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A brief history of imperialist intervention in East Africa

By G. Dunkel
July 19, 2004

Chad and the Sudan are two extremely poor countries in East Africa that were linked in the 19th century by the scramble of French imperialism, in competition with British imperialism, to divide Africa.

To understand the current political situation in the Sudan, and how the United States is intervening there, some background information is useful.

The United States has basically shoved Great Britain out of Africa, and taken over its neocolonialist interests. U.S. military forces are spread throughout the continent. France still has a considerable presence in Africa, including major elements of its armed forces, but has adopted a policy of not directly confronting the U.S.

Geographically, the Sudan is about as large as the United States, with an estimated population of 33 million. Average per capita income is $300 a year. Roughly speaking, northern Sudan is part of the Sahara, with the Nile and its sources running through it. The southern part gets more rain and has trees, grasslands and marshes.

The Sudan has over 200 ethnic groups with as many languages. In the north of the country, most people call themselves Arab and use a dialect of Arab as their language. Classical Arabic is its official language. In the south, people regard themselves as African and use a variety of languages, but generally not Arabic.

The Sudan was a collection of independent principalities and sultanates, running from the southern border of Egypt to Ethiopia, before the Egyptians conquered it in the early 19th century. In 1881, the Sudanese rose up against Egyptian control, under the leadership of the Mahdi, an Islamic religious figure.

The Mahdi state was overthrown by the British army under the command of Gen. Horatio Herbert Kitchener in a series of battles that saw the British use machine guns to slaughter thousands of Sudanese while suffering less than a hundred casualties themselves.

The British were in competition with a French army contingent under the command of Capt. Jean-Baptiste Marchand, who had planted the French flag at Fashoda, a small fort on the White Nile in the south of Sudan. It was a race to see whether the British would control a north-south axis from Cairo to Cape Town or the French would control an east-west axis.

The French lost the confrontation, which involved threats of war between the two countries. Britain maintained control of the Sudan and France got the Western Sudan, which included the present-day countries of Chad and the Central African Republic.

Britain did not have full control over the Sudan until 1916, when it replaced the Sultan of Darfur. It mounted its last expedition against a revolt in the south in 1928. British rule depended on dividing the Muslim north from the Christian or animist south. It left isolated, unprofitable regions like Darfur, where both the Arabs and the Africans were Muslims, to work out their own arrangements.

Independence and after

After Sudan's formal independence in 1956, relations between the north and the south were tense. The guerrilla group Anya Nya took the field in 1964. It petered out but the economic and political differences didn't.

Finally in 1983, after a mutiny of an army battalion at Bor, the Sudanese People's Liberation Army was established and the civil war commenced. It has lasted ever since, though serious peace talks are currently taking place in Kenya.

The United States now wants peace in the Sudan because substantial oil reserves have been discovered in the south, but can't be exploited while a civil war is going on.

John Parker, Workers World Party's candidate for U.S. president, visited the Sudan as a journalist in 1998 after the U.S. government sent cruise missiles crashing into a pharmaceutical plant in its capital, Khartoum. Then-President Bill Clinton claimed he had "convincing information" that the plant had been used to manufacture chemical weapons, a claim refuted by experts who examined it.

In a Sept. 3, 1998, article in Workers World newspaper, Parker pointed out that the United States had imposed economic sanctions on the Sudan for years and had strengthened them. They are still in effect.

The U.S., according to Parker, had also sent significant military aid to the SPLA. According to an article in the December 2002 issue of Afrique-Asie, this aid has continued to flow to the SPLA and military forces allied with them.

Darfur, in the western part of the Sudan, bordering Chad, became the focus of another civil war in 2003. In 1989, it had been the base for Idriss Deby, a Chadian general who was in the process of overthrowing President Hissène Habre. France went along with Deby's coup because he promised to put an end to armed anti-imperialist resistance to French neocolonialism in Chad--another country with significant oil deposits. Deby is a Zaghawa, an ethnic group found on both sides of the border.

The Sudanese Liberation Army, one of the armed groups from Darfur that began this civil war with attacks on army bases and guard posts, was commanded by Abdallah Abakkar, one of Deby's officers in his military campaign to become president of Chad. (Le Monde diplomatique, June 2004)

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Sources: "The Race to Fashoda," by David Levering Lewis, and "The History of the Sudan," 5th ed., by P.M. Holt and M.W. Daly

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