Whats behind the crisis in Darfur?

The province of Darfur in western Sudan is the newest global hot spot. All of a sudden our corporate media are full of reports by U.S. and UK-based human rights organizations alleging mass murder, rape and ethnic cleansing.

Secretary of State Colin Powell and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) have recently toured the region. The have called, in effect, for a “humanitarian intervention.” U.S. and British imperialism, their hands still stained by Iraqi blood, are threatening to send in military troops.

The situation on the ground is certainly bad. Human rights groups suggest that, over the past year, thousands of people have been killed and more than 1 million people have been displaced in the region.

But wait a minute. How can we tell if the U.S. government and the mass media are telling us the truth about Sudan, when they lied to us about Iraq? Perhaps Washington and big business have another, less obvious agenda in Sudan.

The remoteness of Darfur, the small number of journalists inside the province, and the traditional Western demonization of the Sudan and Arabs generally — all these factors color mainstream news reports about the situation and should give us pause.

A better understanding of the crisis in Darfur requires an objective overview of the situation in the country and the region. It also requires looking at Washing-ton’s imperial ambitions in the world today.

Sudan: scarcity, inequities and strife

The Republic of Sudan, a nation of 38 million people, is located in northeastern Africa. Sudan is the continent’s largest country, occupying an area slightly larger than one-quarter of the size of the United States. It is bounded to the north by Egypt, and to the east by the Red Sea, Eritrea and Ethiopia. It is bounded to the west by seven nations, chiefly Chad and the Central African Republic.

Sudan has been wracked by numerous conflicts in recent years. The steady advance of the Saharan desert in Darfur — a process called desertification — has created serious problems. With the desert fast encroaching on agricultural lands, the age-old conflict between farmer and herder, as old as the story of Cain and Abel, has become ever more pronounced.

This process has been especially acute in Darfur. Yet, in spite of growing needs and declining resources, Darfur has been marginalized by successive regimes in Khartoum, the nation’s capital. Darfur’s people have been considered first when recruiting soldiers for civil wars, but last when investing resources in economic development, education, and other social programs.

A 21-year-old civil war, pitting the Arab-led Sudanese government in the north against insurgent non-Arab rebels in the south, has also taken its toll. The hostility between the regions is in part a legacy of the British colonial policy of divide and conquer. The non-Arab south feels left out of power in modern Sudan.

The central government’s efforts, fueled by Arab chauvinism, to impose fundamentalist Islamic law on the entire nation have only aggravated the tensions. Ironically, half of Sudanese government soldiers waging this long war have been Darfuri.

The geopolitics of oil

Next we must follow the trail of gold — black gold, that is. Sudan is situated between the oil rich Persian Gulf on the East, Libyan oil wells to the north, and the newly developing west African oil fields to the west. In the last five years Sudan has emerged as a fast-growing producer and exporter of oil.

More importantly, Sudan is considered to have vast, yet untapped reserves of oil, with dozens of Asian and European oil companies vying for contracts to explore, drill and pump its high-grade, low-sulfur oil to the expanding markets in China and India. The possibility of billions of barrels of oil under that vast area has U.S. and European bankers and oil executives salivating.

The relatively recent discovery of oil in southern Sudan only intensified the fighting, with the government in Khartoum, led by Gen. Omer Ahmed al-Bashir, bent on securing the economic prize of petroleum. However, in a concession by Khartoum, a peace agreement is about to be signed that will guarantee autonomy to the south as well as give it a large share of the oil revenue.

Another part of the picture is socialist China’s role in Sudan. China is Sudan’s largest trading partner, the biggest consumer of Sudan-ese oil, and the biggest investor in Sudanese oil exploration and production. The China National Petroleum Corporation helped finance the newly built pipeline that delivers crude oil from southern Sudanese oilfields to Port Sudan on the Red Sea. The U.S. and Britain clearly see China as a rival in this context.

Another ‘war president’ scenario?

Lastly, we cannot forget the looming U.S. presidential election, soon to be followed by elections in Britain.

Bush needs a distraction from his failing and criminal policy in Iraq and his failure to support any measure of justice for the Palestinian people. Do Bush’s handlers think that sending in the Marines, or maybe just taking a tough stand, will enhance his electability as a “war president”?

Darfur’s storied history

Darfur is a province the size of France and is composed of three Sudanese states. It is located in western Sudan along the border with Chad.

Much of Darfur is a plateau with mountain ranges up to 5,000 ft. above sea level. The elevation above adjoining desert areas created agricultural lands jutting northward into the Sahara.

Since ancient times farmers raised millet, cotton, and other crops while nomadic people lived by herding camels, sheep, goats and cattle. The Darfuri nomads are Arabic speakers, while the farmers include some Arabic speakers, but consist mostly of three groups — Fur, Masarit, and Zaghawa — whose languages are indigenous to central Africa. It’s important to note here that while Arabic may not be indigenous to Africa, it is an African language since most Arabic speakers live in Africa.

