Features | Politics | East Asia

China: Africa’s Other Kony

Joseph Kony is now notorious for his role in Africa, including in Sudan. But China’s supplying of arms and oil money has also abetted the Sudanese regime’s awful behavior.

By Joel E. Starr for

By now, tens of millions of people or more know who Joseph Kony and his murderous Lord’s Resistance Army are after a YouTube video called “Kony 2012” went viral. But there’s another Kony in Central Africa that has been committing depredations for just as long: China.

Since the early 1990s, messianic madman Joseph Kony has led his LRA on a reign of terror, first in Uganda, and then through the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan. He’s currently believed to be in the Central African Republic. Kony and the LRA live off the land by stealing from villages and terrorizing its inhabitants deep in the jungle. They are infamous for chopping off the limbs, lips, noses and ears of its victims and for kidnapping tens of thousands of children to serve as “child soldiers.” Estimates suggest that the LRA has killed tens of thousands, displaced more than 1 million and kidnapped more than 30,000 children in the past 20 years.     

Thanks largely to the efforts of U.S. Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma (disclaimer: I work in the senator’s office) a law was passed in 2010 that directed the Obama administration to draft a plan to “apprehend or remove” Kony and his LRA, and reintegrate those child soldiers back into their communities, if possible. And last December, President Barack Obama deployed approximately 100 U.S. soldiers to train and equip the Ugandan Army to track down Kony and his LRA lieutenants and bring them to justice. Hopefully, Kony’s reign of terror will end this year. 

Yet in this same period, China has pursued a less murderous, but no less destabilizing path in Sudan, a State Sponsor of Terrorism, according to the U.S. State Department, since 1993, and the recipient of U.S. economic sanctions in 1997 and 1998. In fact, China is the single most important political, economic and military ally of President Omar al-Bashir since he took power in Khartoum via a coup in 1989. 

Beijing officially has a policy of “non-interference” in African nations, but it has acted quite the opposite in Sudan. China actively sided with Bashir and his National Islamic Front against the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) rebels in the south. This lasted from the 1990s through the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005, and only changed when it was clear that the rebels would succeed in gaining independence from the north, which they did last July. This diplomatic outreach to the new South Sudan was done purely for practical reasons, as a large part of China’s oil imports in Africa come from this new country (second only to Angola). 

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Economically, China has underwritten billions of dollars worth of infrastructure projects and provided further assistance in the form of low to no interest loans that are in large part later forgiven. But no other example better illustrates the close economic engagement by China in Sudan than in the energy sector.

Sudan is China’s gas pump. It imports 67 percent of Sudan’s crude oil, accounting for 10 percent of Beijing’s foreign oil imports. Since the 1990s, it has developed Sudan’s oil fields, which are now mostly located in South Sudan, and built the two pipelines that transport the crude through Sudan to Port Sudan in the north. This was all done amid the violence of civil war between Bashir and the SPLM/A. While there were several Western oil companies competing in the region early on, all sold their stakes because of the violence and bowed to criticism that they were “oil exploiters” in the midst of war. No such criticism troubled the communist-run Chinese petroleum industry. 

With independence, South Sudan now possesses 75 percent of proven oil reserves in this region. China must quench its thirst for oil, and its former exclusive allegiance to Sudan has given way to a delicate diplomatic balancing act between the two Sudans. At the time of this writing, these two countries have returned to the battlefield; this time over oil. Sudan, seeking to offset its loss of oil revenues, has demanded oil pipeline transit and port processing fees of $32 to $36 a barrel, while South Sudan is offering only $1 to $2 a barrel in fees in addition to selling discounted oil to Sudan. In protest, South Sudan halted all production in January, and attacks ensued from both sides along this petroleum rich border. The Chinese are actively involved in trying to find a resolution, not because they seek peace and stability in the region, but because they must have the oil flowing again to import.  

In exchange for oil, China became Sudan’s weapons merchant. In the 1990s, it was a major supplier of tanks, howitzers, anti-aircraft guns, helicopters and fighter aircraft as well as small arms used against the SPLM/A. From 2001 to 2008, Beijing supplied Sudan with 72 percent of all small arms and light weapons used by the Sudanese army in addition to missile launchers, more tanks, combat aircraft and helicopters. This occurred in spite of a 2004 United Nations embargo on arms going to Darfur. But this didn’t stop Khartoum from supplying small arms to the Janjaweed militia in addition to sending its own Chinese equipped Sudanese forces to Darfur.  Bashir was also using Chinese weaponry to do Beijing’s bidding when violently clearing local populations from areas selected for oil development by Chinese firms in the south. It’s currently estimated today that China is supplying 90 percent of Sudan’s small arms purchases, and has for a decade helped Sudan build its own small arms and ammunition factories.   

More arms, more forced removals for oil development and a disregard for international sanctions aimed at ending genocide in Darfur; this is China’s legacy in Sudan.

In 1994, Joseph Kony and the LRA took refuge in southern Sudan and received provision from Bashir and his National Islamic Front, who used them as proxy forces against the SPLM/A rebels and neighboring Uganda which supported the rebels. Sudan’s patronage ended when the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed. There’s little doubt, however, that many weapons the LRA use to kill villagers and place in the hands of child soldiers were supplied by Khartoum and by extension, Beijing.   

One Kony is about to be eliminated as a threat to peace and stability in Central Africa. The other remains at large.

Joel E. Starr serves as Counsel and Legislative Assistant to U.S. Sen. James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, the Ranking Member on the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs, and a senior Member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.  Starr was Deputy Assistant Secretary of State from 2007-09, and is a Major in the U.S. Army Reserve Judge Advocate General’s Corps.