Imperialist rivalry behind the Darfur crisis

Over recent months, the dramatic plight of the peoples of the Darfur province of western Sudan has received a great deal of attention from western governments, politicians, journalists and newscasters. Unfortunately, there is nothing exceptional about the situation in Darfur. Throughout the underdeveloped world, and particularly in Africa, starvation, mass displacement of populations, torture, rape, pillage and massacres are commonplace.

Over recent months, the dramatic plight of the peoples of the Darfur province of western Sudan has received a great deal of attention from western governments, politicians, journalists and newscasters. Graphic images and accounts have been given of the starvation, sickness and death inflicted on the darfouri, of the murderous activities of the janjawid militias armed by the Khartoum regime, and of the hundreds of thousands of desperate men, women and children who have had to abandon their homes and land, seeking refuge in neighbouring Chad or in makeshift “humanitarian” camps.

Unfortunately, there is nothing exceptional about the situation in Darfur. Throughout the underdeveloped world, and particularly in Africa, starvation, mass displacement of populations, torture, rape, pillage and massacres are commonplace. And yet, only very rarely are such situations brought to the attention of the western public, and the kind of coverage and “profile” given to the Darfur crisis is really quite exceptional.

The crisis in Darfur has dragged on for a long time. And yet, from a purely practical point of view, the most immediate needs of the local population could be met relatively easily. Hundreds of thousands of people are desperately hungry. The newly-born, the aged and the sick are dying at an alarming rate. Some reports give figures approaching 2000 deaths per day. Why is food not being provided? The talk about “bad roads” and the actions of “armed bands” which are supposedly preventing food and supplies from reaching the camps is hardly convincing. The fact is that food, water, shelter and medical care could easily be brought into the camps by freight aircraft and helicopters. Last year, in a matter of just a few weeks, the American and British governments transported over 250,000 military personnel, complete with tanks, vehicles, aircraft and an entire “military support industry” into position for the invasion of Iraq. Is it not possible to get a few thousand tons of supplies into Darfur? The truth of the matter is that the US administration does not want to ease the plight of the Darfur tribes, precisely because it is being used as an argument for the blockading of the country. Behind the official outrage about “ethnic cleansing” and “genocide”, western governments have donated very little money, and even less has actually been used to relieve the victims of famine and violence in Darfur.

In fact, all this phoney “humanitarian” concern on the part of Bush and Blair – who have never hesitated, as in Iraq, to inflict suffering and death when the interests of their “business communities” are at stake – is really about imperialist greed for profits and oil. American imperialism, in particular, is trying to use the plight of the Darfur peoples in order to obtain a trade embargo against Sudan, in order to cut off access to Sudanese oil fields to their main rivals in that industry and in that part of the world. The embargo threat is essentially directed against China, France, India and Malaya, all of which have oil interests in Sudan. At the same time, it is being used as a means of increasing pressure on the Sudanese government and strengthening the military and strategic position of the United States in that part of the world. To the northeast of Sudan lie the Red Sea and the strategically vital oil terminals on Saudi Arabia’s western coastline.

The intense pressure being applied for the imposition of an international embargo against Sudan is proof enough of the completely hypocritical character of the “humanitarian” propaganda of the American administration. The consequences of such an embargo would be to plunge the entire population of Sudan into a situation similar to that which exists in Darfur. Sudan is an extremely backward country. Even without the devastating consequences of an embargo, the vast majority of the people are desperately poor. An international embargo would mean nothing less than mass starvation.

Another argument used by the US administration in favour of economic sanctions is the charge that the Sudanese government is perpetrating “genocide” in Darfur. At the meeting of the United Nations Security Council in early September, this allegation dominated the “debate” on Sudan. Nobody mentioned oil. And yet all the interested parties knew perfectly well that this was the real issue at stake, including of course the Chinese delegation, which vehemently opposed the imposition of an embargo. The US delegation insisted on the use of the term “genocide”, in order to reinforce their case for an economic blockade and open up the possibility of direct military intervention at a later stage. The term “genocide” was used in this way in relation to the Albanians, in order to justify the war against Serbia in 1999, whereas in Rwanda – a country of relatively little importance to the USA – the Clinton administration refused to qualify as “genocide” the mass killings in which anything up to one million Tutsis were mercilessly butchered. The homeless and starving in Darfur are just another pawn in the power game for profits and oil.

