Over the last three years, between 200,000 and 400,000 people died in the Darfur conflict, in western Sudan. More than 2 million civilians fled their homes and more than 3 million people rely on aid for survival. The Sudanese government’s troops and its ’Janjaweed’ militia allies attack civilians, burning villages, killing tens of thousands of innocent people, and rape and assault women and children.
In May 2006, the Darfur Peace Agreement was signed between the Sudan government and one of the factions of the Darfur rebels. However, violence escalated, with humanitarian aid agencies saying they find it extremely difficult to operate in the region.
Working people everywhere demand something must be done to stop the slaughter in western Sudan. Calls grow for a United Nations (UN) ’peacekeeping force’ to intervene. But can the UN end the crisis and prevent it from turning into a wider African war? What is the way out of war, poverty and starvation in Sudan?
Turbulent history - missed opportunities
The roots of the Darfur crisis, and Sudan’s deep social, ethnic and tribal divisions are found in the country’s colonial past.
British imperialism implemented ’divide and rule’, fostering ’tribalism’ and a ’Southern policy’. Accordingly, Muslim and Arabic-speaking people in southern Sudan were evicted and sent north. Mainly Christian and animist (belief in spirits that inhabit natural objects) Africans in the south were subject to renewed tribal divisions.
Independence for Sudan was granted in 1956, but the divisions fostered by imperialism, and weak capitalist rule, meant Sudan has only known 10 years peace. The country suffers from ethnic, religious, regional and tribal divisions. The first rebel war in the south broke out in 1962, led by the Anya Nya movement.
A students’ and workers’ general strike, the 1964 ’October revolution’, led five years later to the ’radical’ General Jafar Nimieri taking power in the ’May Revolution’ coup.
The Sudanese Communist Party (SCP), then a major force in Sudanese society and one of the most influential communist parties in the Arab world, subsequently joined the Nimieri regime.
Rather than pursue an independent class policy to unite the working masses under the banner of socialism in opposition to the local pro-capitalist parties and imperialism, the SCP followed the disastrous Stalinist ’stages’ policy of alliances with ’progressive’ sections of the capitalist class. But Nimieri opportunistically balanced between Cold War powers. In 1971, after a failed ’communist coup’, he bloodily suppressed the Communist Party.
Nimieri signed a peace agreement with the Anya Nya rebels in the south in 1972. But the discovery of oil in southern Sudan led to increasing central domination. ’Islamisation’ of society took place in the late 1970s, with US backing. Arabic was made the official language. A new civil war erupted in the 1980s, involving government forces and the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement -Army (SPLM).
Nimieri’s disastrous policies caused popular unrest and he was deposed. But an elected coalition government proved unable to resolve the civil war or Sudan’s intense social crisis and was promptly overthrown by the ’National Salvation Revolution’ military coup in 1989. The hard-line Omar al-Bashir-led regime renewed repression and declared a ’Jihad’ against the south.
Following the collapse of Stalinism (ie the political system of the USSR and eastern bloc countries) in the early 1990s, US imperialism regarded Sudan as an unstable, hostile regime. President Bill Clinton ordered missile strikes on a pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum, in 1998. Later, Colin Powell described the conflict in Darfur as "genocide".
Even though antagonisms continue between the Bush and Sudanese governments, including US economic sanctions against Khartoum, Washington has a ’carrot and stick’ policy towards Sudan’s president al-Bashir. The advent of oil exports from Sudan, in 1999, and the country’s vast oil reserves, saw Sudan become the object of intensifying competition between resources-hungry powers. China buys 60% of Sudan’s oil output.
A further US concern is the geo-political importance of Sudan, which lies between Africa and the Middle East, and which has a big influence in the crisis torn Horn of Africa. Instability in Somalia recently worsened, after Ethiopia, with US backing, ousted Islamic forces that had taken control of most of southern Somalia.
Just as the long war in southern Sudan drew to an uneasy close, after an agreement between the SPLM and Khartoum was finalised in 2005, rebels in the western region of Darfur, organised in the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army (SLM/SLA) and Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), rose up against Khartoum, in 2003.
The dispute lies in political, social and economic grievances after decades of central government domination. Darfur has faced years of tension over land and grazing rights between the mostly nomadic Arabs, and farmers from the Fur, Massaleet and Zagawa communities.
