Home | Comment & Analysis    Monday 3 August 2009

Understanding Darfur’s Saviours and Survivors

Darfur in the crossfire between humanitarian fundamentalism and Khartoum’s divide and rule

By Harry Verhoeven, Lydiah Kemunto Bosire and Sharath Srinivasan,

August 2, 2009 — Crises in African countries are too often given a media attention-span of a couple of days. Millions of deaths in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia’s two decades of disorder, and the famines in Ethiopia only capture the imagination when related to gorillas, pirates and rock stars, respectively, before they return to their footnote status.
Darfur, however, is different. A resource-poor region of Africa is at the centre of the most vibrant student activist campaign in a generation. In a unanimous vote in mid-2004, both the US House of Representatives and the Senate labelled it “genocide” (before sending out a mission to inquire into whether it really was, but no matter). For five years since and counting, Darfur has top-billed the agenda for human rights activists, media-outlets and the Western-led international community: aid organisations have set up the world’s largest humanitarian operation and more than 15000 UN and AU peacekeepers now operate in Western Sudan. To cap it all, the International Criminal Court has issued an arrest warrant for Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir and is appealing to add a charge of genocide. What is going on?

“Saviours and Survivors” is Prof. Mahmood Mamdani’s answer to this question.
This is a book about the naming and framing of violence, and its consequences: it explains why this war in particular has received such unusual publicity and become the object of international political and judicial activism. Through an investigation into the roots of the violence, Prof. Mamdani challenges the moral, apolitical rendering of the conflict in the activist -consequently global– consciousness. Combining analytical strength and historical knowledge with a provocative tone, this book has unleashed, since its preview essay in the Nation and the LRB a year ago, one of the most heated discussions of an African conflict in recent time.

According to Mamdani, the ICC’s arrest warrants, the campaign of the Save Darfur Coalition (SDC), and the principle of the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ should be understood in the context of a wider emerging Western thinking and discourse epitomized by the Global War on Terror (GWOT).

“Saviours and Survivors” does not try to tie a conspiratorial thread between the GWOT, the ICC and the SDC as some of its critics allege. Rather, it explicitly aims to highlight the problematic nature of the increasing tendency of the Western-led international community to remove the ‘political’ –the adversarial, the contestable- from key areas of public life and public decision-making. The SDC, just like GWOT-theorists, depoliticises conflicts, preferring to cast them in intellectually easy, intuitively appealing and politically convenient terms of ‘good’ and ‘evil’. What is effectively a technocratic banner of ‘global justice’ and ‘universal values’ obscures quintessentially political questions about the who, what and why of ‘global’ interventionism and thereby also veils powerful interests and highly partisan decisions. In the GWOT-Zeitgeist, complex violent processes are radically simplified and packaged in catchy soundbites and emotionally charged messages. The contradictions and particular stakes of politics are removed from the war setting and replaced by absolutist norms that leave us with only one ‘a-political’ (and hence morally obvious) choice: military action. And just like the GWOT, the supporters of military intervention in Darfur cannot be bothered with local nuances, socio-historical processes and the messy nature of on the ground conflict realities that do not fit nice legal or ethical categories. There can be no discussion of how certain ‘perpetrators’ were once ‘victims’ and how the ‘victims’ are at risk of becoming ‘perpetrators’ due to outside intervention; or of how the ‘saviours’ of some continue to be the oppressors of others.

The reason for action is moral. Politics is to be kept at bay; it is too messy, analysing and understanding it takes too long; look where politics got us in Rwanda.

And Rwanda is particularly emotive for the Darfur activists. As Mamdani notes, “The lesson is to rescue before it is too late, to act before seeking to understand. Though it is never explicitly stated, Rwanda is recalled as a time when we thought we needed to know more; we waited to find out, to learn the difference between Tutsi and Hutu, and why one was killing the other...What is new about Darfur, human rights interventionists will tell you, is the realisation that sometimes we must respond ethically and not wait. That time is when genocide is occurring.” In other words, prescribe the solution without understanding the problem. What “Saviours and Survivors” suggests is that an understanding of the problem would lead to a vastly different understanding of what solutions are necessary.

