Last June, the western governments and media suddenly turned their attention toward the bloody war which was taking place in the western Sudanese region of Darfur. Harrowing reports appeared on TV and in the newspapers. They described how government troops and local militias had combined in pursuing a scorched-earth policy, destroying large numbers of villages, systematically killing men and raping women, in order to terrorise the population of Darfur.
The reality of this brutal war and resulting catastrophe for the population are unquestionable. The UN's official estimate of the victims, in a region whose population is hardly 7 million, speak for themselves: 30 to 50,000 dead; one million internal refugees within Darfur and another 200,000 in neighbouring Chad. A large number of these refugees have been herded into overpopulated makeshift camps built from nothing in the middle of nowhere. Some of these are in fact closer to concentration camps than to humanitarian operations. But in all of them, the refugees barely survive, in horrendous conditions and hundreds among them are said to be dying of starvation every week.
Given such drastic circumstances, the western powers could have put the enormous resources of their military machines to good use, for once. Their armada of heavy helicopters and giant transport aircraft, which played such a decisive role in the build up to the invasion of Iraq, could have rushed in the food, medicine and support staff that were so vitally needed in Darfur, while military engineers from both sides of the Atlantic could have set up decent amenities, proper tents and adequate medical facilities for the refugees in no time. In fact such an operation would have amounted to little more than a routine drill for the western military compared to the massive logistics deployed in Iraq over the past 18 months.
Instead, however, the western governments subcontracted the work to NGOs, which had to hire commercial air planes and buy every piece of equipment at market prices, and all that with just over $120m - a pittance when set against the real needs of the refugees and little more than what the US government is estimated to fork out for just a single week of occupation in Iraq! So much for their sensational warnings about the human tragedy that was being played out in Darfur!
Behind the west's posturing
And yet, in June, US Secretary of State Colin Powell had risen to the occasion at the United Nations by emerging as a closet advocate of human rights in the Third Word and more specifically in Darfur. Having launched into a scathing attack against the "genocide" - to use his own words - carried out by the Khartoum regime in Darfur, he had threatened the Sudanese government with the full might of the UN's reprisals. At the time many commentators noted that the tone and language used by Powell were strikingly similar to that he had used during the stage-managed saga over Iraq's WMDs, in the run-up to the invasion. Then, by the end of June, Powell made a big show of visiting refugee camps in Darfur, expressing his concern for the refugees' plight and repeating his thinly veiled threat against Khartoum.
Predictably, Blair's government followed suit promptly. Jack Straw and Hilary Benn visited Darfur, not once but several times, in order to publicise the government's stance in support of the refugees against the Khartoum regime. But, as has often been the case in the Anglo-American "special relationship", Blair made a point of adding his own touch to Washington's rhetoric. By mid-July so-called "government insiders" were informing the media that a western military intervention might be under consideration - a flow of rumours which culminated at the end of July in a statement issued by general Mike Jackson, the British army's chief of staff, to the effect that he was ready to send 5,000 troops to Darfur if and when this was required.
Of course, what all these new-found champions of the Darfurians' cause forget to mention is that, when the present war started in earnest, back in February 2003, not one of them saw fit to protest against the bloody scorched-earth policy carried out against the population by the Sudanese regime. After all, Darfur was a remote area of Africa that few western politicians would have been able to identify on a map. They probably saw this new war as just another one of the bloody conflicts which have plagued Africa for so many decades - conflicts which have never bothered western leaders as long as they did not interfere with the plundering of Africa by imperialist companies. Above all, back in February 2003, London and Washington were certainly far too busy preparing for the bombing of Iraqi towns to be concerned in the least with the Sudanese regime's bombing of villages in Darfur!
Today, however, the situation has changed. Predictably, the invasion of Iraq has turned into a bloody quagmire. The alleged justifications for launching this invasion have proved to be fabrications and lies. So much so, that far from boosting his credit as he probably hoped, Bush's military venture in Iraq has only resulted in antagonising a whole section of US public opinion - just at the time when he has to stand for re-election! As to Blair, he may not be constrained by such a tight timetable, but his chances of making it to a third term seem rather slim, as things stand today. Hence the eagerness shown by both governments to grab onto the issue of Darfur in order to revamp their images in front of domestic public opinion, by appearing to make a stand in favour of a population which is undeniably the victim of a repressive dictatorship and, if possible, securing some more or less symbolic commitment on the part of Khartoum - no doubt hoping that this will allow them to boast, at some point, of having ended the Darfurians' plight.
While Washington and London are producing a barrage of hot air against what they call themselves the "Darfur genocide" and presiding over constantly broken cease-fires and endless "peace talks", their policy has done nothing to stop war or starvation in Darfur. Nor is it likely to, because they will not go beyond this posturing.