The struggle for control of Sudanese oil

In 1980, France acquired exploration and oil production rights in the “Block B” (now “Block 5”) sector which covers an area of 120,000 square kilometres, running north to south between Malakal and Bor, and eastwards in the direction of the Ethiopian border. Seismic surveys by French engineers revealed that the block had considerable potential for oil production. At the present time, Sudan is believed to hold Africa’s most important unexploited oil resources, even greater than those of the Gulf of Guinea. Oil exports now account for 70% of GDP in Sudan. However, in 1985, France was forced to suspend operations in the area as a result of the war being waged between the Sudanese armed forces and the Sudanese Peoples Liberation Army (SPLA). Over recent decades, French imperialism has been the main international backer of the Sudanese regime, providing it with arms, tanks, aircraft, and military intelligence in its war against the rebel forces in the south.

The United States, on the other hand, using mercenary organisations and acting through intermediary African states, has provided military support to rebel armies operating out of Uganda, Ethiopia and Eritrea, in an attempt to weaken the position of the Sudanese government, prevent Total-Fina-Elf from relaunching operations in Block 5, and gain greater leverage in the attribution of oil exploration and production contracts. Whilst keeping up the military pressure and fuelling the destabilisation of the country, the US administration is determined to prevent any other powers from consolidating their position in relation to Sudanese oil. As we have seen, France, in spite of having obtained contracts 24 years ago for the exploitation and production of Sudanese oil, has not been able to proceed because of the war in the south. The Canadian company Talisman Energy has also been subjected to intense pressure from the United States, and now faces charges of “complicity in genocide and war crimes” in a US court, in reference to Talisman operations in Sudan in the past.

Petroleum exploration in Sudan began back in the 1960s, but oil exports only got underway in 1993. The American group Chevron pulled out of Sudan back in 1985, after having invested 1.5 billion dollars. Chevron discovered oil in a number of sites, but on too small a scale to justify maintaining their concession in a war zone. By the time that the real scale of the oil reserves became apparent, the US oil companies were already on the outside. In 1997, economic sanctions imposed by the USA outlawed American investment in Sudan. Since then, Sudanese oil production has risen to 500,000 barrels per day, compared to 270,000 in 2003, and could well reach 750,000 barrels per day by the end of 2006. The profits and oil resources are going to rivals of the USA, and particularly to China.

The emergence of China as a major power on the world arena poses a direct threat to the interests of western imperialism in general and to American imperialism in particular. In 2003, Chinese imports of oil rose by a staggering 40% in relation to the previous year. At the present time, China has around 50 major petroleum and petrochemical projects underway internationally. China needs to secure its own oil resources. This vital need can only be met by challenging the dominant position of the USA.

At the present time, oil imports from Sudan account for 6% of total oil imports into China. This percentage is likely to grow very rapidly, given the massive investments made by China in the Sudanese oil industry since the 1990s. China’s state-owned oil company, China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), owns a 40% share of the Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company (GNPOC), which controls two of the most important oil fields in the Western Upper Nile Province in Sudan. Starting in mid-2005, the CNPC will begin producing oil in the Melut Basin east of the Nile. Other Chinese companies are also involved in the construction of a 1400 kilometre pipeline running from the Melut Basin to Port Sudan, where China is also building an oil export terminal port. China has become Sudan’s most important trading partner. Significantly, the only oil leases in the Darfur region are held by the CNPC.

Geographically, Sudan occupies an important strategic position. China is in the process of consolidating its hold in Sudan, which it will then use as a platform for trade and oil transportation between central Africa, the Middle East and China itself. This situation is unacceptable to Washington, which is even prepared to divide Sudan into two or more separate entities if access to the oil fields can be gained in no other way. Among the different groupings involved in the southern militias, the US administration has been promoting those that advocate secession from northern Sudan, and a number of particularly reactionary “Christian missions” with powerful financial backers in the USA have been striving for many years to foment racial hatred against “Arabs”. But the US administration does not allow religious considerations to interfere with the real issues. Not only has the US government provided military training, arms and money to the SPLA, it has also given support to the Darfur-based “Justice and Equality Movement” (JEM), which is linked to Islamic fundamentalist Al Turabi, who helped Al Bachir come to power in 1989. Al Turabi was ousted by Al Bachir in 2000, and signed an agreement with the SPLA in 2001. He is presently detained by the authorities in Khartoum.

Dictatorship, instability, and regional wars

The Al Bachir regime is a viciously reactionary Islamic dictatorship. The history of the regime is one of arbitrary arrests, floggings, amputations, torture and executions. Like the regimes which preceded it, the present dictatorship is weak and unstable. It rests essentially upon the support of the Arabic Muslim ruling elite in the north, and upon the repressive apparatus of the army and the police.

