Desperate for Africa’s oil, China has been investing hundreds of billions of dollars in pariah regimes – most controversially, Sudan – then selling them the weapons to stay in power. But outrage over the Darfur genocide may change Beijing’s bottom line.
By Sebastian Junger, published in Vanity Fair July 2007, copyright Conde Nast Magazines Ltd.
The rebels came out of the eastern desert in a column of pickup trucks a hundred vehicles long and were not spotted until they had crossed most of Chad. The trucks were rumoured to have com from a Chinese oil base, and the rebels carried Chinese weapons and were backed by a country – Sudan – that got most of its revenue by selling oil to the Chinese government. By the time American spy satellites picked them up, the rebels – calling themselves Front Uni pour le Changement (FUC) – were 60 miles outside the Chadian capital of N’Djamena and closing fast. Mirage jets, part of a French stabilization force, fired warning shots at the advancing column, but nothing would slow it down.
Each truck carried 55-gallon drums of water and spare fuel in the back and could operate across a thousand miles of desert unaided. Pouches of rocket-propelled grenades hung from the sides, and belt-fed machine guns were bolted to the rooftops. Five men rode inside the cab, and another 5 or 10 men rode in the back along with bedrolls, ammunition, fuel drums and spare tires. Some trucks were plastered with mud to blend in with the desert, and others had their windshields punched out to allow for an additional machine gun on the dashboard. Outfitted like that, there was virtually nowhere in the Sahara they couldn’t go.
Around 4am on April 14 2006, a Chadian Army commander spotted the rebel column on the outskirts of N’Djamena and radioed in to his headquarters, “We are face-to-face.” Moments later, the first rockets came in. The FUC commanders had expected Chadian officers to switch sides as soon as the column arrived but, instead, the rebels found themselves surrounded in the centre of town and getting shot to pieces. By midmorning the corpses of scores of FUC fighters had been dumped in front of the new National Assembly building.
The coup had been thwarted, but the fact that rebel forces could get anywhere near the capital was troubling to foreign investors, and Chad’s fledgling oil industry was not yet self-sustaining. Facing the combined might of China and its client state, the Sudan, Chadian president Idriss Deby did what – in African politics – could only be considered the obvious : he made FUC leader Mohamat Nour his minister of defense, and he invited the Chinese government into Chad to drill for oil.
In addition to supplying oil money and weapons to Sudan, China has adamantly defended the country against any international criticism over Darfur, the region of southwestern Sudan where militias, supported by the Islamist government in Khartoum, have killed hundreds of thousands of tribal Africans. The war has spilled into Chad, causing an immense amount of suffering and destabilizing the entire region. Yet, in the year since the attack on N’Djamena, the Chinese have made astonishing inroads into Chad – a country that could easily consider China an enemy. It is the particular brilliance of Chinese foreign relations in Africa, however, that they seem to be able to conduct business with both sides of a raging war without alienating either party.
The groundwork for Chinese involvement in Chad was laid in 2000, when the World Bank lent the African nation $37million to build a pipeline from its Doha Basin oil fields, through Cameroon, to the Gulf of Guinea, where it terminated in an offshore loading platform. Chad’s portion of the oil revenue was expected to run into hundreds of millions of dollars annually – an enormous boon for a country that ranks at the very bottom of the world’s poverty list. In an attempt to break the endless cycle of corruption that so many African countries are known for, the World Bank stipulated that 80% of those revenues be spent on social programs. The problem was that the World Bank conditions – though well intentioned – restricted President Deby’s military spending so drastically that Sudan was able to outspend him by 50 to 1, which made the outcome of the war almost inevitable. In October 2005, Deby declared that he was no longer abiding by the loan agreement, and within months the World Bank ended all loan payments to Chad.
In the world of international development, there was a huge amount riding on the Chad-Cameroon pipeline. Over the past century, Western companies have extracted trillions of dollars worth of oil, gas, minerals and timber from African countries that were simply incapable of investing the revenue in a responsible way. The countries were too young, too fragile, too riven by tribal tensions and, frankly, led by men who were too greedy to put the money to good use. The elaborate system of loan conditions and monitoring mechanisms set in place by the World Bank was one of the first major attempts to avoid this trap, and by all rights it should have worked. It was innovative and forward-thinking and could well have provided Africa with a way out of poverty.