Mamdani perceptively contrasts the current wave of Darfur activism the anti-war campaign regarding Vietnam, or the struggle against apartheid- SDC’s bottom-line is about military intervention: it mobilises for war, not for peace. The tactics used to influence public opinion too are very different- a particularly striking paragraph is Mamdani’s description of how the SDC, in its early days, distributed ‘action packets’ according to faith with a specific message tailored to religious stereotypes: if Christians were asked to lead (cf. the burden to save) and Jews were uniquely placed to bear witness (cf. the Holocaust), then Muslims, cast in the GWOT-framework, were asked to fight oppressors in their midst and identify perpetrators.

SDC’s mischaracterisation of the Darfur conflict as being about ‘Arabs’ committing genocide against Darfur’s ‘African’ population was meant to appeal to a very broad albeit only American audience, uniting East Coast liberals, African-American churches and Deep South nativists behind Congress resolutions. Lead by movie stars and campus activists who decried Darfur as an ‘African Auschwitz’, Mamdani rightly criticises this ad hoc coalition of right-wing conservatives and youthful Western progressives for turning Darfur into a place and an issue ‘to feel good about yourself because we’re doing the “right” thing and not engaging in politics’. Put differently, intervention in this brave new post-9/11 world claims to destroy evil, not to tackle a political problem. Quod non, of course.

The outcome? Humanitarian impunity. Here, Mamdani points out that Africa is the site of experimentation: the logic of societal experimentation in the form of Structural Adjustment Programmes that led to collapse in the public sector continues in the work of the humanitarians. Today, in the messy situations of ongoing conflict, a new idea is being advocated, that of prosecutions at all cost, even when increased violence –as seen with the murderous rebels of the Lord’s Resistance Army now engaged in violence in the Congo – becomes a real outcome. What are the implications for the institution of accountability itself and our hierarchies of principles when we embrace the dogma of unconditional, immediate justice– justice by force or through the suspension of peaceful negotiation if necessary? Who gets to decide which right trumps others? And before we say ‘the international community’, what legitimacy and accountability have those who constitute this group, assuming we can agree to the analytical content of this ‘international community’? In theory, prosecution and military intervention are elegant interventions. However, if they go wrong – and humanitarianism is littered with interventions gone wrong – architects do not have to live with the consequences of their action.

Whereas “Saviours and Survivors” offers some excellent reflections on the ideological background of the international community’s role in the Darfur conflict, it is less good at analysing what has actually (not) happened. For all Mamdani’s claims about the extraordinary efficiency of the SDC and its Congress resolutions, the policy of Washington (and by extension, other Western countries) towards Sudan over the past years has been incoherent and deeply ineffective. Nor has the principle of the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ (R2P) and its definition of sovereignty transformed the will of interveners. In making a case for the concept, one of R2P’s philosophical fathers, Gareth Evans said, “While the primary responsibility to protect its own people properly lies with the sovereign state, if that responsibility is abdicated, through ill-will or incapacity, then it shifts to the international community collectively – who should respond with force if large scale killing or ethnic cleansing is involved, and that is the only way to halt or avert the tragedy.” While Mamdani sees this discourse as thrusting open doors for the violation of African sovereignty, this outcome has not been forthcoming.

Instead, America has swung back and forth between long periods of silence, outright confrontation with Al-Bashir, support for the former rebels of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, and attempts at normalising diplomatic relations with Khartoum. It initially supported African Union troops, then considered them to be inadequate, subsequently lobbied for a UN peacekeeping force only to fail to seriously support it when it finally took over in January 2008; simultaneously the Bush administration invited Sudan’s intelligence chief to Langley, Virginia for collaboration in the context of the GWOT. Overall then, Washington and other stakeholders who have embraced the genocide-label have struggled to manage competing interests –the Khartoum-SPLA peace agreement, terrorism, regional stability, Darfur- and have failed to develop a coherent long-term policy that really improves the human security of Sudanese civilians. It has been exactly this problem of inconsistency, confusion and the exigencies of Realpolitik, rather than bellicose confrontationalism inspired by militant activism, that has dominated real world Western actions.

