Behind the Smell of Blood in Darfur Lie Imperialist Interests

The horrors inflicted on largely non-combatant people in Darfur over the last three years have been largely overshadowed by the more public atrocities being played out in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. And yet in terms of numbers the crisis in Darfur is worse than anywhere. Between 2 and 3 million people have been uprooted from their homes in the face of strafing by helicopter gunships and bombing by Antonov bombers of the National Congress party Government in Khartoum. At the same time they have been faced on the ground with the looting, raping and pillaging of the Government-backed Janjaweed militias.

The deployment of an African Union Mission in the Sudan (AMIS) of 5000 troops and 2000 civilian monitors has not altered the situation much in the last twelve months. Indeed the AMIS force has been largely ineffectual and has been itself subject to attack. Inadequate in numbers, in weapons and in equipment it has lost the confidence of the local population. It is now seen as being too close to the Khartoum Government for many of the Darfur people. However its withdrawal would remove yet one more constraint on the Khartoum Government.

Saving Darfur or Saving Blair’s Reputation?

This was the basis of a series of demonstrations coordinated world wide on Saturday September 16th. There was even one held at the end of Downing Street. It was a small gathering of a few hundred, mainly African demonstrators. They wore blue berets to symbolically underline their chief demand - for a United Nations peacekeeping force to be deployed in Darfur when the current mandate of the AMIS expires at the end of September. Tony Blair went out of his way to support the demonstration at the end of Downing Street, issuing a statement to declaring that “Sudan will stay at the top of my agenda”. For a man who managed to resolutely ignore calls for an immediate ceasefire in Lebanon, for a man who ignored the 2 million or so who demonstrated against the build up to the war on Iraq on February 15th, 2002 this was something of an about turn. Or was it? The cry for UN intervention from so many in the West is yet one more example of the hypocritical mask which the Western imperialist powers give to their pursuit of naked material interests. Blair, of course has his own personal political agenda. His failures in foreign policy have now so undermined his government that even the New Labour Party are calling for him to go. His attempt to hang on to the coat tails of the US in the hope of getting some crumbs from the invasion of Iraq has massively backfired. His lies about the existence of weapons of mass destruction are now seen as no good reason for British troops to be dying in Basra. His attempt to give “a new vision” of the war on terror when he spoke in the US about “an arc of extremism running across the Middle East” only reminded his listeners of the “axis of evil” which is cornerstone of US policy in the region. The refusal of his Government to call for an immediate ceasefire in Lebanon only further underlined how far he was prepared to follow the US. However Darfur is slightly different. Blair has spotted that there is an ambiguity if not outright confusion in US ruling class circles over the Horn of Africa and its extended hinterland from Somalia to Chad. The US Administration is torn between different policies advocated in turn by the State Department, the Pentagon and the CIA. Blair sees this as an opportunity to take an initiative which cannot be seen as simply parroting US policy and thus save his reputation. He hopes to exploit this confusion to appear as the paladin of Darfur and to “make his mark on history” thus diverting attention from the disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Blair also has another card to play in that the Darfur Peace Agreement signed in Abuja (Nigeria) last May between the Government in Khartoum headed by Lieutenant General Omar al-Bashir and the various rebel groups was brokered by the US and the UK. with the UK’s Hilary Benn taking the lead. Blair’s careful statement issued to the other EU states calls for this to be implemented but crucially also calls for the AMIS force to continue in Darfur until there is a “transition to the UN” in accordance with UN Resolution 1706.

The issue of Darfur is, however, not a separate one from the other crises in the Middle East and Central Asia - and the same forces are at work as the world’s leading powers struggle to gain control of the planet’s wealth. At the back of it all lies yet another struggle for oil wealth.

Indeed the fighting has began to such an extent that a further 50,000 people have already been cut off from vital humanitarian aid at the onset of the rainy season. Now there is much wringing of hands over Darfur with sentiments expressed around the usual themes of “something must be done” and “remember Rwanda”. However welcome all this humanitarian sentiment we should not blind ourselves to the fact that the reasons for the apparent paralysis of the “world community” (which by definition cannot exist under capitalism) is due to the clash of interests between the powers which operate in Sudan. The struggle in Darfur is an economic struggle and there is no disinterested state when it comes to Darfur.

