What interests lie behind the Sudan-South Sudan conflict?

Following the declaration of independence by South Sudan – which is dependent on financial and military aid from American imperialism – tensions between Khartoum and Juba have been steadily ramped up over the past year and have brought death and destruction both sides of the border. Into the high-octane mix of mass land grabs by foreign capital, which in turn places an even greater strain on the land available for both settled farmers and nomadic herders, are thrown heavily armed militias on both sides of the border and a brutal struggle for control over the oil of Sudan amidst the wider regional struggle of American and Chinese capital.


This more than decade long struggle is intensifying – sped up by both the crisis of capitalism and the objective situation the world over – with the possibility of Beijing being cut off almost entirely from the supply of oil from the Sudan. The regime in Khartoum is in crisis, the military pushing for an armed solution to the struggle with Juba – the impoverished masses of the south suffering from the economic blockade imposed by the north. Both North and South held large rallies in April in their respective capitals and pouring into this a toxic mixture of ethnic, religious and nationalist sentiment to whip up the population into a war fever.

The tit-for-tat struggle in Sudan has stepped up from frequent raids by Antonov’s and Army patrols in the Nuba mountains to full blown incursions – the clashes have claimed many casualties, some maimed, others killed and many thousands have been driven from their homes over the past twelve months. The overwhelming majority of the population in both Sudan’s live by subsistence farming, long exploited by the tiny clique in Khartoum – and London before that – and have not benefited from the oil boom of the late 1990’s and early 21st century, during the twenty year civil war which began in 1983 they were the first to suffer and last to receive relief, if at all.

south-sudanOpen warfare can only deepen this suffering of the masses in Sudan, throwing the two states into a brutal war whose aims are driven by the narrow interests of the two regimes either side of the border. This conflict also cannot be understood outside of the general, world situation and the strategic interests of the imperialist powers. Little more than a year since South Sudan was unilaterally torn from the north a social and political crisis threatens to spill over into open war between the American backed Juba regime and Chinese backed Khartoum in the north – as opposed to the hidden campaign of murder, rape and torture which has been taking place both sides of the newly erected frontier for many years. The struggle between Juba and Khartoum is in no small part a continuation by proxy of this imperialist struggle between the economic interests of Washington and Beijing, one which has continued for almost two decades, the Americans believing they had won through, having delivered a heavy blow to the French imperialists who preceded the Chinese in Sudan.

At stake for Washington is denying Beijing the source of approximately 5% of its total oil supply, as well as seizing hold of the oil fields now in South Sudan which are currently owned by Chinese-Malaysian oil monopoly Petrodar, as well the oil-fields straddling southern Darfur and the western regions of Kordofan – currently controlled for the most by China National Petroleum Company (CNPC) and Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company, in which CNPC has the largest share at 40%. Having accused the north of stealing $815 million of oil during transit to Port Sudan Juba expelled the head of Petrodar’s operations in the region, Liu Yingcai, in February this year and stated its intentions to review all oil contracts signed before independence. What this means to say is that they intend to seize the oil fields from Petrodar and will most likely hand them straight over to a ’suitable bidder’ – it goes without saying that this will most likely be one of the American oil giants. In addition to this seizure is the linking of the Sudanese oil supply to a pipeline to a port under construction on the Kenyan coast at Lamu, which will also transport oil from Uganda, Ethiopia and potentially Somalia. At a time when the price per barrel has been hitting record highs securing every last drop is crucial – and the heavy stench of oil in the East African region, particularly the finds in Sudan, Uganda and Somalia is one that the imperialists cannot bring themselves to resist. Khartoum – as Beijing’s proxy – will of course not sit idly by as Juba effectively signs the regime’s death sentence. As ever, though, it will be the masses who suffer the bloody excesses of capitalism in its most advanced form, imperialism, which in the words of Lenin is “horror without end.”


Since independence from the reactionary Bashir regime in early 2011 Juba and Khartoum have been engaged in a tit-for-tat game, jockeying for position against one another for control of the large oilfields which straddle the border between north and south, primarily in and between the South Kordofan and Nuba Mountains regions.

