South Sudan: The Scramble For Land – Analysis


By Nisrin Elamin

On 9 July 2011 South Sudan became Africa’s 54th nation, after the vast majority of its people voted for secession from the North. The ink has barely dried on the documents formalising South Sudan’s self-determination, but the scramble for its land is already in full swing. Over the last two years, researchers estimate that approximately 10 per cent of Africa’s most fertile land in over 20 countries, has fallen into the hands of foreign companies and speculators seeking to exploit its resources.[1] South Sudan has simply become one of the latest investment frontiers for foreign speculators, prompted in large part by its newly found independence.

The struggle for Southern Sudan’s independence began in 1955 and cost the lives of millions, displacing many more within their own homeland. At the centre of this struggle for independence was the desire for the people of South Sudan to control and benefit from their own resources and land. Yet according to a report released by the Oakland Institute earlier this year, 9 per cent of South Sudanese land has already been bought or rather leased to foreign companies and governments.

The irony of the situation is astounding and deeply troubling. According to a Norwegian People’s Aid report authored by David Deng over ‘28 foreign and domestic investments are planned or underway across the ten states of Southern Sudan totaling 2.64 million hectares of land in the agriculture, forestry and bio-fuel sectors alone.’[2] The total land area is larger than the entire country of Rwanda. The investors include several North American, British, Finnish, Egyptian, South African and Emirati companies.

A brief history of US and European involvement in Sudan’s peace process can shed light on the current scramble for land. It appears the same governments –and the corporations affiliated with them – who took an interest in Sudan’s peace negotiations over a decade ago, are now involved in acquiring some of the South’s most fertile, oil and mineral rich regions. Before the discovery and flow of oil in Sudan beginning in 1999, the Sudanese peace process was dominated by neighbouring African countries. The Clinton Administration was in fact criticised by Jimmy Carter for previously undermining the Sudanese peace process by militarily supporting Southern Sudanese rebels in an effort to destabilise and overthrow the Northern regime.[3]

Once it became clear that 80 per cent of Sudan’s oil was located in the South, the calculus for US and European oil interests and policy shifted towards supporting a peace process which would likely lead to the South’s secession. Clinton-era sanctions, had previously made Sudan’s oil, mineral and agricultural sectors off limits to North American and European investors. As a result, these sectors were dominated by Chinese, Malaysian and Indian companies. With the emergence of an independent South Sudan comes an opportunity for US, Canadian and European companies to now invest in these sectors.

The fragility of South Sudan’s transitional period and the legal ambiguity that surrounds it is a big draw for investors. A recent Rolling Stone article[4] on foreign landholders in Africa appropriately refers to them as ‘Capitalists of Chaos.’ Phil Heilberg, who was interviewed for the article and now owns over 800,000 hectares of land in South Sudan through the New York based Jarch Management group speaks openly about his motivation to invest in the region. ‘I saw the Soviet Union split up,’ he recalls. ‘Saw it up close. I realized there was a lot of money to be made in breakups, and I vowed that the next time I’d be on the inside…The world is like the universe – ever expanding,’ he adds. ‘I focus on the pressure points.’[5]

Due to South Sudan’s fragility and underdevelopment, foreign businesses that are purely profit-driven, can seize opportunities to operate under the guise of agriculture or infrastructure development while capitalising on the nation’s resource wealth. While some foreign companies are supporting the development of the new nation by building schools, roads and hospitals, others are undermining the creation of democratic institutions and laws that will protect its citizens from exploitation. A closer look at a deal struck between a US-based investment firm and a local cooperative three years ago, reveals these dynamics poignantly.

In 2008, the Texas-based firm Nile Trade and Development and the local Mukaya Payam Cooperative negotiated one of the biggest land deals in South Sudan. ‘The 49-year lease of 400,000 hectares of central Equatoria for around $25,000 allows the company to exploit all natural resources including oil, timber and minerals.’[6] According to the Oakland Institute, it also allows the company to engage in agricultural activities and to sublease the land to a third party.

A key element in this deal, as well as other similar deals, is that they all relied on one determining factor: South Sudan’s imminent and inevitable independence. In February of 2009, two years prior to South Sudan’s referendum, US and British business executives co-founded Kinyeti Development a company dedicated to supporting the ‘emergence of the human resource, logistical and economic basis for a new South Sudan dedicated to improving the living standards of its people within a framework of civic peace, free market economies, democratic institutions, and regional cooperation.’[7] Nile Trade and Development is one of its subsidiaries.

The company’s website includes maps of Sudan’s oil concessions and ethnic make-up along with rather extensive biographies of its three foreign partners. In May of 2009, a delegation of South Sudanese government officials interested in developing a green economy was invited to a smart-grid fact finding mission in Texas. The effort was headed by former US Ambassador at Large and Coordinator for Refugee Affairs Howard Eugene Douglas. Douglas made the seamless transition from diplomacy to international business in the 1990s and now heads both Kinyeti Development and Nile Trade and Development. In brief, he has put years of diplomatic experience and political knowledge[8] of the region to use in developing lucrative business ventures for prospective foreign investors in Africa’s newest nation.