This brings us to the second of three major shortcomings of the book: its own portrayal of the violence in Darfur. While “Saviours and Survivors” does a masterful job of exposing the flaws in the orthodox ‘genocide’-narrative of the Darfur conflict, demanding that history and politics are injected into our understanding, it offers an account of its own that lacks engagement with critical parts of the historical context of violence in Sudan. In effect, Mamdani diminishes the importance of contemporary Sudanese politics that do matter to the understanding of Darfur.

For Mamdani, Darfur is, essentially, a two decades old war over land, caused by the nefarious interplay of prolonged drought, the colonial legacy of re-tribalisation and the Cold War’s negative impact. Building on earlier scholarship, he argues that Darfur’s history cannot be constructed as a simple settler(Arab) vs native(African) narrative, as the SDC does, with a bad ‘Arab’ government as spoiler-in-chief; we need a far more sophisticated analysis in both space and time to understand the contemporary violence. While Darfur served as a launching pad for proxy warfare in neighbouring Chad between France, America and Libya, displacement through desertification in the 1980s unleashed a struggle over ever shrinking quantities of land: as Darfurians responded by resorting to increasingly narrow racial-ethnic constructs, the Malthusian trap became ever more violent. For Mamdani then, the national government’s role in all of this has largely been one of misreading local dynamics and failed attempts to broker negotiated settlements. By 2003, the violence had spiralled out of control and acquired broader national implications; the rise of two potent rebel movements lead to a brutal counter-insurgency marked by gross human rights violations.

The problem is not so much that these claims are wrong (though some scholars have taken issue with its reconstruction of the history of land and identity in Darfur), but that through their selectiveness, they could be seen as absolving the current regime in Khartoum from its devastating political, moral and legal responsibility for the atrocities and displacement in the region. Mamdani effectively diminishes the importance of recent deliberate political actions through an under-analysis of why Darfur is not exceptional and of why Sudan has been torn apart since independence by countless macro and micro-conflict: war in Sudan –whether in the East, in the South or in the West- is fundamentally not a “clash of (Islamic and Christian) civilisations”, nor a question of irreconcilable ‘Arab’ and ‘African’ cultures, but a result of the brutal exclusionary rule of a faction of Sudanese elite who control the country. “Saviours and Survivors” overlooks how since coming to power in 1989, the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) has radicalised these core-periphery tendencies under the banner of militant Islam, rhetorically welcoming as equals all those from the peripheries who wanted to join its cause, but in reality deepening the political-economic realities of exclusion and wealth accumulation in Sudan. During the last decades, Darfur, like other ‘backward’ parts of Sudan, has been totally deprived of public goods like security provision, decent health care and roads, while its people have been excluded from government jobs at the centre. Historically, Darfurians had a wide range of mechanisms to deal with both climatic changes and tribal-political upheaval and did so without falling into ethno-ecological conflicts; the intensification of violence from the mid-80s onwards has thus less to do with creeping desertification and ‘unfortunate’ governmental misunderstanding, then with a context of structural exclusion that makes, and keeps, people vulnerable to disasters, whether natural or political. The ruling NCP did not merely fail to ‘think through’ the colonially crafted divide, as Mamdani sees it, but it reinforced and exploited divisive ideas of race, identity and citizenship in order to manage patronage politics, as it has done elsewhere in Sudan.

