India’s involvement in the Sudan

India’s engagement in the Sudan—from investments in energy infrastructure to its involvement in a peace process between Juba and Khartoum—demonstrates an important union of New Delhi’s strategic interests and ‘soft’ power.

From 2004 to 2009, mass killings that the United Nations called ‘genocide’ raged in the Darfur region of Western Sudan. In response to a local uprising by Darfuri rebel groups in 2003, the Sudanese government in Khartoum, led by Omar Al-Bashir’s National Islamic Front party, launched a retaliatory counter-insurgency. Bashir recruited Arab horsemen or ‘Janjaweed’ from northern and central Sudan to attack Darfuri civilians in order to catch the few insurgents among them, in a policy that was likened to “killing the fish by draining the water.” Over the course of five years, upwards of 400,000 people died of mass homicide or forced starvation and three million were displaced. Janjaweed incursions spread westward into Chad, turning the domestic genocide into an international war. Meanwhile, Khartoum denied aid workers access to internally displaced person (IDP) camps, exacerbating the humanitarian crisis.

When the United States, European Union, African Union, United Nations, and Arab League sought to intervene to prevent further atrocities, countries like China and Russia prevented any external intervention in Sudan from coming to fruition. Beijing and Moscow used their clout in the UN Security Council to veto any resolutions calling on intervention or otherwise condemning Khartoum. China’s National Petroleum Company—along with Malaysia’s Petronas, Qatar’s Gulf Petroleum Corporation, and other companies—had large investments in Sudan’s energy sector, and hoped to keep their investments intact. Sudan was among the fastest growing oil markets in Africa, with 75 percent of the region’s reserves located in southern Sudanese provinces (delineated in red on map).

The link between petroleum and conflict in Sudan has been strong. On one hand, out of a desire to exploit potentially oil-rich land, Khartoum has displaced local populations of different regions in order to explore oil possibilities. These displacement campaigns have resulted in large-scale humanitarian crises such as mass murder, internally displaced persons (IDPs), civil strife, disease and starvation.

On the other hand, Khartoum has spent nearly 80 percent of the revenue it has received from petroleum and other energy based infrastructure—which makes up the majority of its international trade—on aircraft, weapons, and other military equipment from China and Russia so that indigenous militias can ‘protect’ oil development projects from Sudan’s own civilians. The aircraft and helicopters used in Sudanese Air Force air strikes on Darfuri villages, as well as the Kalashnikov and machetes used by the Janjaweed after the air raids to destroy what is left, are largely of Chinese origin, purchased from oil revenue. These had been common practices since the 1970s, when then-President Ja’afar Nimeiri granted large oil concessions to the oil companies Chevron and Total, and focused his military campaign on southern Sudan.

From late 2002, Oil and Natural Gas Corporation Videsh Limited (OVL), the international branch of India’s energy acquisition company ONGC, has been purchasing petroleum excavation and related infrastructure development project bids in Sudan from other multinational companies. These companies—most notably Canada’s Talisman, Sweden’s Lundin, and Austria’s OMV—had been pulling out of Sudan due to the deteriorating security situation around their concessions, as well as human rights concerns expressed by both shareholders and citizens in their countries. OVL took over nearly a quarter of the Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company (GNPOC) conglomerate, and a number of additional petroleum reserve blocks of its own, including blocks 2, 5A, and 5B. Beyond mere oil concessions, India undertook a contract to build a 1.2 billion USD oil refinery, and a 200 million USD multi-product export pipeline from Khartoum refinery to Port Sudan on the Red Sea. Bharat Heavy Electricals Ltd. (BHEL) signed a contract with the government of Sudan in September 2005 to build, among other infrastructure, a power generation plant in the central Sudanese White Nile state.

The link between human rights violations and India’s economic investments in Sudan is less direct. But India’s investments have inarguably added to Khartoum’s military coffers. When questioned about Indian investment vis-à-vis the human rights situation in Sudan in 2002, then-Minister of Petroleum and Natural Gas of India Ram Naik said, “I know in the U.S.A. or Canada these feelings are there. But we in India don’t have such feelings on this issue. We feel the investments there are safe and, since it’s a producing field, we are keen to have it. My greatest interest is to have equity oil as soon as possible.” Indeed, the position was in line with two traditional tenets of India’s realist-oriented foreign policy: non-intervention in the internal affairs of countries outside of South Asia, and a view that strategic and economic interests alone ought to determine New Delhi’s foreign policy actions.

