Bentiu, South Sudan — Every few moments, Nyameat Nyak glances nervously at the sky. It’s been two weeks since Sudanese warplanes bombed her tea shop as she was serving five traders, pregnant with her sixth child. Shrapnel sliced through the walls, covering her in flesh and blood.
The men died. Her baby lived.
Since the attack, there have been more bombings, more deaths and a growing unease that this nation’s prized asset is becoming its biggest misfortune. “If we had no oil,” said Nyak, 27, seated outside her hut, “we would not be attacked.”
Tens of thousands of South Sudanese are trapped in a conflict over oil and territory between their newly independent country and their northern neighbor, Sudan. For the past three weeks, Sudanese warplanes have bombed the town of Bentiu, killing 15 civilians and injuring several dozen more, according to the United Nations.
From Angola to Chad, Nigeria to Equatorial Guinea, oil and other natural resources have been more bane than blessing, generating conflicts and corruption while millions of Africans languish in poverty. But many thought oil revenue would prevent another conflict here, with South Sudan dependent on Sudan’s pipelines and ports to export its crude.
But with each assault, and as both nations mass troops on their contested border 50 miles north of here, the countries are drawing closer toward a full-blown war, potentially destabilizing a region containing one of Africa’s most significant oil reserves.
“The oil is a curse,” Mohamed Abdurahman Kili, 56, mumbled from his hospital bed, his body covered with burns. He was inside his shop in a crowded market on the edge of town when a Sudanese warplane attacked, killing a 9-year-old child and another person, and setting his shop on fire.
Oil was a key incentive in the 2005 peace deal that ended Sudan’s 22-year civil war, Africa’s longest. With an estimated three-quarters of their combined reserves in South Sudan, both sides agreed to split the revenue equally.
South Sudan reneged on paying Sudan hundreds of millions of dollars for using its pipelines, saying the fees were exorbitant. Sudan responded by seizing tankers carrying South Sudanese crude and imposed a blockade on the export of the oil. In February, South Sudan shut down its entire oil production, roughly 350,000 barrels a day.
Since then, oil talks have fallen apart. Sudan has bombed oil facilities inside South Sudan. South Sudan, in turn, took over the disputed town of Heglig, the site of Sudan’s largest oil field, last month. That prompted Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir to declare that he would “liberate” South Sudan. Two days later, yielding to international pressure, South Sudan withdrew from Heglig.
But that hasn’t silenced the rumblings of war. On Friday, South Sudanese President Salva Kiir returned from China, where he sought funds to build an alternative pipeline through Kenya or Djibouti, and declared Heglig and its oil part of South Sudan.
The forceful rhetoric has continued even as the economies of both countries are under immense pressure because of the oil shutdown. Both currencies are rapidly sinking in value, while fuel and food prices are soaring.
- Related: Conflict Simmers Between Sudan, South Sudan | NPR (Audio), Morning Edition Hosts David Greene & Steve Inskeep Interview NPR Correspondent Ofeibea Quist Arcton reporting from Juba, South Sudan, 1 May 2012.