Let’s stop talking about the oil: Abyei

Journalists have this really annoying habbit of repeating well-known information verbatim, for years and years on end, without questioning where such information came from. This creates a real problem, because quite often such well-established “facts” change over time, but fail to be reflected in the stories that journalists are writing.

This happened when journalists started reporting how many people had died in the Darfur conflict. A 2005 World Health Organisation (WHO)put the number of people who have died in the conflict at 200,000. Although the report stressed that this number included those that had died as a result of famine and disease caused by the war, as well as the fighting itself, a great many journalists failed to pick up on this and word got around that the Khartoum had massacred 200,000. Three years later, the same statistic was still being quoted in established papers, even though it was now badly out of date. The UN’s humanitarian bureau then decided to revise the 300,000 figure, based on an extrapolation of the original WHO research. It is now this figure that journalists are using, even though once again it has become out of date.

Referring to Darfur as the size of France is something else that journalists love to trot off, without thinking about where this comes from or whether it is true. A measurement of the region reveals, in fact, that Darfur is closer to the size of Spain.

Now, reading the coverage of the Sudan referendum so far, I am reminded of another point that journalists keep getting wrong. They keep referring to Abyei, a small strip of land in the centre of the country, as “oil-rich”. Even the Economist, a newspaper I usually have high regard for, has referred to the region in this way during its referendum coverage.

The statement is completely and utterly wrong, and dangerously so.

As with anything, one must take care to define the problem correctly before defining a solution, otherwise one ends up trying to fix the wrong thing. The problem is not oil – these days, Abyei produces very little. The problem is more to do with a fear of marginalisation that the respective tribes of the region have.

And I am not the only one that believes this – diplomats that have worked in the country, and know Sudan very well, will tell you the same thing.

Here is a comment piece that I wrote, which explains things in a little more detail.

It is absolutely crucial that a solution is found to the Abyei problem. The referendum in South Sudan has so far been run smoothly and efficiently, but, unless Abyei is fixed, peace can not be guaranteed.

It is the responsibility of journalists to tell people what the problem is, not what it once was.

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