Africa and Aboriginal Tuesdays: The Politics of Naming: Genocide, Civil War and Insurgency by Mahmood Mamdani
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. But the violence in the two places is named differently. In Iraq, it is said to be a cycle of insurgency and counter-insurgency; in Darfur, it is called genocide. Why the difference? Who does the naming? Who is being named? What difference does it make?
The most powerful mobilisation in New York City is in relation to Darfur, not Iraq. One would expect the reverse, for no other reason than that most New Yorkers are American citizens and so should feel directly responsible for the violence in occupied Iraq. But Iraq is a messy place in the American imagination, a place with messy politics. Americans worry about what their government should do in Iraq. Should it withdraw? What would happen if it did? In contrast, there is nothing messy about Darfur. It is a place without history and without politics; simply a site where perpetrators clearly identifiable as ‘Arabs’ confront victims clearly identifiable as ‘Africans’.
A full-page advertisement has appeared several times a week in the New York Times calling for intervention in Darfur now. It wants the intervening forces to be placed under ‘a chain of command allowing necessary and timely military action without approval from distant political or civilian personnel’. That intervention in Darfur should not be subject to ‘political or civilian’ considerations and that the intervening forces should have the right to shoot – to kill – without permission from distant places: these are said to be ‘humanitarian’ demands. In the same vein, a New Republic editorial on Darfur has called for ‘force as a first-resort response’. What makes the situation even more puzzling is that some of those who are calling for an end to intervention in Iraq are demanding an intervention in Darfur; as the slogan goes, ‘Out of Iraq and into Darfur.’
What would happen if we thought of Darfur as we do of Iraq, as a place with a history and politics – a messy politics of insurgency and counter-insurgency? Why should an intervention in Darfur not turn out to be a trigger that escalates rather than reduces the level of violence as intervention in Iraq has done? Why might it not create the actual possibility of genocide, not just rhetorically but in reality? Morally, there is no doubt about the horrific nature of the violence against civilians in Darfur. The ambiguity lies in the politics of the violence, whose sources include both a state-connected counter-insurgency and an organised insurgency, very much like the violence in Iraq.
The insurgency and counter-insurgency in Darfur began in 2003. Both were driven by an intermeshing of domestic tensions in the context of a peace-averse international environment defined by the War on Terror. On the one hand, there was a struggle for power within the political class in Sudan, with more marginal interests in the west (following those in the south and in the east) calling for reform at the centre. On the other, there was a community-level split inside Darfur, between nomads and settled farmers, who had earlier forged a way of sharing the use of semi-arid land in the dry season. With the drought that set in towards the late 1970s, co-operation turned into an intense struggle over diminishing resources.
As the insurgency took root among the prospering peasant tribes of Darfur, the government trained and armed the poorer nomads and formed a militia – the Janjawiid – that became the vanguard of the unfolding counter-insurgency. The worst violence came from the Janjawiid, but the insurgent movements were also accused of gross violations. Anyone wanting to end the spiralling violence would have to bring about power-sharing at the state level and resource-sharing at the community level, land being the key resource.
Since its onset, two official verdicts have been delivered on the violence, the first from the US, the second from the UN. The American verdict was unambiguous: Darfur was the site of an ongoing genocide. The chain of events leading to Washington’s proclamation began with ‘a genocide alert’ from the Management Committee of the Washington Holocaust Memorial Museum; according to the Jerusalem Post, the alert was ‘the first ever of its kind, issued by the US Holocaust Museum’. The House of Representatives followed unanimously on 24 June 2004. The last to join the chorus was Colin Powell.
The UN Commission on Darfur was created in the aftermath of the American verdict and in response to American pressure. It was more ambiguous. In September 2004, the Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, then the chair of the African Union, visited UN headquarters in New York. Darfur had been the focal point of discussion in the African Union. All concerned were alert to the extreme political sensitivity of the issue. At a press conference at the UN on 23 September Obasanjo was asked to pronounce on the violence in Darfur: was it genocide or not? His response was very clear:
Before you can say that this is genocide or ethnic cleansing, we will have to have a definite decision and plan and programme of a government to wipe out a particular group of people, then we will be talking about genocide, ethnic cleansing. What we know is not that. What we know is that there was an uprising, rebellion, and the government armed another group of people to stop that rebellion. That’s what we know. That does not amount to genocide from our own reckoning. It amounts to of course conflict. It amounts to violence.
By October, the Security Council had established a five-person commission of inquiry on Darfur and asked it to report within three months on ‘violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law in Darfur by all parties’, and specifically to determine ‘whether or not acts of genocide have occurred’. Among the members of the commission was the chief prosecutor of South Africa’s TRC, Dumisa Ntsebeza. In its report, submitted on 25 January 2005, the commission concluded that ‘the Government of the Sudan has not pursued a policy of genocide . . . directly or through the militias under its control.’ But the commission did find that the government’s violence was ‘deliberately and indiscriminately directed against civilians’. Indeed, ‘even where rebels may have been present in villages, the impact of attacks on civilians shows that the use of military force was manifestly disproportionate to any threat posed by the rebels.’ These acts, the commission concluded, ‘were conducted on a widespread and systematic basis, and therefore may amount to crimes against humanity’ (my emphasis). Yet, the commission insisted, they did not amount to acts of genocide: ‘The crucial element of genocidal intent appears to be missing . . . it would seem that those who planned and organised attacks on villages pursued the intent to drive the victims from their homes, primarily for purposes of counter-insurgency warfare.’