The al-Bashir regime tried to brutally quell the uprising in early 2004 and unleashed the Arab ’Janjaweed’ militias. After two years, the SLM and Khartoum government signed a peace deal. But two smaller rebel groups rejected the agreement and conflict continues, complicated by in-fighting amongst the rebel groups and factions.
The under-resourced 7,000-strong African Union (AU) force is incapable of policing Darfur. But the Sudanese government rejected a UN resolution calling for a UN ’peacekeeping force’ in Darfur, saying it would "compromise" its sovereignty and threatened "Holy War" against UN troops.
The UN plan is backed by the US and other Western powers, which see it as a way of imposing their influence in Sudan.
China opposes the deployment of UN troops, as does Sudan’s neighbour, Libya, which called it an attempt at a "Western oil grab".
None of these regimes are motivated by the interests of the Darfur oppressed; they act out of the wishes of their respective ruling elites and capitalist backers.
In the last few months, the West intensified pressure for an ’international force’ as the Darfur conflict spilt over to Chad and the Central African Republic, threatening a wider war. A complex, multi-sided conflict is growing in the region. The Chad government accuses the Sudan-backed Arab Janjaweed militia of attacking some of the 200,000 refugees that came to eastern Chad from Darfur. Chad also accuses Khartoum of backing a coalition of armed rebels in Chad. These attacks raised communal tensions in eastern Chad, which has a similar ethnic make-up to Darfur.
In return, Sudan accuses Chad of backing Darfur’s National Redemption Front rebels as they carry out cross-border raids.
The Central African Republic regime accuses Sudan of backing rebels on its soil. Chad calls for an "anti-Sudan alliance". French imperialism is also embroiled, with its troops backing the Chad government against rebels.
On 20 January, the UN announced the Sudanese Foreign Ministry agreed to co-operate with a "hybrid force", including UN troops, to police conflict-torn Darfur. But Sudan’s position hardened after it was again bypassed in its bid to become head of the AU. President al-Bashir reportedly remains opposed to UN troops. He agreed to a "beefed up" AU force, but issues such as the size of the force and who would lead it are not settled.
While socialists oppose the brutal Khartoum regime’s actions in Darfur, and support genuine humanitarian aid for victims and refugees, we also oppose Western imperialist intervention, under whatever guise, including that of the UN.
’Peace-keeping’ UN deployments around the world show that Western imperialist meddling does not bring lasting stability, peace or prosperity, and usually worsens divisions and tensions. In contrast, socialists call for cross-ethnic/religious working people’s defence to resist Janjaweed and government attacks.
What is the solution for the people of Darfur and Sudan? The once powerful Communist Party (SCP) plays only a marginal role today and, unfortunately, its leaders have not learnt the tragic lessons of the party’s history.
They still put forward ’stages’ ideas; calling for "democratic forces", including pro-capitalist parties, to struggle for democratic rule. This led the SCP to accept three appointed positions in the regime’s ’legislative assembly’.
The struggle for democratic rights and against oppression is a vital part of a socialist programme. But it must be linked to a mass struggle, uniting all workers and poor, against the system - capitalism, landlordism and imperialism - that creates oppression and exploitation.
As part of a mass struggle for socialism, socialists in Sudan must support full rights for the oppressed in southern Sudan and Darfur.
As well as the explosive situation in Darfur and in Chad and Central African Republic, open conflict in southern Sudan can re-ignite. The SPLM is now the dominant party in a new southern administration. Although popular amongst many southern people, the SPLM leaders accept the continuation of capitalism and tribalism and have no perspective of fundamentally transforming the lives of the poor and hungry. The US and other Western powers are also increasingly meddling in the post-agreement situation in southern Sudan. Some local commentators believe the US and the West may try to force the removal of the President al-Bashir regime via the south. If this was seriously attempted, it could cause armed fighting, and renewed south/north divisions, with devastating consequences for the long-suffering Sudanese people.
This brings home the need for a clear alternative for working people. Only a powerful united workers’ movement, with a socialist programme, can offer a way out. Re-claiming the best traditions of the Sudanese working class would see a struggle to remove the reactionary, ruthless al-Bashir regime, which imposes Sharia Law and represses women. Only a new, socialist society can fundamentally transform the living standards of the majority in Sudan. A socialist federation of the region can lift the masses out of poverty, oppression, exploitation and wars.
This is an edited version of an article in this week’s Socialist, weekly paper of the Socialist Party, England and Wales (CWI)