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Disaster in Darfur

This article is over 19 years, 8 months old
A catastrophe is unfolding in western Sudan Charlie Kimber explains why
Issue 1906

A catastrophe is unfolding in western Sudan Charlie Kimber explains why

THOUSANDS OF children are starving to death in Darfur, western Sudan. Their suffering is another terrible stage in Sudan’s agony. Tens of thousands of people in Darfur have died from famine, disease and war in the last year. Around a million have been made homeless. By the end of the year, some 250,000 may have died.

Newspapers and television, while documenting the suffering, have reached for easy clichés about ‘age-old rivalries between Arab and African’ and accusations of ‘genocide’. But Darfur is not an ethnic clash. Mercedes Taty, the Deputy Emergency Director for the Médecins Sans Frontières organisation returned recently from Sudan. She movingly described the horror there. But she added, ‘I don’t think that we should be using the word ‘genocide’ to describe this conflict. There is no systematic target-targeting one ethnic group or another one. This doesn’t mean the situation in Sudan isn’t extremely serious by itself.’

Dar is the Arabic word for house or home. Darfur means the home of the Fur people. They make up four million of the six million who live in the region, which is the size of France.

But there are also many other groups in Darfur. People of black African and Arab ethnic origin have lived together there for centuries. All of them are Muslims. Africans and Arabs have mixed in Darfur. ‘Centuries of intermarriage have rendered the two groups physically indistinguishable,’ said a recent report in the Observer. There have been occasional clashes throughout Darfur’s history over land, water and grazing rights.

But typically people have cooperated with each other against the inhospitable semi-desert climate and against Sudan’s central government in Khartoum. In normal times people can get on well enough with one another. But competition and tension grow whenever poverty worsens.

When people see their children starving, they can be persuaded that their neighbour is getting a better deal and is to blame for the horror around them. So, in the absence of sufficient international aid, a devastating Sudanese drought in the mid-1980s led to fighting. Groups raided one another’s herds to survive.

In 1986 the government ratcheted up the killing. It armed several Darfur groups to use against the rebels in the south of the country. The government’s aim was to maintain ‘Sudanese unity’-and to tighten its grip on Darfur’s valuable oil and mineral wealth.

By 1989 there was regular conflict in Darfur itself. And in the last 18 months the killing has reached a new level. Government-backed militias and regular troops are looting, raping and murdering across the region.

Sudan’s divisions were engineered and boosted during colonialism. Successive Sudanese governments and their corporate backers have bolstered the disunity. A mere 1 percent of the money spent on war in Iraq could save all the lives in Darfur-and millions of others throughout Africa. Why can’t there be a rain of food and medicine in Sudan rather than bombs on Iraq?



A conflict rooted in oil and greed

DARFUR’S AGONY is rooted in British colonialism, oil and the US’s murderous interventions. It is, for the world’s powers, a sideshow to a much bigger prize. Whatever goes on in Darfur, Bush wants to see an end to a different Sudanese conflict.

This is the war between the Sudanese government, based in the north, and rebel movements in the south. The north-south conflict has been going on for decades. Two million have died during the past 15 years, and four million have been displaced. If a peace deal goes through (as it is supposed to do soon), the US hopes to secure three main gains. It will clear the way for US and European oil firms to grasp more of Sudan’s oil. Sudan has two billion barrels of recoverable oil and currently produces 250,000 barrels a day.

It will also put in place a pro-US government on the shores of the Red Sea, opposite Saudi Arabia. This will fuse together a bloc of pro-US regimes-Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda all border on Sudan. Last but not least, it will demonstrate that the US can manipulate governments in strategically important parts of the world. Sudan will not begin to wipe away the disaster in Iraq. But Bush’s gang hope it could be some compensation. The US has kept quiet about the emergency in Darfur, in case it destabilises the wider north-south deal. Bush is currently aiming for friendly relations with Sudan’s government. This sits uneasily with the fact that Sudan is still on the US list of ‘states that sponsor terrorism’.