Sudan is a striking example of “combined and uneven development”. Modern industry and modern social relations exist side by side with the most primitive economic and social forms. There is really no such thing as a Sudanese nation. In the north, the mainly Arabic-speaking and Muslim population is made up of a number of different peoples spread over vast areas of desert and semi-desert. Outside of the towns, tribal ties still predominate. Even within the towns, tribal ties are still a major factor in social relations. To the south, Sudan stretches down into non-Muslim and non-Arabic “black Africa”, where the tribalism is based on an even more primitive social and economic basis. The south has suffered from economic, political and religious discrimination in the interests of the northern ruling elite. The sharia – Islamic law – is imposed on both Muslim and non-Muslims alike. Tensions and conflict between the north and the south have been a recurrent feature of the history of Sudan, but the beginning of the present war and the emergence of the SPLA goes back to 1983.

The ruling class and the weak state apparatus in Khartoum have never been able to unify the country and assert its authority over the peoples of this extremely backward part of Africa. In the 1980s, under the Nimeiri dictatorship that was installed in 1969, the Sudanese army was made up of no more than 50,000 soldiers, for a population of some 38 million inhabitants. The instability of the dictatorship is summed up in the fact that between 1969 and 1985, when it was finally overthrown by an insurrectionary general strike in Khartoum and Omdourman, no less than 25 attempts at a military coup were reported, 18 of which took place in the first 6 years. One of these was a left-wing coup, supported by the Communist Party, in July 1971. Nimeiri survived the coup, and launched and crushed the CP. Initially, the CP had supported Nimeiri, in spite of the presence of the ultra-reactionary Muslim Brotherhood in the government. The Muslim Brotherhood itself launched another coup, in July 1976.

Faced with growing social discontent throughout the country, the Nimeiri regime attempted to provoke inter-ethnic conflicts in Darfur and in the south by means of a territorial “redivision” along tribal lines. The south had also been destabilised by the arrival of some 30,000 armed refugees from Uganda, following the fall of Idi Amin. In the Sudanese army, unrest was growing, especially among the troops of southern origin. Nimeiri carried out a wave of arrests among southern opposition leaders in January 1983, and rebellious troops in Bora were ordered to leave the south. They were to be replaced by pro-governmental troops from the north. When they refused to leave, Nimeiri ordered loyal troops to crush the mutineers. As a result, mutinies and mass desertions broke out in practically all the garrison towns in the south, leading to the formation of the SPLA under the leadership of colonel John Garang.

One year after the 1985 general strike, legislative elections were organised and the Sadiq Al Mahdi government was formed. The war in the south continued. Sadiq Al Mahdi promised to review the imposition of the sharia, but failed to do so. The SPLA took the town of Bor in the south. In 1989, the government was finally overthrown by the coup d’etat led by Al Bachir, who has been in power ever since.

Like Nimeiri before him, Al Bachir has attempted to bolster his position in the north by a policy of forced “arabisation” and “islamisation” of Sudan. This program cannot be carried out in practice. The peoples of southern Sudan will never accept the imposition of the sharia, and the Khartoum government is too weak, to defeat the southern forces by military means. On the other hand, the SPLA has proved incapable of taking over the north, after more than 20 years of war, during which some 2 million people have lost their lives.

The terms of the “peace agreement”

Under pressure from Washington, an agreement in relation to the war in the south was finally signed earlier this year, on the basis of the 2002 “Machakos Protocol”. This provided for an equal division of oil resources between the Khartoum government and an “autonomous administration” in the south, with the promise of a referendum on independence for the south after a six-year transitional period. If ever this agreement comes into effect, it would mean that the “autonomous” south, whilst being nominally under the control of the political wing of the SPLA, would in fact become a satellite oil-state of American imperialism. The deal effectively meant cutting out France and handing over a major share of known oil reserves to US companies. However, the US strategists are not prepared to settle even for this, and are now pressing for even greater territorial control, including the three provinces in central Sudan.

However, nothing short of total control of Sudan can satisfy the greed of the US oil corporations and military strategists. Their real aim is to bring about a “regime change”. By means of political and economic destabilisation, and by giving support to any armed groups that are prepared to fight against the Khartoum government, the US imperialists hope to undermine and finally overthrow the present regime. The installation of a pro-American puppet regime would open up Sudan’s vast oil reserves to American companies at the expense of their rivals. Britain, Norway and Italy are backing the US strategy, in the hope of sharing in the division of the spoils at a later stage. Tony Blair has declared that he is prepared to send 5000 British troops into Sudan. Of course, all of this is officially in the interests of “humanitarian aid” and “peace-keeping”, as is often the case when great powers prepare for pillage and war!

