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Conflict

Grawert: 'Oil companies are at risk in South Sudan'

The conflict in South Sudan between government and rebel forces has disrupted oil production. Now rebels say the oil companies must leave.

In South Sudan rebels loyal to former vice president Riek Machar say they have seized the capital of Unity state, Bentiu, and have warned oil firms operating there to pack up and leave within a week. The conflict between the rebels and the forces of President Salva Kiir had already disrupted oil production, upon which the government depends for most of its revenue. DW spoke to Elke Grawert, a researcher at the Bonn International Center for Conversion, an independent German thinktank, for an assessment of the situation.

DW: Dr Grawert, government forces in South Sudan dispute that Bentiu has fallen but if rebel claims turn out to be true, how big a setback would this be for the government?

Dr Elke Grawert: Maybe we should start with the origin of the conflict. It is a power conflict between President Salva Kiir and former Vice President Riek Machar. We have the situation that there is a power struggle within one party about the presidency. If the rebel force now captures oil fields - the main resource of South Sudan - that just intensifies the power struggle. I believe that in Upper Nile state, the rebels seized control of the capital Malakal and then the army of South Sudan, the SPLA, recaptured it, then the rebels took it again. This could also happen in Unity State with Bentiu so it is not now settled that it will be under the control of the rebels for ever. The crucial point is: how do they get out of the armed confrontation where this power struggle has now brought them.

The rebels are ordering the oil firms to leave. Why are they doing this? Who is going to pump the oil out of the ground once they have gone?

I think it has to be understood that the oil companies will not be able to continue production in such a state of insecurity. Before it was the SPLA, the South Sudanese army, which protected the oil fields together with some intelligence forces of the South Sudanese government. Now it will be unclear who protects them. They have already evacuated a lot of staff and reduced oil production. I think if the rebels claim to chase them out, it is also in the interests of the oil companies to leave for the time being because nothing is secure. They are at risk and I think it is difficult if the rebels take over and the companies try to continue producing as they did before. I don't think this is very realistic.

If the rebels control the oilfields in South Sudan, does that mean the government has lost this conflict?

If the rebels retain control of the oilfields, this will put pressure on the government to find a solution. It can still be a military solution, and as far as I can see, civil war is still the main option for both sides, government and rebels. The risk is that we have a scenario where the civil war is starting again, unless they are forced to negotiate politically. During the earlier civil war, the southern part of Sudan did not have any oil resources and still had a very long civil war for 22 years. So I think the worst case scenario could be that they have to go back to the same way of fighting without oil resources, where they just depended on looting, maybe on some support from outside to obtain weapons and on diverting aid for their purposes. That was the situation during the earlier civil war. There is a now an attempt by IGAD, the regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development, to deploy a detection and deterrent force. That followed the ceasefire agreement in January which was not respected. There could be a major role for IGAD to get the two sides to the negotiating table again but there are still many reservations on both sides. I think the military solution is still the one which is preferred and I think the SPLA will try to get back the oilfields by military means.

Interview: Mark Caldwell

Dr Elke Grawert is a researcher at the Bonn International Center for Conversion, an independent German thinktank.

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