Darfur: The scramble for Africa’s oil

In all the hysteria of the British bourgeois media over the situation in Sudan, remarkably little information emerges on the question of why the Sudanese government should take it into its head to start killing off black Africans in Darfur.

Over the last two weeks we have seen imperialism for the first time wringing its hands over the humanitarian situation in Darfur, western Sudan, a region which with all its troubles had never interested it before. Aid agencies are ostentatiously collecting donations, while harrowing TV images are relayed of the suffering of people in the region. We are told that there is a genocide going on, comparable to that which took place in Rwanda, of black Africans by Arabs, and this genocide is obliging British imperialism to consider sending troops to the region in order to put a stop to it.

As in the case of Iraq’s supposed WMD, some civil servants are somewhat taken aback by the whoppers they are supposed to utter. Ewen MacAskill in the Guardian of 28 July 2004 quotes “a Foreign Office spokesman” who, when asked whether what was happening in Darfur amounted to genocide, was clearly embarrassed and coyly said: “there is certainly this element. There is an ethnic element to the violence but we do not at the moment have incontrovertible proof”.

Fresh from the revelations of the Butler report, which demonstrated very effectively that the British bourgeoisie does not hesitate to fabricate the most outlandish claims to justify its aggression against foreign countries, it would be surprising if the British public were unquestioningly to swallow this tale of alleged genocide, although in response to the undoubted humanitarian crisis in the region, it is tempting to throw common sense to the winds to try to help these people somehow, anyhow. Unfortunately, experience has shown that imperialist intervention, as in such ‘humanitarian’ causes as Yugoslavia, for example, only makes matters a very great deal worse for the ‘beneficiaries’ of imperialist concern.

Causes of the crisis in Darfur

In all the hysteria of the British bourgeois media over the situation in Sudan, remarkably little information emerges on the question of why the Sudanese government should take it into its head to start killing off black Africans in Darfur. The reason this question is not asked, let alone answered, is that this is certainly not what is happening. What is happening is that the advancing desertification of the region, along with the Sahel drought, is depriving millions of people of their livelihoods – a crisis which Sudan, as a poor country, lacks resources to deal with completely effectively. There is an indirect ethnic aspect to the crisis, but it is a total distortion to suggest that the Sudanese government is encouraging the genocide of black Africans.

To start with, the people of the region Arabs and non-Arabs, are racially identical, the differences arising only from cultural and linguistic attachments, not from race (see Minority Rights Group report on Darfur, 1995). Up till now, intermarriage has been quite common and acceptable to all. Arabs and non-Arabs alike are divided among several tribes. What is true is that the most fertile and best watered parts of the region, in central Darfur, are inhabited by tribes, including the Fur (Darfur means ‘homeland of the Fur’) who are overwhelmingly settled peasant farmers. The northern part of Darfur, on the other hand is inhabited by Arab and non-Arab camel nomads, while the south and east are home mostly to cattle-herding Arab nomads. Northern, southern and eastern Darfur are regularly subject to drought, particularly the north (which is why its inhabitants are nomads), and when the drought becomes too severe, they all pack up their effects and head towards the well-endowed central region, where, in their desperation, they trample underfoot the property rights of the peasants of the region. For years there have been sporadic small-scale armed conflicts generated by the desperate struggle for survival in an inhospitable part of the world.

This conflict could only be resolved by the completion of massive engineering projects that brought water to the desert and made it bloom, so that it could support its population at all times, but the Sudanese have never had the resources to undertake such works. Even if it were able to acquire the resources to deal with one area, there would still be a hundred others it was unable to touch where need was just as great.

The great hope of the Sudanese during the 1960s was that they would discover oil on their territory, which could be sold to provide the resources necessary to deal with all these humanitarian problems. There was unbounded joy when during the 1970s oil was really discovered in the Sudanese south. However, as in other African countries, it turns out that the discovery of oil was not a blessing but a curse – a curse because it has attracted the attention of various imperialist powers seeking to amass all oil resources under their exclusive control and to retain the lion’s share of the profits for themselves rather than dissipate them on development for the benefit of local people.

Conflict in southern Sudan

In southern Sudan, there had long been conflict between the black African population of the area and the Arab north, which did indeed arise from Arab discrimination against and contempt for the non-Muslim black Africans (who are either Christian or, worse in Arab eyes, animists). It was child’s play for US imperialism to give its backing to the black African secessionist struggle, with a view in the long run to countering Sudanese sovereignty in the area, thus foiling the Sudanese plans to use the oil profits mostly for the benefit of millions of Sudanese people, Arab and non-Arab, rather than mostly for the benefit of imperialism.

US imperialism encouraged the local tribes to consider the oil as theirs alone, and that its use to benefit other regions of the Sudan would amount to robbery. After a brutal civil war that has lasted over 20 years, cost millions of lives and utterly depleted Sudanese resources, it would seem that the Sudanese government has finally capitulated to US imperialism by signing the Naivasha Agreement, an agreement that (according to the reactionary John Pyle in New York Review, Vol 51, No 13, 12 August 2004) the US has ‘mediated’ and of which it is the principal ‘guarantor’. Under this agreement the Sudan is committed within six years to:

a. hold national elections, and

b. hold a referendum as to the future of the south and other ‘disputed regions’.

The complete disintegration of Sudan, so that nobody in the region has any power to stand up to US imperialist depredation of oil, is very much on the cards.

Oil in Darfur

To return to Darfur, the people there have never been oppressed in the way that the southern Sudanese were. They are mostly Muslim, whether they be Arabs or not, and, as stated above, the various tribes are racially indistinguishable from one another. Their problems have been generated by famines and the struggles between peasants and nomads for resources during those times.

In support of the ‘theory’ that this is a racial conflict, it is alleged that the Sudanese merchant bourgeoisie favours the nomadic Arabs because it does a great deal of business with them dealing with the livestock that they produce, while they have very little to do with the peasantry. This may be so, but the real reason that a secondary ethnic aspect has emerged is that oil has been discovered in Darfur. Although this only came out into the open in April this year, the Sudanese government presumably discovered the oil some time ago, and must obviously have entered into negotiations with some imperialist concern with regard to digging the necessary wells, an undertaking too expensive for the Sudanese to manage on their own.

Since that time, all kinds of imperialist agencies have been at work to exploit the grievances of communities for the purpose of enabling imperialism to grab that oil, and it has been the settled peasants of central Darfur whose cause imperialism has espoused. Moreover, arms have been supplied to them, severely escalating the scale of the armed conflicts which, as we have seen, periodically break out in the region. The Sudanese government, in exercising its right in international law to put down rebellions that occur within its own borders has, of course, mobilised all those who remain loyal to Sudan, which certainly includes the Arab tribes, but has of necessity also further alienated those associated with the peasant tribes of central Darfur, thus tightening the imperialist noose around its neck. If things continue as they are, Darfur will go the same way as southern Sudan to become a US or EC client state.

Hands off Darfur

Our duty in Britain is to demand that British imperialism keeps its hands off Sudan, and to support the right of the Sudanese government to sovereignty over oil-producing areas and to the profits arising from the sale of oil. Unquestionably those profits could be put to good use in overcoming Sudan’s problems of desertification and drought, and this is the proper destination for them.