Instead, Chad’s war with Sudan got in the way. Four months after the attack on N’Djamena, President Deby severed diplomatic relations with Taiwan and invited the Chinese into his country to drill for oil. To many experts it seemed a bald attempt to bribe China into easing its support of Sudan. Once in Chad, China didn’t waste any time. Last January, the Canadian company EnCana announced the sale of its 50% share of a vast, undeveloped oil field, named Block H, split between the northern and southern parts of the country, to China National Petroleum Corporation. The company then quickly partnered with another Chinese petroleum firm to buy up the rest of the block. With that purchase, the Chinese held oil interests in a swath of troubled, politically repressive countries stretching from the Red Sea to the Gulf of Guinea.
I arrived in N’Djamena just before the one-year anniversary of the April 13 attack. Despite some skirmishes and a Sudanese air raid near the town of Bahai, things were quiet inside the Chad bornder. There were rumours that Sudan’s militias were going to make another attempt on the capital, but there was nothing anyone could do about it except wait and see.
With a population of around one million, N’Djamena is a city of low cement buildings and long boulevards that could never be traversed without the huge shade trees that the French planted a hundred years ago. Chad is a country of almost biblical harshness : kiln-like heat and droughts and locust plagues and deadly scorpions that ride atop the monstrous camel spiders found in the eastern deserts. Refugees from Darfur don’t fare well on foot in eastern Chad.
With the discovery of oil there have been some improvements, however. There are now paved roads to the oil fields, a couple of new high-rises in N’Djamena, and the amazingly ghastly National Assembly building that the Chinese slapped together out of steel and beige tile. Farther out of town, beyond the earthen berms of the French military base, the government is building a housing development for the influx of people they expect once the oil money hits town. The site is 143 acres of bone-dry gully and hardpan that had to be filled and graded and laid out in a huge, well-drained grid. An American company put in a bid for the job but never had a chance against the Chinese.
“Not only are the Chinese cheaper, but they said they could do the job in 3 months”, the project director explained to me as we drove around the jobsite. It was around 120 degrees, and workers were moving slowly through the heat and the dust, preparing the roadways for hardtop. The labourers were all Chadian, but everyone else on the job – engineers, drivers, architects, crew bosses – was Chinese. “They don’t have limited hours; all they do is work,” the director says of them with admiration. “And they are not paid well – no insurance, nothing. They’re fast, cheap, and they don’t argue. That’s why they got the job.”
According to experts, Chinese construction firms regularly underbid Western rivals by importing cheap Chinese workers and slicing their profit margins to as little as 3%. As a result, American companies lose one construction contract after another in Africa. Even in small business ventures, the Chinese are hard to compete with. A Taiwanese restaurant owner in Chad named David Wu, whose parents immigrated to Angola when he was young, admits that he hires Chinese workers because they are so cheap. “I would rather take Taiwanese workers, but I can’t,” he explains. “They take a month vacation every six months and want to be paid $2,000 a month. The Chinese don’t take vacations and will work for $700 or $800 a month. Chinese merchants are everywhere now – in Angola, in Niger, in Congo. They’re able to undercut locals because all their goods come from China.”
I asked an American military officer with long experience in the region how the Chinese can be so successful doing business in one of the poorest and most unstable parts of the world. The man’s answer came out in one long rush. “The Chinese say to these countries, ‘Look, roads will help your economy, so let’s build a road, and we’ll provide most of the money for it,’” he said. “The rest of the loan is then provided by Chinese banks and secured against future oil revenues from the country. The road-building contracts go to Chinese construction firms with Chinese engineers, workers and equipment. All of this comes in a package. Why internationalize something when you can do it yourself? The construction materials come on Chinese ships and are moved on Chinese trucks and Chinese equipment that use Chinese-made rubber gaskets. The Chinese Embassy in Chad is totally self-contained – they even grow their own vegetables. The US government can’t plan past six months from now. The Chinese think a hundred years in advance.”
