Déjà  vu in Darfur?



"Arab militias on horseback commit genocide in Darfur", "Hundreds of thousands dead and millions displaced by Arab terror", "Western countries demand humanitarian intervention" – for months we have been reading headlines like these and similar ones, produced by the media conglomerates. They inevitably remind us of the media accompaniment to the attacks on Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, and Iraq in particular.

"Arabs and Muslims" in any case are presented as the incorrigible villains, who have to get a good thrashing – to prevent the humanitarian catastrophe, of course. Everything seems to fit well into the US war on "terror".

Half a century of civil war in the south of the Sudan

At this occasion we should inquire beyond the obvious manipulation in the media and to try to get some deeper understanding of the complicated patterns of a conflict, which not only has a long and eventful history, but also evolved along at least three interwoven yet analytically distinctive levels of local, national and international interests.

The conflict in Darfur does not date back as far as the conflict in the south of the country, but it can´t be properly understood outside the context of the civil war there. The civil war in the south broke out immediately after the country gained independence in 1956 and has been continuing until today – with some intermissions that show alternative options for development. It is deeply rooted in the colonial and even in the pre-colonial period, but the British certainly take the dubious credit of having made political use of the war.

The modern Sudan as a product of the mahdi insurrection

The capture of Khartoum by the mahdi armies – the armies of the Islamic messiah – in 1881 were a heavy blow to the glory of the British empire. For the outrageous period of two decades, until 1898, the state founded by the mahdi endured, until London decided to re-conquer it in the view of the aggressive French expansion in Africa. Despite its seemingly pre-modern, Islamic ideology, the mahdi insurrection provided the basis for the modern Sudanese national state by uniting very different and even competing social formations against British colonial rule.

That was possible because the Britons had alienated not only the tribes at the Nile and in the Sahel, but more significantly also the modern classes of Arab traders (jellaba) and civil servants. A ban on slave trade, proclaimed by the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium escalated into a full-blown war against the jellaba. Trade in black African slaves from the south of the country dates back to antiquity, but it expanded precipitously due to colonial penetration and integration into the world market.

On the basis of an anti-colonial Islamic salvation ideology, drawing on Sudanese traditions, it was possible to unite the sufi orders, the jellaba as well as the tribes which historically belonged to different state centres in the Sahel at the Nile, including Egypt and the highland of Abyssinia. It was an anti-colonial popular insurrection, but only in a very indirect way an expression of social struggles of the traditional and modern lower classes; because it strengthened the unity of the lower classes with the elites, although the latter ruled in a completely new form.

The unequal relationship with the south

The whole expanse of the Sahel zone from east to west had been increasingly Islamized as well as – though to a lesser extend – Arabized for centuries due to trans-Saharan trade. In the Sudan, however, topographic features – the sudd, a huge swamp unfit for permanent settlement because of regular flooding – like a barrier divided the far south from the north. Only the hunt for slaves in the 19th century led to the establishment of several Arab trade posts, but not to any considerable assimilation of the social environment.

The question of slavery is still an important topic in the Sudanese society of today. There certainly is a chauvinistic attitude towards the black, non-Muslim population of the south which fills the lowest ranks of the social pyramid in the north. There are even reports of enslavement occurring still today, and the transition to modern, capitalist oppressive relations is not always very clear. It is however inappropriate to simply blame the Islamic-Arab component of Sudanese society for slavery, as for example some representatives of the US "black community" are doing – while the United States themselves reject to admit their abuses and to grant reparation payments, as African voices have variously demanded. The institution of slavery was a trait of many black African tribe societies as well. In all parts of the world there are tribal rules that provide for the enslavement of captured enemies. This is also why there was no coordinated resistance against the slave traders and their armies, which consisted of privileged slaves.

The Arab-Muslim dominance in the Sudan is often accused of racism against the blacks. This might be correct in some aspects, but Islam in fact bans the enslavement of adherents of the three monotheistic religions, and to set slaves free is considered a religious merit. The acceptance of Islam was a way out of slavery. For centuries former black slaves were assimilated into Arab-Islamic society which in turn changed its complexion and became black. This is in sharp contrast to US society, where black people are still a caste oppressed by racism even after the abolition of slavery. In the Sudan we should rather speak of cultural chauvinism than of racism, although the phenomena overlap.