The hypocrisy of the imperialist leaders' stance over Darfur is exposed by their determination not to put their money where their mouths are, not just in the field of humanitarian aid, but, more generally, in helping the Darfurian and Sudanese populations to really pull themselves out of their current poverty, which is one of the factors fuelling the country's on-going civil wars. But then, of course, this would require putting a brake on the imperialist plundering of poor countries like Sudan, something that no western government intends to consider.
The west's ostentatious but empty benevolence towards the plight of the Darfur population cannot fool many people. But its hypocritical posturing is all the more cynical because, not only does it share at least part of the responsibility for Sudan's on-going civil war, in which it has used the warring factions as proxies to defend its rival imperialist interests, but in addition, even in the specific case of the war in Darfur, the west has its own hidden agenda. And this agenda has a lot to do with the circumstances in which this war broke out.
The North-South civil war - a stench of oil
The war in Darfur did not come out of the blue, of course. Although a separate conflict, its roots are nevertheless to be found in the civil war between the northern and southern parts of the country.
Civil war broke out in 1955, just one year before Sudan's formal independence and has continued ever since, although there was an 11 year-interruption from 1972 to 1983. Just after the war resumed, in 1983, the National Islamic Front (the Sudanese offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, which later became the National Congress Party - NCP) succeeded in getting the sharia law adopted, with the backing of the army. As a result, the civil war has taken the form of a confrontation between an Islamic north and secular forces regrouped in the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA) which claims to represent the country's southern population, which is mostly non-Muslim.
Although Khartoum's "islamisation" campaign contributed to hardening the SPLA's support in the South, this civil war was never primarily about that. Rather, it was about the determination of the southern elites, who had been kept out of all official positions before independence by the British colonial administration, to secure their share of positions in the institutions of the state - something that the ruling northern elite opposed stubbornly. But this war was not just about the perks connected with state power, it was also - and, in fact, became increasingly - about which faction of the Sudanese elite was going to get the expected income from the country's natural resources, particularly the large untapped reserves of oil which had been discovered in various fields mostly located in central and southern Sudan.
The result was a bloody and protracted war which has claimed an estimated 2 million lives over the past two decades, decimated whole regions across the country and brought the already weak economy to its knees.
In this war, the western powers were never passive spectators. It was a US giant - Chevron - which first discovered oil in Sudan, in the 1970s. And this alone turned Sudan into a potential asset closely watched by Washington. However, or because of this, the US leaders found nothing to object to when, from the mid-1970s, the religious parties' influence on the regime began to increase, nor when they took over control in 1983 and imposed the sharia. After all, this made Sudan a bulwark against Soviet influence in the region, which was still significant in neighbouring Ethiopia.
It took another decade before the US leaders, who had by then embarked on their offensive to isolate Khomeini's Iranian regime, decided to clamp down on Khartoum by adding Sudan to their list of "terrorist states" and banning American investment in the country. By that time, Chevron had sold its prospecting rights to other consortiums. But the country's political instability made the prospect of starting oil production in any significant quantities a distant one anyway.
Right from the early 1980s, however, the US leaders began to provide some help to the SPLA, whose leader, John Garang, had been groomed for his job in American military academies. From 1986, when Museveni, one of the US's most loyal regional allies came to power in Uganda, this country became the SPLA's main rear base and supplier of western-financed weapons. At this stage, however, it seems that the US had not yet severed completely its long-standing links with the Sudanese military establishment. It was only in the early 1990s that it finally chose to give its full backing to the SPLA against the Khartoum regime.
The Khartoum Islamic dictators, on the other hand, benefited from the support of others, and not just Iran, China and some of the Gulf emirates, but also countries like France. In fact, to some extent, this civil war was also part of the on-going rivalry between the Anglo-American block and French imperialism in Africa. Being on the frontline between the two spheres of influence, Sudan was caught in this rivalry, just as the Great Lake region (where the French state chose to preside over the horrific massacres perpetrated by the Rwandan ruler, for fear of losing a regional stooge) or more recently in Congo-Zaire (where the Rwandan and Ugandan regimes allied to the Anglo-American block were allowed to go on the rampage against the Congolese population at the cost of destabilising the whole country).
Unlike the hard line position adopted by the Clinton administration against Khartoum, which bombed a Sudanese pharmaceutical factory in 1998, for allegedly manufacturing chemical weapons for Islamic terrorists, the Bush administration adopted a more conciliatory policy. The rhetoric remained the same, but the economic sanctions against Sudan were partly lifted, thereby meeting a long-standing demand of the US oil majors which now wanted a chance to have their share of Sudan's oil. In return, Bush got Khartoum's support for his "war on terrorism". At the same time, the Sudan Peace Act passed by the US congress in 2001 gave US diplomats total control over the negotiations between Khartoum and the SPLA. As an additional carrot for Khartoum to show more flexibility, the Act provided for a $100m a year aid package for Sudan, conditional on progress being made in the negotiations.
