New book by Mahmood Mamdani: 'Save Darfur' movement is not a peace movement
Photo: Mahmood Mamdani was previously the dean of the faculty of social sciences at Makerere University and the founding director of the Centre for Basic Research in Kampala, Uganda. He has also taught at the University of Dar es Salaam and the University of Cape Town in South Africa. His previous books include "Citizen and Subject," "When Victims Become Killers," "Scholars in the Marketplace" and "Good Muslim, Bad Muslim." He lives in New York City and Kampala. (sdsuniverse.info)
From The National April 03, 2009
The devil is in the details
By Wesley Yang
Mahmood Mamdani’s stemwinding book on Darfur brilliantly punctures the sanctities of the international humanitarian order – but doesn’t know where to stop,Wesley Yang writes.- - -
Photo: A soldier in the Sudanese Liberation Army, which rebelled against the Sudanese government in Darfur, holds a bullet as he loads an aging Kalashnikov. (Benjamin Lowy/Corbis)
The international community is presently engaged in a high-stakes game of poker with the government of Sudan. At stake is the legitimacy of the International Criminal Court, the permanent sitting tribunal whose purpose is to punish those that commit the worst crimes against humanity. Also hanging in the balance are the lives of 2.5 million Darfurian refugees who have been driven from their homes by a scorched earth counter-insurgency campaign launched by the Sudanese government in response to rebel attacks in the region in 2003.
Both sides in this international stand-off have already demonstrated a willingness to sacrifice those lives for the sake of the principles they support. The Sudanese government has thrown out 13 international aid groups who provide the food and medicine necessary to sustain those refugees, under the pretext that they gathered evidence for the ICC against Sudan’s president, Omar al Bashir. The ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo went ahead with the indictment in full knowledge that this was the likely consequence. He claims to be acting in the interest of justice alone, without reference to the political or humanitarian situation – and no one disputes that by arming and abetting mounted Arab proxies (later dubbed “devils on horseback” in the press) to put down a rebellion with indiscriminate violence against civilians, al Bashir violated the spirit and letter of international law (as have many rulers before him). We have a struggle for primacy between the two principles – national sovereignty and international law – that seems likely to define global politics for the rest of this century.
Providing an accurate account of these principles, and the intricate politics in which they are embedded, involves wading through self-serving and overwrought claims from both sides while weighing two genuine and incommensurable claims to legitimacy. In his new book, Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics and the War on Terror, the distinguished Africa scholar Mahmood Mamdani does his readers the considerable service of laying waste to many of the dangerous and self-serving illusions of one side of this argument. But he erects a mirror edifice of illusions in its place; getting the story straight requires disentangling the true from the misleading in Mamdani’s account.
On one side, there are the claims of universal justice that the ICC purports to represent. The ICC is the institutional face of a growing movement seeking to make real the promise of “Never Again” inscribed into the Convention on Genocide of 1948. The ICC indictment of al Bashir was the first against a sitting head of state, and it was hailed in editorial pages across America as a great progressive advance for global justice. Even those who worried about the consequences of the indictment still placed hope in its deterrent value. The goal was to worry the minds of subsequent heads of state tempted to use mass rape and murder as a counter-insurgency tactic.
Taken on its own terms, in narrow isolation, this is a worthy and unassailable mission. But nothing exists in narrow isolation, least of all moral purity and universal justice. Such claims exist in a real world of actual politics amid complicated histories, which many Darfur activists have made it their business to elide – portraying the conflict in Darfur as what Mamdani dubs “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”.
On the other side are the rights of sovereign governments to govern themselves without outside interference, which the Sudanese government and the Arab nations that have rallied to its side purport to defend. Sovereignty has been, since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, the currency of the international system, and, as Mamdani reminds us, a privilege hard-won by postcolonial states only recently.