The British viewed the Arab-Islamic expansion to the south as competition and danger to their colonial interest. After the bad experience of the mahdiyya, the mahdi state, for the north they envisaged "indirect rule", but for the south there was a separate and even opposite "southern policy". They didn´t want to and they couldn´t deprive the collaborating elites of the north of their Arab-Islamic culture, but their influence in the south was to be systematically curbed by the creation of the "closed districts". There the British encouraged Christianization and introduced English as the language of administration and education. They even considered integrating the Sudan into the East African colonies. Economically the north was structured according to the typical pattern of colonial capitalism, e. g. by large cotton plantations, while the south was hardly integrated into the capitalist division of labour and remained under-developed according to capitalist criteria.

When the colonialists left in 1956, it became clear that the leading positions in the state apparatus would be filled by the Arab-Islamic elites; because while the British had left behind in the north a neo-colonial state, there were hardly any traces of that in the south. For this reason, many viewed the demise of British rule as a hand-over of the south to the north. The southern garrison staged a rebellion and thus gave the starting signal for the civil war.

A political solution was only possible after the leftist and anti-imperialist mobilizations in 1969, after the coup of General Nimeiri, with communist support, against the traditional parties representing the jellaba and based on the sufi orders. The agreement of Addis Ababa in 1972 between Nimeiri and the guerrilla provided for autonomy and led to peace, despite numerous small conflicts that remained.

But after suppressing the communists and turning back to the trader and capitalist jellaba class, after disappointing the hopes of the popular masses for social progress, in his foreign policies he turned his back on the Soviet Union and approached the United States and her allies in the Near East, i.e. Egypt and Saudi Arabia. To preserve his power, he embarked on Islamisation, which culminated in the introduction in 1983 of the sharia, Islamic law, for the whole country, including the south.

This de-facto abrogation of the autonomy granted in 1972 re-kindled civil war. The Sudanese People´s Liberation Army / Movement (SPLA/M) of John Garang was supported by the DERG government of Ethiopia and thus indirectly by the USSR, while Nimeiri and his successors built on the support of the United States. So the US oil company Chevron was assigned the development of the oil fields.

While the conservative National Islamic Front (NIF) of president Bashir staged a coup in 1989, the collapse of the Soviet Union so fundamentally changed the international environment, that there was a true change of fronts. In 1991 the NIF government supported Iraq against the onslaught of the Holy Alliance, slamming the door in the face of the west. It was consequently labelled a "haven" for terrorists and as a "rogue state" that had to be isolated. In Ethiopia on the other hand a pro-US regime came to power and halted support for the rebels in the south of the Sudan who were considered leftist.

This enabled government troops to carry out a successful offensive against the SPLA, also helped by a split within the rebels, which was ostensibly due to differences on the question of secession. Garang and his Torit faction insisted on their demand for autonomy within a democratic, secular Sudan, while the Nasir faction demanded secession. In fact however the background of the split were the problems between the emerging ethnicities in the south of Sudan. Garang represented the Dinka – the most numerous group –, while his opponents drew support from the Nuer and Shilluk groups. In the civil war among the forces in the south, the Nasir group could also count on support from Khartoum.

The finding of promising oil resources in the south added further fuelled the conflict. Khartoum insisted on the sole control over production, transport and processing of crude oil, while the SPLA demanded a share for the south. Khartoum planned a pipeline to Port Sudan at the Red Sea we well as a refinery at the port terminal. The SPLA on the other hand demanded that crude oil would be processed near the oil fields and connection to the world market via the south to Mombasa (Kenia) at the Indian Ocean. The guerrilla launched repeated attacks against the exploration sites and delayed exploitation of the oil deposits for years or even decades.