Finally, in January this year, after dozens of failed agreements, a new peace deal was signed in Navaisha (Kenya) between Khartoum and the SPLA. This deal provides for a 6-year transitional period in which the South will have its own autonomous government under the auspices of the SPLA, while federal Sudan-wide institutions will be set up in Khartoum, particularly a joint army. The South is to be free from Khartoum's Islamic law, although the SPLA has dropped its long-standing demand that Sudan's institutions should be entirely secular. More importantly the income from the country's natural resources is to be shared equally between the South and the rest of the country. Finally, by the end of this 6-year period, a referendum is to be held in the South to allow its population to choose between being part of a federal Sudan or forming an independent country.
Whether this agreement will bring the war to an end remains to be seen. So far, all that can be said is that it has not prevented occasional skirmishes between government forces and the SPLA despite the presence of an African peace-keeping contingent on the ground. Besides, all the agreement's provisions have still to be implemented in practice, which leaves plenty of space for future conflict.
Darfur caught in the cross fire
Darfur (which means the land of the Fur, after the name of one of its largest ethnic groups) is located in the western and north western part of Sudan, mostly alongside its borders with Chad and the Central African Republic. Although roughly the size of France, it covers only one fifth of Sudan and a large part of its territory is desert or semi-desert. Above all, it is the poorest part of Sudan and lacks the most basic infrastructure, particularly in terms of roads and transport.
Due to its remote location and poverty, Darfur was largely unaffected by the civil war during most of its duration, if only because the fighting took place around the more prosperous parts of central and southern Sudan and around the areas designated as potential oil fields - and there is only one big oil concession in Darfur, which is located in its southern part.
Besides, the Sudanese regime was never too interested in Darfur due to its poverty and rural backwardness. In the absence of any visible local opposition, the regime's stranglehold over the province was less heavy-handed than in many other parts of the country. The vicious "islamisation" campaigns, for instance, were never seriously enforced. And although all Darfurians are traditionally Muslims, many of them carried on with their own traditional version of Islam, which included the use of locally-brewed beers as staple food and a relatively equal status for women. In short, Darfur enjoyed, by and large, a relative autonomy from the vagaries of Khartoum's politicians - at least until 2001 or so, when the regime began to tighten its grip against an increasingly vocal discontent.
However, like all peoples from areas of Sudan which are not branded "Arabic" - that is those outside the immediate surroundings of the Nile river - the people originating from Darfur, although citizens according to the sharia (since they are Muslims), were nonetheless discriminated against. For instance, they hardly stood a chance of making a career in the top spheres of the state. This is illustrated by the fact that in the army, where around half of the ranks up to NCO level came from Darfur, there were no senior officers originating from this province.
This discrimination confronted those members of the small Darfurian elite who went to Khartoum to make a career, with an uncomfortable alternative: either they joined the ruling fundamentalist NCP in order to benefit from its network of patronage (which many did) or else they joined the underground opposition in Sudan - or, more often, in exile - in the hope that a regime change would offer them better opportunities. Discrimination maintained a smouldering discontent among the elites, which was bound to lead to the emergence of a Darfurian opposition.
What provided the opportunity for this opposition to emerge was the way in which Darfur found itself involved in two regional wars, which it would never have been sucked into, had it not been for external factors.
One of these wars was the civil war in Chad, where various warlords were fighting for power. The warlord Idriss Deby, who is today Chad's president and one of France's closest allies in the region, happened to belong to an ethnic group which was split by the border between Chad and Darfur. As a result, Deby used Darfur as a rear base and a recruitment pool for his troops until, finally, he launched a successful offensive from Darfur which took him to power in 1990. Many Darfurians who had been involved in this military venture went over to Chad with Deby. But they eventually came back with increased expectations and the conviction that what was maybe needed to change things in Darfur was an armed rebellion.
The other war in which Darfur found itself involved, was of course, Khartoum's war with the South. This was not because SPLA troops tried to establish themselves in Darfur - which they had no reason to do - but rather because throughout the 1990s, the Khartoum regime decided to arm certain ethnic groups to use them as auxiliaries to help the army fight the SPLA outside Darfur. But the regime wanted a low-cost auxiliary force. So, as a reward these militiamen were sometimes offered the land of a deceased farmer, regardless of the family's rights on the land. But in most cases, they were just left to use their weapons and get their payment from the population - something which they carried on doing when they came back to Darfur.