In the wake of the American misadventure in Iraq, the weird confluence of moralistic rhetoric and bellicose policy that characterised Bush’s foreign policy, the complicity of so many ostensibly liberal hawks caught up in the Iraq War fervour, and a history of one-sided enforcement of humanitarian rules, it should surprise no one that the leaders and intellectuals of formerly colonised states are wary of the claims to universal justice emanating from what Mamdani dubs the “new humanitarian order”. At this week’s Arab Summit in Doha, Arab leaders, many of them signatories to the ICC, (which the United States has refused to sign) lined up in unanimous support of al Bashir.
The human rights lobby views this emphasis on sovereignty as the first and last resort of butchers who employ anti-colonialist rhetoric to defend their crimes. Weary of the grubby compromises of diplomats and corporations willing to do business with tyrants and criminals, one faction of the human rights community calls for armed western intervention to defend helpless victims of state violence everywhere. The Save Darfur movement, an aggressive and media-savvy coalition “whose scale recalls the anti-war movement of the late 1960s and 1970s”, rose up with the intention to turn Darfur into a test case for western action to halt what it called a genocide in progress.
Mamdani devotes the first section of his book to assailing the credibility of Save Darfur. He accuses them of inflating the scale of the killing, obfuscating the reality of a “civil war” and “cycle of insurgency and counter-insurgency” that it called genocide, bombarding viewers and readers with “a pornography of violence” that removed the conflict from its political context, sustaining an impression of ongoing genocide long after the claim was plausible, portraying the conflict in racialised terms as a genocide conducted by Arabs against Africans and ceaselessly advocating for hard-line policies more likely to harm than to the help the victims they intended to save. On each of these counts, Mamdani assembles a more or less devastating case. Save Darfur publicised a figure for the number of deaths – 400,000 – that was twice as high as reliable estimates (Mamdani cites a study commissioned by the US Government Accountablity Office to this effect) and escalated its rhetoric at precisely the moment – January 2005 – when the scale of killing fell dramatically. Save Darfur have continued to clamour for aggressive action despite a humanitarian crisis that was largely stabilised due to the cooperation of the Sudanese government with aid agencies that had reduced the mortality rate to between 100 and 200 month in Darfur – “below emergency levels”, according to World Health Organisation.
Most important for Mamdani’s purpose, though, is the Save Darfur Coalition’s emphasis on the race of the perpetrators and victims: “The central claim is that perpetrators and victims in Darfur belong to two different racial groups, Arab and African and that the Arab perpetrator is evil.” Mamdani is not content to say, as he does, that Save Darfur are committed to policies that will do harm. He intends to demonstrate that they are part of a more insidious agenda written into the War on Terror. To strip Darfur of its politics serves a political project of its own, and Mamdani makes it his mission to reveal its workings – what he sees as the foundation of a post-Cold War order in which American clients and proxies act with impunity while rogue states are subject to violent discipline at the hands of the international community, with America at its head. It is a politics notable for denying that it is a politics at all and, as Mamdani narrates it, one that portends a bleak future for the inhabitants of the developing world.
In the long historical section that makes up the centre of the book, Mamdani traces the centuries-long intermingling of Arab and African identities in Darfur, and their reciprocal permeability. He also shows how these identities were politicised under the “indirect” rule practised by British colonial administrators that pursued a policy of “re-tribalisation” of the various groups that shared Darfur by assigning homelands to certain groups and denying them to others.
This backdrop allows Mamdani, in his third and final section, to return to the question with which the book opens. Since Americans are inclined to regard Africa, to the extent that they regard it at all, as a site of “meaningless anarchy – in which men, sometimes women, and increasingly, children, fight without aim or memory,” why has there been “a global publicity boom around the carnage in Darfur”?
The worst conflict since the Second World War, with a death toll of 3.9 million between 1998 and 2004, raged in the Democratic Republic of the Congo; the figure of “excess deaths” caused by the Iraq war likely outstrip the same numbers in Darfur. Yet only Darfur, a conflict in a remote and impoverished region without oil or other significant exportable resources has generated a lavishly funded advocacy organisation. For Mamdani, the answer is embedded in the definition of genocide itself. “Only when extreme violence targets for annihilation a civilian population that is marked off as different ‘on grounds of race, ethnicity, or religion’ is that violence termed genocide,” Mamdani observes:
“Given that colonialism shaped the very nature of modern ‘indirect rule’ and administrative power along ‘tribal’ (or ethnic) lines it is not surprising that both the exercise of power and responses to it tend to take ‘tribal’ forms in these newly independent states. From this point of view, there is little to distinguish mass violence unleashed against civilians in Congo, Northern Uganda, Mozambique, Angola, Darfur, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ivory Coast, and so on. Which one is named ‘genocide’ and which one is not? Most important, who decides?”