Another conflict concerns the water of the Nile, on which not only the north of the Sudan, but also the whole of Egypt. To increase the amount of water, a gigantic project to drain the sudd was planned, that would eventually make it disappear and stop evaporation of precious water. Construction of the Jonglei (Junqali) Canal could not only have catastrophic ecological consequences, but also destroy the living conditions for millions of sedentary, semi-nomadic and nomadic inhabitants who utilise this region of the size of Britain in a complicated and balanced symbiosis. Even a small disturbance, depriving one socio-economic and at the same time language group of resources, could start a chain reaction of conflicts leading to a civil war as we witness today in Darfur, at the Bahr al-…‘Arab and in the Nubian hills. Due to the attacks of the SPLA, the Canal has not been finished until today.

Nomads against sedentary agriculturalists – traditional Sahel conflicts

The development of the civil war in the south is a result of capitalist penetration, while the conflict in the Sahel, including Darfur, has pre-capitalist roots and today takes antagonistic forms.

Large parts of the Sahel, bordering the Sahara, are unfit for sedentary rain-based agriculture, they can only be utilised with variable intensity for animal husbandry by nomads who follow seasonal changes of capacity. These nomads live in symbiosis with the sedentary agriculturalists further south or in local patches with more favourable conditions (in the Sudan, Jebel Marra in the Darfur region and the Nubian Mountains, both of which have sufficient precipitation and are surrounded by semi-arid land), but in critical times conflicts are inevitable. Protracted drought periods have always led the nomads with their more bellicose traditions, which are a result of their way of life, to encroach on the water and land resources of the agriculturalists or semi-nomads.

Generally, the traditional zone of potential conflict stretches along the western tributary of the Nile, Bahr al-Ghazal and Bahr al-…‘Arab. The nomads are more Islamised and Arabised than the agriculturalists, and thus the conflict often appears to be an ethnic divide between black Africans on one side and Islamic Arabs on the other side. In fact it is basically a socio-economic conflict that also occurs among Muslims (such as in Darfur) and among black African tribes (such as at the edges of the sudd).

There used to be, however, a traditional mode of arbitration that kept victims to an acceptable minimum. The many historical Sahel states, the mahdiyya and also British colonial rule played this role of arbitration. But several factors led to a situation without any room for compromise and the conflicts turned into bloody civil wars:

First, the draught periods are getting longer and drier, desertification is advancing for several kilometres to the south each year. It is not clear, to what extend desertification is the result of human interference, but it can´t be denied that human plundering of resources is decisive. The increasing commercialisation of economic relations has led to an increase of herd size, which was also facilitated by the drilling of deep wells. In the end, intensive grazing in many places has completely destroyed vast pastures.

Second, and much more decisive, is the mechanised cultivation of cash crops in non-irrigated zones. This trend follows the orders of the International Monetary Fund. Areas which in part were collectively utilised by local tribes without holding any legal title, are handed over by the state usually to jellaba who dispose of capital or have access to loans. The local population is expelled or – in case of pasture use – is denied access. The soil is soon made unfertile by diffusion or eroded and has to be given up. The result is devastated zones that can´t be utilised and are desertificated. This concerns millions of hectares, i. e. a significant part of arable land of the Sudan.

Third, the government in Khartoum arms many nomadic tribes – collectively known as Baqqara – with automatic weapons, to use them against ethnic groups who support the guerrilla or who live near oil fields. In this case, traditional conflicts – which often border rituals – are quickly turned into extremely bloody conflicts. One example are the oft-quoted janjawid.

That doesn´t mean at all that those militias are completely controlled or even directed by government troops. Historically, there have been serious clashes between jellaba and Baqqara. The latter for example sided with the British and took part in their expedition against the jellaba. To demand that government troops decommission the militias is almost an impossibility, because carrying weapons is a central element of their code of honour, forcing them to give op their weapons could lead to another armed conflict.

Ethnic cleansing?

In western reports of the Sudanese civil war, the conflict is flatly reduced to a dual conflict between the oppressive Arab-Islamic north and the oppressed black African, Christian south, and the latter has to be supported by the "international community" – the fact that Darfur is Islamic, is conveniently ignored. Alleged ethnic cleansing perpetrated by the declared global enemy of western civilisation – Islamic Arabs – has to be ended by any means necessary.