China’s relationship with Africa started in earnest in the late 1950s, when its support – along with the Soviets’ – for rebel leaders like Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe helped overthrow colonial administrations all over the continent. It has been only in the last 10 or 15 years, however, that China has entered Africa with bulldozers, engineers, and construction crews. With foreign-currency reserves toppling $1trillion and an economic-growth rate of 11 percent a year, China is both desperate for national resources and in a position to spend enormous amounts of money to get its hands on them. Oil is of particular concern. Chinese oil needs are rising 10% annually – by far the fastest of any nation in the world – and if those needs are not met, their economic expansion will collapse. That has sent them to Africa.
China now gets 31% of its oil from Africa and is the top trading partner for several major oil-producing African countries. Chinese trade with the continent has quadrupled since 2000 and is expected to triple again by 2010, blowing past the United States to hit $100billion a year. To top it off, China has cancelled more than $1billion worth of African debt. On a continent as mired in poverty and corruption as Africa, that kind of money will buy you a lot of friends.
“China’s primary goal is to import from Africa those key raw materials that will sustain its booming economy,” says David Shinn, former US Ambassador to Ethiopia and Burkina Faso and currently an adjunct professor at George Washington University. “That’s oil, but its also minerals and timber. The Communist Party is more or less predicating its future on maintaining booming economic growth, and if it should stumble, then I think the party is in danger of losing power.”
Africa arguably needs all the foreign investment and debt relief it can get. But as European and American governments are beginning to realize, unregulated development often produces more – not less – poverty in Africa, and that leads to instability and corruption in the very countries where Western companies are trying to do business. The restrictions on the World Bank loan to Chad were an attempt to avoid that trap, but China is willing to completely ignore those issues. That puts them in an unbeatable negotiating position.
“The Chinese are financing a dam project in Sudan, and there are reports of communities being displaced as a result,” a World Bank official in Africa explained to me. “With the World Bank, there would be consultations with affected populations, along with compensation to people whose land was lost. But China offers [a no-strings attached] approach that many countries would understand to be simpler, faster, and cheaper.”
Giving money away in Africa is good business : It’s a continent rich in resources and desperately lacking in everything else, and once an industrialized country is in there, it can insert itself into almost every part of the economy. Let’s say that China lends an African country a billion dollars that will be secured by future oil revenues. To produce those revenues, the Chinese stipulate that the oil infrastructure – pipelines, wells, offshore rigs, roads – must be built by their firms, which either have been written into the loan contract or can underbid everyone else because they are effectively state-owned. (Bids from Chinese construction firms regularly come in at 25% below those of Western rivals.) The construction work is also financed by oil revenues, but it hardly matters to China whether the original loan is paid off, because it now owns a huge chunk of the country’s future oil revenues – a much more lucrative enterprise than simply calling in loan payments.
In addition, China now has a client for the kinds of huge infrastructure projects that African governments love, as well as a huge, new, untapped market for its cheap manufactured goods. It’s not good for the country necessarily, but since many African governments are breathtakingly corrupt, there is usually a high-level minister – if not the president himself – who will see the deal through.
China’s relationship with Sudan has received the most scrutiny because of the onoing atrocities in Darfur sponsored by the Sudanese government. In the 1990s, China spent hundreds of millions of dollars building pipelines to serve Sudan’s southern oil fields. Those investments gave China a 41% stake in the country’s main refinery and access to as much as 80% of the oil coming out of that country. It was a great investment – except that Sudan has a history of civil war and terrorism that goes back decades.
In 2003, ethnic African rebel groups in Darfur began agitating for more power, and when Sudanese president Oman ah-Bashir, an Islamist from the country’s North, refused to give it to them, they began attacking government troops. The rebels were better fighters than the Sudanese Army and started to rack up an alarming string of successes. In one famous battle, the rebels attacked a Sudanese base with the morning sun at their backs at a time when the Sudanese were expecting a night patrol to come back in. By the time the defenders realised what was happening, rebel trucks had overrun half their positions.