The new humanitarian order is, as Mamdani describes it, “a bifurcated system whereby state sovereignty obtains in large parts of the world but is suspended in more and more countries in Africa and the Middle East,” in which subjects exchange their political rights as citizens of sovereign states for the “human” rights possessed by “wards in an open-ended international rescue operation” in a humanitarian “system of trusteeship” administered by an international community that lacks either accountability or responsibility. The world he describes he looks a lot like the world as the Palestinians under the jurisdiction of UNRWA see it, and the vision Mamdani projects of an Africa delivered piecemeal to the good intentions of the international community is a stark one.
A problem with this claim, however, is that the record of American policy in Sudan challenges it. Indeed, proponents of humanitarian intervention in Darfur make a diametrically opposite charge against the American government – that it has subordinated its interest in the cause of human rights to its desire to maintain relations with Sudanese intelligence to aid the War on Terror. Mamdani’s argument also passes over the American response to Sudan’s much longer, more brutal and more complex civil war, a two-decade conflict pitting Christians and animists from the south of the country against the Arab Islamist cabal to the north that controlled the state and the military.
It was here that al Bashir pioneered the technique of using proxy war conducted by mounted Arab warriors. And it was this conflict that first aroused activist concern among the evangelical Christian movement at the base of George W Bush’s electoral coalition.
Islamists in Sudan were waging a brutal war against the Christian coreligionists of the single most belligerent electoral constituency in American politics. If the goal of American policy was, as Mamdani alleges, to “slice Africa by demonising one group of Africans, African Arabs”, then surely the Sudanese Civil War was the perfect opportunity to carry out this agenda. But the Bush administration instead expended considerable diplomatic resources cajoling the North and the South to make peace in a negotiated settlement that Mamdani himself acknowledges as Bush’s only foreign policy accomplishment.
While there were plenty of hardline advocates for the fantasy of regime change in Sudan, the United States remained effectively committed to the stability of the Bashir regime, as the only guarantor of the peace deal it had signed, through the end of the Bush Administration.
And so, when Mamdani describes the “the responsibility to protect” as “a slogan that masks a big power agenda to recolonise Africa”, he is mistaking the fantasies of American activists for the policies of their government. He is also asserting the existence of a hidden nefarious agenda where none exists, and providing a false clarity that is the merely the obverse of the good-and-evil dichotomy of the War on Terror and the humanitarian order that he assails.
This overreaching damages the credibility of Mamdani’s powerful and incisive criticism of the international justice movement. So much of what Mamdani argues is true, and so much of it cuts against the grain of the usual coverage of Darfur in ways that are essential for the broader public to understand. And neither he, nor the rest of us, can afford to squander the opportunity to set the record straight.
Wesley Yang is a frequent contributor to The Review.
From Philip Weiss at Mondoweiss (www.philipweiss.org)
April 06, 2009
Mamdani: 'Save Darfur' movement is not a peace movement
James North writes:
I remember Mahmood Mamdani from 35 years ago, when he was the most dynamic leader of the newly-organized union of graduate students at Harvard. Today he is a distinguished professor at Columbia, one of our most original analysts of Africa, most recently of Darfur. He is himself an African (from Uganda) of South Asian descent, and his decades of teaching and doing research all over his home continent command our interest.
His most recent work, Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror (Pantheon), is really several books in one. A large middle section covers the ethnic/tribal/political history of Darfur itself in enormous detail, and will be useful mainly to Africa specialists. But his opening segment, a brilliant dissection of the Save Darfur movement, should be read by everyone who thinks they understand what is really going on today in that area of Sudan. His conclusion is similarly indispensable, in which he raises doubts that the Western passion to pursue "justice" in places like Darfur can also promote peace.
