Oil, Sudan's biggest non-renewable resource, is being bled from under the feet of some of the world's poorest people and will soon be piped round the Nuba Mountains on its way to the north, when a 1600km pipeline from Bentiu to Port Sudan is finally completed.
The National Islamic Front (NIF) government is determined to complete its new oil pipeline because of its importance to staying in power. It has found backing from China and Malaysia, but vital components of the project - in both exploration expertise and specialised hardware - have come from Canada, Britain and Germany. Austria's big petrochemical company OMV and Sweden's Lundin oil companies are also involved, and Germany's Mannesmann combine has provided 500km of the pipe. Total of France is waiting in the wings to resume oil and gas exploration.
How clear does the link between the National Islamic Front's oil project and its pursuit of the civil war have to be? NIF leader Hassan al-Turabi boasted in April this year that the oil revenue, at $300-$500 million a year, equal to its spending on the war, will help build tanks and missiles. People around the militarised oil installations and the pipeline route have already been subjected to devastating raids by government forces. Systematic destruction and relocation of communities are part and parcel of the project. Southerners and Nuba people are said to have been removed by force, and others kept under harsh military "control"; meanwhile, Arabised ethnic groups are reportedly being moved in to the pipeline zone to ensure greater local loyalty to the regime.
Ismael Khamis, commander of the SPLA's Fifth Nuba Mountains Division, interviewed in Changaro on 4th February this year, said that the government launched its early dry-season offensive at the end of 1998 for "four reasons, one of which was oil."
"They are making the pipeline from El-Obeid to Dilling and through Keiga and to Keilak, and from there to the Heglig wells. The army wants to pin us down in our positions so they can get the pipeline going. This oil will be very important for them. Why? For their economy and their war effort."
In 1996, Canada's Arakis Energy Corp - now wholly owned by Talisman (ex-BP Canada) - started pumping 10,000 barrels a day from its oil wells in Heglig, south Kordofan, and sending the crude oil to the refinery in el-Obeid. The refinery is not a sophisticated one; it is wasteful and inefficient. The primary significance of the NIF's efforts to transport the oil there by truck and rail - also an inefficient process - seemed at first to be its propaganda value, more than the cash value of the oil. But it shouldn't be forgotten that El Obeid is a major regional military base for the air force and the army of the Sudanese government - and it is a vital staging post for military operations into the Nuba Mountains as well as parts of southern Sudan. This oil is unlikely to be primarily for civilian use, and more likely to be refined into fuel for military trucks and tanks. It's also possible that the El Obeid refinery is producing aviation fuel that could be used by government planes flying bombing missions to the Nuba Mountains and parts of the south.
Turning its often-repeated threats against the oil pipeline into reality will be a challenge for the SPLA. When the SPLA first forced Chevron to close down its oil operations in 1984, the movement was united and the Arab militias sent to protect the Bentiu oil fields were easily beaten. However, following the 1991 split, the SPLA no longer has large numbers of forces in the predominantly Nuer territory around Bentiu and Western Upper Nile. In 1998 the main SPLA forces nearest to the oilfields were in the Nuba Mountains, where the Nuba SPLA are still fully involved in defending their own area against the latest onslaught of the National Islamic Front. They cannot simply be dispatched to the oil fields. But there is no doubt that the installations will remain a military target.
The people, meanwhile, are becoming Sudan's version of Nigeria's Ogoni, and the horrors of the Niger Delta look set to be repeated here. The environmental dangers of the pipeline are inadequately studied and impossible to discuss under the totalitarian regime. As the former UN Human Rights Rapporteur Dr Gaspar Biro says, if the oil companies don't know what is really going on, they can't be looking over the fences of their compounds.