It is against the background of stalemate in the war between the north and the south, combined with the disastrous consequences of famine and drought, that the latest armed conflicts in Darfur have broken out. Two separate armed movements are engaged in a struggle against the Khartoum government. The Sudanese Liberation Army (SLA) is allied to the SPLA in the south. The US administration has funded and armed this organisation. Then there is the JEM, linked to Al Turabi, which has also benefited from American support, in spite of being led by hard-line Islamic fundamentalists. Al Turabi is an outspoken supporter of Bin Laden and applauded the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001. Al Bachir has armed and financed the so-called janjawid, who have been carrying out murderous raids with the help of regular troops, against villages suspected of sympathies towards the SLA or the JEM, seizing land, crops and livestock. Janjawid attacks were often preceded by air raids by the armed forces. For instance, government aircraft repeatedly bombed the towns of Al Tina, Kornoy and Kutum in North Darfur during the summer of 2003. Kutum was bombed three days after the withdrawal of the armed opposition. Resolution 1556 adopted by the UN Security Council, which threatened the Sudanese government with sanctions unless the janjawid were disarmed, has solved nothing. Al Bachir simply reinforced the security forces in the area, and incorporated many of the janjawid into these same forces.

The regimes in Chad and Libya also have interests to defend in Darfur. The territory of the Zaghawa spreads over both sides of the frontier between Sudan and Chad, and it is this ethnic group which is the power-base of the Idriss Deby dictatorship in Chad, as it was of the previous Hissène Habré dictatorship. Events in Darfur therefore have a direct bearing on the fate of the regime in Chad. The Libyan regime, which is in conflict with Chad over the disputed border area between the two countries, is involved in the events in Darfur where it is attempting to undermine the basis of Idriss Deby.

The French government would like a peace agreement in Sudan that would allow them to exploit the oilfields in “Block 5”, but understands that the basis of the present negotiations mean that France will be cut off from any prospect of further development in the country, given the position of the USA in the south and the growing influence of China in the area. The events in Darfur, as with a number of other armed conflicts elsewhere in Africa, are in part a continuation of the struggle between US imperialism and France on the continent, a struggle in which France has already lost a lot of ground.

Fundamentally, the policy of the USA in relation to Sudan is similar to its policy in relation to Libya, and to its pre-war policy in Iraq. This consists of applying economic sanctions combined with military harassment, and then using the “carrot” of lifting the sanctions at the same time as threatening a complete economic blockade and even direct military intervention. The weak Sudanese regime will not be able to withstand this kind of imperialist bullying indefinitely. Al Bachir has attempted to meet the demands placed upon it by Washington, as indicated by the generous terms of the Machakos Protocol, which in effect placed one third of the country under the control of the USA. In the hypocritical language of international diplomacy, the south of Sudan was to be placed under “active US leadership” as part of the “sustained international attention” which would be necessary in order to “guarantee peace”. But then, as was the case with Saddam Hussein and the “weapons inspectors”, new and even more crippling concessions are being demanded. As with Libya, the strategists of US imperialism would like to lift the sanctions, but only if they can get their hands on Sudanese oil and supply lines.

Given the position of China, which has taken advantage of the stalemate in the struggle between France and the USA in order to achieve a strong position on the Sudanese oilfields, US objectives can only be met by the complete overthrow of the Al Bachir government, and the installation of a regime which is prepared to serve US interests. The attempted military coup on September 24th was the work of elements close to Al Turabi and the JEM. Even if the coup had met with initial success, it is unlikely that Al Turabi could have held onto power, given popular hostility to him in the capital. The US administration could not have supported him either, given his association with Bin Laden and his renown as an Islamic fundamentalist leader. Washington is prepared to encourage JEM attacks in Darfur at the present time, in order to create difficulties for the present regime. But US support for the JEM could go no further than this.

At the present time, US secret services are trying to recruit among top army officials, and preparing a team of bribed civilian agents of Sudanese origin within the United States. Given the present situation in Iraq, it seems unlikely that the USA could organise a full-scale military intervention in Sudan. Therefore, in all likelihood, the American administration will work to topple the regime from within, and then pressure the UN to send a “peace-keeping force” to provide military backing for an “interim” puppet regime. In the meantime, the Darfur crisis will be kept on the boil, as a convenient excuse for sanctions against Sudan and for strengthening the presence of foreign troops in the Darfur region. The “scramble for Africa” by the great powers continues, and the people of Sudan and the rest of the continent are still paying the price, in terms of famine, sickness, and death.

October 4, 2004