Massacres in Sudan: A product of rivalry between the great powers

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30,000 killed, 1,200,000 driven from their homes, "Water systems, food stocks and agricultural tools have been destroyed, cattle looted, thousands of villages burned, men executed, women and girls gang-raped" ('Sudan: Without help, a million could die in Darfur', International Herald Tribune. 11.6.2004). This policy of terror is being carried out by the Sudanese state in its Darfur region. The state has used the army and the feared Janjaweed militias to 'pacify' the offensive by the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equity Movement (JEM). The SLA and JEM for their part have used the population as cannon fodder in order to further their own sordid nationalist aims. These massacres are only the latest in 30 years of civil wars that have left up to three million dead and millions displaced. Wars in which all sides depopulated their rivals' areas: "Population displacement on a large scale has become a major feature of the war. It is not an incidental outcome of the fighting but is one of its objectives; it involves not just the removal of whole groups and individuals from their home areas, the incorporation of those populations either into competing armies, or into a captive labour force" (The root causes of Sudan's civil wars, D H Johnson, The International African Institute, 2003, p.155). This barbarism has been conducted in the name of Allah, Christ, ethnic and regional freedom and democracy, but its cause is imperialism.

Sudan was the creation of the scramble for Africa in the 19th century. British imperialism brought it into being in order to stop the advance of its French, German and Italian rivals and to increase its domination of North, central and Eastern Africa. Sudan has borders with Egypt, Libya, Kenya and Uganda, all of which were British colonies. It also had frontiers with its rivals' colonies: the Belgian Congo, French-controlled Chad and Italian-ruled Abyssinia (Ethiopia). In order to establish its rule British imperialism ruthlessly crushed the population when it rose up in rebellion, such as at the Battle of Omdurman in 1898 when primitively armed rebels were massacred by the latest hi-tech weapons of British imperialism. This 'democratic' and 'civilising' imperialism maintained its position by its classic strategy of divide and rule. In this case, that meant maintaining the economic and political domination of the predominantly Arab and Muslim North over the mainly African South. Britain allowed the northern dominated army to continue the northern merchants' traditional domination of the South through slave raids, cattle rustling etc. "In response to local defiance, or even local indifference, the troops of the new government burnt villages, seized cattle as 'fines', and carried off war captives and hostages to distant prisons or for conscription in the army, all in the name of establishing government authority" (Johnson, p.10). Today's government and the rebel gangsters in the North and South have clearly learnt a lot from the 'civilising mission' of British imperialism.

From the Cold War barbarism to today's barbarism

In the imperialist redivision which followed the Second World War, British imperialism was forced to abandon its African empire by US imperialism, which demanded that the former colonies 'independently' come under its economic and military domination. In this way Africa became one of the main battlefields of the Cold War. Sudan was fully part of this, especially from the 1960's. The Russian bloc made full use of the discontent of the southern nationalist factions to try and destabilise the pro-US ruling faction. This support became more substantial when the Russian-backed wing of the Ethiopian ruling class overthrow Haile Selassie in the early 1970's. The main Southern fraction, the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) was armed and trained in Ethiopia. In response the US and the Western Bloc armed and trained the Sudanese state in order not only to repress the SPLA but also to support rebel forces in Ethiopia. This proxy war cost over a million lives and displaced whole populations.

With the collapse of the Ethiopian government in 1991, which itself was linked to the collapse of the Russian bloc as a whole, the SPLA was left without a local backer. However, it soon found new backers in British and US imperialism. In the 1990's the Sudanese government tried to break from the US tutelage and pursued its own imperialist policy, which included supporting terrorist war lords such as Bin Laden against their regional rivals. In response the US placed sanctions on the government and supported the SPLA. After 9/11, the Sudanese government, in order to avoid being placed within the axis of evil, began to make up with the US. It has supplied intelligence and allowed the US military to train in Sudan.

This renewed relationship with the US led to a push for the signing of a peace agreement with the SPLA and other southern groups at the beginning of 2004. The US wants to stop the civil war and the growing chaos that has gone with it - the SPLA has split into numerous factions that have turned on each other and almost every region now has its own 'liberation' movement. This profound instability is undermining the USA's effort to establish its military domination over northern and eastern Africa. The White House also desperately needs a foreign policy success at a time when its international leadership is weakening.

In this situation "Khartoum believes that it can continue to act with virtual impunity in Darfur because upcoming elections and Iraq will not permit the US and others to apply meaningful new pressure" ('Sudan: Now or never in Darfur', the International Crisis Group,, 23 May 2004). The Sudanese state has also taken full advantage of the tensions between the main imperialist powers. Faced with the US's efforts to dominate the region, both French and British imperialism fear losing their influence. Even before the rapprochement between the US and Sudan, the European powers were seeking to gain influence in Khartoum by establishing diplomatic and business relations - for example, European oil companies have offered their 'help' to develop the oil fields in Sudan. These tensions have allowed Khartoum to pursue its massacres in Darfur "the Western states mainly had themselves to thank for their relative lack of influence. 'The process had too many players', an observer said. 'It was too hard to keep the international actors united. They were a fractured, agenda-ridden group. It was a political catfight. The observers never settled their own differences'". The Sudanese regime knew that none of the main powers would criticise its actions at a time when they were all courting it for their own imperialist ends.

The SLA and JEM have also gained in their bloody campaigns through the discrete support of Chad and its French ally, which have armed them in order to put pressure on Khartoum and Washington. However, France and Chad have also supported the Sudanese state's military actions in Darfur because the war there threatens to spill over into Chad: the Janjaweed and the Sudanese army have made raids into Chad to pursue the SLA.

If the main powers are now pouring forth humanitarian crocodile tears over the suffering of the population of Darfur, it is because it serves their own ends. By condemning Khartoum and supporting the peace deal with the SLA and JEM, they can appear to having nothing to do with the barbarism that is taking place. But as we have shown these 'civilised' gentlemen and their imperialist ambitions have supported and encouraged the lesser gangsters on the ground. And if today there is talk of humanitarian intervention in the wake of the visit by Colin Powell and Kofi Annan in June, with parts of the left beginning to support this call, we should recall who it is they are asking to intervene for good and honourable reasons: the very same powers which today are revealing their profoundly dishonourable intentions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Any intervention, any eventual 'peace' deal, will only pave the way for new wars that will explode tomorrow in another part of Sudan where local war lords and their regional and international backers think they can gain advantage or destabilise their rivals.

Imperialist powers aren't brutal bullies in one situation and heroic good guys in another. They have no choice but to be vicious and ruthless because any other approach will leave them at the mercy of their equally ruthless rivals.

Phil, 3/7/04.