The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

Caught between Imperialist Rivalries

Nov 15, 1998

For many months, the news coming out of Sudan has been about the catastrophic famine in the south of the country. The television news has regularly shown horrible images of children dying from starvation, the emaciated bodies of adults and the hordes of people throwing themselves on food that has been parachuted in.

This tragedy is not a natural disaster: The south of Sudan suffers from underdevelopment, just as do almost all of Africa’s agriculture regions. It lacks modern equipment, fertilizer and even irrigation. Of course, if Sudan’s problems were limited to underdevelopment, the people in the south could still have grown enough food to at least survive. But long years of chronic warfare and roving armed gangs have plagued the country. Behind this war are the imperialist powers. The people engaged in the fighting might come from the region. But for at least a century, Sudan has been paying for its geographic position which stands at the frontline of imperialist rivalries.

Last August, the U.S. bombed what the CIA described as a "nerve gas factory" in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum. This was supposedly in retaliation for the bombing of two American embassies in Africa.

Within days, however, the papers published the testimony of a British technician who had recently returned from Khartoum. He confirmed that this alleged nerve gas factory was in reality only a pharmaceutical factory, producing half of Sudan’s medicines—that is, until it was reduced to dust. Even the CIA felt compelled to admit reluctantly to a possible mistake—just before this embarrassing issue was swept under the carpet by the media’s strident coverage of Clinton’s "zippergate."

The destruction of this vital pharmaceutical plant by U.S. missiles was all the more outrageous since Sudan is among the poorest countries in the world (with a per capita GDP of $300) and the most indebted (with total debt twice as large as its annual production). This bombing can only mean a drastic shortage of even the most basic medicines for the country’s poor population for months and possibly years to come. In reality, Clinton’s "fight against terrorism" was nothing but another chapter in the terrorism carried out by the great powers, and a continuation of U.S. policy toward Sudan.

Sudan has been the target of U.S. economic sanctions for years. When the current Sudanese regime established closer relations with Iran after taking power in 1989, and then refused to join the imperialist line-up against Iraq during the Gulf War, Washington added Sudan to its list of "terrorist" countries in 1993. U.S. trade with Sudan became subject to severe restrictions. All sales of military equipment were banned. So was new U.S. investment. In 1997, the noose was further tightened around Sudan, when the U.S. froze all Sudanese assets in the U.S. and banned all U.S. trade with Sudan. But since Sudan’s economic relations with the U.S. had always been limited, the U.S. economic sanctions worked mainly by proxy, with U.S. regional allies following the lead set by Washington.

While the sanctions certainly contributed to making the economic survival of the country even more precarious, the political aim of these sanctions—to increase the Sudanese regime’s isolation—misfired. Instead of driving a wedge between Khartoum and the Iranian regime, the sanctions resulted only in making Sudan more dependent on Iran’s support.

But sanctions were not U.S. imperialism’s only card. The U.S. also played an important, if not decisive role in fanning the flames of the bloody civil war which has crippled the country for fifteen years. The U.S. provided extensive direct and indirect military support to the Southern Sudan guerrillas of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). U.S. imperialism was not simply aiming at imposing its world order on the Sudanese regime. It was also fighting a war by proxy, in alliance with British imperialism, against its main rival in Africa, French imperialism.

Born out of Colonial Rivalries

Sudan itself was originally shaped by the rivalries between great powers. Just a century ago, British troops slaughtered 10,000 Sudanese soldiers at the battle—or rather massacre—of Omdurman, near Khartoum. With this battle, Britain integrated Sudan into its empire with the hypocritical status of "Anglo-Egyptian Condominium." While the administration and police were to be staffed and paid by Egypt (then a British protectorate), British officers held all the key positions.

The British seizure of Sudan marked the last major stage of what is usually referred to as the "scramble for Africa," in which Europe’s rival colonial powers fought each other in order to gain control of the largest possible share of Africa. Sudan became a major prize in the power game between the two main rivals—Britain and France. London had managed to squeeze France out of the Anglo-French protectorate over Egypt. But to make its victory complete, Britain had to keep Sudan and the Red Sea coast away from French influence.

Sudan, in itself, was not particularly attractive for the colonial powers. It had no obvious natural resources, no infrastructure and a backward rural economy. Its population was very poor and partly nomadic. But whoever controlled Sudan also controlled the upper waters of the Nile and was, therefore, in a position to squeeze the Egyptian economy. France’s dominant position in western and central Africa meant that it could almost establish its own trade route across the entire African continent, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea. To complete this route, France had only to impose its own right of way across Sudan. On the other hand, if Britain could seize control of Sudan, it could link up its Egyptian stronghold to its east African colonies (today’s Uganda and Kenya).