Unable to counter this new threat with his regular army, al-Bashir began arming Arab nomads known as janjawid to do the job for him. In exchange for driving African tribesmen out of Darfur, al-Bashir allowed the janjarwid to take any goods and livestock that the fleeing villagers left behind. Over the next few years at least 200,000 civilians were killed in DArfur, and approximately a quarter-million refugees spilled across the border into Chad. Most of the victims were black Africans, and most of the attackers were Arab tribesmen who fought on horseback or camelback. Often the janjawid were backed up by government helicopters or bombers so that the rebel groups would be unable to offer a defense.
The government eventually began to gain the upper hand in the war, in large part because 80% of its oil revenue was now devoted to buying arms. The bulk of those arms came from the Chinese, which meant that the Chinese were spending almost $2billion a year on Sudanese oil and then immediately making much of it back on weapons deals. (Amnesty International has also recently accused Russia of selling attack helicopters to Khartoum.) And the weapons were being used to suppress a rebellion that, in part, was about power sharing in government and access to oil profits. It was a neat circle of economic interests that started to break down only when it rest of the world got involved.
“As the Chinese look around the world to see where they can invest,” Jeffrey Bader of the Brookings Institution explains about China’s grim hold on Sudan, “they see that the international oil companies have basically locked up most of the good reserves, and they don’t have the technological ability to compete. So they look at the niches. And the niches often are places where the big boys won’t go. That’s one of the reasons we’re bumping into the Chinese in places like Iran and Burma and Sudan. Only 23% of the world’s known oil reserves are open for ownership by foreign oil companies, so China’s fighting for a piece of that 23%. And Sudan is one of those countries where you can still get a piece.”
I flew with the U.N. from N’Djamena to the town of Abeche in mid-March, a couple of weeks after the Chinese had completed their takeover of Block H. Abeche is the last big town in eastern Chad, a jumping-off spot for everyone headed to the front line or beyond, into Darfur. White Toyota Land Cruisers painted with the logos of international relief agencies share the dirt streets with rebel pickup trucks bristling with automatic weapons. There are foreign mercenaries in Abeche – Mexican and Ukrainian pilots contacted by Deby to fly his outdated helicopters – and American intelligence agents and idealistic young relief workers and journalists trying to pick up rides into Darfur. (Al-Bashir has pretty much shut down access from Sudan to the area, for obvious reasons, so journalists are forced to sneak across the border from Chad in rebel pickup trucks.)
I arrived just as elements of the two main rebel groups in Darfur – the Sudanese Liberation Army and the Justice and Equality Movement – began a meeting about unifying their strategy. The S.L.A. members were spread out under some shade trees just past the army checkpoint north of town, and the JEM wass a short distance away in a dry wadi by a cluster of mud houses. The conventional wisdom was that if the two groups could present a unified front there was no way Khartoum could defeat them, but Khartoum had been extremely adept at keeping them apart – and sowing terror and chaos in Darfur was one way of doing that.
My JEM contact was an erudite middle-aged man named Tadjadine, who spoke fluent English and had spent time in the US. I parked my truck by the wadi and was led to a group of 20 or 30 men seated on an old rug in the shade of a tree. Plastic chairs were brought and tea was prepared and I was introduced to each man, one by one. They were possibly the most educated group of rebels in the world : there was a doctor from London and a lawyer from Eritrea and a professor-in-exile who was lying on his back with an IV drip in his arm. He said he had some kind of intestinal ailment. Almost all of the men spoke English, and many had been to the US. Among them were a few men in camouflage who did not speak English. They were field commanders who had just come in off the desert in the trucks we saw parked along the wall.