Bush is walking a tightrope over Sudan. But he is following in the footsteps of former US president Bill Clinton. Clinton also veered between demonising Sudan as a ‘terrorist’ state and greedily seeking opportunities to exploit its oil. In April 1996 Clinton signed the Anti-Terrorism Act. This banned all financial transactions between US corporations and countries accused of supporting terrorism. Sudan was placed on that list.

Four months later Clinton’s administration quietly removed Sudan from the register. This was to allow a US oil company to negotiate a big exploration deal in Sudan. In 1998 the US lurched back to denouncing Sudan as a terrorist state. On 7 August that year US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were attacked with large bombs.

Clinton had to find a culprit for the embassy bombings. He launched 79 cruise missiles against Afghanistan and Sudan. The El-Shifa pharmaceuticals factory in Khartoum was one of the Sudanese targets. Madeleine Albright, then US Secretary of State, claimed the factory could produce VX nerve gas. Her arguments proceeded to get even more bizarre-eerily prefiguring the lies that would be used over Iraq.

It became apparent that the El-Shifa plant had no sealed doors, no proper security, nor even locks on the windows. US officials replied that this was evidence of devilish deception designed to hide the plant’s true purpose. Despite an intense US propaganda offensive, the truth was out within hours.

El-Shifa was Sudan’s key producer of life-saving medicines and important vaccines for animals. It produced 50 percent of Sudan’s entire medicine production. The plant was crucial because US sanctions prevented Sudan from importing medicines from abroad.

The loss of the plant led to thousands of children dying from malaria, tuberculosis and other treatable diseases. A year after the bombing the US finally admitted that the plant had no connection with terrorism.



Barrels and guns

OIL COMPANY money has been central to fuelling the killing in Sudan. These companies have worked closely with the country’s repressive government. During the north-south war, oil multinationals provided direct assistance to the government, allowing planes and troops to use privately built commercial airstrips.

Oil money has also allowed the government to import the most modern technologies of death. The crucial company in this operation during the last five years is the Greater Nile Oil Consortium. The largest share in the project is held by BP Amoco. In August 1999, a 1,600-mile pipeline opened linking southern oilfields to Port Sudan-the country’s only port.

As soon as the oil started flowing, the US dropped its support for southern rebels. Now Bush is trying to ram through a peace deal and cash in on the bonanza.



1820 Egypt invades Sudan. By 1876 Egyptian forces control the entire country. 

1879 Britain and France jointly take control of Egypt. They also assume control of Sudan’s laws and taxes. 

1881 Uprising under Muhammad Ahmed against foreign forces in Sudan. British armed forces try to smash him. But they are beaten back. 

1885 Muhammad Ahmed’s force occupies Khartoum. They kill General Gordon and establish the first national government. 

1898 Battle of Omdurman. Sudanese forces massacred by the British under General Kitchener. British and French forces clash at Fashoda 500 miles south of Khartoum, bringing Europe to the brink of war. France eventually backs off, granting Britain control of Egypt and Sudan in exchange for other African colonies. 

1914 Britain takes direct control of Egypt and Sudan. The administration separates north and south Sudan. ‘The southern provinces are not ready for exposure to the modern world,’ says one governor. 

1920s A ‘closed door’ policy bans northern Sudanese from entering or working in the south. 

1930 Southern Sudanese declared to be a people distinct from northern Muslims. Region prepared for integration into British East Africa. 

1946-7 Britain hands south Sudan to north Sudanese elite of local plantation owners without any consultation with the south. South Sudan’s representatives in the new legislative assembly are chosen by Britain. 

1956 Sudan gains independence. But British-sown divisions lay the basis for a war that breaks out shortly afterwards.

1980-3 Wave of struggle against repression by the government of Ja’far Nimeiry. He had declared sharia law to drum up a support base. 

1986 The IMF declares Sudan ‘bankrupt’ and withdraws all loans. Half a million people die from famine in Sudan. Military seizes power three years later. 

1989 Omar al-Bashir declared president. He was president until 2019.

1991 The US halts grain shipments to Port Sudan during a time of famine in retaliation for the Sudanese government opposing the first US war against Iraq. 

1992 Further strikes and riots in the towns against IMF-inspired cuts and the Sudanese government. 



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