First, the facts.
Two rebel movements in Darfur rose against the Khartoum regime in 2003, which responded over the next 2 years with murder and repression. Starting in 2005, all the experts agree, death rates there dropped dramatically. But, Mamdami notes, "The rhetoric of the Save Darfur movement in the United States escalated as the level of mortality in Darfur declined." He carefully documents that prominent people in the Darfur solidarity movement, such as the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, are chronically vague about how many died and when.
Since then, the two Darfur rebel movements have splintered into 20 factions, some of which are fighting each other, and the civil war element which was present from the start has only gotten worse. But the Darfur solidarity movement continues to see the conflict in one dimension, as "Arabs" committing "genocide" against "black Africans."
Mamdani says:"It was a feat of imagination that required, at the least, a combination of two things: on the one hand, a worthy conviction that even the most wretched and the most distant of humans be considered a part of one’s moral universe but, on the other, a questionable political sense that the lack of precise knowledge of a far-distant place need not be reason enough to keep one from taking urgent action."What’s more, Mamdami contends, and here the expert opinion is all on his side, that the solidarity movement’s proposals – the most prominent is to send foreign troops – will make a bad situation worse. He says pointedly:"One needs to bear in mind that the movement to Save Darfur – like the War on Terror – is not a peace movement: it calls for a military intervention rather than political reconciliation, punishment rather than peace."Mamdani then makes a daring and original effort to interpret the origins of the Darfur solidarity movement. He points out that Darfur protests were far bigger than demonstrations against the simultaneous U.S. war in Iraq, in which far more people were then dying. He is not entirely sure why. First he comes close to suggesting that the Save Darfur movement was a deliberate or at least a convenient way to depoliticize opposition to Iraq, especially among students. But then he suggests that Darfur may be a roundabout way for Americans to avoid Iraq:". . . Iraq makes some Americans feel responsible and guilty. . . Darfur, in contrast, is an act not of responsibility but of philanthropy. Unlike Iraq, Darfur is a place for which Americans do not need to feel responsible but choose to take responsibility."Whatever the explanation, Mamdani emphasizes that Save Darfur’s moral outrage interferes with a peaceful settlement. He spends more than half the book outlining the tangled ethnic, tribal, historical, regional and environmental history of the region. The reader’s head is swimming in names, but Mamdani’s central point has registered: Darfur today is extraordinarily complex, not reducible to simply "Arabs" vs. "Africans."
Toward the end of the book, Mamdani raises questions about the International Criminal Court (ICC), which last year indicted Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir for "genocide." He points out, reluctantly but realistically, that the demands of "justice" may conflict with "peace." If Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress had in the early 1990s insisted on prosecuting the responsible officials in the apartheid regime from top to bottom there would have been no peaceful settlement. Similar painful compromises and overlooking of past crimes were necessary in Mozambique and elsewhere.
He does recognize a "kernel of truth" in the International Criminal Court’s indictment, with respect to "the period of 2003-4, when Darfur was the site of mass deaths." He says, "There is no doubt that the perpetrators of this violence should be held accountable, but when and how is a political decision that cannot belong to the ICC prosecutor."
Maybe Mahmood Mamdani’s own African origins help protect him against simple-minded moralizing. He is familiar at first-hand with human rights violations; his own family was expelled from Uganda in the early 1970s by the infamous (and at first Western-backed) dictator, Idi Amin. But for him Africa is his original home, not a distant fantasyland in which to work out his psychic conflicts. He has earned our respect and considered attention.- - -
its taken far too long for people to challenge groups like save darfur, which oppose peace in sudan.
Posted by: mohanad, April 06, 2009
Darfur, like Bosnia and Kosovo, became a neocon cause, partly, I think, to show that the U.S. would intervene to protect Muslim victims of ethnic cleansing, to defang the "clash of civilizations" dragon.
Posted by: Grumpy Old Man, April 06, 2009
Cryptic note to self, thinking about the real story and Jim.