We sipped tea in the incredible desert heat and I asked questions about the war. For the moment there was a lull in the fighting in Darfur itself, and the chaos had shifted westward across the broder into Chad and south into the Central African Republic. Janjawid were crossing the border and attacking villages inside Chad ; incredibly, people were now fleeing into Darfur for safety. It was a world turned upside down. “Darfur was a sovereign state until 1916,” JEM chairman Ibrahim Khalil told me. “Now 95% of the population lives on half a dollar a day. We don’t have a single paved road. We are fighting for very basic human rights, like education. We are fighting for drinking water. Our country is not poor; we are living on a big cistern of petroleum. And the central government is killing us like snakes.”
We talked for an hour or more, the JEM ministers insisting that, although war was not the answer, it was the only way to force Khartoum to negotiate. When I asked about China, wise nods rippled through the group. “Chinese relations with another country are purely economic,” one of the men said. “Those relations only last as long as they get what they want. The Chinese in Sudan are absolutely indifferent to whether people there live or die.”
After our meeting, as if for proof, I was shown an anti-aircraft fun mounted on the back of a JEM pickup truck. It was a Chinese-made twin-barrelled 14.5mm heavy machine gun that the JEM had captured from the Sudanese Army in battle. JEM’s deputy secretary of political affairs, Abdul Aziz Mour, said that they had captured four or five such weapons four months earlier. They were obviously part of a weapons package that China had provided to Sudan at some point. China is the only major arms exporter in the world that has refused to sign arms-sales agreements that include human-rights considerations.
Mour is 38 years old and said he had studied political science in Khartoum before fleeing to avoid arrest for sedition. His dissertation was on Chinese-Sudanese relations, and all he had to do to finish his degree was return to Khartoum and defend his thesis to the university. For hat he would have to wait for peace or for the al-Bashir regime to fall.
“I think the Chinese have a master plan,” Mour told me the following day when I returned to the JEM camp to talk to him. Evening was falling, and the sounds of village life – a goat bleating, children laughing – mixed with the occasional ringing of rebel cell phones. Groups of JEM soldiers sat under the trees or in the wadi smoking cigarettes. “Some analyses say that China wants to challenge the West not militarily but economically,” Mour went on. “They were colonized by the West, and they have to return this act. Africa is essential for this strategy. African votes brought China to the U.N. Security Council. The Chinese treat Africans as equals because they, too, were colonized. Especially in Sudan: the English general Charles Gordon was sent to China with the colonizing army and then from there to Sudan, where he was killed [beheaded by anti-Ottoman Islamic rebels] in 1885. That makes China have very special feelings for Sudan.”
Dark had fallen by the time we finished our conversation, and the mosquitoes were out. Swatting at them, Mour said that in Sudan both China and US are known as ‘oil mosquitoes’.” It is not, he said, a complimentary term.
Last January, just as the Chinese National Petroleum Corporation was clinching its deal for Chad’s Block H, Chinese President Hu Jintao began a 12-day tour of Africa to strengthen political and economic ties. He started in Cameroon, where China is building a vast sports stadium and has pledged $100 million in soft loans (ie those with below-market interest rates) and continued on to half a dozen other countries where Chinese political and business interests converge. Virtually every country on the tour played an important part in China’s economic plans, but also raised thorny diplomatic issues for President Hu. Just seven weeks earlier, South African president Thabo Mbeki had said publicly that African countries risked falling into a “colonial relationship” with China if they didn’t insist on equal trade – a severe blow to China’s preferred image on the continent.
In Liberia, Hu found himself having to sidestep the fact that, during that country’s civil war, China had been widely condemned for buying tropical hardwoods from President Charles Taylor, who used the money to buy arms. In Zambia, Hu cancelled an excursion to the country’s copper-producing region because of the threat of demonstrations. China is heavily invested in the area, but it is highly unpopular because o the poor working conditions and high mortality rates in its copper mines.
“The Chinese are interested in resources and markets and allies,” I was told by Marc Wall, the American ambassador in Chad. We were sitting by the embassy pool at the end of the workday, and at a certain moment several hundred bats left he fruit trees where they sleep and desceneded to the pool to drink. The ambassador was unperturbed by the frantic activity behind him. “Those are all their motivations for their interest in Chad, but frankly overriding all their interests is the last. China is potentially a major strategic competitor but also a major economic force on all levels. Nor just the low-wage, cheap-merchandise kind of thing, but also they’ve got the technological capacity to challenge industries that we kind of consider our own. There are balance-of-power academics predicting a global struggle … but I think it all depends on how we and they manage the process of their emergence on the world scene.”
