Sudan/South Sudan: Communist Party sees dangers, but also possibilities for progress

South Sudan's independence celebrations.

Rashid El Sheikh, Sudanese Communist Party, interviewed by John Foster

October 19, 2011 -- Morning Star -- Africa's newest state, the Republic of South Sudan, came into being on July 9. Its secession from the north has transformed the political dynamics of a region rich in natural resources and which still suffers from the legacy of Britain's long colonial rule.

The original state of Sudan emerged from the bloody wars of conquest waged by Britain in the 1880s and 1890s. The region's previous rulers were Arab feudal landlords. Britain sought to rule the new colony by pitting the Islamic north against a south that was first Christianised and then used as a base for the mass commercial farming of cotton. Sudan achieved formal independence in 1956 and the new state entered a period of neocolonial economic control administered through a concordat with the economically reactionary Arab clans of the north.

At the same time, these years also saw repeated challenges by more progressive nationalist elements and Sudan's relatively large working class, largely a product of its commercial cotton production. In the 1960s Sudan had one of the largest communist parties in Africa.

The past three decades have seen a tangled series of governmental alliances involving interventions of both Western imperialist interests and regional power players, particularly Iran and Saudi Arabia.

The left, the Communist Party and the trade union movement faced savage repression. So did ethnic groups such as those in Darfur which challenged the Khartoum government.

In the south the Sudanese People's Liberation Army under John Garang waged a military struggle originally with some backing from the Soviet Union.

In the past decade the Khartoum government of Omar al-Bashir has fought to maintain control at a time when the geopolitics of the region were transformed by the discovery of large reserves of oil in the south and centre of Sudan.

A peace settlement was brokered with the SPLA forces in the south under the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005. This promised a referendum on secession within six years alongside measures to institutionalise power sharing with the SPLA and democratise structures in the north.

Unstable situation

Leading Sudanese communist Rashid El Sheikh argues that it was the failure to adhere to this agreement which made a Yes vote for secession by the south almost inevitable. Rashid, who is a member of the solidarity and international relations bureau of the Communist Party of Sudan, UK and Ireland, sums up the new situation as unstable, potentially very dangerous but also pregnant with the possibilities of progressive change.

"The political base of the government of President Bashir is among sections of the merchant bourgeoisie, some Islamic financial and business forces and militant Islamic fundamentalists.

"While it previously had some backing from Saudi Arabia and some Arabic states, this appears to have been weakened. Bashir himself and other members of his regime are indicted for war crimes and crimes against humanity before the International Criminal Court.

"Bashir's government now faces a serious economic crisis. The secession of the south has deprived it of 75 per cent of its oil revenues. It is now struggling to pay the estimated 70 per cent of the budget allocated to the army and militias.

"In the south the new government is a broad coalition built round the Sudanese People's Liberation Movement. It is preoccupied with establishing a new administration in face of an almost complete lack of infrastructure and harassment from the north.

"Its political manifesto is a secular, progressive program based on the unity and equality of all Sudanese. It seeks to create a civil secular society that does not privilege particular religious or ethnic groups and proposes to use the oil revenues and other resources to develop education, health and the productive base of the economy.

"Currently it faces demands from the north for exorbitant charges, up to US$32 a barrel, for use of the oil pipeline that crosses North Sudan territory to the sea.

"The north has also sought reassert control over the oil-bearing territories across its southern border through a mixture of armed force and electoral manipulation.

"It delayed the process of popular consultation agreed under the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in the provinces of South Kordofan and Blue Nile. Instead it forced snap elections in less than free conditions", says Rashid.

Blue Nile and Kordofan

In Blue Nile this manoeuvre failed and the SPLM won the majority of local parliamentary seats but in South Kordofan it succeeded. This gave the regime the ostensible authority to round up militants of the SPLM, demanding the immediate disarmament of SPLA forces counter to the CPA.

A near civil war situation now exists in both provinces with huge human and resource costs.

In terms of international relations, the Bashir government has sought to strengthen links with Iran. In August the Central Bank unsuccessfully sought a loan of $1.5 billion from Qatar and other Gulf states.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's recent visit to Sudan is an indication of a new turn in the relationship between the two despotic states.

First vice-president Ali Osman Taha has visited Tripoli to establish links with Islamic groups in the new Libyan Transitional Council. Much less successfully, Bashir himself visited Egypt where he was met with a cold reception.

In the midst of this turmoil, Rashid notes that external imperialist forces are seeking to enhance their influence and to secure oil concessions in both the north and the south.

"This will present a growing problem for the future", he says. "We also believe that the role of the People's Republic of China in continuing financial, diplomatic and other forms of aid for the government of [North] Sudan is mistaken and harmful and runs counter to the interest and aspiration of the majority of Sudanese people.

"Internally the Bashir regime has stepped up repression -- seeking to impose a more rigorous form of Islamic rule and to eliminate internal opposition. Five times over the last month Bashir regime's security forces have seized every copy of Al Midan, the paper of the Sudanese Communist Party, currently published three times weekly. Our party is not proscribed but we expect action against it in the near future. Other opposition forces face similar harassment."

The Communist Party now forms part of a broader alliance that unites virtually all the opposition forces -- the Umma Party, the Democratic Unionist Party, the SPLM (North), two Ba'athist parties and elements of the trade union and student movement. The general secretary of the alliance is Farouk Abu Eissa, former secretary of the Arab Lawyers Union.

The alliance of Sudanese political forces is demanding a constitutional convention attended by representatives of all political and civil organisations in order to secure the consent to rebuild a democratic civil Sudan following the independence the south.

At the same time the Communist Party is giving support to the increasing movement of resistance on the ground -- currently mainly led by youth, student and women's groups.

"Small demonstrations are occurring daily in Khartoum and disseminated through social media," says Rashid. "They are met with police repression and arrests. But they continue and are growing in frequency and size.

"At the same time the plight of the general population is becoming more and more desperate. Some 7.5 million of the north's 30 million populations live in Khartoum and the shanty towns around it. They are finding it impossible to buy food and basic services. Prices have trebled in a year.

"Beyond Khartoum the authority of the Bashir government is facing challenges both in the southern provinces, in Darfur and in the east," says Rashid.

"The rank and file of the army is increasingly restive as it is forced to engage in repression while its own wages are either unpaid or rapidly losing value.

"For the government of President Bashir the situation appears unsustainable.

"The demand for a more secular and democratic Sudan, one that is capable of developing an equitable and socially just economy, cannot be suppressed for much longer."

[John Foster is Communist Party of Britain international secretary.]