Lies and Disinformation on Darfur

The way in which the Darfur problem has been presented to us is a consequence of these interests. It took the BBC until this summer to tell us that the Sudanese Government was actually faced by rebel movements in Darfur. Previously they had presented the crisis as one in which the Sudanese state was just massacring, looting and raping its own citizens for the sheer hell of it. We have heard quite a lot about how the Khartoum regime is breaking its agreements and carrying on the attacks but we had to wait until a coy reference in Blair’s statement on September 16th to realise that the rebel groups in Darfur were split over the Darfur Peace Agreement. The SLA, the largest group split and its minority, in alliance with other groups, has carried on fighting.

To read the world’s press you would also assume that this was a racial conflict between Arab Muslim extremists in the Government in Khartoum against largely peaceful African farmers. Indeed the then US Secretary of the State, Colin Powell in September 2004 told a Senate committee that the killings in Darfur did “constitute genocide”. Since then there has been much debate in the United Nations and elsewhere as to whether the mass murder in Darfur is genocide, ethnic cleansing or neither of these. The use of the word is part of the imperialist competition for influence in Sudan. Bush, that great exponent of the English language, reminded some of those calling for action in the Sudan that “words matter” and that it was the US which had first labelled what was going on in Darfur as “genocide”. The UN sent a fact-finding mission which concluded that it was not and was ridiculed for this conclusion. They pointed out that the so-called Arabs in the Khartoum government are just as African (i.e black) as the populations they were attacking. Furthermore the vast majority of those who have been the victims of the Janjaweed Muslim militia have been Muslims as that is the religion of 70% of the region. What element of local conflict there has been has come from historic hostility between the sedentary, largely arable, farmers of Darfur and the nomadic pastoralists who are today the recruiting ground for the Janjaweed. However even this would not normally be an issue as the nomads and farmers have frequently inter-married. The promotion of the Janjaweed came when the Sudanese government was faced with the rise of rebel movements in Darfur in 2003. With the whole world watching, the Khartoum government dared not use their own troops directly. Instead impoverished nomads upon horses, who were finding its increasingly difficult to find water for their flocks as the Sahel region is drying up, made ideal recruits for fighting a dirty war in Darfur, which the Government could claim was not connected to them. Sudan would not be the first state in the so-called Third World to employ such forces against their own people in the face of a guerrilla movement (think only of Colombia, El Salvador or Argentina).

The Real Reason for the Conflict

But to focus solely on the undoubtedly inhuman actions of the Islamist Government in Khartoum misses the point. The whole war in Darfur was actually the result of outside, particularly US and other Western governments’ interference in the Sudan. The conflict began in 2003 (coinciding with the invasion of Iraq) when two new rebel groups sprang up the Sudanese Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM). Partly tribal in origin being based on the Zaghawa (the largest Nilotic speaking tribe in Darfur) and the Fur and Masalit, as well as a dozen smaller tribes, these movements were trained by the US’ African allies in Chad and Uganda. It would not be the first time that the US had tried to benefit from the creation of chaos in a state whose government it regarded as hostile. The US were initially opposed to the Khartoum Government for harbouring Osama Bin Laden. This is why they bombed his chemical factory after the first attempt Al Qaeda made on the World Trade Center in 1993. In the wake of this attack and the bombing of the US Embassy in Nairobi the Clinton Administration dubbed Sudan one of the “state sponsors of terror” and in 1996 passed a law forbidding any form of US investment in Sudan. On top of this the US sent $20 million of surplus military equipment to Ethiopia, Eritrea and Uganda with the declared aim of using it for the overthrow of the Sudanese Government. From here stems the confusion in US policy since the Bush regime inherited this policy but it is the oil clique par excellence. Whilst US policy has officially prevented US firms from investing in the Sudan, for the State Department headed by Condoleeza Rice, the main issue is to get control of oil wherever. As one of her underlings bluntly stated recently,

African oil is of national strategic interest to us and it will increase and become more important as we go forward.

Walter Kansteiner, US Assistant Secretary of State for Africa

As the US already gets 18% of its oil from Sub-Saharan Africa this is no underestimate. Kasteiner went on to indicate who the enemy was in the Sudan.

