March 9, 2009 -- When the Save Darfur Coalition held a rally on April 30, 2006, drawing thousands to Washington DC, it was a watershed for Darfur activism in the US. Save Darfur's advocacy efforts enjoyed a moment in the sun, the culmination of an aggressive and well-funded media campaign.
Yet the rally also symbolised another, less-reported aspect of Darfur activism in the US: the tendency to marginalise Darfurian and Sudanese voices.
As reported, “the original list of speakers [for the April 30 rally] included eight Western Christians, seven Jews, four politicians and assorted celebrities -- but no Muslims and no one from Darfur”; organisers had to hurry “to invite two Darfurians to address the rally after Sudanese immigrants objected” to their previous exclusion from the line-up.
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Save Darfur’s prioritising of Western voices is unsurprising, given the group's establishment-friendly posture. The Coalition, in fact, praised then-President Bush for his “good work” in resolving the crisis (evidence for which is non-existent), and brought former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who famously said that the deaths of half a million Iraqi children as a result of the murderous US sanctions regime was “worth it”, to a rally later in 2006. More noteworthy, however, has been the tendency for the US left to [also marginalise Darfurian and Sudanese voices].
In fact, not only has the US left largely ignored the Sudanese left, which has a storied history and continues to struggle valiantly against the brutal regime led by Omar al-Bashir, but it has also mostly failed to grapple with the Darfur conflict as a whole, not to mention the other issues plaguing Sudan. In some cases, this has even led to apologetics for the Sudanese government, as if its largely adversarial relationship with the West should afford it a special place in our consciousness as a victim of imperialism. Though understandable in that our most pressing moral responsibility as US leftists is to address crises that are of our own making and thus over that we have the most power to change, such as the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan and US support for Israel's aggressive military posture, it is also paramount that the Darfur issue not be ceded to establishment-friendly groups which do not share our concern for anti-imperialism.
We travelled to Sudan in February 2009 to unearth the voices of the Sudanese left and opposition movements, and bring them to a Western audience. What emerged from our interviews and conversations suggests some baseline points of fundamental importance to Western activists:
1) The US sanctions regime against Sudan, though it may be satisfy an internal desire among Western activists to “do something” to demonstrate disgust with Khartoum, is very much like other instances of US sanctions, such as those against Iraq or Cuba: they hurt the poor, while the government not only survives, but thrives on the propaganda of being able to portray the country, not unfairly, as a victim of Western malice.
2) While Barack Obama’s election as US president has generated significant enthusiasm in the country, this is predicated on the desire for his administration to break with Bush-era policies and make serious efforts to address the Darfur crisis and improve relations with Sudan. Obama also risks losing the preliminary support he has engendered amongst ordinary Sudanese if he does not end US backing for Israel's highly repressive policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians, an issue the Sudanese people follow and identify with very closely.
3) That China is viewed by many Sudanese as a new colonising power, willing to cozy up to Khartoum for access to oil, among other economic benefits, is hardly a surprise to anyone in the West. The Sudanese left, however, helpfully reminds us that some two decades prior the US was fulfilling the same neo-colonialist role, flooding the then-in-power dictatorship of Jafaar Nimeiri with weapons shipments and economic aid as the regime prosecuted a brutal civil war against the country’s south. They do not want China to leave, just to be replaced with an equally pernicious US influence.
4) The current status of the Sudanese left as small and fragmented is a relatively recent phenomenon, and largely a product of two decades of repression by the governing right-wing Islamist regime. Recent history, however, provides reasons for cautious optimism. In fact, as early as a few decades prior, the Sudanese Communist Party was one of the largest in Africa or the Middle East, and the country long had a vibrant labour movement. Left-wing politics has a vibrant history in Sudan, and still remains a part of the social fabric in a way that the left is not in the US. That the Sudanese Communist Party was recently able to hold a party convention, after a long absence, is a hopeful sign of a left-wing resurgence in Sudan. One of the contenders in the presidential elections scheduled for mid-2009, a leftist originally from Atbarah, a northern Sudanese town famous as the historical centre of strength for trade unionism and radicalism, told us his campaign has been attracting positive media coverage and receptive audiences.
5) Our duty as Western activists is not to impose solutions from outside; it is to be in solidarity with those struggling on the ground, and to listen to them, learn from them, share with them, and give a forum for their voices to be heard. This is the very basis of the concept of ``solidarity''. Holding rallies to ``save'' Darfur while marginalising Darfurian and Sudanese voices is simply incongruous with what should be our aim: building a left-wing movement of a global nature. So is ignoring a conflict, as the US left has largely done in this case, because its perpetrators are official US enemies.
[This article, originally titled ``The Sudanese Left'', first appeared at Just Africa, the website of Africa Action. It has been posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with the authors' permission.]
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