The Role of Sinclair Petroleum in Federating Eritrea with Ethiopia

News Politics

When oil becomes thicker than blood.


Ethiopian Ogaden region is sitting on one of the world’s largest untapped oil and natural gas reserves that could put many oil-rich gulf countries out of business. British and American oil companies have deliberately left the Ogaden region untouched as a strategic reserve against future oil shortages.

But energy-hungry countries such as China and Sweden are now eyeing to drill for oil in the region, and this in turn has unsettled the British and American oil companies who believe they have inherent rights over the oil deposits by virtue of Ethiopia being their client state.

For a better understanding of the what caused the 30 years war between Eritrea and Ethiopia, it is suffice to revisit the September 27, 1945 letter that was written by a U.S. oil and Gas company to James F. Byrnes, the then Secretary of State.


September 27, 1945

The honorable James F. Byrnes
Secretary of state
Washington D.C.

Dear Mr. Secretary:

My company has only recently completed an agreement with the Imperial Ethiopian government for the development of petroleum in Ethiopia.

I feel rather certain that you, personally, have been informed with request to this agreement. Unfortunately, the country of Ethiopia is an inland country, with no direct water outlet for export shipping. Should we be successful in discovering oil, we would, of necessity, be required to construct adequate pipe line facilities from Ethiopia to a suitable seaport, as well as an export shipping terminal.

If we are to proceed with our development program in Ethiopia, it is of vital importance that Eritrea should be recognized as an integral part of Ethiopia, as we would have a suitable seaport outlet.

Our entire development program will seriously be delayed and affected should Eritrea be under the domination of any other power except Ethiopia. I, therefore, urgently request that your good offices support the demand of Ethiopia with respect to Eritrea.

For your personal information, I am attaching hereto photostatic copy of the supplemental agreement between my company and the Imperial Ethiopian Government, with respect to construction of pipe lines in outboard outlets, from which you will readily see the importance to this project of the acquisition of Eritrea by Ethiopia.

Very truly yours



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In 1944 Sinclair Petroleum, an American company, signed an agreement with Ethiopia and started petroleum exploration activities in the Ogaden. Until 1951, Sinclair Petroleum drilled 17 exploration wells in the eastern part of the Ogaden basin. The Ogaden sedimentary basin covers 350,000 sq. km. of land. Sinclair Petroleum had noted the existence of oil inflow in one of the exploration wells drilled in Gelladi locality.

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After the end of World War II, the United Nations conducted a lengthy inquiry regarding the status of Eritrea, with the superpowers each vying for a stake in the state’s future.

Britain, the last administrator at the time, put forth the suggestion to partition Eritrea between Sudan and Ethiopia, separating Christians and Muslims.

The idea was instantly rejected by the Eritrean people— both Christians and Muslims— who wanted total independence and keep their territorial sovereignty intact.

The United States point of view was expressed by its then chief foreign policy adviser John Foster Dulles who said:

…. From the point of view of justice, the opinions of the Eritrean people must receive consideration. Nevertheless, the strategic interests of the United States in the Red Sea Basin and considerations of security and world peace make it necessary that the country [Eritrea] be linked with our ally, Ethiopia.” — John Foster Dulles, 1952

A UN plebiscite voted 46 to 10 to have Eritrea be federated with Ethiopia which was later stipulated on December 2, 1950 in resolution 390 (V). Eritrea would have its own parliament and administration and would be represented in what had been the Ethiopian parliament and would become the federal parliament.

In 1961 the 30-year Eritrean Struggle for Independence began, following the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie’s dissolution of the federation and shutting down of Eritrea’s parliament. The Emperor declared Eritrea the fourteenth province of Ethiopia in 1962.

But why Eritrea? Aren’t Somaliland or Kenya both with access to the sea and much closer to Siclair’s oil territory in the Ogaden region than Eritrea?

According to the January 11, 1951 memo written by the Acting Deputy Director at  the Office of Military Assistance, neither Somalialnd nor Kenya will serve Sinclair’s oil concession interest in Ethiopia better than Eritrea.

“… Ethiopia’s border and jurisdictional difficulties with British and French Somaliland’s are under negotiation among those governments. An important interest of the United States in these negotiations is to see that the rights of the Sinclair Petroleum Company to develop petroleum in Ethiopia are not infringed by territorial adjustments among those powers. The British have assured us that if agreement is reached on a proposal to cede to Ethiopia a corridor to Zeila in British Somaliiand in exchange for a considerable section of south-eastern Ogaden, to be annexed to British Somaliland, the rights of Ethiopia and the Sinclair Company to the sub-soil resources in that part of the Ogaden transferred to British Somaliland will remain in effect …”

However, after 30 years of bitter struggle, the Eritreans won their independence and declared an independent Eritrea in 1993.

“… By logic, the nation of Eritrea (pop. 3 million) should not exist. The secessionist province’s independence fighters ought never to have defeated Ethiopia in their 30-year-long struggle. They were out-manned  outgunned, abandoned or betrayed by every ally; their cause was hopeless. They won by force of character, a unity and determination so steely not all the modern armaments, superpower support or economic superiority of Ethiopia could withstand it. The spirit that saw the Eritreans through 10 years in the trenches of their mountain redoubt at Nakfa has built them a nation from scratch, since independence was finally consummated in 1993” — Johanna Mcgeary and Marguerite Michaels Monday, Mar. 30, 1998

In 1969, ARCO acquired Sinclair Oil Corporation.