The granting of independence did not in fact end the fighting which has been waged for decades in this region, if anything it has laid the basis for an ever more bitter struggle – the militias of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) previously engaged with the Sudanese military have now been split between the militias absorbed into the regular units of South Sudan and the SPLM/A-North. These militiamen operate in amongst the civilian population north of the border, particularly in the Nuba Mountains region, which the Sudanese military has bombarded from air and land without mercy.

Amongst Khartoum‘s favoured weapons for its daily air raids are 15 Sukhoi Su-25‘s purchased from Belarus in 2008, a highly effective, Soviet designed close air-support aircraft intended for use against NATO armour and infantry in Central Europe – against unarmed civilians it is a terrifying weapon.

Alongside these air raids the Sudanese army is enforcing a scorched earth policy under the orders of  the Governor of South Kordofan Ahmed Haroun (the man shown in footage acquired by Al-Jazeera ordering Sudanese soldiers to ‘leave no-one alive’[i]), particularly in the Nuba Mountains area. This as part of Khartoum’s ‘counter-insurgency’ policy – driving the civilian population deeper into the mountains to seek shelter in caves and behind boulders, separated from the fields they would normally work and without access to water or sanitation. The threat of starvation looms large. Every bomb that falls drives ever more of the Nuba peasants, men and women alike, into the ranks of the SPLM-N – who are in turn hurled at the ranks of the Sudanese armed forces.

The very manner in which South Sudan was sliced away for Khartoum has precipitated a situation approaching crisis point in Khartoum and this has been expressing itself in fault lines emerging in the regime. The global crisis has already pressed Khartoum into carrying out austerity measures, this piled on top of inflation (which went up from 22.4% to 28.6% in April) has provoked protests in the capital – including a militant struggle for union recognition by students at the University in Khartoum.

The primary source of revenue for the regime is now controlled by an entirely separate – and hostile – state; even worse the economic sanctions against the regime have continued and Sudan remains on Washington‘s list of supporters of terrorism. Although something like 98% (this is probably an underestimate) of South Sudan’s revenue comes from the 350,000 barrels of oil produced daily, Salva Kiir’s government can fall back for a period on the financial support of American imperialism while this is shut down. There are limits to the extent to which this can be overcome, especially given the dependence of South Sudan on capital, goods and services from the north – though the imperialists are happy to run up colossal debts in ‘normal’ periods if they can make an equally colossal profit, then find someone else to force that debt onto.

This said, however, the South Sudanese state is highly unstable and does not exercise any genuine control over vast tracts of the country, perhaps even not beyond the limits of Juba – especially given the tendency for units of the South Sudanese military to mount operations without any reference to Juba or any other part of the command and control structure. Exercising such control is rendered next to impossible by the lack of infrastructure – there is little more than 60 kilometres of paved road in a region almost the size of France (the principality of Monaco has more paved road than the entirety of South Sudan, the Falklands Islands twice as much). As if this were not enough the armed forces of the South are abnormally large and the state budget is not the largest even on this impoverished continent, not by far – and where soldiers go unpaid heavily armed riots often follow, and South Sudan would be no exception.

Like Afghanistan of a decade ago South Sudan is little more than an empty space carved out in between bordering nations, the area dominated by a patchwork of rival militias recruited from the different ethnic and tribal groups fighting each other for control of valuable tracts of land under which sits Oil, Zinc and Uranium as well as highly fertile farmland – particularly in the White Nile Valley which currently supports in the region of 10-20 million head of cattle.

Khartoum on the other hand draws 80% of its’ revenue from oil, which is extracted from the oilfields straddling the disputed border north of Bentiu – centred on Abyei and Heglig – and transported through Chinese built pipelines and refineries in the north ready for export at Port Sudan. The recent seizure of Heglig by the armed forces of the South, claiming to have pursued raiding parties from the north back across the border, means Khartoum’s oil output was halved again – a situation the north will not be able to tolerate for long, and efforts have been made to restore the Heglig fields to normal operations. Before this seizure about 40-45% of Sudan’s oil revenue was spent on arms and mercenaries to bear them – primarily in the period after the Comprehensive Peace Agreement which was signed in 2005. That is to say Sudan used the period of ‘peace’ to tool up for the next episode of the war.

