Once again, our TV screens are filled with images of destitute African villagers, emaciated with starvation, their faces contorted with grief and terror.
They have had to endure the mass rape, bombardment and destruction. This is Darfur in western Sudan, part of a country that has been wracked by poverty and civil war for most of its existence but particularly in the last twenty years.
In this conflict, the Islamist military regime of President Al-Bashir has launched brutal air-offensives and mobilised local Arab-speaking armed militias, the Janjawiid, against the thirty or more different ethnic groups which makeup Darfur’s population, obliterating hundreds of villages and towns in the process. The intention: to smash their 18-month long, mass uprising led by the secular Sudanese Liberation Movement (SLM) and the more Islamist Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) against decades of discrimination in terms of funding, education and jobs within the state and positions in the military.
According to most recent estimates by the United Nations (UN), up to two million people have been displaced internally and across the border to neighbouring Chad, whilst up to 50,000 have died, cut down by the government-backed military operations or from starvation.
A parade of politicians from the West, dripping statements of false and hypocritical concern, have gone to Sudan (including Colin Powell, Jack Straw and Joska Fischer, German Foreign Minister), issuing veiled threats of UN sanctions and demanding the end of ‘genocide by the Janjawiid’ and the ‘disarming of the militias’ by the Al-Bashir regime. The Sudanese regime has responded by pointing to the danger of another western imperialist intervention under the cover of humanitarian aid, while the regional Arabic press has correctly attacked Western governments for their duplicity.
Undoubtedly, Al-Bashir’s regime and its proxy militias have committed these atrocities. However, genuine concern for the plight of African poor peasants and workers in Darfur does not enter into the calculations of Western imperialism or the corrupt politicians and governments that make up the African Union (AU) which has now become involved in the conflict. Where were these individuals and governments when over two million Sudanese were butchered over the last twenty years? This was mainly the result of the Sudanese government’s counter-insurgency measures against the Sudan Peoples Liberation Army-led (SPLA) armed uprising in southern Sudan against Khartoum’s Shariah rule. More importantly, none of their proposed ‘solutions’ will solve the fundamental problems that are the foundation of this crisis.
In fact, the roots of this conflict lie partly in British imperialism’s colonial subjugation of Sudan but also in huge instability in relations between regional and western imperialist powers caused by the economic and political results of the collapse of the Soviet Union after 1989.
Prior to 1989, many African countries fell under the influence of one of the two superpowers. Although there were local wars, fought by regional powers as proxies for the great powers, these were generally in firmly prescribed limits. The elites of those countries which attempted an independent existence were able to extract some concessions by balancing between US imperialism and the Stalinist Soviet Union. Other African countries which fell under the Soviet umbrella were able to achieve limited social and economic development through the nationalisation and state direction of the economy, albeit in an extremely distorted manner and under the control of undemocratic and corrupt bureaucratic elites.
The collapse of the Soviet Union brought the full force of neo-liberal policies to sub-Saharan Africa, including Sudan. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank forced governments to implement vicious Structural Adjustment Programmes as a condition for continuing loans. In Sudan these policies mean that over half the population is illiterate, with only one out of 50 children finishing primary education, while one woman in nine dies in childbirth.
In conditions of crushing poverty, without a strong movement based on the working class and peasantry and able to explain and fight for a socialist alternative to the devastation that capitalism and imperialism brings, conflicts based on religious and ethnic differences were bound to develop. Reactionary elements within many ethnic groupings have intervened into the vacuum and exacerbated divisions, creating an ideological basis for increasing division in order to underpin their hold on power amongst the masses.
In Sudan, this was reflected by historical divisions becoming sharper, leading to civil war, particularly between the northern based and Islamic military regime and the Christian and animist south. (Animism is a religious belief that the whole of nature is animated by spirits.)
Divide and rule
British imperialism followed its classical policy of divide and rule in colonising Sudan. It firmly entrenched leaders of the three main northern Arab tribes as the main conduit of colonial rule and ensured all the main economic development took place along the Nile and in and around Khartoum in the north. However, it literally closed off southern Sudan, allowing no Arabs or Muslims from the North to travel or settle there, frightened of the development of a Sudanese nationalist movement that threatened to unite the country against British rule. In the south, the British colonial masters reintroduced elements of tribal rule which had fallen by the wayside as result of the growth of the slave trade. In Darfur, it attempted to divide up the region giving control of particular geographical areas to specific ethnic groupings for the first time in Dafur’s history – an attempt to set one tribe against another and control all through payments to tribal leaders.
These divisions, either introduced or strengthened by British imperialism, have echoed down the years and manifested themselves particularly sharply since the late 1980s.
