The ink is scarcely dry on oil deals signed between the Islamist dictatorship that rules Sudan from the northern capital, Khartoum, and an eager bevy of oil companies from China, India, Japan, and Britain - even as the genocide continues full tilt in the western region known as Darfur. Every new contract signed in Khartoum makes it clearer that this genocide is fueled by the world's unquenchable thirst for petroleum.
Oil rigs are now drilling on land seized from black African farmers - who have been killed, raped, and driven off their land by their own government through its proxy militias, known as Janjaweed, in a campaign of ethnic cleansing now in its third year.
The Islamist regime of Lt. General Umar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir bears primary responsibility for the slaughter. Khartoum's claims that it can't control the Janjaweed are refuted by United Nations observers and by human rights organizations, as are Bashir's denials that rape of women and children is used systematically to intimidate and demoralize black farmers and prevent them from returning to their ruined villages. Khartoum's continuing slaughter of its own people should make it a pariah among nations.
Obviously the oil companies are deeply complicit. Attacks by Janjaweed, often with aerial support from Sudan government forces, have cleared the way for pipelines and drilling. Oil company roads and bridges are used by government troops to carry the genocide into more remote communities in Darfur. And it is an unhappy fact of recent history that violence, disorder, and corruption generally accompany the exploitation of oil in undeveloped nations. Oil revenues do not translate into schools and hospitals for the people; they translate into arms and Swiss bank accounts for the elite. Sudan, the largest country in Africa, and one of the poorest, is a case in point.
Sudan's governing elite have whipped up ancient ethnic rivalries in their pursuit of oil revenues, half of which is spent on arms. Oil has thus contributed indirectly and directly to the death of roughly 370,000 Darfurians and the displacement of some 3.5 million more, who are now dependent on outside aid for food and water.
American oil companies are not visibly part of the scramble, because in 1997 the Clinton administration added Sudan to the list of states sponsoring terrorism, which included Iran and Libya. Under these trade sanctions, Americans who do business with Sudan face up to ten years imprisonment and fines of $500,000.
But why, especially in the absence of "strategic interests" in Sudan, does President Bush not take the moral high road? Why does he seem so reluctant to take even the smallest step to end the genocide?
Congress, to its credit, is way ahead of the President - reflecting most Americans' essential decency in believing that the genocide should be brought to a halt. The Darfur Peace and Accountability Act, now being deliberated in Congress, purports to do that. It calls for beefing up the African Union peacekeeping forces, which are now stretched dangerously thin in Darfur, providing the AU with logistical support, and broadening its mandate to include protection of civilians. The bill also provides for prosecuting before the International Criminal Court individuals - such as Major General Salah Abdallah Gosh, head of Sudan's intelligence agency = who are suspected of helping orchestrate the present genocide.
Why has the Bush administration lobbied to weaken the Darfur Peace and Accountability Act?
Why has the administration sought instead to cozy up to this bloodiest of regimes? Last spring, the CIA sent one of its own jets to Khartoum to fly none other than intelligence chief Gosh to meet with intelligence officials in Washington D.C. The official reason offered by the Bush administration? Sudan was proving a "valuable ally" in the war against terrorism.
The real reason may lie with the oil money that has backed George W. Bush from early in his first campaign for president.
U.S. oil companies, sidelined since 1997, are clearly eager for a piece of the action in Sudan. One of the recent oil deals signed with Khartoum is worth noting. On June 10, a "British" oil tycoon named Friedhelm Eronat acquired for $8 million the largest stake in a drilling contract signed two years ago on behalf of Cliveden Sudan, a company owned by Eronat at that time and had registered in the Virgin Islands to avoid paying taxes. Until then, Friedhelm Eronat had been an American citizen. He swapped his American citizenship for British just before signing the contract, thereby avoiding a jail sentence or fine.
But was Eronat - a high-risk wheeler-dealer who owns extensive drilling rights in neighboring Chad, where he played the Chinese against Canadian oil interests - acting on his own behalf in the recent deal, or was he fronting for other interests? Eronat has fronted for Exxon Mobil and other companies in the past. He narrowly escaped indictment on corruption and fraud charges in connection with a deal allegedly involving shell companies, bribery, and the swapping of Iranian oil for oil from Kazakhstan in order to circumvent the American law against trading with Iran.
U.S. oil companies, to judge by Eronat, can scarcely wait to drill in Sudan. "The war against terrorism" is, once again, a red herring to cover the administration's true interest: oil.
The only thing standing in the president's way is the ugly fact of genocide and the ability of the American people to make it politically unacceptable for our president to avert his eyes from what is happening in Darfur.
David Morse is an independent journalist based in Storrs, CT. He can be reached at his web-site: www.david-morse.com