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What to Do About Darfur

The slaughter in Darfur has now lasted more than six years, longer than World War II, yet the “Save Darfur” movement has stalled—even as the plight of many Darfuris may be worsening. Many advocates for Darfur, myself included, had urged the International Criminal Court to prosecute the Sudanese president, Omar al-Bashir. We got what we hoped for—on March 4, the court issued an arrest warrant for Bashir on counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. But the immediate result was that Bashir expelled thirteen foreign aid organizations and closed three domestic ones. Millions of Darfuris have been left largely without assistance, and some are already dying.

Looming in the background is the risk that war will reignite between north and south Sudan, and if that happens Darfur will be remembered simply as a mild prologue to an even bloodier war. The north and south are each accumulating weapons and preparing for a resumption of the civil war, which, between 1983 and 2005, killed two million people. South Sudan is scheduled to hold a referendum in 2011 to determine whether it will remain in Sudan or secede, and everybody knows that the southern Sudanese will vote overwhelmingly for separation if the present regime remains in power in Khartoum. But two thirds of Sudan’s oil is in the south, and it is almost inconceivable that the north will accept the loss of this oil without a fight. If you believe that Sudan is so wretched that it can’t get worse, just wait.

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were among the leaders in the Senate calling for action on Darfur, yet since they have assumed executive power they have done very little about it. The reason is the same one that has always led American presidents to veer away from taking firm action on genocide—there is no neat, easy solution, major national interests are not at stake, and in the absence of an ideal policy it is always easier on any given day to defer a decision. There are also some signs that the Obama administration—in the form of its Sudan envoy, General Scott Gration, who grew up in East Africa but has no Sudan experience—prefers a softer approach toward Khartoum. As a presidential candidate, Obama sounded as if he were determined to do something about Sudan; since taking office, he has had no visible effect on the situation in Darfur.

Those concerned about Darfur are themselves divided. Some favor more aggressive measures and military tactics, such as a no-fly zone, while aid groups still active in Sudan fret that the result of such a policy would be an end to all relief work in Darfur. There is bickering about whether the ICC indictment of Bashir was a useful step to pressure Sudan, or a feel-good tactic that aggravates the suffering of Darfuris. Most advocates are convinced that the people of Darfur have been subject to genocide, while some, such as Human Rights Watch, prefer to avoid that term.

Did the Darfur movement lose its way? Does it know what it’s doing? And what should be done next?

Mahmood Mamdani, an Africa specialist and professor of government at Columbia University, takes aim at the Darfur advocates in his new book, Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror. It is a dyspeptic critique of the humanitarian movement at every level, and has won attention partly because of that view. Mamdani is also deeply critical of my own reporting about Darfur and regards my kind of journalism as a central part of the problem. He would certainly consider me to be the last person to provide a dispassionate examination of these issues or his book.

Mamdani, who grew up in Uganda and is of Indian extraction, has always been something of a provocateur. After September 11, he published a book, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim, which was more sympathetic to Osama bin Laden than most other books on the subject. He has been accused of serving as apologist for the extremist Hutus behind the Rwandan genocide, and he is also more understanding with respect to Robert Mugabe’s brutal rule in Zimbabwe than most writers. His writing is infused with a tendency to indict European colonialism for inflaming tribal tensions and producing other disasters. That perspective also informs his central view of Darfur, as expressed in his final paragraph:

The Save Darfur lobby in the United States has turned the tragedy of the people of Darfur into a knife with which to slice Africa by demonizing one group of Africans, African Arabs…. At stake is also the independence of Africa. The Save Darfur lobby demands, above all else, justice, the right of the international community—really the big powers in the Security Council—to punish “failed” or “rogue” states, even if it be at the cost of more bloodshed and a diminished possibility of reconciliation. More than anything else, “the responsibility to protect” is a right to punish but without being held accountable—a clarion call for the recolonization of “failed” states in Africa. In its present form, the call for justice is really a slogan that masks a big power agenda to recolonize Africa.

There’s no way to dress up that conclusion or the failure of Saviors and Survivors to present evidence that any Western power seeks to recolonize Sudan or the failed states in Africa. Ever since the Clinton administration fled Somalia, successive American administrations have studiously pretended not to notice failed states. Somalia has staggered on in chaos, and the US has even refused (wrongly) to have much to do with the tiny well-governed enclave of Somaliland, in the Horn of Africa, which has thrived despite a lack of foreign aid and is desperate for a Western embassy. The Central African Republic, to the southwest of Sudan, is a failed state in the making, but when I visited the country I found a single American diplomat in residence and a tiny UN presence; China is the diplomatic and business heavyweight there. Then there’s Congo, the abyss in the heart of Africa and an important pawn in the cold war; in exploring that country’s interior, I’ve met missionaries and diamond- buyers, warlords and UN peacekeepers, but never a US colonist of any kind.

