The Darfur Crisis: Blood, Hunger And Oil
By Mohamed Hassan
Interviewed by Grégoire Lalieu & Michel Collon
23 February, 2010
Is the first genocide of the 21st century happening now in Darfur? This Sudanese province is the theater of a conflict on which the international opinion is rallying. As for any struggle on the African ground, we receive the same images of misery: men are tearing, children are crying and blood is flowing. Africa is however the richest continent in the world. Mohamed Hassan unveils the origins of the African paradox and remembers us that if Sudan shelters different ethnics and religions, it has above all an abundance of oil.
What are the origins of the Darfur crisis? The American actor Georges Clooney is a member of the association “Save Darfur” and denounces the massacre of Africans by Arabic militias. On the other hand, the philosopher Bernard-Henry Levy also tries to mobilize the international opinion but pretends it is a conflict between radical and moderate Islam. Is the Darfur crisis ethnical or religious?
People saying that the Darfur crisis comes from an ethnic or religious conflict do not have a really good knowledge of that area. In fact, this war is economical. The colonial powers of yesterday and the imperialist powers of today are responsible of the African misfortunes. That big area, going from Sudan to Senegal, had in the past the same cultural background and extremely good resources. It could have been united and developed if the colonialism in the 19th century didn’t have put fake borders in this area. I say this borders are fake because they have been built according to the power struggle between the great powers and not according the reality on the ground or the wishes of the African people. In Sudan, the British colonialists, who applied the “divide-and-rule” policy, have thrown the basis of the conflicts that will tear the country.
African area with rich ressources and same cultural background
Sudan was a British colony. What interest had Great-Britain in that country?
In the 19th century, there was a rude competition in Europe. In this fight for the hegemony, the European powers were needing human, financial and material resources. The extension of colonialism will allow them to get those resources. Great-Britain used to rely on its golden colony, India, but a particular situation made it step into Africa: in 1805, Mohamed Ali, governor of the Ottoman Empire, started to turn Egypt into a modern state and he was extending its borders, reaching the Somali coast and including Sudan. The level of development, reached by the one considered today as the father of modern Egypt, worried Great-Britain, concerned about the birth of a new rival. So the British Empire invaded Egypt to make it a colony. By extension, Sudan became an Anglo-Egyptian colony in 1898.
What were the results of the British colonization in Sudan?
As in other African colonies, Great-Britain applied the “divide-and-rule” policy. So Sudan was divided in two parts: in the north, they kept Arabic as official language and Islam as religion; on the other hand, in the south, English language was imposed and missionaries converted people to Christianity. There was no trade between the two areas. The British even imported Greek and Armenian minorities to create a buffer zone!
Great-Britain also injected a modern economic system that we could call capitalism. They built one train to connect Egypt and Sudan and another one coming from Khartoum to Port Sudan. That was the looting line of Sudan by which all the resources of the country were going outside, to reach Great-Britain or to be sold on the international market. According to the choice of the British rulers, Khartoum became economically a very dynamic city and a central bourgeoisie emerged from it. The division operated by the Great-Britain among the north and the south and the choice of Khartoum as the centre of the colonial activity will have a disastrous impact on the Sudanese history. Those two elements will lead the country to its first civilian war.
What will be the reasons of this first civilian war?
When the Sudan gets independent in 1956, there are still no relations between the two parts of the country. The north was Muslim, claimed it was Arab and benefited from the economical activity of the British colonization. So, the power and the wealth were concentrated around Khartoum. The south for its part was communal African traditional and also protestant. It will demand an equal share of the wealth during this first civilian war, which will last until 1972. At this moment, a peace agreement is concluded and turns Sudan into a federal state.
But peace will be short-lived. In the late seventies, the American company Chevron finds important deposits of oil in Sudan. The president of that time, Numeiri, wants to change the borders of the federal state in order to allow the central authority to keep the control on the oil wealth. This violation of the peace agreement will reignite the war between the southern and northern parts of the country in 1980. This war will last more than 25 years.