Some commentators claim, as they have done so many times in the past when dealing with African wars, that the conflict in Darfur is ethnic-based or that it is a conflict between "Arab" nomadic groups - who form the so-called "janjaweed" militias, responsible for a large number of the recent massacres - and "African" farmers. This is in fact nonsense. First, because everyone in Darfur is of African origin, including those described as "ethnic Arabs" . All are part of population which, at times nomadic, may have wandered as far as Egypt a very long time ago. And second, because over the past century, if not longer, the distinction between the various ethnic groups on the one hand, and between nomads and farmers on the other, has become increasingly blurred by intermarriage and economic interdependence. While the Sudanese army certainly tried to fuel ethnic resentment by targeting particular ethnic groups in their recruitment drives, they only managed to recruit the poorest among them, those who had neither family to look after, nor cattle nor farm, in short, those who had nothing to lose and were desperate enough to see an automatic weapon and a license to kill as a legitimate means of survival.
Having called upon these ad hoc militias in the 1990s in order to fight the SPLA outside Darfur, it was easy for Khartoum to call upon them once again when a new rebellion emerged, this time in Darfur itself. By bombing villages and using the janjaweed to terrorise the populations and force them to flee for their lives, the Sudanese regime hoped to deprive the rebellion of its base of support. In the event, however, this attempt did not work.
The Darfur rebellion, an offshoot of the "peace process"
But what is the nature of the rebellion in Darfur? When it broke out in February 2003, it had two main protagonists:
The Sudanese Liberation Army was a secular group led by members of the Darfurian elite belonging to many different ethnic groups. Its estimated 10,000 fighters were recruited among the rural self-defence militias previously set up against the raids carried out by the janjaweed after they had been released by the Sudanese army and who were now making a living out of terrorising and looting villages. Significantly the SLA included in its ranks many of Idriss Deby's former associates from 1990, including one of his most senior officers at the time, Abdallah Abakkar. In fact, much of its equipment, including its weapons, which were far more sophisticated than those of the janjaweed, or even of the Sudanese police, had come through the Chad border, certainly with the complicity of highly-placed officials in Deby's regime, but not necessarily of the regime itself. In fact, last May, a section of the Chadian military attempted to overthrow Deby but failed. The coup leaders had been arguing in favour of Chad sending troops to support the SLA in Darfur, whereas Deby stuck to the policy dictated by Paris, which was to act as a go-between, providing a line of communication between Khartoum and the Darfur rebel groups.
The second, smaller group, called the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) is led by a former prominent member of the NPC who held ministerial positions in several provinces, including Darfur. In fact all the main known figures of the JEM are disgraced Islamic fundamentalists from the NPC, and the JEM itself is considered to be a covert vehicle for Hassan al-Turabi, the historical leader of the NPC who was dislodged from his position by general al-Bashir, today's Sudanese president, in 1999. Politically, their references have remained unchanged, as can be judged from the fact that they celebrate the memory of the bloody rule of the Mahdi state, the short-lived sharia-based regime set up in Sudan at the end of the 19th century, which is notorious for its massacres of slave rebellions, among other things.
Despite their very different rhetoric and political backgrounds, both groups share the same "programme" which can be summarised in the following way: Darfur as a region has been "marginalised" for too long and should be given the same rights in a federal Sudan as those granted to the SPLA, including its due share of the oil income and its own autonomous regional institutions.
So this is what this war is really about - a bid by the Darfur elites and a section of dissidents from the fundamentalist NPC to be admitted to an enlarged round of negotiations over the future of Sudan, on an equal footing with the Islamic regime and the SPLA. That the cost of this bid would involve huge casualties and terrible hardship for the Darfur population was predictable, as the NPC was bound to do everything possible to crush the rebellion. But this did not stop the aspiring politicians of the SLA and JEM.
But the responsibility in the present human catastrophe also lies with the imperialist leaders who have embarked on a drive to shape Sudan according to the needs of their own order. The "peace making" policy of US imperialism (and fully supported by Blair's government) which led to the Navaisha agreement was never aimed at protecting the interests of the populations. It was only aimed at imposing a compromise on the warring politicians so that the "normal" plundering of the country by imperialist companies could resume - with the reconciled former enemies co-operating in forcing the Sudanese population into submission. This could only encourage any aspiring politician capable of building up a significant base of support to put in a bid to exchange the subjection of this base against a share of the cake that was made available by the US-brokered "peace process". And this is precisely what happened in Darfur.
The western leaders may well shed their cynical tears over the plight of the Darfur population. But their hands are as much covered in blood as those of the Sudanese dictatorship.