From 2005, rights activists in the UK and US set divestment from Sudan as a tactical goal, citing the correlation between oil revenues and violence. The case of Indian divestment, however, was double-edged. Indian disinvestment from Sudan may well have made a punitive statement by linking Khartoum’s actions with retracted Indian funds. But it also would have restricted Indian access to Sudanese energy resources, while the relinquished contracts would likely have been given—on preferential financial terms—to firms from places like China, which actively supported Khartoum’s actions, and whose investment may have worsened the human security situation in Sudan. Indeed, China’s ability to fill any void was India’s particular concern—as it has been in places like Iran and Myanmar.

Yet India’s “national interest”, which includes securing access to stable sources of energy, is not incompatible with interventions that would ensure a peaceful, stable Sudan; in fact, quite the contrary. Ensuring the stability of a foreign investment changes the nature of a “strategic interest” that would influence foreign policy decisions. And even investments in another country’s economy are interventions in the internal affairs of that country.

Years and two Ministers of Petroleum and Natural Gas after Ram Naik’s pronouncement, OVL realised that the political situation in Sudan had become precarious enough to merit a little concern for the security of its own investments, if not Sudan itself, and took out political risk insurance for its second phase of investment in Sudan. And particularly as Indian projects traversed Sudan’s geography—from Jonglei province in the south, to the central Kordofan and Upper Nile provinces, through the pipeline in Sudan’s northeast—international war (between Sudan and Chad, Ethiopia, or Uganda) or internal conflict and genocide (in Darfur, southern Sudan, and the Nuba and Beja Mountains in the East) could implicate India’s own assets.

While the conflict in Darfur abated in 2009-10, the “Comprehensive Peace Agreement” of 2005 was to set the parameters for a final settlement between Khartoum and Juba, the capital of South Sudan. From that process, a June 2011 referendum resulted in the secession of South Sudan and its establishment as an independent country. Yet questions of which parts of which provinces—including oil fields—would go to which country remained unresolved. Hoping to seize some of the petroleum fields of regions under Juba’s jurisdiction, in late 2011 Khartoum began redeploying aircraft and militias against its own Nuba Mountains and South Sudan, which in turn reciprocated and cut off oil supplies, reigniting conflict in the region.

In April of 2012, India saw that conflict between Sudan and South Sudan was affecting the stability of its own investments, and publicly sent a special envoy to mediate between Khartoum and Juba. The decision to intervene diplomatically was made after Beijing announced its own decision to arbitrate between the two sides.

While emanating from ‘self’ interest, the move signifies a major development in India’s extra-regional engagement, demonstrating a union of its strategic interests and its ‘soft’ power. For decades, India tried to project its mere existence as a democracy as a source of influence. To those more interested in their own bottom line than in inspirational stories, this meant very little. Yet as countries like South Sudan emerge from instability, come into their own as nations, and endeavor to build up democratic governance, lessons from India’s domestic experiences, intertwined with its strategic interest, can be of great assistance.

In fact, India’s soft power edge may give it a strategic advantage. The US and Europe often have limited credibility in Africa and the Middle East due to their imperial legacies, while China, despite its hands-off reputation, effectively sides with status quo interests. For this reason, the South Sudanese have a relatively poor view of Beijing, which has long supported their oppressors in Khartoum. Chinese development projects import Chinese labor, while Indian investments employ locals. The presence of integrated Indian Diasporas in East Africa and the influence they bring, meanwhile, has facilitated New Delhi’s ensuing economic engagement. As South Sudan endeavors to integrate with the countries of East Africa—including with an oil pipeline to Kenya’s Lamu port to reduce its dependence on Port Sudan and Khartoum—India’s touch may be helpful.

As India’s own stake in the stability of places like Africa grows, exercising its particular influence for mutually beneficial aims will increasingly be in the interest of both New Delhi and African countries themselves.