Sudan shelters the Darfur province in the West and is crossed by the Nile
In a little more than fifty years, Sudan has experienced two civilian wars. And today, the Darfur crisis set ablaze west of the country. The ethnical situation seems to be explosive as the media say.
It is not the case. Most of the ethnics who live in the north of the country are Muslims, physically look like Egyptians and, if a lot have their own dialects, they all speak Arabic as official language. The southern communities are Nilotics, with a darker skin, and the main religions are Christianity and Animism. But the civilian wars that opposed those two parts were not ethnical or religious. It was about an equitable share of the wealth.
Let’s look to the Darfur situation now. It is a melting-pot area where nomadic Muslims tribes speaking Arabic, such as the Janjawids or the Takawas, mix with settled farmers. When there is serious drought, the nomadic tribes move with their cows to the settled people’s farms and fights occur. The idea that Arabs kill Africans is built on the fake observation that the Janjawids are Arabs. But if this tribe claims hypothetical Arabian origins, you don’t see anything Arab in them as we know the Arabs today.
There is another important element of that crisis not much exposed : the awareness of the regional bourgeoisie. With the so-called globalization, the information network and the oil discoveries, each group wants a part of the cake. As the southern elites, the Darfur bourgeoisie is demanding today an equal share of the wealth against a central government who is monopolizing power and resources. What is specific to Darfur is that those contradictions have been politicised and magnified because of the involvement of China in Sudan.
What is the role of China in Sudan?
After the discovery of important oil fields, Chevron was forced to leave Sudan for two reasons. First, the country became unstable again with the second civilian war. Secondly, if the United States used to have extremely good relations with Sudan before, the new Islamic regime putted by Omar al-Bachir in 1989 was frankly hostile to them. So the Sudanese oil was getting away from the American interests. China came then to Sudan with the following message: “I will buy your raw materials on the basis of the international market”. This situation presents a comparative advantage for China and Sudan. The first one can get the resources it needs as the second one is no more forced to borrow money from the international institutions. But this Chinese involvement in Africa is a first in History. That’s why the American and European imperialists are afraid.
What do you mean by comparative advantage?
David Ricardo, the second important bourgeois economist after Adam Smith, developed the theory of what he called the comparative advantage. This concept was used by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank for the last fifty years on the Third-World countries. Imagine that I’m a country producing bananas. The IMF comes to me and says: “You are producing bananas, you have a certain knowledge in this production, and you have developed human resources on that: you are specialized! The more you will be specialized on bananas, the more you will reduce your cost of production and the most efficient you will be. If you follow this way, you will have a comparative advantage on the market and your country will develop.” So I raise my banana production but my neighbour does the same. The result is that there are too many bananas on the market! The consumer doesn’t eat bananas night and day, so the prices crash. This is the technique of one doctor having a lot of patients and giving the same medicine to everybody, whatever diseases they have.
Now this is the situation: the USSR and the East block collapsed in 1990 and West imperialism thought they would dominate everything in the world. But China started to get economically stronger and now needs everything, from bananas to peanuts, passing by oil and metal. This new giant comes to rich resources countries and wants to buy raw materials at the market price. Of course, all these African countries with rich resources will turn themselves to China as any businessman wanting to maximize his benefits! Capitalism has moved to Asia and Africa has to adapt to this new situation.
Africa used to be the private hunting of the West. This is a big change?
And this is the heart of the problem. The West has an ambivalent position on this subject. In one hand, it gets huge benefits from its economical partnership with China. On the other hand, it doesn’t accept that Africa deals with the Asiatic giant. The great powers don’t want indeed to lose their domination on the rich African continent. At the hands of that dilemma, the imperialist countries have a totally disgraceful attitude: instead of facing openly China, they put pressure on the African government who is getting away of their control and take unfair advantage of the humanitarian crisis.
How does the West try to stop Sudan to do business with China?
