Mek (king) in Athidwoi payam: ‘At the meeting, the Chinese and their Arab companions were told to stop work and seek permission to operate in the area from the regional government in Juba.’

Instead of heading for Juba, the Chinese went to Malakal, the capital of Upper Nile State, and brought a letter authorising them to operate from the state governor, a member of President Omer al Bashir’s party. The local people were left reeling with bitterness against the Chinese and the unpopular governor.

The problems the Shilluk faced were compounded by the arrival of armed Arab nomads, locally called Jangaweed. Arab nomads claimed the ‘Gum Arabic’ areas, which the Shilluk insisted belonged to them. The contest over this valuable resource has deepened distrust of northerners in the south. In anger, some southerners have introduced new names for this resource. The minister of agriculture in southern Sudan, Dr Martin Elias, for example, introduced the name ‘Gum Africa’.

The struggle over Gum Arabic has resulted in violence and human displacement. The WFP reported violent clashes between Arab nomads and Shilluk civilians in Kaka in December 2005 that caused the death and displacement of many people. Another UN agency report warned that the border between Upper Nile and Kordofan is a threat to the stability of the whole region.

Worsening unemployment

As oil companies have expanded their activities, the lack of employment opportunities has fuelled frustration among local people. Most of the recruits in oil companies have originated from the north. Local people of the oil areas have largely been excluded from jobs in oil companies.

Paloich town has been particularly hard hit. I saw many young men roaming the dusty streets of the town in search of jobs with oil companies. One of the young men approached me. I talked to him briefly. He came from the area and had tried to secure a job with a company, in vain. The companies have not recruited for a long time, which makes local people furious.

At a meeting with local leaders in the administrative centre in Paloich, I learned more about the hardships of the unemployed. A local midwife said women had to brew alcohol to make ends meet because men were idle. ‘People of Paloich are automatically excluded because oil companies recruited in Khartoum.’

The despair that gripped this community has already given way to conflict. Oil companies have resorted to the old brutal tactics of the war years. I saw a Nuer man in a hospital ward in Melut in severe pain. Bandages covered most of his body. Oil company security men were responsible for his suffering. The security men arrested him, tied him up, and set fire to him. His crime was insisting on a job!

In the war years, brutality of this kind was commonplace. It is surprising that even after CPA, such brutality still exists. Indeed, old bad habits die hard!

These employment problems, also encountered by other communities in the oil areas, will worsen with the arrival of more returnees. Unless they change and begin addressing these grievances, oil companies should expect stiffer challenges by frustrated communities.


Since the CPA was concluded in 2005, local communities in the oil areas have continued to face oppression by oil companies, which have rapidly expanded their activities. The local people have been increasingly dispossessed from their land without compensation, and have continued to be denied employment opportunities. Some communities have started to confront the abusive oil companies. It is probable that local agitation will boil over into violence if oil companies fail to shed their old bad habits of doing business in Sudan.

* Leben Nelson Moro is a DPhil Candidate at the University of Oxford. A southern Sudanese, he has many years involvement in humanitarian work and refugee studies in Sudan and Cairo, Egypt.

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