Sudan came into existence as a sort of buffer zone between the French and British colonial empires. It was an entirely artificial construction: its north and north-west borders were formed by over a thousand miles of straight lines obviously drawn with a ruler on a map without any concern for geographic or ethnic considerations. In fact, only the northwestern part of Sudan had ever existed as a distinct political entity. The rest of northern and central Sudan included half-a-dozen ethnic groups, some of which were split right down the middle by the borders with today’s Chad, Egypt, Eritrea and Ethiopia. This part of Sudan had always been divided into many, often rival, feudal fiefdoms. The only thing these various peoples held in common was their long subjection to ruthless looting by Arab traders and slave merchants from Egypt who, over the centuries, had imposed Islam, and, to a lesser extent, the use of Arabic on the rest of the people.

Southern Sudan, which never had much contact with the north, was even more heterogenous. it had a large number of distinct ethnic groups related to those of central Africa rather than to those of the Middle East as in the rest of Sudan. Traditional religions and Christianity, rather than Islam, dominated the south. Almost all the southern ethnic groups overlap Sudan’s borders with Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Congo or Central African Republic. Incorporating this mosaic of black African ethnic groups into Sudan made so little sense that even the British colonial administration worked out elaborate plans to incorporate southern Sudan into a greater Uganda. But these plans were eventually shelved, partly because they failed to resolve the problem, and partly because there were rivalries between the Egyptian and east African sections of the colonial office.

These divisions were subsequently exacerbated when the British colonial authorities played one ethnic group against another, and the north against the south. Under the pretext of preserving the south from Arab pressures, but really to pre-empt a possible flow of population from the poorer south to the richer north, Britain kept the south more or less isolated, thereby making it impossible for ties to develop between the populations.

Sudan’s artificial construction and the subsequent policy of the British state prepared the ground for the present civil war in Sudan. This war really began in 1955, one year before Sudanese independence when southern soldiers rebelled against the policy of "Sudanization" (i.e. systematic appointment of northern functionaries to the south). Since then, civil war in Sudan has been a near constant feature, except for an 11-year hiatus between 1972 and 1983.

The Cold War Days

In 1958, only two years after independence, Sudan experienced the first of a long series of military coups, led by General Abboud. His regime banned all political parties and trade unions, and declared a state of emergency, which was to last until Abboud was overthrown in 1964.

The main reason for Abboud’s coup was probably the growing unrest in the population generated by the deteriorating economic situation and corruption in the religious parties’ coalition government. But there was another reason, directly linked to the policy of U.S. imperialism. Sudan’s strategic position and the boost given to Arab nationalism by Egyptian President Nasser’s success in nationalizing the Suez canal in 1956 prompted Washington to try to woo Sudan away from its pro-Nasser, non-aligned position. U.S. Vice President Nixon visited Sudan to invite the government to sign up with the "Eisenhower plan," a pure Cold War product which offered economic and military aid (including the establishment of U.S. bases) as a counterweight to the USSR’s influence in the Middle East. This offer split the ruling coalition down the middle. The Umma Party, the main northern religious party, supported by top layers of the army, took a resolutely pro-U.S. stand. Despite opposition from its coalition partners, it signed the American agreement. Facing expulsion from office by an anti-U.S. coalition, the Umma Party leaders turned to General Abboud. The coup he directed preserved Sudan’s new pro-U.S. alignment.

There was, however, a current in the Sudanese army which was opposed to the pro- U.S. stance. Following the example set by Nasser in Egypt, younger officers set up a "Free Officers’ Organization" in 1959, against Abboud’s dictatorship and for a nationalist, anti-U.S. policy: state management of the economy and political democracy. Subsequently they participated in a series of attempts to overthrow Abboud which, although they failed, contributed to weakening the dictatorship’s position.

Meanwhile Abboud’s brutal methods were mobilizing workers and students against his regime. The clandestine Communist Party, the only active opposition to Abboud in the population, successfully took the lead of mass protests and large-scale strikes, which culminated in a general strike on October 26, 1964. This strike was called by the National Front, an alliance between the religious parties, the Communist Party and the illegal trade unions. When the army was called in, officers refused to order their troops to shoot on the huge numbers of demonstrators who had taken to the streets. Abboud had no other choice than to hand over power to the National Front.

The new government included one minister representing each religious party (including the Fundamentalist Muslim Brothers), one Communist Party minister, the general secretary of the Sudanese Federation of Trade Unions and the president of the Gezira Tenants Association, the largest and most militant organization of tenant farmers, as well as two ministers representing southern political forces. The program on which this government was formed, the National Charter, advocated a clear break with imperialism, the restoration of all civil liberties and the release of political prisoners. But, significantly, it contained no commitment whatsoever to social or economic change.

