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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:

For the entire Muslim and Arab world to remain silent when thousands of people in Darfur continue to be killed is shameful and hypocritical.

One of Mamdani’s objections is that journalists and humanitarians focus so intently on atrocities that they provide no plausible account of the setting in which they occur. He denounces Philip Gourevitch’s much-praised book on the Rwandan genocide— We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families —saying that it simplistically brands the Hutus as perpetrators and the Tutsis as victims. Then he issues a broader complaint:

This kind of journalism gives us a simple moral world, where a group of perpetrators faces a group of victims, but where neither history nor motivation is thinkable because the confrontation occurs outside history and context.

This is an objection that is often made about Darfur coverage, and it is true that there are many layers of complexity to Darfur that I am only beginning to uncover after ten visits to the region. For example, some of the Darfur rebel groups, from the “victim” tribes, have also engaged in atrocities; and many of the perpetrators busy killing blacks also look black to an American eye.

Yet every mass slaughter has had its complexities. Turks bitterly protest the designation of the 1915 killings of Armenians as genocide because the killings happened during a war and an uprising by Armenians. In the case of the Cambodian slaughter in the 1970s, the Khmer Rouge targeted people on the basis of education, urban background, or whim, but not for their race, religion, or nationality, so by a strict definition the savagery of Pol Pot is not genocide. In short, complexities always abound, and yet the central truth that resonates through history is that governments have targeted groups of people and slaughtered them.

Is Darfur a case of genocide? Mamdani disputes it, but he makes an elementary mistake in definition on the very first page of his introduction: “It is killing with intent to eliminate an entire group—a race, for example—that is genocide.” On the contrary, neither the Genocide Convention of 1948 nor Raphael Lemkin, who coined the term “genocide,” defined it to mean an attempt to eliminate an entire group. That was what the Nazis attempted to do to Jews, but the Turks were not determined to exterminate every last Armenian or the Serbs every last Bosnian. The Genocide Convention stipulates that it is enough if a group is targeted “in part.”

Legal scholars disagree about whether Darfur qualifies as genocide, with most of the dispute turning on the question of the “intent” of the Sudanese government. I believe it is genocide, but whether this is the case, it’s only one of several legitimate questions about Darfur. There are many reasonable criticisms one can make of some of the humanitarians and journalists involved. Alex de Waal, a Sudan expert and author with Julie Flint of the excellent book Darfur: A New History of a Long War,1 has infuriated many Darfur advocates with his opposition to an ICC arrest warrant for President Bashir. But de Waal knows Sudan exceptionally well, and his blog and essays are read with respect as well as disagreement. Anybody who wants to get a well-informed critique of the Save Darfur movement would be better off reading de Waal than reading Mamdani’s error-filled polemic.

A far better book than Mamdani’s is Darfur and the Crime of Genocide, by John Hagan and Wenona Rymond-Richmond, scholars respectively at Northwestern University and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. They make excellent use of an important archive: interviews with more than one thousand Darfuris that were done as part of the study launched by the State Department in 2004. That archive provides a solid empirical basis for research, and the authors use it effectively to argue, for example, that racism against black Africans was more of a factor than many observers believe. They note that surveys found that between one quarter and one half of the tribes attacked heard racial epithets, including “This is the last day for blacks,” “Kill all the blacks,” “Kill all the slaves.”

Hagan and Rymond-Richmond also explore at length the issue of mortality. They estimate that about 400,000 Sudanese have been killed; they have no doubt that it is genocide. They quote Jan Pfundheller, who had previously studied genocide in the former Yugoslavia and then conducted interviews of Darfuris, as saying: “What happened in Kosovo was evil. This is more vast and equally evil.” The issue of the death toll is controversial, and Mamdani notes correctly that estimates differ widely. The truth is that we have no accurate idea how many people have died in Darfur, and we won’t know until the government allows a careful mortality study—and even then there will be doubts. Rwanda is at peace and available for researchers, but estimates of the genocide there in 1994 still range from 500,000 to one million.

Darfuris are seen as actual people in Darfur and the Crime of Genocide, in a way that they are not in Mamdani’s book, but they emerge most clearly in books by Darfuris themselves. Darfur is their story, and they are the ones best equipped to tell it. The first book of this genre is Daoud Hari’s powerful The Translator: A Tribesman’s Memoir of Darfur, by an extraordinarily courageous (and, somehow, humorous!) young man who interpreted for a number of journalists, including me. The second is Halima Bashir’s Tears of the Desert, a luminous tale of growing up in rural Darfur, undergoing training to be a doctor amid a gathering storm of racism directed toward black people such as herself, and then trying to do her medical work even as the killings accelerate. Dr. Bashir’s book is a wonderful and moving African memoir that deserves far more attention than it has received.

Dr. Bashir recounts how the Sudanese-sponsored Janjaweed militia—the group believed to be responsible for many of the killings in Darfur—attacked a girls’ school in the remote village where she was posted at a rural clinic. She tried desperately to treat the dozens of girls who were raped, even though the only medicine she could offer them was half a pill each of acetaminophen. She writes:

At no stage in my years of study had I been taught how to deal with 8-year-old victims of gang rape in a rural clinic without enough sutures to go around.

Dr. Bashir disclosed the attack to United Nations investigators, so secret police kidnapped her, beat her, tortured her with knives, and gang-raped her. “Now you know what rape is, you black dog,” one of the policemen told her. After reading Mamdani’s heavily theoretical apologia, in which Darfuris barely make an appearance, Dr. Bashir’s memoir is a useful reminder of what’s at stake on the ground.