Though their attempts to retake the town by force over the weekend of 15-16 April were repulsed Heglig eventually fell – accusation and counter-accusation of sabotage of the oil extraction facilities were followed by an exchange of claims of a planned withdrawal by Juba, and a solid victory for Khartoum in forcing them out. The UN Security Council resolution – based on an agreement drawn up by the African Union – that was passed, despite the apparent calm of the moment, will likely go the way of the other 16 resolutions passed against Khartoum. In the same breath the Sudanese Foreign Ministry has both declared its intention to hold to the agreement and denounced Juba for breaking their promise, by keeping troops stationed in the border region in Darfur, threatening armed retaliation if they were not removed. As if the situation were not already volatile enough Uganda’s Chief of Defence Forces, General Aronda Nyakairima, threatened armed intervention against Khartoum after Juba seized Heglig in the event it attempted to invade the south.

An unstable regime

Along with the deepening economic and in turn social crisis, the military is partially tied up in counter-insurgency campaigns in the Darfur and the East. Now the tearing off of South Sudan along with control of the oilfields has presented a situation which is potentially fatal to the Bashir regime. The regime in Khartoum is an already unstable amalgamation of sections of the Arabic Muslim elite – some clergy but primarily business and military interests organised largely in and around the National Congress Party (NCP), which is reliant on the state on the one hand and the weakness of the leadership of the Sudanese working class and peasantry, which as well as having been beaten, tortured, murdered and subject to brutal amputations is still hamstrung by the current leadership of the Sudanese Communist Party.

This can only last so long, however. The deeply impoverished masses of the north are being squeezed even further as inflation gallops ahead, the government running up a deficit which it will have to address through either war for the oil fields abroad or austerity at home. Such a situation is a recipe for brutal class struggle – Ben Ali, Mubarak and Ali Abdullah Saleh will each testify to the effect of such a struggle on their own regimes, a lesson surely not lost on the Bashir clique.

Washington and London, advancing empirically, appear to have calculated that they can force the regime to capitulate without a struggle with Khartoum tied up in the west and east, preventing it from bringing its full force to bear against Juba, then effectively cutting the throat of Khartoum after years of sanctions. It is entirely possible, however, that these efforts to cripple Khartoum will turn (and perhaps have turned) into their opposite, provoking an energetic and extremely brutal military response pushed by the hardliners within the regime to resolve a contradiction which has given them no other route out.

There is another section within the imperialist ranks, however, which may well have based its calculations on precisely this response by the Bashir regime and aim to use it as a pretext to tear down the crippled Bashir clique using SPLA troops. Given the support of China and Russia for Khartoum and their position on the UN Security Council it may be more likely that in such an event African Union troops – from Ethiopia, Uganda and possibly Kenya – are sent in to prop up an interim regime than under a UN mandate. Either way US imperialism will have achieved its dual goal of control over Sudan’s oil reserves and of dealing a blow at the Chinese – completing a struggle the Marxists explained almost a decade ago (Imperialist rivalry behind the Darfur crisis, by Greg Oxley and Layla Al Koureychi, October 3, 2004). That many thousands of Sudanese and other Africans will be butchered in this struggle is not something that has ever restrained the imperialist powers, nor will it do so in the future.

Representing the hardliners of the Khartoum regime, Minister of Defence Abdel Rahim Muhammed Hussein is taking an openly militarist line in addressing the crisis presented by the secession. To this end huge numbers of troops, both Arab Sudanese and mercenaries from central and western Africa, have been poured into the South Kordofan and Blue Nile region in the years since the 2008 Comprehensive Peace Agreement. Along with this the campaigns of terror in the Darfur region have been periodically restarted and intensified, particularly in recent months. In lockstep with this, Sudan’s spending on arms has boomed.

The UN and its endless resolutions are not simply dismissed by the regime; UN staff are murdered in broad daylight. The Sudanese military has shelled, intimidated, assaulted, kidnapped, tortured and summarily executed members of the UN Mission in Sudan. In contradiction to the peace agreements and regardless of any UN troops stationed at the border the Sudanese military seized Abyei in May 2011 – Abyei being a town which occupies a central strategic position amongst the oilfields of Unity State, one that is an important jumping of point for further incursions deeper into Unity State.

