Africa Matters is a blog that follows the news and offers analysis of African affairs. Our aim is to delve deeper into the issues of African politics and development. We don’t presume to be experts, and we don’t presume to have all the answers—we are just trying to ask the right questions.

Tuesday, March 20

Mamdani on Darfur

Last week I wrote about Nicholas Kristof’s plea for more decisive action with regard to Darfur and Gérard Prunier’s (Africanist at CNRS in France) in-depth analysis of the conflict there. Also, in the comments, I appended some thoughts from an article in The Nation by Alex de Waal (fellow with Harvard’s Global Equity Initiative) on the relationship between Southern Sudan and Darfur to its west. Today, I just wanted to follow up one more time with a look at an article in The Mail & Guardian by Mahmood Mamdani (Columbia government and anthropology professor). (Thanks, again, to Derek for pointing this out.)

Mahmood Mamdani is perhaps best known for his book Citizen and Subject, which analyzes the political legacy of colonialism in Africa; but his book When Victims Become Killers, which places the Rwandan Genocide in a detailed historical context, is particularly relevant when thinking about today’s atrocities in Darfur. In that book, Mamdani bucked the trend in academia and especially the press to characterize Hutu extremists’ slaughter of Tutsis and moderate fellow Hutus as an instance of ethnic violence. Noting that Hutus and Tutsis share a language, a religion, traditions, and a culture generally, not to mention that even native Rwandans can discern another’s affiliation—based on looks alone—at best 70% of the time, Mamdani asserts that the distinction cannot be “ethnic” in any meaningful sense of the word, opting instead to label the division a political one. In his article this past weekend, he similarly urges that we resist applying to Darfur stereotypes and oversimplifications reminiscent of Rwanda in 1994 and all too common in the discourse on African conflicts in general.

Mamdani draws a comparison between the violence in Darfur and the violence in Iraq; the situations, in fact, have much in common, yet the former is labeled—by some, unequivocally—a “genocide,” while the latter is called either an “insurgency” or a “civil war.” Whereas most observers outside the Bush administration regard Iraq as heterogeneous and highly factionalized, and the fighting and instability there as complex—maybe intractably so—people tend to view the killing in Darfur as a one-sided, black-and-white, morally unambiguous massacre.

The truth is, though, that while many civilians are being killed by Janjaweed or government fighters, or by the secondary effects of the fighting, a civil war underpins these deaths, a war which is not bilateral but multifarious, all sides of which have committed atrocities. There are even accusations that Minni Minnawi’s rebel faction—the only one to sign the peace deal with the government—has, since then, joined the government forces in fighting the other rebels.

While many activists are apt to throw out the term “genocide,” characterizing the violence in Darfur as such tends to decontextualize these killings and render them in a vacuum. Mamdani contends that journalists like Kristof and groups like Save Darfur have depoliticized the situation there, leading to the

reduction of a complex political context to a morality tale unfolding in a world populated by villains and victims who never trade places and so can always and easily be told apart. It is a world where atrocities mount geometrically, the perpetrators so evil and the victims so helpless that the only possibility of relief is a rescue mission from the outside, preferably in the form of a military intervention.

The irony in this is that many of those calling for intervention in Darfur are the same people calling for withdrawal from Iraq—“Out of Iraq and into Darfur.” Yet, Mamdani writes:
The similarities between Iraq and Darfur are remarkable. The estimate of the number of civilians killed over the past three years is roughly similar. The killers are mostly paramilitaries, closely linked to the official military, which is said to be their main source of arms. The victims, too, are by and large identified as members of groups, rather than targeted as individuals.
Why, then, hold such markedly different standards?

One doesn’t even have to look to the Middle East; even within East Africa, in Eastern Congo, there persists a conflict that has cost the lives of 10 times as many people as have died in Darfur—why does this elude the activist agenda?

One aspect of the violence that marks it as unique and that often finds its way into the rhetoric on Darfur is the Arab-African dichotomy, whereby an Arab government and its Arab proxy militias terrorize and murder African innocents. But, as with Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda, the Arab-African distinction in Sudan is nebulous, and it is likely of a much different nature than most Westerners would suppose. To begin with, “Arabs” in Sudan tend not to resemble, in the ways we often conceive of ethnicity, Arabs from the Middle East—in fact, I suspect that many Americans would be inclined to categorize Sudan’s Arabs as black Africans without context. (Anecdotally, I remember hearing Francis Deng, I believe, talk about a group of “African” Sudanese refugees who visited Harlem—knowing of its prominent place in African-American history, they were surprised when they saw only “Arabs” and no one ethnically “African” on the street.) Moreover, Mamdani adds that, even within Sudan, the word “Arab” has multiple meanings: it can refer pejoratively to nomads, it can refer to those who speak Arabic, and it can mean “privileged and exclusive.”

It seems almost too cynical an observation, but depoliticizing Darfur has helped activists claim the moral high ground and unify around a single, simple cause, while the Arab-African terminology in particular, Mamdani believes, has allowed university-based peace movements to align with would-be adversaries in the Christian right and the Zionist lobby.
The depoliticisation, naturalisation and, ultimately, demonisation of the notion “Arab”, as against “African”, has been the deadliest effect, whether intended or not, of the Save Darfur campaign.

Mamdani titled his op-ed “Darfur: The Politics of Naming,” and, indeed, his objections seem to be over mere semantics. But, in this case, the names make a difference. Understanding the complexities of the Arab-African rift in Sudan would help one to understand the intricacies of the civil war there; understanding the underlying war might lead one to refrain from using the label “genocide,” which, as it happens, propels much of the mischaracterization in the first place.

In 1994, the Clinton administration hesitated to call the atrocities in Rwanda “genocide”—opting instead to apply the now-infamous contrivance “acts of genocide”—in order, it seems, to avoid the obligations of the Genocide Convention. The administration was rightfully condemned for doing this, and for the floundering that followed. But calling what is happening now in Darfur genocide, even if it isn’t, will neither redeem us for our inaction 13 years ago nor erase the lingering guilt we feel.

What many forget is that the lethargy, lack of will, and apathy within the American government regarding Rwanda started long before April 1994—as Peter Uvin, Gérard Prunier, and Bruce Jones have pointed out in their books on the crisis, subtending the massacre were the actions of a highly supportive and complicit aid community during the reign of an abusive and oppressive regime, the hollow promises of a peace process without the proper financing or commitment to follow it through, and such a deep ignorance of the context that, upon reports of violence, policymakers had to pull out a map of Africa in order to find their location.

I am all for bringing attention to the violence in Darfur and pushing for deep thinking and informed action to curb it and ensure a peaceful future. But in lieu of the gory, pornographic depictions of the slaughter, the buzz words, and the oversimplification that so often mark commentary on the fighting, I hope we can commit to a more meaningful and substantive understanding of what is going on there—without this, any intervention we undertake will be at best futile, and at worst even more destructive.

Our real failure in Rwanda 13 years ago was never truly understanding the situation in the first place; it is this mistake that we should vow to make never again.


Anonymous said...

Wow! Thanks for this eye-opening piece. I thought I was reasonably informed. I wasn't!