The similarities between the tragedy in Darfur and wars elsewhere in the country go beyond their position in the Sudanese state and relate to the dynamics of the conflict itself: there is a vicious and deliberate interlocking of decentralised violence, forced migration, racialised language and ethnic divide and rule. The scorched earth tactics in which displacement and terror are often more important than actual killing; the dehumanising discourse that stirs up hate and antagonises communities; the use of proxy militias, composed of marginalised groups in their own right, who are given total impunity to combat the enemy; the systematic transfer of assets (cattle, land, water holes,...) from those targeted by the government to those fighting for Khartoum; the aerial bombardment of civilians and the use of aid as a weapon against people; the false cease-fires and the relentless obstruction of humanitarian operations to wear down the international community and rebel opposition: the pattern of violence in Darfur eerily mimics that of war in the 80s and 90s in Southern Kordofan, Equatoria and Bahr al-Ghazal. Ahmed Haroun (who has been indicted by the ICC on charges of crimes against humanity), exemplifies how the horrors of Darfur are connected to massacres in other parts of Sudan- Haroun was not only one of the chief organisers of the Janjaweed in 2003-2004, he also led the government militias in their 1990s jihad in the Nuba Mountains, raping, pillaging and killing to break the soul of the local communities.

None of this is to be found in “Savours and Survivors.” While Mahmood Mamdani rightfully criticises the international community’s simplistic account of ‘genocide’ in Darfur, he engages in his own distortion through his downplay of the agency of those factions of the Sudanese elites in control of the state. War, exclusion and underdevelopment in Sudan have a history that needs to be told. And Darfur is now more than ever before an integral part of that history.

The third problem with the book is in its vision of the contents of accountable politics. For Mamdani, there are three kind of justice possible– political, criminal and social. Quite apart from the problem of the Court being an extension of the antipolitical humanitarian fundamentalist Zeitgeist –after all, the ICC considers cases in according to technical specifications of gravity and applies the appropriate procedures, unencumbered by the politics that produced the violence– the ICC’s focus on criminal justice is inadequate. Seeking to deliver justice in accordance to the ‘Nuremberg Model’, the court assumes it is possible to tell apart good and evil, perpetrators and victims. It also assumes that the survivors do not have to live together, that the violence has ended and that there is a winner. In Darfur, as South Africa, Mamdani offers, the situation is different. Right and wrong, perpetrator and victim, are far more fluid. People have to live together, there are no winners and losers. Everyone is a survivor. The solution lies in the establishment of political change and inclusive institutions, with an acknowledgement that amnesty may be a price to be paid. Instead of criminal justice, the focus should be political justice based on what Mamdani calls the Kempton Park model that brought an end to Apartheid in South Africa. There, the focus was on political justice, not criminal justice. The process focused on the political needs of the nation, privileging the sovereignty of the country over the principles of the amorphous international community.

What Mamdani does not address is that the ‘Kempton Park’-choices of apartheid South Africa, Mozambique and Southern Sudan were easier to make because the outside world was not all mobilized behind one principle, right or wrong. Is Kempton Park still on the table now that the rules of peace negotiations -and of who should end up in parliament and who should be in jail- have been transformed? Might the activists be satisfied with delayed justice, where amnesty and political transformation are privileged, with the knowledge that later, whenever domestic politics allows it, prosecutions can take place? After all, many countries are recently revisiting their old amnesty provisions. Mamdani does not make this proposal but it might be one worth considering, including its moral hazard. Further, South Africa has demonstrated that the Kempton Park model does not automatically address social justice, the other pillar of justice that often part of the root causes of violence. Where does this leave us? This is not addressed.

In conclusion, “Saviours and Survivors” demonstrates how the humanitarian project – with SDC and ICC being just two examples thereof - has shifted and continues to shift the vocabulary through which all local claims are made, how people understand their problems, and what solutions are availed to them and which ones are excluded. This thought-provoking book leaves us with an existential question: what are we do with a humanitarianism which, instead of increasing the agency of those it hopes to support, removes from them the possibilities of acting out of their predicament, turning them into wards, passive subjects in need of saving?

Harry Verhoeven, PhD-student, Dept of Politics & IR, St Cross College, Oxford University; Lydiah Kemunto Bosire, PhD-student, Dept of Politics & IR, St Cross College, Oxford University and Sharath Srinivasan, PhD, Department of International Development, St Antony’sCollege, Oxford University. The authors of this article can be reached at Harry.Verhoeven@politics.ox.ac.uk