US investor buys Sudanese warlord’s land
By Javier Blas and William Wallis in London
Published: January 9 2009 23:18 Financial Times
A US businessman backed by former CIA and state department officials says he has secured a vast tract of fertile land in south Sudan from the family of a notorious warlord, in post-colonial Africa’s biggest private land deal.
Philippe Heilberg, a former Wall Street banker and chairman of New York-based Jarch Capital, told the Financial Times he had gained leasehold rights to 400,000 hectares of land – an area the size of Dubai – by taking a majority stake in a company controlled by the son of Paulino Matip.
Mr Matip fought on both sides in Sudan’s lengthy civil war but became deputy commander of the army in the autonomous southern region after a 2005 peace agreement.
The deal, between Mr Heilberg’s affiliate company in the Virgin Islands and Gabriel Matip, is a striking example of how the recent spike in global commodity food prices has encouraged foreign investors and governments to scramble for control of arable land in Africa, even in its remotest parts.
In contrast to land deals between foreign investors and governments, Mr Heilberg is gambling on a warlord’s continuing control of a region where his militia operated in the civil war between Khartoum and south Sudan.
“You have to go to the guns, this is Africa,” Mr Heilberg said by phone from New York. He refused to disclose how much he had paid for the lease.
Jarch Management Group is linked to Jarch Capital, a US investment company that counts on its board former US state department and intelligence officials, including Joseph Wilson, a former ambassador and expert on Africa, who acts as vice-chairman; and Gwyneth Todd, who was an adviser on Middle Eastern and North African affairs at the Pentagon and under former president Bill Clinton at the White House.
Laws on land ownership in south Sudan remain vague, and have yet to be clarified in a planned land act. For this reason, some foreign experts on Sudan as well as officials in the regional government, speaking on condition of anonymity, doubted Mr Heilberg could assert legal rights over such a vast tract of land. The deal is second only in size to the recent lease of 1.3m hectares by South Korea’s Daewoo from the government of Madagascar.
Mr Heilberg is unconcerned. He believes that several African states, Sudan included, but possibly also Nigeria, Ethiopia and Somalia, are likely to break apart in the next few years, and that the political and legal risks he is taking will be amply rewarded.
“If you bet right on the shifting of sovereignty then you are on the ground floor. I am constantly looking at the map and looking if there is any value,” he said, adding that he was also in contact with rebels in Sudan’s western region of Darfur, dissidents in Ethiopia and the government of the breakaway state of Somaliland, among others.
The company was embroiled in a dispute with the south Sudan government over its claims to exploration rights for oil.
Mr Heilberg said Jarch had no expertise in agricultural development but would be seeking joint venture partners to cultivate the land, which is in one of the remotest parts of Sudan, in a region bordering the Nile river but with no tarred roads.