Since the dawn of history the Darfur oasis lay on the trade routes from west Africa to the Nile Valley civilizations. Some caravans followed the southern edge of the Sahara to the Nile and on to the Red Sea. Others took the 40-day trek from northern Darfur across the Sahara to Asyut in southern Egypt.

In the centuries before European shipping dried up, the Saharan caravan routes, great kingdoms existed south of the Sahara and north of the coastal rain forest belt in areas that are now in Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Northern Nigeria, and Chad. Thousands of people traveled annually on trading missions, pilgrimages to Mecca, or to study in the great universities of Cairo and the Arab Middle East. Many, if not most, of these travelers passed through Darfur.

More recently, Darfur was an independent sultanate for about 300 years until it was incorporated into colonial Anglo-Egyptian-ruled Sudan in 1916. Sudan became independent on Jan. 1, 1956.

Sanctions, divisions, plunder

In recent years, U.S. and British imperialism have been locked out of exploiting Sudan’s oil because they imposed economic sanctions on Sudan as an alleged “terrorist threat.”

U.S. cruise missiles, you may recall, leveled a Khartoum “chemical weap-ons plant” in 1998. (In fact, expert witnesses say it was an important pharmaceutical plant that supplied critical medicines for the region.)

Arab news commentators have accused the Bush administration of raising the Darfur issue as a way to torpedo the tentative peace agreement and perhaps bring about the fragmentation of Sudan. A fragmented Sudan might create a new client state in the south, which could open the oil fields to U.S. corporate interests.

U.S. imperialism and Israel have been accused of training and aiding southern rebels. Among these are John Garang, head of the Sudanese People’s Liber-ation Army, who counts among his supporters U.S. right-wing, Christian fundamentalists. Garang, incidentally, is slated to become vice president under the peace agreement.

The conflict heats up

The situation in Darfur heated up 18 months ago when two rebel Darfuri movements demand that the Sudanese government share development resources from oil exports with the people of Darfur. The rebels attacked Sudanese police stations, killing and chasing the police officers out of rural areas.

The government retaliated by bombing villages in rebel held areas, and by allegedly arming and encouraging Arab nomads, called the Janjaweed, or “men on horseback,” to raid non-Arab farmers.

Western based human rights groups have accused the Janjaweed and the Sudanese government of ethnic cleansing. They claim there are over 1 million internal refugees in Darfur camps, and up to 200,000 as refugees in Chad. These sources claim that from 10,000 to 50,000 have died, although it’s not clear how many are alleged to have died at the hands of the Janjaweed, and how many as a result of draught and famine.

No thorough reports have been issued by the UN, the African Union or even the western media detailing the actual situation. The western media is demonizing the Arab Sudanese and focusing especially on allegations of massive rape of non-Arab women and girls by the Janjaweed.

The Sudanese government claims that law and order broke down after the rebels destroyed the police forces, that the allegations are exaggerated, and that they will be able to stabilize and disarm Darfur in short order. On the other hand, a cease fire they signed in April with the rebels does not seem to be holding.

African Union offers help

Enter the African Union (AU) and the Arab League. Sudan is a member of both organizations, and both are committed to a united Sudan. The AU has voted to send 300 observers to Darfur, and a military force to protect the observers. The Arab League is also considering a force from African Arab states.

In the face of this impending peacemaking effort, the Bush administration went to the UN Security Council with a demand that Sudan resolve the crisis in 30 days, by the end of August, or face the possibility of sanctions. Meanwhile, Nigeria, current chair of the AU, announced that Sudan and the Darfuri rebels have agreed to meet on Aug. 23 in the Nigerian capital of Abuja.

The U.S. is even offering logistical support to AU forces in Darfur, a sinister offer from U.S. imperialism, which now has military units in every other country along the southern flank of the Sahara in the name of “fighting terrorism.” The situation in Darfur is, at least partially, a result of U.S. support for rebellion and destabilization of Sudan.

Over 100,000 people marched in Khartoum Aug. 4 to protest any form of foreign intervention. They pledged to fight any would-be invaders.

What we can do

The crisis in Darfur requires massive amounts of humanitarian aid to Darfuri civilians and support for the peace efforts by Sudan’s African and Arab neighbors. Darfur does not need an Iraq-style invasion by U.S. and British troops. The American people must demand that our government support efforts by the AU to help bring peace to Darfur.

The best way American working people can help the people of Sudan and the Middle East is not by sending our youth to wage war against them, but instead by fundamentally changing the direction of U.S. foreign policy. A good first step would be to boot George W. Bush out of office on Nov. 2.

Joe Bernick is director of the Salt of the Earth Labor College in Tucson, Ariz. He can be reached at stelnik @ webtv.net.