However, other processes have sharpened the divisions. Since 1989, the absence of an external enemy, such as the Soviet Union (which previously attenuated frictions between the main western imperialist powers and between those African regimes with interests in expanding their regional influence), has led to increased competition between different regimes and powers for influence in areas of conflict and previous colonies. Thus in Sudan’s Darfur conflict we see the intervention of US and British imperialism as well as France in Chad across the border. Nigeria’s President Obasanjo is using his country’s pre-eminent position in Africa to promise the deployment of 1500 Nigerian troops through the auspices of the AU. This jockeying for influence was commented upon by one aid official who complained bitterly about the lack of a united position by western powers during their attendance of negotiations between the Khartoum government and the SLM/JEM in Chad: "The international community has totally mishandled the Darfur situation. Its divisions have allowed the Khartoum to play governments off against each other". The sharpest differences are between US and French imperialism, still at a low-point since the beginning of the Iraq war.
Although oil is not the central issue in determining western imperialist intervention, the discovery of new massive oil reserves in Sudan’s mutinous, southern Western Upper Nile region in 1998, has undoubtedly concentrated the mind of the Bush regime. It also probably explains why not a peep of protest emanated from the White House when the Sudanese military started depopulating the area to facilitate oil extraction as a result of requests of the Canadian oil company, Talisman, during 2002.
In fact the Bush administration’s main intervention in Sudan was to attempt to force a conclusion to the negotiations for a peace settlement between Al-Bashir’s regime and the southern-led SPLA. Bush was pressured into this intervention by the Republican Christian fundamentalist right who saw Khartoum’s campaign as an attempt to obliterate Christian believers in the south. The more ‘enlightened hawks’ of the State Department – among them Colin Powell – also wanted an agreement, seeing it as an opportunity to bring ‘on board’ an Islamic regime which had rejected support for Al-Qa’ida and other reactionary Islamic groups since the later 90s. By doing this they hoped to undermine the perception, particularly in the Arab world, that US imperialism was conducting a crusade against Muslims internationally.
However, the progress towards an interim peace deal – forced on relentlessly by the Bush administration which wanted at least one positive foreign policy achievement before the Presidential elections in November – actually acted to fuel the fires of the conflict in Darfur. This is because the Khartoum-based government made it clear that they were only prepared to negotiate with the SPLA about the civil war in the South, a position which was implicitly supported by US imperialism. Other opposition groups, including those in Darfur, realised that a peace deal with the SPLA would lead to a strengthened government in Khartoum which would be prepared to prosecute an even more brutal campaign to crush their own struggles for autonomy or increased resources.
The conflict in Darfur has been portrayed as an ethnic clash between Sudanese Arabs and Africans. This is a gross over-simplification. Particularly over the last twenty years tensions between mainly non-Arab speaking farmers of ethnic groups like the Fur and the more northern-based nomads, who mainly speak Arabic as their first language, have been on the rise. This has been because of repeated droughts have limited the land available for farming and grazing. In the past these tensions were ameliorated because of the existence of local administrations and a certain availability of local funds. The IMF sponsored adjustment programmes have seen both these disappear.
But the divisions between ‘Arab’ and ‘African’ have not been so clear or sharp until recently. Once a farmer had a certain number of cattle he was accepted as a member of one of the nomadic tribes of the predominantly Arab-speaking north of Darfur. Many farmers relied on the nomads to graze their camels and cattle thus fertilising the land. And quite often there was intermarriage between the ethnic groups of nomadic and farming background.
The publication and circulation of a samizdat ‘Black Book’ in May 2000, outlining decades of discrimination against ethnic groups in Darfur, marked a decisive change in the situation. In the period following and especially after the start of armed attacks on government targets in early 2003 by the SLM/JEM, Al-Bashir’s government intervened to arm and encourage the Janjawiid to attack farmers in Darfur.
Many of the Janjawiid leaders were former members of the Islamic Legion formed in the 1980s by Colonel Gaddafi of Libya, whose unfulfilled aim was to form a wider empire in North Africa. These militiamen, on their return, brought with them racist anti-African and chauvinist, pro-Arab ideas into what was already a tense situation. Encouragement and military support from Al-Bashir’s regime was all that was needed to begin the vicious counter-insurgency which has characterised Darfur for the last eighteen months.
Both British and US imperialism have used the opportunity of the refugee crisis and threat of starvation to cast themselves in a more favourable light following the disaster in Iraq by attempting to portray themselves as "humanitarians". Given the experience of US imperialism in Somalia and the present quagmire in Iraq it is unlikely that either Bush or Blair will commit troops on the ground unless major instability and chaos is threatened.
Despite the ongoing negotiations with the SPLA, it is the situation in Darfur that represents the future for Sudan under capitalism. It is not guaranteed that the peace agreement with the South will hold. All the countries which border Sudan, face instability and turmoil and are involved to different extents with the internal instability inside that country.
The ongoing cycle of wars, poverty and starvation, which is the lot of the population of sub-Saharan Africa, is the product of neo-liberal and imperialist exploitation at its worst. The wounds this has left on the continent’s population can only begin to be solved through the overthrow of the capitalist system that caused them and the creation of a voluntary socialist confederation of African states.
An edited version of this article will appear in Socialism Today, journal of the Socialist Party in England and Wales