We don’t foresee anything stopping the Chinese from increasing their equity participation in oil, and I think it probably would be problematic if they were the dominant player.

But in a real sense China is already the dominant player. (1) China, through its China National Petroleum Corporation, owns 40% of the consortium which pumps 330,000 barrels a day from oilwells in Western Upper Nile Province. China already gets 6% of its oil imports from Sudan and China’s expansion as the supplier of cheap labour to the world’s multinationals means that China’s expansion will require still more oil. This is why Chinese companies are building the 1,392 kilometre pipeline from the Melut Basin in Southern Sudan to Port Sudan on the Red Sea. Here they are constructing a $215 million oil terminal. It is not surprising that when the US proposes sanctions (including an oil embargo) against Khartoum in the United Nations that they come up against Chinese resistance. As the US has banned its own companies from operating in Sudan it is equally not surprising that they want to halt production of Sudan’s oil. But China is also not alone amongst the cheap-labour economies. Both India and Malaysia, which have similar relationships to the world economy, are furiously looking for sources of cheap oil in a world already largely carved up by the major US and European oil firms. India’s ONGC Videsh and Malyasia’ Petronas have both bought “substantial shares” in Sudanese oil fields. In Darfur the offensive against the SLA and the JEM is proving useful for the oil companies as villages are cleared and the oil companies can then move in. According to some estimates Sudan’s oil reserves could be as high as 1.2 billion barrels, a situation which would make it the most important producer in Africa and a rival to the oil producers in the Middle East.

Whilst the Bush regime eyes getting its hands on this oil the situation is further complicated by the fact that the CIA has close links with the Secret Services in Khartoum. After Osama Bin Laden was forced to flee from Sudan to Afghanistan the Sudanese Government tried to cooperate with the US. The head of Sudan’s Military Intelligence, Salah Abdullah Gosh who was once Osama Bin Laden’s handler in Khartoum, has been a close confidante of the CIA for almost a decade. As the Financial Times so coyly put it there is

... a still close intelligence relationship between Washington and Khartoum in the war on terror.

Sept 18th, 2006. Salah Abdullah Gosh is also the man who is said to be behind the use of the Janjaweed in Darfur.

All this explains why the US policy towards Darfur has been so confused. It also reveals that whilst there can be a confusion of imperialist interests the complete lack of principles to guide foreign policy means all talk of humanitarian issues or spreading democracy is simply hypocrisy. Thus though the House of Representatives has passed the Darfur Peace and Accountability Act (by 416 votes to 3), the Senate, in collusion with the White House, has only agreed to take it on if the Section 11 demands for divestment in Sudan are removed. Divestment worth billions of dollars would be a rational weapon to aim at Khartoum as Government Ministers, either openly or secretly, derive their personal and state revenue from the oil operations (as well as the spin-offs in construction and tele-communications). This state revenue is then used to fund the war in Darfur so it would have a direct impact on events there. It would also have the advantageous effect (for US capital) of undermining those European firms like Siemens, ABB Alstom, Weirs and Shell which also have deep involvement in Sudan. But the Bush regime don’t want it. It is as if they are paralysed by being bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan and are playing a longer diplomatic game to eventually get into the Sudan oilfields themselves. In the meantime the people of Darfur, like the people of Lebanon in July, are being massacred whilst the world does nothing.

A Widening Conflict?

Indeed the US is not only doing nothing to end the Darfur disaster it is pursuing policies which are likely to spread the conflict. We have already seen how the US used Chad to train the SLA and JEM in 2003. In response the Sudan Government have armed and financed military opposition to President Idriss Deby whose 16 year rule is under challenge. Last December Deby’s Government issued a statement saying that it was already in “a state of war” with the Sudan. Chad has been nominated by human rights organisations as the equal of Bangladesh in being the most corrupt regime in the world. And yet the World Bank (headed by ex-Bush government member Paul Wolfowitz, the greatest proponent of the invasion of Iraq in order to get its oil) loaned $130 million to the Deby regime which is using it mainly for military purposes rather than developing, with Exxon Mobil, the 665 mile long oil pipeline from the Doba Basin to Cameroon. When critics pointed this out Wolfowitz. the arch-enemy of corruption wherever the IMF give a loan, merely shrugged his shoulders and said the money was being spent for the purposes it was intended. To no-one’s astonishment we once again see that the needs of US oil policy take precedence over any political principles or ideological coherence.