Initially Abyei was to have a referendum on secession to Juba in 2011, however, Khartoum objected to the manner in which the referendum was being held, arguing that a nomadic tribe, the Misseriya, were being denied their right to vote in the referendum and it could not go ahead. Crocodile tears from Khartoum should fool nobody. The Misseriya are a branch of the Baggara Arabs who formed the backbone of the Mahdist revolt in the 1880’s and is today aligned to Khartoum – it is from the ranks of the Baggara that the Janjaweed are drawn. The Misseriya normally are cattle herders, their path of migration crosses through Abyei though they have never settled in the region, certainly not in the last 300 years – prior to the civil war in the 1980’s they shared grazing and farmland with the Dinka Ngok chiefdoms for centuries largely without serious incident – primarily because the land was largely held as communal property. As a whole the Baggara inhabit a region which crosses the borders of three different countries – encompassing central and south Sudan, through Chad and reaching the eastern and northern most corners of Nigeria and Cameroon. That this has been done largely peacefully in the past demonstrates the fallacious nature of the claims over this land which originate not with the Misseriya, but with Khartoum.

The Misseriya were armed by Khartoum in the 1980’s during the civil war as a proxy militia and encouraged to carry out raids against the Dinka and Nuer for cattle and slaves, especially children – all combustible material which some elements in the South will gladly use to encourage a pogromist campaign if and when it serves their interests. That such a move will more than likely be met with a pogromist agitation in the north, directed against the 500,000 South Sudanese who still live there, is unlikely to hold back these deeply reactionary elements in the south.

Along with the drawing up the border between north and south, the control of Abyei was to be decided by a European court of arbitration. Like all things in politics, however, such a negotiation is not concluded by well reasoned arguments in a courtroom but by the continuation of politics by other means – war, that is the use of violence, of force – through a now open, now hidden test of strength. The European court, unable to truly account for the actual balance of forces between South and North decided to resolve the ownership of Abyei – control of which gives control of the oil fields – by giving control to a joint administration of the north and south, which is to say it could not resolve the question at all.

A month later President Bashir’s close ally and reputed hardliner, Nafie Ali Nafie, signed an agreement with the SPLM-N on June 28th 2011 in Addis Ababa to settle the disputed Blue Nile and South Kordofan regions – an agreement which provoked outrage in the military. From the pages of al-Guwat al-Musalaha, the official newspaper of the Sudan Armed Forces, the editor Brigadier-General Mohamed Ajeeb Mohamed thundered against the agreement made by Ali Nafie describing it as a “betrayal of the nation and the faith” continuing by blasting the NCP as follows:

“We do not understand a lot of what you say, and among us we perceive you as weak. And was it not for a remaining hope we would stone you since dear to us you are not”[ii]

President Bashir was quick to pick up on the not so hidden body language of the military men – in an address to a Khartoum mosque on 1st July [2011], without referring to the deal signed by Nafie Ali Nafie, he told those attending that he had ordered the military to continue its operations in South Kordofan until the SPLA-N forces had been crushed and their leader Abdel Aziz el-Hilu had been captured.

While Khartoum has been combating Juba backed militias in the north, Juba has been tackling those backed by Khartoum in the South – including Peter Gadet, the now jailed Gabriel Tang and the self named ‘Lieutenant General’ George Athor. Before being killed in December Athor was able to mobilise up to a battalion of 750 men from the unemployed and lumpen elements of the Lou-Nuer and Gaweir-Nuer areas, carrying out attacks in Jonglei State. In one incident in the first week of February 2011, 20,000 people were driven out of their homes by Athor’s men and hundreds killed, either murdered by the Athor militia or drowned attempting to cross the river out of Jonglei state. More than once the South Sudanese military has captured or killed members of these militias and found brand new Chinese built rifles and side arms, something that could only have been obtained via Khartoum. As always, regardless of which side of the new artificial border erected last year, it is the mass of peasants from the Dinka, Nuer and other ethnic groups who suffer at the hands of these bastard offspring of capitalism.

As if the Khartoum militias were not enough, most of the Juba aligned groups have taken to squabbling amongst each other for the spoils following secession – the best land to sell to foreign agri-business, mining and drilling concessions, as well as training contracts with foreign mercenaries and weapons deals with the Israeli arms industry amongst others.