This program summarized the entire policy of the Communist Party at that time, not only in Sudan, but in every Third World country. The relationship of forces in the streets had forced the religious parties to accept representatives from the Communist Party and the working class organizations. The religious parties, themselves, in reality owed their new positions to the mobilization of the poor. But the Communist leaders were determined not to offer the religious parties the smallest pretext to break from the National Front, even if this meant sweeping their own program and the aspirations of the poor under the rug. For all its revolutionary language, the CP’s policy was first of all dictated by the needs of the Soviet bureaucracy’s foreign policy, which required only that Sudan went back to its policy of non-alignment.

This policy, which gave no perspective to the proletarian masses who had brought the dictatorship down, could only demobilize and disarm them. Once order was restored in the streets, the traditional parties were able to use the old electoral system inherited from the British to shift the balance of power against the Communist Party and the radical nationalist elements. Within three years, the religious parties felt strong enough to expel the Communist Party’s sixteen elected legislators despite opposition from the courts.

By and large, this was simply a return to the old corrupt regime which had preceded Abboud’s military coup. The main difference was that it was no longer the pro-U.S. wing of the religious parties which was in control. The successive governments never implemented, except in words, the strong anti-imperialist stance of the National Charter. But they did shift back to a policy of non-alignment. This led to frantic intrigue by western agents inside Sudan. This intrigue intensified when, after the Six-Day War broke out in 1967, the Sudanese government sided with the Arab countries, declared war on Israel, broke diplomatic ties with the USA and sought military and economic aid from the USSR.

From Fake Radicalism to the "Sharia"

Once again, in the face of growing discontent with the failure of the traditional parties to address economic problems, the army was called in. On the one hand, the U.S. and some elements in the Umma Party were trying to get the traditional military hierarchy to follow the example of General Abboud. On the other hand, the Communist Party together with radical nationalists were offering their support to the "Free Officers’ Association" to take power. In May 1969, Colonel Gaafar al-Nimeiry led the Free Officers in a successful coup, supported also by the trade unions and farmers’ organizations. Nimeiry’s first statement after taking power was a pledge to "follow the path of socialism." He then proceeded to rename the country, the Democratic Republic of Sudan; to ban all political parties, and to imprison large numbers of politicians and ministers from the previous regime.

The Sudanese CP leadership should have known better than to reinforce illusions in the army by supporting Nimeiry, if only because of the bitter experience of the Egyptian Communist Party, whose leaders ended up singing Nasser’s praises from death row. It did not take long for Nimeiry to follow Nasser’s example. In July 1971, an alleged "communist plot" to murder Nimeiry was conveniently discovered. Hundreds of CP activists were arrested and several of its main leaders, including its general secretary, were executed after hastily arranged show trials. At the same time, Nimeiry broke trade relations with the USSR. Within a few months, the U.S. resumed diplomatic and military relations with Sudan, before resuming full economic aid in 1976.

From then on, Sudan’s one-party state under Nimeiry’s Sudan Socialist Union went down, not "the path of socialism," but the path of reaction. In 1977, Nimeiry embarked on "national reconciliation" with the traditional parties and the Muslim Brotherhood, introducing Islam in the official phraseology of the regime. The more unpopular the dictatorship became, partly due to its repressive policy and partly to the rapidly deteriorating economic conditions, the more Nimeiry gave ground to the religious parties. In September 1983, he capitulated totally to the demands of the Muslim Brotherhood, introducing the Islamic "Sharia" as the regime’s law.

Despite the fact that today the U.S. government loudly condemns the Sharia on human rights and moral grounds, U.S. leaders said nothing at the time when Nimeiry introduced the Sharia. On the contrary, his dictatorship remained a cherished friend of the U.S., for which military aid was always forthcoming!

In April 1985, following three weeks of demonstrations and strikes against the removal of state subsidies on basic food, Nimeiry’s chief of staff, General al-Dahab stepped in to remove his former master. Once again, the pendulum swung slightly toward liberalization and away from utter subservience to imperialism, although much less than after Nimeiry’s own coup in 1969. Non-alignment again became the official policy and a parliamentary regime was established the following year, this time under a coalition which included the National Islamic Front (NIF), the successor of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Sharia was left in place.