The attacks on Darfuri villages such as the one Dr. Bashir describes have subsided, partly because there are few black African villages left to attack; the rate of killings in Darfur has dropped. Moreover, France took action last year and led a European military force of 3,700 soldiers that moved into neighboring Chad and the Central African Republic. Sudan had previously dispatched fighters to raid both countries, so that in the past they were the scene of murders and rapes of people because of their race and tribe, just as in Darfur. The European force, which in March passed responsibility to a UN force, has stabilized that crisis and reduced the chance that Chad and the Central African Republic will collapse, so in some respects there is a lull right now. But it won’t last. The expulsion of aid workers, if it is not reversed, will lead to the deaths of countless displaced Darfuris from disease and malnutrition, and the war between north and south Sudan may well break out again in the next two years.

What then is to be done? That question has bedeviled and divided Darfur advocates for years, and there is no simple answer. Yet groups like Save Darfur, the Enough Project, and the Genocide Intervention Network have pointed to steps that will help. Here are six that I believe would increase the prospect of a solution:

• Bring together members of Darfuri civil society—doctors, educators, leaders, and businesspeople among them—to form a common negotiating platform, so that there can be constructive peace talks (since the most plausible path to a solution is a negotiated peace agreement). A prominent Sudanese tycoon and philanthropist, Mo Ibrahim, is now pushing this approach in a project called Mandate Darfur. Sudan’s government blocked the Mandate Darfur peace talks this spring, with barely a murmur of protest from around the world, and it’s crucial that international pressure be focused on Khartoum to allow this initiative to proceed. This may be Sudan’s best hope.

• Apply pressure on the Sudanese government to make concessions so that such a negotiated deal is more likely, while also putting pressure on Abdel Wahid and the rebels. One of the basic problems is that the international community hasn’t applied credible sticks or carrots to Khartoum. Carrots are difficult politically, but we can do more with sanctions (especially, going after the wealth of the Sudanese leaders in foreign banks), with international pressure from Arab countries (here Qatar has been helpful), and with military measures.

• These military measures can include a no-fly zone. This doesn’t mean shooting any planes out of the air. Rather, when a Sudanese military aircraft bombs civilians in defiance of the UN ban on offensive military flights, Western forces can destroy a Sudanese fighter plane or helicopter gunship on the ground a few days later. For this purpose, the US could use aircraft from its military base in Djibouti, and France could use aircraft at its base in Abeché, in Chad. In a classified memo to the White House last year, the special envoy for Sudan, Ambassador Richard Williamson, also outlined other possible military measures, including jamming all telephones, radio signals, and television signals in Khartoum.

• Nudge China into suspending arms deliveries to Sudan. This would terrify the Khartoum regime, at a time when it is arming for renewed war with the south, for China is its main arms supplier and trainer of its military pilots. China won’t suspend its oil purchases from Sudan, but it is conceivable that China would suspend military sales (which yield modest sums for China relative to the cost to its image).

• Encourage some elements in the official Sudanese leadership to overthrow President Bashir, by suggesting that if this happens and they take steps to end the violence in Darfur, the US will normalize relations with Sudan. The other leaders will not be indicted by the ICC, so if they remove Bashir they can remove the albatross from Sudan’s neck. These other leaders also have blood on their hands, but they are far better than Bashir.

• Give a signal that the US has no objection to its allies selling anti-aircraft missiles to south Sudan (that is easier than providing the missiles ourselves). This would deny Khartoum air control over the south, and thus reduce the chance that the north will attack the south and revive the north–south civil war.

Samantha Power, now a national security official, wrote a superb, Pulitzer Prize–winning history of genocide, noting that time and again the United States refused to intervene in genocides even though it knew more or less what was going on. She titled her book A Problem from Hell,2 and that’s what Darfur is. But there have been other problems from hell, including Kosovo and Bosnia, that have been, if not solved, at least hugely mitigated. The lesson from places like Kosovo is that the most urgent need is less for sophisticated technical solutions than for political will to face the problem squarely. It’s too early to know whether President Obama will do this, but at the moment I’m not optimistic.

To some extent, that’s a reflection on the Save Darfur movement and on scribblers like myself who took up the Darfuri cause. We have failed to foster the political will to bring about change. For all our efforts, the situation on the ground may soon become worse. A “Darfur fatigue” has set in, and the movement has lost its steam. And of course the movement was always compromised by its own shortcomings, from infighting to naiveté to the ubiquitous penchant of advocacy groups for exaggeration.

Yet another perspective is also possible. As I write, I’m on a plane flying back from Washington State, where I spoke to a university audience about human rights issues, including Darfur. For all the failures, there is something inspiring about how hundreds of thousands of university students around America have marched, fasted, and donated money on behalf of people of a different race and religion who live halfway around the world, in a land they had never heard of five years ago, and who rarely appear on their television screens. Moreover, the movement is far from a complete failure. Those protests and “Save Darfur” lawn signs prompted a vast relief effort that is keeping millions alive in Sudan, Chad, and the Central African Republic. The movement has also projected a spotlight that has restrained the Sudanese government from undertaking even harsher actions it itches for, such as dismantling the vast Kalma camp for displaced Darfuris. For all the failures, hundreds of thousands of people are alive today because of those students, those churches and synagogues, and that’s not a shabby legacy.

June 3, 2009

Letters

Dissent On Darfur August 13, 2009

  1. 1

    Zed Books, 2006; see my review in these pages, February 9, 2006.

  2. 2

    Basic Books, 2002; reviewed by Brian Urquhart in these pages, April 25, 2002.

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