Despite the chronic poverty of the South Sudanese, who are almost entirely illiterate and live on subsistence agriculture or as nomadic cattle herders, some reports give that Juba has already obtained highly sophisticated anti-aircraft systems and armour. These weapons have been used by the militias and regular SPLA both against the air and ground raids carried out by Khartoum but also, as can be expected, against each other.

The major driving force behind this is the competition for deals with the foreign capitalists who have circled South Sudan for months before actual independence – swallowing up colossal tracts of land for farming or mining, particularly in the highly fertile Jonglei region between the White and Blue Nile. These vultures have only the profit they can squeeze out of mining concessions or from massive farms employing peasants driven off their land on starvation wages – in return the militia leaders are made into very rich men.

Most striking of all, perhaps, is the sheer scale on which the land grabs are taking place; Rolling Stones[iii] carried a report on the activity of former AIG trader Philip Heilberg who, working with Paulino Matip, has snapped up colossal tracts of farmland – his first acquisition being a tract in Unity state the size of Delaware and has further plans for even larger land acquisitions in Jonglei state. Doing this, however, means driving the nomadic and settled population off the land, something which Matip is an expert at. The capitalists will be indifferent as ever to the fact that their new ‘investments’, formerly land held and used in common, will be watered with the blood and tears of the people whose land they have stolen.

National question

If ever it was needed to be stated, South Sudan is a clear demonstration that the right of nations to self-determination is not an absolute principle standing above and outside of the class struggle in general and the perspective for revolution in particular, but must be considered as secondary to this and to the perspective for the overthrow of capitalist society. While as Marxists we recognise the right of a nationality to decide its relations with another, democratically, what has been done in Sudan will only further deepen the suffering of the people of the Sudan region. National independence on a capitalist basis, in a country which, furthermore, can barely be registered as possessing capitalist property relations, is a bloody dead-end for South Sudan – one in which the mass of South Sudanese, many of whom, if not the large majority, still have tribal and semi-tribal ties, are being used as pawns in a broader struggle between the worlds two foremost capitalist powers.

The combination of a history of slave raids carried out by Arab merchants, the prolonged and complete underdevelopment in relation to the region around Khartoum under British rule and after, the deliberate policy carried out by the British of dividing northerner from southerner, combined with the pre-national and ethnic divisions which expressed themselves with even greater ferocity after the withdrawal of the British, and most importantly the general impoverishment of the mass of the population, has created conditions in which the smallest spark can lead to a terrifying explosion of violence between the neighbouring Dinka, Nuer, Murle and Arab communities.

It is these precise conditions which lead to the emergence of the separatist Anya-nya and the SPLM/A who followed them – they in turn were supplied and used by the Israeli and American bourgeois in order to attack and undermine the Arab regimes in Sudan. These elements have proven themselves nothing if not reactionary. As has been demonstrated over the last year and a half, the strength of their love of fatherland and brotherly feeling can be measured in dollars and cents. The fact that these upstanding patriots – many of whom have become petty warlords – have turned not simply on each other but have slaughtered, raped and pillaged the local population in South Sudan is well known to those supplying the dollars and cents. This, of course, does not get in the way of a good business deal, or in the way of their profits – in fact it is the precondition of these profits, that is to say capitalism is reliant on these barbaric methods in the ex-colonial countries.

The Sudanese Communist Party

Under the leadership of the ex-SPLM the absolute best that South Sudan can hope for is a continuation of their misery and exploitation. In the event of yet another episode of warfare, only after the war is over, they will suffer the fate which has fallen to Zimbabwe, which is ruled by a similar petit-bourgeois liberation movement in ZANU-PF, that is to say absolute poverty, with so many workers unemployed that the government has simply stopped counting. Just as in Zimbabwe they will be subject to the predatory whims and merciless hunting of profit of American, British, French and Chinese capital whether through the medium of the World Bank, IMF or more directly. Remaining within the confines of capitalism, which for Africa means the continuation of imperialist exploitation, the masses in South Sudan will continue to suffer the endless blows of this rotten and degenerate system of exploitation. Clearly this is not the answer.