Ethnic and national identities in the Sudan are in fact much more complex and are based on socio-economic functions in the framework of the traditional sub-Saharan division of labour, conflicts are a result of problems or disturbances of this division of labour.(1)

In Darfur until a few decades ago, ethnic identities used to be permeable. Arab tribes who settled in the Jebel Marra, were integrated into tribes that were not regarded as Arab, although they continued to speak Arabic. On the other hand there are nomads who don´t speak Arabic but still regard themselves as Arabs. There are several levels of identity that can´t be adequately described with the term "ethnicity", although the importance of this term is growing as a result of the conflict.

The civil war in the Sudan has not produced a south Sudan nation at all, but there are large ethnic groups such the Dinka, Nuer or the Shilluk, who share linguistic similarities, but are split into socio-economic entities – usually called tribes – which are the central element of identity. The most striking discrepancy between the ethnic groups and the former socio-economic identity can be seen among the Nubians. The Nubian mountains are an area of retreat for black African tribes, who live in (unequal) social symbiosis with Arab Baqqara tribes. There was hardly any contact between the black African tribes, due to the topographic conditions. They don´t share one common language and very often their languages even don´t belong to the same linguistic family and are mutually incomprehensible. Nevertheless, the war created a Nubian identity.

This phenomenon can be compared to the consequences of the war in Afghanistan. Also in that region there used to be a mesh of several levels of identity. There is in fact the Afghan form of Persian, Dari, as the language of the state and education, but there was no Tajik ethnic group, the speakers of that language were far too fragmented and different, they shared nothing but the language. Today, however, Tajik ethnicity is a prime factor in the land at the Hindu Kush. The same goes for other newly constituted national groups.

Change of US policies on the Sudan

The nineties on behalf of the United States were dominated by a policy of confrontation, culminating in the bombardment of a factory near Khartoum allegedly producing chemical weapons. Later the US government had to admit, that it was a pharmaceutical enterprise. Although Khartoum yielded to most demands of the USA and expelled bin Ladin – who at that time was not yet regarded as the champion incarnation of evil –, and heeded the demands of the IMF, Washington did not change its policy and kept the label of terror state for the Sudan. This was completely in line with Clinton´s human rights imperialism.

In 1999 Khartoum for the first time after twenty years of desperate attempts managed to export significant quantities of crude oil. Concessions to drill for oil were given primarily to Chinese companies who also gave support for building the pipeline to the Red Sea which had been planned for a long time. The Anglo-American media sounded alarm. Reports of thousands of Chinese soldiers seem wildly exaggerated, but there can´t be any doubt about massive Chinese engagement. The prospect that China could gain strategic control over a potentially mid-range oil exporting country, and far away from the immediate Chinese sphere of influence, had to be a cause at least for concern in Washington.

The United States also couldn´t have overlooked that the balance in the Sudanese civil is tipping in favour of Khartoum due to increasing oil revenues, even if they don´t succeed in mid-term pacification of the south. This is why Washington´s tactic is escalation rather than an agreement, so they can normalise relationships with Khartoum slowly, while gaining a foothold in the oil sector and keeping the interests of the south as permanent pressure. A task force close to the US administration put it into the following words: "If the south negotiates now, in earnest, with adequate external backing, it will be in a stronger position to secure its political and economic interests than if it delays taking that step for several years." (2)

The US doctrine of preventive turns out to be an obstacle for this line, because it tends to treat all conflicts in the same way. The latest media and diplomatic escalation concerning Darfur can be interpreted as a manifestation of this problem. A "collateral" function definitely is to divert attention from Palestine and Iraq, and to present the Arabs not as oppressed, but as oppressors. On the other hand, opening another front in Darfur could serve as another means to pressure the NIF government, who on its behalf tries to end its isolation and to reconcile Washington.

Another factor is that the various rebel groups, in particular John Garang´s SPLA are not purely puppets of the west, but do have their own interests to some extent – interests that are not always compatible with the demands and plans of the US state department and Pentagon.

