Thursday, June 16, 2005

Oil in Darfur—Just what the doctor ordered?

According to Ken Bacon, the president of the American non-profit advocacy group Refugees International, the discovery of oil in Darfur will "lubricate the peace talks," and may lead to the end of conflict there. After all, now that there's oil, the stakes of the conflict are higher.

Wait. So now that the stakes are higher, violence will stop? That analysis strikes me as a bit muddled. Bacon's opinion rests on the past settlement in the south of Sudan, where conflict was assuaged thanks to an agreement that split oil revenues fifty-fifty between the government and rebels. The government could not exploit the oil without an agreement with the rebels in place. Bacon believes that if the sides are smart, they will come to a similar agreement. But he also admits that the government does not seem interested in any division of oil profits.

Even if both sides were operating from a rational place of game theory analysis, weighing different strategies and playing best responses, it is not clear to me that peace would be the logical outcome. After all, if the Sudanese government has the rebels on the run in Darfur, and if they can maintain that situation efficiently while drilling for oil, there is no reason to pursue peace. We do not know for how long the Sudanese government has known about the oil, and experts, including Bacon, speculate that the rebels never knew about it, and were rebelling for other reasons. So the conflict started for non-oil related reasons—both sides saw other potential gains. And now Khartoum is pursuing a scorched-earth strategy of slaughter against the rebels. While the oil could offer rebels a bargaining chip in negotiations, it also offers further incentive to Khartoum to pursue complete eradication or displacement of the rebels, a costly strategy, but one that might be justified now that there is oil at stake. If anything, oil raises the stakes in a way that enflames the forces of genocide. If this were an even conflict, it might spur negotiation and peace, but from what I've read, the situation is not even, but heavily favors Khartoum. Oil gives them a reason to pursue a final, devastating victory over the rebels, speeding them along the course of genocide.

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But who knows. Maybe the oil reserves will be large enough to finally picque the interest of western governments. After all, it's long been obvious that, to the Bush administration, oil wells are far more worthy of military intervention than human slaughter. And if Americans and Brits get involved, they will aim for peace, and a nice steady flow of western civilization's lifeblood.


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