Also left out of Hu Jintao’s tour were several countries where the Chinese have attracted international concern over their practices. In Gabon, China is buying up enormous amounts of tropical hardwood and illegally prospecting for oil in a nature preserve. In Zimbabwe it has sold $240 million worth of arms to the highly repressive Mugabe regime. And in the Democratic Republic of the Congo it’s an open secret that many children work in the Chinese-owned cobalt mines. One could compile the same sort of list of Western misbehaviour in Africa, of course, but recent public-awareness campaigns over such things as blood diamonds, child labour, and human-rights violations have started to change the way Western companies do business. They are becoming – to use a well-worn diplomatic term – responsible stakeholders. After half a century of atrocious conduct in Nigeria, for example, Shell and other Western oil companies have been force to scale back their operations because the level of violence – and bad press – has gotten so high.
But what to an American CEO might now look morally or financially alarming can still just look like a good business deal to the Chinese. Unfettered by environmental and social concerns, China has committed $4 billion to oil exploration in Nigeria, for example; signed an $8 billion deal to build a railroad across the country; and sold the government a fleet of gunboats to patrol the militant-infested Niger Delta. They are committing these resources just as Western companies are reducing their involvement in the country.
And the problems in Nigeria pale in comparison with those in Angola, where China extended a $3 billion line of credit that will, of course, be guaranteed by future oil revenue. According to the public-interest group Transparency International, Angola at that time was one of the top 10 most corrupt countries in the world, ased on the calculation that as much as 12% of its yearly gross national product – roughly $6 billion – simply vanishes. 70% of the population of Angola lives on less than a dollar a day, life expectancy is 36 years and the rate of infant mortality is the highest in the world.
The loan allowed Angola to spurn an International Monetary Fund offer that would have required guarantees of transparency and responsible governance. In exchange, China gets 40,000 barrels per day of crude oil and has a guarantee that 70% of associated construction will go to Chinese businesses. In a country where local industry is struggling to gain momentum after nearly three decades of civil war, it was a devastating blow. Now thousands of imported Chinese workers are constructing office buildings, apartments, complexes, hospitals, schools, highways, railroads, and an airport in Angola. They even use imported Chinese cement.
In September 2004, President George Bush sent shudders through the diplomatic world by using the word ‘genocide’ in reference to Darfur. It is a word that makes statesmen cringe because the 1948 Genocide Convention clearly requires the community of nations to protect civilian populations from genocide – even one perpetrated by their own government. The problem with this doctrine is that it flies in the face of China’s absolutely non-negotiable insistence on sovereignty. In China’s opinion, no international body can reach inside a nation, as it were, and tell the government how to run its affairs. The sovereignty wall protects China from censure on everything from human rights to the seizure of Tibet to government censorship. Not only would putting UN peacekeepers into Sudan jeopardise China’s vast oil interests, it would be the thin end of the wedge that could breach sovereignty all around the world.
For three years, China has threatened to veto any Security Council vote that proposed sanctions or military force against Sudan. (The US has had economic sanctions in place against Sudan since 1997, but they are undermined by the fact that the UN is not participating.) As a result, those proposals – though much discussed – have never actually made it to a vote. That started to change in 2006. China found itself coming under withering criticism not only from Western countries but also from African leaders, who finally seem to have become troubled by the carnage in Darfur. If there is one imperative more important to the Chinese than Sudanese oil – which, after all, supplies only 7% of their needs – it is good relations with other African countries. Without those countries, China’s vast ambitions on the continent are dead.
“Africa represents 53 countries, 48 of which recognise Beijing,” points out former ambassador Shinn. “That’s more than one-quarter of the General Assembly of the UN. And they rely on that support not only in the General Assembly but in some of the separate commissions, like the human-rights council.”