And this lack of cohesion in US foreign policy is why Blair thinks he can take the moral highground on Darfur. Having become the US’ poodle in Iraq and Afghanistan and over the Lebanon crisis, he wants to leave a historical legacy which includes the title of peacemaker in Darfur. He is aware of who is behind the conflict. His statement says:

I have already talked to Premier Wen (of China) and President Bush,

but, as we have demonstrated, the fate of the people of Darfur is a matter of indifference for these imperialist rivals. His insistence that the Sudan Government should agree to a continuation of the African Union force in Darfur (to which it has repeatedly said it is amenable) but that it should also agree to this force being taken over by the UN will already strike a hostile note in Khartoum. After all it is the UN which nominally sanctioned the invasion of Iraq, simply giving a figleaf to the US and the UK to carry out what they wanted to do anyway. Blair also seems not to have noticed that NATO countries (on which he counts to supply troops and logistical support) have not been exactly forthcoming about allowing their soldiers to die in Afghanistan, so they are hardly likely to rally round a new commitment in Darfur. The Sudanese Government has already predictably rejected the proposal for a UN force as a return to colonialism. Ironically it is exactly fifty years since the British were forced to accept Sudan’s declaration of independence.

The situation of the people in Darfur therefore looks bleak. It may be that imperialist interests do coalesce to their advantage and bring some sort of normality but the forces we have outlined here indicate that the converse is more likely to be the case. Even if those who gallantly work on the ground to give humanitarian aid find they can succeed this time another Darfur will be in preparation. This is because the capitalist system in its imperialist stage has created constant competition for the planet’s resources. The stakes for those in power are so great that the means, any means are always justified. Africa is as rich in anywhere in primary commodities and that is its tragedy. There are no such things as “nation-states” in Africa as all the states are the artificial creation of imperialism. They are lines drawn on a map by colonial powers at European conferences (most of them in Berlin in 1884). Although they sometimes have a geographical logic they make little reference to the human situation on the ground. Tribal boundaries were ignored and when decolonialisation took place those tribes sitting on the richest resources found themselves on the defensive from the other tribes in their new “nation”. The Katangan conflict in the Congo in the 1960s, the Biafran War in Nigeria in the 1970s as well as other conflicts like the Congo (again) and Somalia in the 1990s all have their roots in imperialist exploitation of their resources. The conflicts became particularly brutal when rival imperialist interests furnished arms to both sides. Not all these conflicts have as their root immediate material gain. Indeed one of the objections (2) to the idea that imperialism causes these wars is that no imperial power made a profit from its African colonies. But this misses the point. Once the competition between capitalists reaches the level of national monopolies competing on a world stage wars can be fought for a strategic point (like the Horn of Africa in Somalia) or simply to deny those resources to a rival. The wars were always made with the expectation that the profits would follow later. The fact that they did not always do so does not invalidate the motivation. On top of this, who can now deny that the misery of Africa is not a result of both its colonial experience and the constant interference in the continent by the great powers since decolonisation?

The only way in which future man-made humanitarian crises in Africa can be stopped is by a change in the mode of production which creates the suffering in the first place. This cannot come about overnight. Although the world working class is the one class which can do this it is currently a sleeping giant. Only when it is conscious of its collective strength and the nature of the system of exploitation and only when it has created an organisation on a global scale to give expression to this political awareness will it be in a position to paralyse and then overthrow capitalism. The task then is to create a real international community rather than the fantasy one the capitalists speak of. With no national frontiers, no exploitation and no standing armies wars would be a thing of the past. Only then will we have a situation in which there will be no more Darfurs.


(1) As it is in many other areas in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The rapid expansion of Chinese imperialism is a direct consequence of China’s new-found role as the cheap producer of the world economy. We will be turning to this in a future issue.

(2) See for example D.K . Fieldhouse, The Theory of Capitalist Imperialism.

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