From the January 1959 issue of the Socialist Standard
Commentary on the recent coup d'état in the Sudan has been curiously limited. It is true that the seizure of power in mid-November by a military council was accomplished in unspectacular bloodless fashion; nevertheless, the overthrow of a government in so close proximity to the centre of recent world troubles ought, one thinks, to have made bigger news. Even the serious informational papers had not much to say. The Observer provided only 26 column-inches about it in two issues and the Manchester Guardian, though it gave most of all, did so largely in reference to the northern cotton market.
The reason is not hard to see. Events are quickly told, but the commentary on them must depend chiefly on their consequences—and the consequences of the Sudan happening are not yet apparent. The new government is politically unrevealed so far, and what fresh relationship may arise between the Sudan and the western world is still unknown. General Abboud may take the stage as a second Nasser to be hissed for a foxy schemer from the galleries of the west, or contrariwise as the golden-haired lad bearing freedom’s banner. For that, we must wait and see.
What is much more to the point is to ask what has happened and why. Briefly to go over recent events, the coup was announced on November 17th. The coalition government of Abdullah Khalil was known to be on its way out. Its two factors, the People’s Democratic Party and the Umma party, were in disagreement over the Sudan’s relations with Egypt: mainly, it is said, over fresh Egyptian plans for the Aswan High Dam made in the light of the proferred Russian loan. The new régime, in which General Abboud holds supreme power, announced itself as working “in the interest of no party or group” but aiming at “the elimination of incompetence and corruption among politicians in general,” with a hint about knowing the way to good terms with Egypt (Manchester Guardian, 18th November, 1958).
This has come in the face not only of Egyptian pressure, however, but also of economic troubles. The Sudan is a cotton-producing country. Eighty per cent of its exports are of cotton (largely to Lancashire), and the present condition of the world’s cotton markets has meant a huge unsaleable surplus, stated by the Observer correspondent in Khartoum to include 48.000 tons left over from 1957. Under the Anglo-Egyptian regime big sums were invested in irrigation projects and plans for government-assisted peasant production to develop the cotton yield, so that the Sudan is dependent always on world prices for its staple crop. Before the war the Sudanese people were considered better-off than the natives of most other colonized parts of Africa; now the country’s economy is in a critical phase without much prospect of improvement.
The growth and the varied outlooks of the Sudanese political parties have come partly through economic development and partly from the patterns set by the fifty-eight years of joint British and Egyptian rule which ended in 1956. The history of this companionate rule is in fact a series of quarrels over who should really rule a country which bordered the Suez canal and enclosed the upper Nile. The existence of pro-British and pro-Egyptian parties comes from this period, when each of the dual rulers tried to create its own body of support in the Sudan. The Umma is descended from the Mahdi’s followers who drove out Turco-Egyptian rule and is thus traditionally anti-Egyptian; the P.D.P., on the other hand, is an offshoot of the National Unity Party which has always seen advantage in alliance with Egypt.
As in all other colonial countries, a powerful vein of nationalism appeared with the vista of economic independence that the development schemes afforded. (It is an irony of imperialism that the leaders of nationalist movements are produced by the imperialists’ own needs for officials, technical assistants and the rest of the new “middle classes” which this stage of economic progress must turn out.) All the Sudanese parties, including the “Socialist” National Unity Party and the Anti-Imperialist Front (the Communists) are shot through with this strong desire for “national independence,” and the new military government lost no time in stating that it did not differ from them. The day after assuming power. General Abboud said his regime would “accept anything it considered in the interests of the country, but would reject anything which might harm its independence and sovereignty.”
The truth is, however, that the Sudan cannot be independent except in the nominal sense of not being any other nation’s colony. The change which has just taken place was forced by external conditions and happenings, and the policies of the Abboud government—even the vague ones which were immediately announced—are bound to be determined almost wholly from outside. The resuscitation of the limping Sudanese economy depends on, more than anything else at the present time, the government’s negotiations with Egypt and (a not-unconnected matter) its success in playing-off America and Russia to attract loans from either or both. On November 30th the Foreign Minister announced that “foreign capital without strings would be welcomed.” and that his government had already taken 15 million dollars' worth of foreign exchange from America (Manchester Guardian, 1st December. 1958).
The outstanding questions between Egypt and the Sudan are the Aswan Dam project and the frontiers. To the Egyptian government the Dam, with its promise of irrigation and electric power, is vital for maintaining the economy (with its already desperate population problem) and making the economy maintain the army. Now, with the promise of Russian aid. it appears within reach, but there must first be agreement with the government of Sudan. From Egypt’s point of view a compliant Sudan would be the answer; Mr. Khalil, indeed, alleged in London last September that there were forces working to this end within the Sudanese government. For the Sudan, on the other hand, agreement can only mean a share in the benefits of the Dam.
What of the Sudanese people? Here, when one asks this question, stands forth a remarkable example of the stupidity and cruelty of commercialism and nationalism. For the Sudanese people are desperately, pitifully poor. In nearly three years of “independence” they have been governed by the National Unity “Socialists,” a coalition, and now the military—and none has made a scrap of difference to their poverty. It is worth pointing out that the Egyptian people have had the same experience: they were poverty-stricken under fat Farouk, and are equally so under Nasser. What have the political pretensions of their government done for them?
Assuming, however, that the building of the new High Dam would lighten these peoples’ burdens, the approaches to it have been made entirely in terms of not those but the rulers’ interests. First, there has to be money—obvious enough, but in itself a condemnation of the entire modern world where the need is pressing, the materials and labour plentiful, yet the fulfilment must wait on the djinn of this idiotic Aladdin’s lamp. When it was offered to Egypt by the West, the offer was based and then foundered on considerations of political advantage in the cold war. Now it appears again from Russia, with similar considerations in view (while a team of “American aid experts ” descends on the Sudan).
Who, then, cares about the Sudanese people? It is not that this or the preceding governments, or the government of Egypt, is deliberately negligent; on the contrary, it would be to the rulers’ benefit to have the support of prosperous and satisfied populations. The Sudan, however, has been pulled into the whirlpool of Capitalist world politics. From a colony in the once-majestic scheme of British imperialism, developed to make its cotton contribution to British trade, it has become another nation forced to struggle for advantage in the pitiless dogfights of world markets and big politics.
The future of the Sudan is bound up in the future of the world. Economic development and political contact have opened the windows for this country on the amenities of modern civilization, hence the nationalism, the reformist politics, and the anxiety to benefit by “getting in” on the bigger powers’ calculated generosity. Ideally, the Sudanese people stand to gain in every way from contact and interchange—in a word, “progress.” But modern civilization is far from ideal. Whatever progress is made will be directed at furthering only the interests of the property-owners of the Sudan: the important thing to recognize about the Abboud regime is that, whatever is said about ending corruption and the rest, this is its prime aim. However good a proportion of the High Dam potentialities is obtained for the Sudan, the sad fact is that the Dam is really wanted as a source of power and profits for the commercial class.
There is no sanity in this. It is not only in the Sudan, but everywhere; this small flare-up illumines a little more of what is going on all over the world. Nationalism and the political game are impediments to genuine productive development, standing in the way of what could be done by man for man—but they are parts of the superstructure of Capitalist society, which limits human activity to what will yield the best profits. The real trouble for the people of the Sudan is the profit system, and the only future which can hold anything worth while for them—and for everyone else—is Socialism all over the world.