Adding to China’s woes was a very successful publicity campaign threatening a Western boycott of the Beijing Olympics – “the Genocide Games”, as they were nicknamed – if China didn’t change its position on Darfur. As a statement about its new position in the world, the Beijing Olympics are integral to China’s plans for the next century, and the last thing it wants is an international boycott.
The diplomatic world runs on shades of meaning and nuance too subtle for most people to pick up, and in this case the entire dynamic changes when Chinese assistant foreign minister Zhai Jun told President al-Bashir that he hoped Sudan would show more “flexibility” on Darfur. A word like that reverberates through the diplomatic world like someone taking a hammer to a church bell, and immediately things began to shift. Within days, Sudan publicly agreed to Kofi Annan’s peacekeeping plan, which featured a 20,000-man hybrid force of UN and African Union troops.
“Sudan doesn’t want a larger, more effective peacekeeping force in Darfur, because they’re still fighting a major counter-insurgency,” says John Prendergast of the International Crisis Group. “They believe they can defeat the rebels militarily over time. They’re not winning battle after battle, but they’re winning the larger battle by sowing so much instability and conflict between groups and factions in Darfur. They are basically destroying the non-Arab population in Darfur in order to destroy the rebellion. The rebels pose no strategic threat and it’s a potentially winnable conflict.”
Predergast’s fear is that Sudan will balk at the last minute and refuse entry to the UN. If Khartoum is willing to take limited losses from NATO-led airstrikes, then nothing would prevent the regime from cutting off food aid to the hundreds of thousands of displaced people living in camps. “Just like Saddam in the 90s, Khartoum could hand out food and say ‘Kids are starving to death because America attacked with its warplanes,’” Predergast says. “And half the world would believe that.”
In that case, once again, it would be up to China.
The irony of China’s new position in the world is that – precisely because of its intransigence over situations like Darfur – it has a huge amount of leverage. One word from China and four years of negotiations become unstuck. The tragedy in Darfur – and perhaps a future tragedy in Chad – is fuelled by China’s reliance on brutal regimes for access to oil. That reliance, however, stems directly from Western domination of more easily accessibly supplies. For example, in 2005 a state-owned Chinese oil company tried to buy the American oil giant UNOCAL for a price that was $1 billion higher than that of the closest Western bidder. Reaction in the US Congress was so blistering that UNOCAL accepted the lower bid rather than open the door to China.
“Don’t underestimate the anger that came out of that failed UNOCAL bid,” says Africa expert J. Stephen Morrison. “This was proof positive the US was going to block Chinese aspirations to become a globalised energy front. You had an acceleration of the Africa strategy directly tied to the UNOCAL defeat.”
As long as China remains shut out of Western oil markets, it will inevitably turn to countries like Sudan to meets its energy needs – and will wind up protecting violent, repressive governments like the one in Khartoum. Any long-term solution to Darfur will require a truly global energy strategy that allows China greater access to world oil wealth. And that will require a significant sacrifice from the West – which after all now uses the vast majority of the almost 90 million barrels of oil consumed worldwide every day.
Meanwhile the killing continues. On March 31 (2007), janjawid horsemen through to be from Sudan rode 25 miles into Chad and attacked two villages in the area of Koukou-Angarana. Villagers who survived the attack said that the janjawid were backed up by heavily armed insurgents on trucks and that they were deliberately targeting the men of the village, while the women could buy their lives with jewellery or other valuables. Other said that the killing was completely indiscriminate.
“Hundreds of houses have been burned,” the UN reported, and “an overwhelming stench came from the rotting carcasses of domestic animals that had been hit by stray bullets, consumed by fire or died of thirst, as the owners had no time to untie them. Famished and frightened dogs barked incessantly.”
The first reports were of 60 or 70 people killed, though those numbers are now thought to be way too low. Three of four hundred deaths are more likely. International reaction to the attack was outraged but transitory, and within days the incident was subsumed by news from other parts of the world.
Another 300 or 400 people were dead, though; another two villages were turned into stinking wasteland. Another sliver of human dignity was gone forever.
Copyright Conde Nast Magazines 2007.