Whereas the Russian, Cuban and Chinese revolutions demonstrated the truth of Trotsky’s Permanent Revolution in the positive, the experience of ‘liberated’ Africa provides proof in the negative. Millions have paid the price both in absolute misery and with their lives for the ‘two-stage’ theory of the Stalinists who had a mass base in Sudan, capable of organising demonstrations of two million people in Khartoum – it was in fact second in size only to the South African Communist Party, itself a serious force on the continent and world stage. As with Iran, Iraq and elsewhere the Communist Party in Sudan insisted on supporting the ‘progressive’ bourgeois – inventing it if it couldn’t find a suitable candidate – who having seized power with the support of the Stalinists would set about butchering the Communist Party ranks.

This happened not just once in Sudan, not twice, but three times. Many honest and self-sacrificing revolutionaries in Sudan paid with their lives for this criminally false theory. In 1964 a general strike toppled the regime of Ibrahim Abboud – rather than giving the lead to the Sudanese workers and peasants to liquidate the Abboud regime in its entirety… it took up ministerial posts in the bourgeois government which followed! Having allowed the Sudanese rulers to recover, the Sudanese CP were in turn expelled from parliament and banned the next year.

If one such blow to the head were not enough to drive the lesson through the thick skull of these Stalinist leaders there were more to follow. In 1969 the Sudanese CP supported Colonel Nimeiri’s coup – Nimeiri repaid the CP by putting the party leaders in chains. A failed coup attempt by the CP in 1971 lead to the execution of the leading cadres and imprisonment of thousands of others.

However, even this did not destroy the Sudanese CP entirely – a significant underground movement remained and played a leading role in the general strike and insurrection which ended Nimeiri’s rule in 1985… only to hand power back again! The corpses of the CP cadres – and wider Sudanese labouring masses – form the foundations of Bashir’s absolutely reactionary Islamic fundamentalist regime.

But for the criminal two-stage theory, a powerful Communist Party might still have existed in Sudan. While this has largely been destroyed by the vicious Sudanese ruling class, the workers of Sudan have revolutionary traditions well within living memory – this especially for Sudanese women, who are known across the Arabic speaking world for their militancy.

There are those who look at the situation in Sudan and throw up their hands in despair – “there is no hope” they say, “the class is too small, too weak, the Bashir regime to strong.” These people have nothing in common with the Marxists. In 1917 the Russian proletariat, made up of 10 million factory workers, railwaymen and miners amongst others lead behind it an almost 150 million strong peasantry to crush the regime of the Russian Tsar. This was followed by victory against intervention by 21 countries, on 14 different fronts in the Russian Civil War. This is the heritage of the world proletariat, not the hand wringing and cowardice of the reformists.

In Sudanese society today, including the South, the working class is stronger as a proportion of society than was the Russian proletariat of 1917. Of a population of 34 million Sudan has a ‘labour force’ of 12-15 million – 2.5 to 3 million of whom are wage labourers, that is clerks, factory workers, oil, mining, construction or transport workers, teachers or service sector employees. This makes the working class approximately 20% of Sudanese society across north and south – compare this to the less than 10% in revolutionary Russia! Not only is there this greater relative strength of the working class, but Sudan borders the most important nation in the Arab world, one with a powerful working class and a proud revolutionary heritage which has burst onto the stage of history again – Egypt.

In May the recruiting sergeants of both north and south were touring the deeply impoverished villages, asking for contributions and volunteers to the war effort. The peasantry of the south have little to offer other than the odd bundle of tobacco, some grain or perhaps even a $2 dollar bill – the life savings of a small family for many. In the north a levy has been taken from the wages of civil servants to pay for the war preparations. On both sides of the border thousands have volunteered to receive a few weeks basic training before being hurled into the carnage. Whether a ‘small’ war or a slow grinding descent into an even deeper misery, the masses will pay the price for this conflict – though a war may temporarily cut across this, the Sudanese workers and peasants will not tolerate such misery forever.

[i] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DEnDswFOBHc&feature=youtube_gdata_player

[ii] http://stillsudan.blogspot.co.uk/2011/07/nafie-traitor.html

[iii] http://news.haverford.edu/blogs/ourschool/files/2010/06/Capitalists-of-Chaos-Mckenzie-Funk.pdf

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