They seek to destabilize the regime. Therefore, they apply the colonialism golden rule: “divide and rule”. During the second civilian war, the United States was financially supporting the Sudanese People’s Army Liberation, a rebellious movement of Southern Sudan. As this movement had money and weapons and as the government had modernized its army with the benefits from oil, the conflict lasted more than twenty years to finally end up in 2005.
The second civilian war was finishing when the Darfur crisis started. It is true that the contradictions between the nomadic tribes and the settled farmers on one hand, and the regional bourgeoisie and the central authority on the other hand, lead to bloody fights in Darfur. It’s also true that on this problem, the Sudanese government is militarist instead of giving priority to the dialogue. But the imperialist powers magnify this problem in order to mobilize the international opinion and destabilize the Sudanese regime. The truth is: if Khartoum says it will stop dealing with China, nobody will speak of Darfur anymore.
So the western powers could avoid a direct confrontation with China and keep the seizure on the resources of the African continent?
Exactly. Their behaviour is shameful. In fact, those imperialist countries are racists. Since the 19th century colonization, they have always stopped Africa to develop in order to keep the control of its resources. But why couldn’t this continent deal with China while the West does it? Why couldn’t African children have good shoes, good tables and good schools? The neo-colonialist powers maintain the richest continent of the world in the under-development to control its wealth.
The mobilization on the Darfur crisis is important in the United States. Many Jewish associations are also involved in that campaign. Why?
The reasons of that involvement are mainly historic. In the conflict that has for a long time opposed the Jewish State and Egypt, Sudan is a strategic position. Indeed, the Nile passes through this country before reaching Egypt. Today, Israel has extremely good relationship with Cairo. But, as the Egyptian population has sympathy for the Palestinian people, Egypt could be an enemy again tomorrow. In a long term strategy, Israel knows that its strategic interests are very important in Sudan: if they can control the water of the Nile, they can control Egypt. During the first civilian war, Israel was already supporting the southern rebel movement Anyanya in order to weaken Nasser. Today, as two Darfur movements have already signed a peace agreement with Khartoum, Israel supports the last movement still fighting. That’s why Khadafy, the Libyan leader, said the problem now was not a Darfur problem but an Israeli one!
What you also have to know is that the Zionist American associations which took part in that campaign about Darfur tried to create a front between Jewish and Afro-American organizations. Among them, the Nation of Islam and its leader Louis Farrakhan went to Sudan, analysed the situation on the ground and had an intensive discussion with the government and its president Omar al-Bachir. Finally, this organization made its own decision: this problem is not “Arabs against Africans”. That’s why the project of the Jewish associations of creating an alliance with Afro-American organizations collapsed.
The International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant against president Omar al-Bachir. The reactions are divided: United States and France want the president to be judged. On the other hand, China and Arab countries say that it could destabilize more the country.
I think that a Court that only listens to the music it wants is not a Court. Let me give a few examples. Somali people used to be hustled by war for a very long time. But in the early 2006, a popular intifada came in the name of the Islamic Council. They peacefully defeated the warlords and restored peace in a big part of the country. The business started again, peasants went back to work in the farms and communication among the people developed. Hope was coming back! But six month later, the puppet government of Ethiopia, led by the CIA and the American neo-conservatives, invaded Somalia. The conflict displaced two million Somali people; 60 000 were killed; some Somalis died in the Indian Ocean while tempting to reach Yemen; Ethiopia even used napalm against civilians in Mogadishu and destroyed a big part of the city. Why no media shouted about that? Why is there no Court against the authors of that tragedy?
Uganda destroyed Equatorial Congo and looted its gold. In order to justify its legitimacy, the Court arrested Jean-Pierre Bemba, a small fish. The author of that disastrous plan, the Uganda government, is still free. Now, they have troops killing civilian people in Somalia. Why is there no Court against them?
In 1998, Ethiopia ignited a war in Eritrea and looted the property of Ethiopians with Eritrean origins in a Nazi mode. Several thousand of Eritreans were put in concentration camps and some of them died from malaria and infections. Why is there no Court against those criminals?