The new parliamentary regime had a shorter life span than the preceding ones. Within three years, in 1989, after the NIF walked out of the government, Lieutenant- General Hassan al-Bashir staged another coup, with behind-the-scenes co-operation from the NIF. Once again, all political parties were banned; in addition, the republic became officially an Islamic state. Frequent refinements of the Sharia were subsequently introduced, especially the reinforcement of the legal discrimination against non-Muslims. The country fell into a repressive nightmare. It was probably not as overwhelming as the early years of the Iranian regime or of the Taliban’s takeover in Afghanistan, since the social basis of the fundamentalists in Sudan was much narrower, confined mainly to an educated minority. The regime, for all its repression, never completely managed to prevent hostile demonstrations and strikes. Nevertheless, this regime did turn the clock back many decades for a whole section of the poor population, particularly in the urban areas.

The Civil War’s Black Hole

These changes in the Sudanese regime were played out against the background of a civil war in the south. Time and time again, the civil war was a factor, and sometimes the decisive factor in the abrupt political changes which have marked Sudan’s history.

Until 1963, the civil war was limited to frequent incidents between armed bands of local leaders and the police. The south was an unsafe place for northern functionaries and police. The army maintained a strong presence in the towns, but rarely ventured into the countryside. In 1963, however, insurgents of the 1955 mutiny who had been released from prison formed the first southern guerilla movement. It immediately won support from some of the numerous southern political groups which had emerged since independence.

During the period of Abboud’s dictatorship, repression against southern activists was stepped up. The old British method of creating "safe villages"—really prison camps for targeted populations—was introduced to terrorize the most rebellious ethnic groups. Tens of thousands of southerners were forced to take refuge in neighboring countries. This policy backfired drastically on Sudan’s leaders because it provided a captive audience for southern nationalists in the refugee camps, thereby facilitating political and military training of future cadres for the southern guerrillas.

When the National Front took power in 1964, it offered an opening to the south, making a public commitment to seek a political settlement. Thus began negotiations aimed at finding some form of federal arrangement which would be satisfactory to both sides. When the traditional parties established their control over the regime, however, negotiations came to a virtual halt. They were resumed by Nimeiry in the early years of his regime; in March 1972, Nimeiry’s regime signed a U.S.-brokered peace agreement with southern leaders. It provided for regional autonomy for the south and a legal ban on religious discrimination. The responsibility for monitoring the implementation of the plan and overseeing resettlement of war refugees was left up to the U.S. The U.S. government thus gained permanent access to the southern leaders, allowing them to select, recruit and train trustworthy cadres who might come in handy at some later stage. And indeed they did.

With the fall of Idi Amin in Uganda 1979, many refugees who belonged to Idi Amin’s ethnic group, returned to southern Sudan. These mostly educated men discovered that Nimeiry was fully involved in his policy of reconciliation with the religious party, and there was no longer any space for them in their own country. They openly opposed the regime, although this threatened a return to open civil war. Civil War did break out in May 1983, with the mutiny of two battalions of the Sudanese army. The mutinying troops joined with southern activists to form a new guerilla movement, the SPLA. The SPLA’s main aims were to unite all southern nationalists into one single movement, to fight for a federal republic for Sudan, and to return to a secular democracy, free from any trace of the Sharia.

After Nimeiry’s overthrow, the SPLA was involved in several attempted peace settlements, on the strength of significant gains its guerrillas had made against government troops. One of these attempted settlements finally pushed the Fundamentalists to resort to the 1989 military coup, because they feared the settlement might eventually spell the end of the Islamic state and their role in government.

Despite the many rounds of negotiations and attempted settlements since 1989, this war has continued to escalate. It is impossible to measure the toll on the population. In the north, the regime has been drafting young people into its government- controlled "militias." The death rate among these young people, who are forced to fight a war which is not theirs, is said to be enormous. In the south, the numbers of the dead and wounded and of the refugees and displaced is even more enormous. The entire economic and social fabric of the south has been entirely destroyed by the war. What remains is only a handful of towns in which the government army has heavily fortified itself. But the rest of the area is largely scorched earth.

The escalation of the war has resulted in similar terrorist methods being used on both sides against the population: "safe villages" and the forced displacement of entire populations are now used by the SPLA, although of course on a smaller scale than by the government. With time, the SPLA has increasingly turned into a coalition of warlords rather than the armed wing of a nationalist movement. Many of the SPLA’s heavyweights have their own armies and regional power bases, which they seldom leave. When one of these heavyweights falls out with the SPLA, which has happened many times, a bloody war within a war follows, in which the population of the renegade’s power base is often made to pay the price for his dissidence.