So at a time when Western governments engage in Africa only when badgered by citizens pleading for humanitarian action—and even then do as little as they can get away with—it makes no sense for Mamdani to argue that the Save Darfur movement is some kind of conspiracy by the great powers to recolonize Africa. That is only one weakness in a tendentious book replete with factual mistakes, almost completely dependent on secondary sources, and all papered over with a tone of utter certainty.

To take one example, Mamdani writes that President George W. Bush declared in June 2004 that “the violence in Darfur region is clearly genocide,” and then devotes a page in his book to showing that Secretary of State Colin Powell was “somewhat reluctant to fall in line.” Mamdani claims that “soon after ” Bush’s finding, the State Department financed a study of mortality in Darfur, and suggests that all this shows discreditable political motives.

This sequence completely misunderstands what was going on in the United States government. The State Department financed the mortality study, before there was any finding of genocide, because it wanted information. Then Powell, after consultations with State Department legal scholars, was the first official to use the word “genocide”; and Bush was the last to do so. The quotation that Mamdani cites from Bush came in June 2005, not June 2004.

Likewise, he muddles UN Security Council resolution 1769 on Darfur, claiming that it passed a year before it did, and he incorrectly asserts that Darfur was a member of the League of Nations. Again: the most prominent Darfur leader is Abdel Wahid al-Nur, known universally as Abdel Wahid, yet somehow Mamdani mistakes his name by referring to him as Abdel al-Nur. A conversation with anyone familiar with Darfur would have caught such mistakes, but Mamdani doesn’t seem to have fact-checked, conducted original research, consulted Arabic-language sources, or, most astonishingly, consulted many Darfuris themselves.

He says he made several trips to Sudan, but visits there are tightly constrained by the Humanitarian Aid Commission, run by Ahmed Haroun, who is under indictment by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. To get around in Darfur and to talk to displaced Darfuris, one needs permits issued by Haroun, or else one goes in illegally. I’ve paid drivers to sneak me in from Chad, and I’ve used fake IDs to get through checkpoints. (Well, not exactly fake IDs: after noticing that security officers couldn’t read English, I put my frequent flyer membership cards on a lanyard as if they were UN passes, presented them at checkpoints, and was waved through.) It’s not clear how Mamdani managed these obstacles in Sudan or whether he simply took propaganda tours, since he never describes his concrete experience there. He apparently did not go to neighboring Chad, the one place where it is possible to interview large numbers of Darfuris without political interference or risking punishment for them.

Mamdani seems to think that the Save Darfur movement was driven by neocons rather than liberals. He writes:

This mass student and evangelical movement does not seek to end the civil war in Darfur; rather, it calls for a military intervention in the civil war without bothering to address the likely consequences of that intervention. “Out of Iraq and into Darfur,” says a common Save Darfur slogan. “Boots on the ground,” says another. At best, Save Darfur was a romance driven by a feel-good search for instant remedies. At worst, it was a media-savvy political campaign designed to portray “Arabs” as race-intoxicated exterminators of “Africans.”

The political dimension of Save Darfur is best understood in the context of the War on Terror. Because the crimes in Darfur are said to have been committed by “Arabs”—who have already been successfully demonized by the War on Terror—it has been easy to demonize these crimes as “genocide.”

I never heard either of these supposedly “common” slogans, and a search of the Save Darfur Web site reveals not a single reference to the first phrase and references to the second only with regard to UN peacekeepers serving in Sudan with government consent. Some people, myself included, favor a no-fly zone that would keep government aircraft from killing people in Darfur, but I don’t know of any serious Darfur activist who favors sending American “boots on the ground” into Darfur; that would create a nationalist backlash in Sudan.

As for Darfur being a front in the “war on terror,” those active in the Darfur movement were mostly those same liberals who were denouncing abuses in the war on terror. Partly because the movement was worried about seeming judgmental of Arabs, it tended to say little about the fact that the slaughter was conducted by Sudanese Arabs. There have been much more frank acknowledgments of this element of the slaughter in the Arab news media, including al-Jazeera and the pan-Arab newspapers such as al-Sharq al-Awsat. As Lebanon’s Daily Star declared:

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