One million Iraqi people have been killed. Four million have been displaced. A modern state has been destroyed without any legality. Why is there no court against Cheney, Rumsfeld or Bush?
The diamond industry destroys Sierra-Leone. It is this industry and nobody else who brought the former Liberian president Charles Taylor to an international tribunal on the basis of false accusations. So, one can raise questions about the integrity of that justice.
But crimes are committed in Darfur. Even if the ICC is not neutral, must Omar al-Bachir not be judged?
I’m not saying that people are not killed in Darfur. But speaking of genocide is an exaggeration of an imperialist Court, which is not neutral. All Sudanese political parties said that this arrest warrant was against the sovereignty of Sudan. The judgment of Omar al-Bachir has to be left to the Africans. The fact is that the ICC is here to put pressure on al-Bachir to make him stop dealing with China and turn to the West. It won’t probably work with Sudan but it’s also a signal to other countries who could be tempted to do the same.
The Sudanese peasants are confronted to big problems of drought. Can the government use the wealth from the oil to build irrigation facilities? Commonly, why is this country, which some people compare to Saudi Arabia for its oil resources, so poor?
In Europe, you’ve got poor countries with rich people. On the contrary, Sudan is a rich country with poor people. It is true that the government could have allocated this money in an efficient way. But the fact is that it has no progressive solution for the whole country. On the other hand, the regional bourgeoisie is corrupted. Since the Naivasha agreement, which has marked the end of the second civilian war, the southern authority received six billion dollars in the name of the equal share of the wealth. With all that money, they didn’t even build one school (1) ! Sudan needs a real answer but we can’t give that answer from here as it is up to the Sudanese people to come to that conclusion.
Federalism or confederalism could not be a good solution?
This solution has been supported by the United States to end up the conflict with the South and now it is supported again to resolve the Darfur crisis. A referendum should soon determine the status of those two areas. The interest for the western powers is important: if they could not deal about the oil with Khartoum, they will do it with independent regions.
But federalism is not the miracle drug to all the political problems in the world. In Belgium, three linguistic communities live together: Dutch speaking, French speaking and German speaking. Federalism has been built on the language and this brought borders. Belgium has a small territory but counts six governments, 550 parliamentarians and 55 ministers, which is the highest number per capita in the world! Despite of this political armada, the country regularly knows communitarian problems. On the other hand, federalism is based on cantons in Switzerland, which makes the system more efficient. While 75% of the population is German speaker, the Swiss parliament could speak French without any complex! And this is the situation now: the Sudanese bourgeoisie wants a model “à la belge”.
How could we get out of the crisis in Sudan?
Sudan is a very rich country, having everything what the Nature gave. But the misfortune of that country is that there is no movement that unifies all the population on the basis of building a new democratic, unified and egalitarian State; a Sudan without any chauvinism neither discrimination among each other, using its own resources to build a good future for its people. All Sudanese bourgeoisie parties, including the military regime, show any kind of slogans: Sudanese, Arabic or Islamic socialism, nationalization or denationalization… But they cannot bring and integrate Sudan in a modern progressive democratic way. For the bourgeoisie ruling this country its own interests prevails before the nation interests. However, the economic crisis and the drop of the raw material prices will not bring as much money as in the past. The number of poor people will still increase. You’ve got here the conditions allowing the emergency of what Sudan needs the most: a progressive and democratic resistance.
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Mohamed Hassan is a specialist in geopolitics and the Arab world. Born in Addis Ababa (Ethiopia), he participated in the student movements of the 1974 socialist revolution in his country. He studied political science in Egypt before specializing in public administration in Brussels. A diplomat for his country of birth during the 1990s, he has worked in Washington, Beijing and Brussels. Co-author of 'Iraq under the occupation' (EPO, 2003), he has also participated in producing works on Arab nationalism and the Islamic movements, and on Flemish nationalism. He is one of the greatest contemporary experts on the Arab and Muslim world.