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Sudan’s referendum: a socialist’s view

This article is over 10 years, 11 months old
A referendum has taken place in the south of the African country of Sudan to ask people whether they want to form a separate state.
Issue 2236

A referendum has taken place in the south of the African country of Sudan to ask people whether they want to form a separate state.

Sudanese activist Osama Zumam spoke to Socialist Worker about the situation in Sudan and what separation will mean for ordinary people.

Osama comes from the west of Sudan. He became a political activist in the capital Khartoum. He is currently based in Leeds.

Exit polls show the vast majority of people in the south voting for the creation of a new state. If they back separation, southern Sudan would become independent in July.

Sudan has been torn apart by civil war for decades. The US backed the comprehensive peace agreement that ended the fighting in 2005 and set the timetable for the current referendum.

Osama says, “Strategically the US wants the south to separate. The Americans want to stop the spread of Chinese influence across Africa.”

China controls up to two thirds of the Sudanese oil industry—the third biggest in sub-Saharan Africa. The US hopes that having a state in its debt in the south will give it far more influence.

While much of the country’s oil is drilled in the south, this still has to be refined, and transported to the coast for export. The main port is at Port Sudan on the Red Sea, and the north while keep control of this. The exact borders of the new state are still to be decided, which also gives the existing government room to manoeuvre, as do arguments over who will control water resources.

Still, President Omar al-Bashir, who came to power in a coup in 1989, will take the blame for allowing the southern region to secede, depriving the north of control of almost 80 percent of Sudan’s oil production.

The government is not happy to be losing much of its oil producing territory to the south. But it will be pleased to end its status as a pariah state—accused by the US of being both a ‘terrorist sponsoring state’ and being behind a genocidal policy in Darfur in the west of the country.


Osama says, “The imperial powers are happy with president al-Bashir now. You can forget all the crap in the media about the pressure they are putting on him. BAE signed a new weapons contract with him two months ago. The French look like they will kick out the leader of the Sudanese Liberation Movement, an organisation which is a problem for Bashir.”

He adds, “The Khartoum government believes it will dominate the Muslim north with an Islamic state and get rid of the south.

“The Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) leadership, who run the south, accept neoliberal economics.

“When the peace agreement was signed, the SPLA made a deal with Blackwater to retrain its army. Blackwater runs its own military base in the south.” Blackwater is the US mercenary company, which became so notorious for its activities in Iraq during the occupation that it has changed its name to Xe.

“No Marxist will object to people demanding self-determination,” says Osama. “But, ordinary people in the south are not likely to benefit as much as they hope. It is the ruling class that will gain from this split.

“Oil interests are encouraging fighting between nomads and farmers, similar to what happened in Darfur.

“There are other problems with the referendum. The oil producing area of Abyei, between the north and south, has had its vote in the referendum postponed indefinitely.

“There has been a lot of violence in the voting period. On the first day alone 33 people died in the clashes.

“At the same time people are facing terrible price rises. Oil prices rose by 30 percent recently. Tax-relief on kerosene has been dropped. The price of flour has doubled.

“The Khartoum government justifies the imposition of austerity measures by saying its income from oil will collapse if the country divides when the referendum result is implemented in July.


“But the truth is the government has refused to tell anyone how much money it makes from oil drilled in different areas. There are no trustworthy statistics. This caused problems with the peace agreement, where a proportion of oil income was supposed to go to reconstruction in the south, as no one knows what the revenue is. The government uses the promise of oil money like a tap it can turn on and off.”

Osama is keen to show that the social make up of Sudan is complex.

“While it’s true that the north is Muslim and the south is not, there are enormous cultural differences on each side.

“The government says it will impose sharia law, but its interpretation of Islam will go against the culture of many of Muslims who live in the north.

“In the south there is also a big problem with ethnic divisions. There are three big ‘tribes’ and the Dinka is by far the largest. People from other ethnic groups are worried that the Dinka will come to dominate.

“There are still a great many refugees in camps in neighbouring Kenya. The SPLA is very corrupt. While the Khartoum government is very repressive in areas it controls there are work and hospitals in those areas. This is leading some from the south to head north.’

Many southerners have moved to the north to work in cities like Khartoum. Osama explains, “Life for southerners in the north is not great. There is a lot of discrimination. In general locals don’t socialise with southerners, but there are no racial attacks.

“In Barnsley you read about Asians getting attacked in the street or having their windows smashed. Nothing like that happens in Khartoum.

“The Communist Party of Sudan has called for continued workers’ unity after separation—and it is right to do so. The danger on both sides is a tribalisation of political culture.

“The real solution is not to look to developments either in Bashir’s regime or the SPLA but to overthrow them. If things go on as they are, a return to fighting is a real possibility.

“Some people say: surely there is no alternative to separating. But a general strike and uprising would unite people. And that is not a fantasy. Look at what is happening in Tunisia and Algeria. People in Sudan are watching them.”

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