But contrary to its stated mission, Kinyeti Development has done little to ensure that these land acquisition ventures take place in a transparent, lawful and democratic manner. The Mukaya Payam cooperative, which originally negotiated the lease of land in Central Equatoria for instance, is said to be fictitious according to the Oakland Institute’s research findings.[9] The agreement, which guarantees the cooperative will receive a percentage of the lessor’s profits, was in fact signed by ‘one Mukaya Paramount Chief on behalf of the Cooperative, and witnessed by two others – a judge and a lawyer’ without the knowledge or input of the community affected.[10] The Government of South Sudan has not officially recognised the deal, which is currently under scrutiny due to pressure and protests from members of the affected community.

The Southern Sudanese government also has yet to establish land and mining laws that would protect the nascent nation from foreign resource exploitation. Most importantly, no laws have been created to ensure that the communities affected by land acquisitions and foreign investments are protected from imminent displacement. The area designated for Nile Trade and Development has a population of approximately 90,000, largely dependent on land for survival.[11] According to the Norwegian People’s Aid Report:

‘Even if companies were to invest in a manner that does not require resettlement of local communities, such extensive development would still significantly affect patterns of land access and use for tens, or even hundreds of thousands of people…. a number of the investments are located in highly populated areas where tens or even hundreds of thousands of people rely on land and natural resources for their daily livelihoods. If the project proponents choose to deny local populations access, it could have devastating impacts on rural communities whose lives have already been sorely affected by poverty, food insecurity, and conflict.’[12]

While Nile Trade and Development agreed to finance the development of the land they leased by building roads and schools for the community, these promises have failed to materialise over the last three years.[13] Moreover, an upsurge of post-referendum clashes between the South Sudan army and militia factions, has already led to the displacement of hundreds, in areas leased to Jarch Management. According to a Sudan Tribune article published in April of 2011, ‘hundreds of civilians were displaced in Mayom County as a result of clashes between the South Sudan army (SPLA) and militia loyal to Peter Gatdet, Unity state officials say.’[14] Peter Gatdet incidentally serves on the board of Jarch Management. One can only speculate about the role Jarch Management has been playing in the recent events that have occurred.

It becomes clear from these examples that some foreign interests have never been committed to true self-determination for the people of South Sudan. Instead, they supported secession in order to clear the way for resource exploitation. To recover from decades of war and promote development, South Sudan is in need of both foreign and domestic investors. But they must operate within a legal framework, which ensures that its citizens will benefit from their country’s resource wealth. Without such a framework, the scramble for land and resources will continue, with potentially devastating effects on the new nation’s most vulnerable communities.

Nisrin Elamin is a Sudanese educator and activist living in New York City. She is the coordinator of the Support Darfur Project which documents and supports Sudanese-led grassroots initiatives and blogs at

[1] See MacKenzie Funk “Capitalists of Chaos: Who’s Cashing in on Global Warming?” Rolling Stone, 27 May 2010, p.60.
[2] See David Deng “The New Frontier: A baseline survey of large-scale land-based investment in Southern Sudan.” January 2011.
[3] See The European-Sudanese Public Affairs Council “The Search for Peace in Sudan: A Chronology of the Sudanese Peace Process 1989-2001.” May 2002.
[4] See MacKenzie Funk “Capitalists of Chaos: Who’s Cashing in on Global Warming?” Rolling Stone, 27 May 2010.
[5] Ibid. p. 59 and p. 61.
[6] See Oakland Institute “Understanding Land Investment Deals in Africa Nile Trading and Development, Inc. in South Sudan Land Deal Brief,” June 2011.
[7] See
[8] After serving as US Ambassador at large and Coordinator of Refugee Affairs (1981-1985) he served on the Policy Planning Staff of the U.S. Department of State and the Executive Committee of the Presiding Bishop’s Fund for World Relief of the Episcopal Church as well as the Presidential Commission on the Ukraine Famine. He continues to be a member of the Foreign Policy Association; the Council of American Ambassadors and the Association of Former Intelligence Officers.
[9] See Oakland Institute “Understanding Land Investment Deals in Africa Nile Trading and Development, Inc. in South Sudan Land Deal Brief,” June 2011. See also James Okanya Lomerry, and Lonya Bany Banak, “Southern Sudan Land Grabs: A Case on Mukaya Payam Land Issue,” unpublished work for Agency for Independent Media, commissioned by Oxfam International, Juba: October 2010.
[10] See David Deng “The New Frontier: A baseline survey of large-scale land-based investment in Southern Sudan.” January 2011, p. 27.
[11] Ibid. p. 28.
[12] See Micheala Rhode, “Is South Sudan’s Largest Land Deal a Land Grab?” ThinkAfricaPress, 7 September, 2011.
[13] See Bonafacio Taban Kuich, “Unity state: Gatdet’s forces clashes with SPLA in Mayom County.” Sudan Tribune, 20 April, 2011.,38627
[14] See

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