Imperialism’s Bloody Hands

The leading figure of the SPLA is a former colonel of the Sudanese Army by the name of John Garang. Garang was one of the refugees whose settlement had been overseen by the U.S. Shortly after the 1972 peace agreement, he had been sent by his mentors to get military training at Fort Benning, Georgia. He spent another four years, until 1981, in a military academy in Iowa. He was a close associate of the USA’s favorite contender for power in Uganda, Yoweri Museveni (who was to become Uganda’s strong man in 1986).

However, as is often the case with the imperialist powers, the USA seems to have kept its options open for a long time, at first encouraging the SPLA discreetly, while still supporting the government’s side. Starting in 1986, when Museveni arrived in power in Uganda, U.S. help for the SPLA became much more comprehensive since Uganda now provided rear bases for the SPLA and became its main supplier of weapons (American and probably British as well). But by and large it was not until the early 1990s, at the time of their first sanctions against Khartoum, that the Anglo-American bloc seems to have definitely opted for giving its wholehearted support to Garang. Since then, the SPLA has benefited from other U.S.-related sources of support, for example, from the new pro-U.S. regime in Eritrea, which admitted that it had troops fighting alongside SPLA units in southern Sudan.

On the other hand, the Khartoum regime has also enjoyed some political and military help, and not just from Iran, China or the odd Gulf emirate, but from French imperialism itself.

In 1994, France allowed Khartoum’s troops to pass through the Central African Republic (which is part of the French sphere of influence), allowing them to attack the SPLA from behind. At the same time, Paris provided the Sudanese army with satellite pictures showing the positions of the SPLA’s forces and bases in southern Sudan. In 1996, the journal New African revealed that air strips were being used in upper Zaire by the Sudanese air force to supply troops stationed on the other side of the Sudanese border, meaning that another Paris faithful, the then Zairian dictator Mobutu, was helping out Khartoum.

For the U.S. and Britain, what is at stake here is not just the issue of Khartoum’s links with Iran, let alone the terrorist groups that it may harbor. Nor has French imperialism become particularly keen on Islamic Fundamentalist regimes as such. There are much more down-to-earth reasons for their opposing policies, which have to do with their 100-year old imperialist rivalries.

Just as a century ago, Sudan is still today a buffer zone between the Anglo- American and French spheres of influence. The issue is no longer that of trade routes or colonial control over territories but, for example, which company controls Sudan’s natural resources, which gets its state procurement, which sells weapons to it. The U.S.-British imperialist alliance and French imperialism are in direct competition over such issues.

In particular, Sudan’s natural resources, which so far have not been tapped much, are targeted by the imperialist rivals. In the 1970s, large deposits of oil were discovered in southern Sudan and also off the Red Sea coast. The two largest consortiums controlling these fields are led by two Canadian-based companies, Talisman Energy and International Petrol Corporation (both of which are probably partly U.S.-owned).

But there are still plenty of unexploited fields. Moreover, several long pipelines, storage and pumping facilities and at least one refinery will all have to be built to handle the oil which is expected to be pumped. Some of these contracts have already been awarded, but there are many more left. Who will get them? Among the candidates is Elf, the French oil company. North-American companies have every reason to worry about Elf’s ambitions in Sudan. Meanwhile, gold has been discovered this year in northern Sudan. The company which won the concession is not one of the U.S., British or South African gold giants, but a French company called Ariab, no doubt, again, due to Paris’s friendly gestures toward Khartoum.

This great power game being played out by proxy in southern Sudan is only one of several such games in central Africa. The Rwandan crisis is another example. French imperialism tried desperately to cling to a bloody, but loyal dictatorship, while the Anglo-American alliance propelled the forces from neighboring Uganda which destroyed this dictatorship, snatching the Lake District from the French sphere of influence. A similar operation in the former Zaire was successful in dislodging the French puppet Mobutu. But Kabila, the Anglo-American candidate to succeed Mobutu, has proved to be a bit of a wild card. Now the imperialists have turned to the Rwandan regime, which had helped install Kabila, to intervene to dislodge him!

The populations of Sudan, Rwanda and Zaire, have paid an enormous and bloody price for these inter-imperialist rivalries. What is more, each one of these conflicts feeds, in turn, others in neighboring countries. For example, while the SPLA is being helped by Uganda, Ugandan guerrillas opposed to Museveni’s regime are being helped by Khartoum. The inter-imperialist rivalry over Sudan’s natural resources could well result in setting ablaze a large part of the Horn of Africa, in addition to Sudan and a few central African countries—with a total cost which will run into millions of people killed or maimed, more millions forced to flee from one war or another.

What does it matter to the big shareholders in New York, so long as they make a bit more than their competitors in Paris or London, and vice-versa? If anyone mentions the catastrophes they are generating in Africa, we can be sure the imperialists will blame them on "incurable ethnic tensions"!