Just last year in July, when Darfur was on top of the media agenda, the German company Thormählen Schweißtechnik AG announced that their bid to build and operate a 4.100-km railway line from the south of the Sudan to the port city of Mombasa in Kenya was accepted by John Garang.(3) If the project can be realised – which can not be assumed for sure under present conditions –, that would be a big issue not only economically, but also politically. According to commentators in the Kenyan press, the rail link will "change the political and geographical landscape of the continent." (4)

The Darfur campaign and this announcement have shifted the relation of forces once again a little in favour of Khartoum. A quick solution to the conflict is not in sight, but neither is a military intervention of the United States. From Washington´s point of view, such an intervention is not even necessary, because there are enough other efficient means to pressure for their interests.

Anti-imperialist and social-revolutionary position

As it is a multilayered conflict, there has to be a detailed declaration. It is obvious, that the present campaign is part of the global preventive war against the Arab-Islamic resistance. Any imperialist military intervention, however pretty its humanitarian cover might be, has to be opposed and fought against. This is also true for the Organisation of African States, in which pro-imperialist Regimes such as Nigeria and South Africa set the tone. Economic or other sanctions are equally unacceptable.

But the Islamic government in Khartoum is not at all an organically anti-imperialist regime. They try hard to fulfil IMF demands. The rulers of the upper Nile are the political expression of the traditional trader-capitalist class of the jellaba, and their conflicts with the US are dued to their Islamist ideology and its consequences. The government on the other hand needs this ideology to secure support from parts of the population. Washington aggression against the Arab-Islamic resistance has its own dynamic and internal contradictions. The United States repelled the ruling group of the Sudan, although from their basic socio-economic position, from an imperialist point of view, there is no reason for that.

Such an exclusion on the other hand inevitably has a certain effect on the rulers, and leads them to actions against US interests – such as the close cooperation with China. The conflict can´t be compared – neither concerning its explosive potential nor its acridity – to the conflict between the Iraqi Ba…‘th leadership and the United States, but there is an element of an analogy: Saddam Hussein during the eighties had closely cooperated with Washington. His occupation of Kuwait was in fact directed against US interests, but it would have been possible to integrate the Ba…‘th regime (in both variants, with or without war) into the international imperialist system without seriously compromising US interests. The reason for the embargo and the genocide against Iraq was rather geo-political necessity to make an example, to demonstrate the will of the United States to rule the world alone.

The leftist and communist movement in the Sudan – which had been for a while one of the strongest in the reason – has always been demanding the right of self-determination of the south and was advocating autonomy. This would be the only way to preserve the unity of the Sudan – implying unity against imperialism. The oppressive policies of the jellaba class, the scorched earth in the oil regions, can only lead to the opposite.

The government would have to interfere in local conflicts as an intermediary and in order to bring peaceful solutions. It has also to be prevented from abusing local conflicts in the interests of the trader-capitalist class and to endanger the unity of the country.

The present interpretation of the sharia as an iron dictatorship of the trader class should be abrogated. A democratic and secular state will not only ensure the unity of the Sudan in the best way, but also defend the interests of the popular masses in the best way. If, however, the majority of the north Sudanese opt for the sharia, that has to be accepted, but it must not be forced on the population of the south. Autonomy has also to be granted in the sphere of jurisdiction.

Finally the only possible end of the civil war and the misery of the absolute majority of the Sudanese people – the country at the Nile is one of the worlds poorest countries – is shedding the IMF yoke and overthrowing the capitalist jellaba class regime.

Willi Langthaler
September 12th, 2004

(1) cf. "Ethnicity from perception to cause of violent conflicts", Mohamed Suliman, 1997
(2) U.S. Policy to end Sudan´s civil war, Report of the CSIS task force on U.S.-Sudan Policy, February 2001
(3) www.thormaehlen-schweisstechnik.de/aktuell/5.out.htm
(4) Special report: Railway to link Sudan and Kenya, The Nation, June 27th 2004