At the same time, the commission assigned secondary responsibility to rebel forces – namely, members of the Sudan Liberation Army and the Justice and Equality Movement – which it held ‘responsible for serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law which may amount to war crimes’ (my emphasis). If the government stood accused of ‘crimes against humanity’, rebel movements were accused of ‘war crimes’. Finally, the commission identified individual perpetrators and presented the UN secretary-general with a sealed list that included ‘officials of the government of Sudan, members of militia forces, members of rebel groups and certain foreign army officers acting in their personal capacity’. The list named 51 individuals.
The commission’s findings highlighted three violations of international law: disproportionate response, conducted on a widespread and systematic basis, targeting entire groups (as opposed to identifiable individuals) but without the intention to eliminate them as groups. It is for this last reason that the commission ruled out the finding of genocide. Its less grave findings of ‘crimes against humanity’ and ‘war crimes’ are not unique to Darfur, but fit several other situations of extreme violence: in particular, the US occupation of Iraq, the Hema-Lendu violence in eastern Congo and the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Among those in the counter-insurgency accused of war crimes were the ‘foreign army officers acting in their personal capacity’, i.e. mercenaries, presumably recruited from armed forces outside Sudan. The involvement of mercenaries in perpetrating gross violence also fits the occupation in Iraq, where some of them go by the name of ‘contractors’.
The journalist in the US most closely identified with consciousness-raising on Darfur is the New York Times op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof, often identified as a lone crusader on the issue. To peruse Kristof’s Darfur columns over the past three years is to see 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.
Kristof made six highly publicised trips to Darfur, the first in March 2004 and the sixth two years later. He began by writing of it as a case of ‘ethnic cleansing’: ‘Sudan’s Arab rulers’ had ‘forced 700,000 black African Sudanese to flee their villages’ (24 March 2004). Only three days later, he upped the ante: this was no longer ethnic cleansing, but genocide. ‘Right now,’ he wrote on 27 March, ‘the government of Sudan is engaged in genocide against three large African tribes in its Darfur region.’ He continued: ‘The killings are being orchestrated by the Arab-dominated Sudanese government’ and ‘the victims are non-Arabs: blacks in the Zaghawa, Massalliet and Fur tribes.’ He estimated the death toll at a thousand a week. Two months later, on 29 May, he revised the estimates dramatically upwards, citing predictions from the US Agency for International Development to the effect that ‘at best, “only” 100,000 people will die in Darfur this year of malnutrition and disease’ but ‘if things go badly, half a million will die.’
The UN commission’s report was released on 25 February 2005. It confirmed ‘massive displacement’ of persons (‘more than a million’ internally displaced and ‘more than 200,000’ refugees in Chad) and the destruction of ‘several hundred’ villages and hamlets as ‘irrefutable facts’; but it gave no confirmed numbers for those killed. Instead, it noted rebel claims that government-allied forces had ‘allegedly killed over 70,000 persons’. Following the publication of the report, Kristof began to scale down his estimates. For the first time, on 23 February 2005, he admitted that ‘the numbers are fuzzy.’ Rather than the usual single total, he went on to give a range of figures, from a low of 70,000, which he dismissed as ‘a UN estimate’, to ‘independent estimates [that] exceed 220,000’. A warning followed: ‘and the number is rising by about ten thousand a month.’
The publication of the commission’s report had considerable effect. Internationally, it raised doubts about whether what was going on in Darfur could be termed genocide. Even US officials were unwilling to go along with the high estimates propagated by the broad alliance of organisations that subscribe to the Save Darfur campaign. The effect on American diplomacy was discernible. Three months later, on 3 May, Kristof noted with dismay that not only had ‘Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick pointedly refused to repeat the administration’s past judgment that the killings amount to genocide’: he had ‘also cited an absurdly low estimate of Darfur’s total death toll: 60,000 to 160,000’. As an alternative, Kristof cited the latest estimate of deaths from the Coalition for International Justice as ‘nearly 400,000, and rising by 500 a day’. In three months, Kristof’s estimates had gone up from 10,000 to 15,000 a month. Six months later, on 27 November, Kristof warned that ‘if aid groups pull out . . . the death toll could then rise to 100,000 a month.’ Anyone keeping a tally of the death toll in Darfur as reported in the Kristof columns would find the rise, fall and rise again very bewildering. First he projected the number of dead at 320,000 for 2004 (16 June 2004) but then gave a scaled down estimate of between 70,000 and 220,000 (23 February 2005). The number began once more to climb to ‘nearly 400,000’ (3 May 2005), only to come down yet again to 300,000 (23 April 2006). Each time figures were given with equal confidence but with no attempt to explain their basis. Did the numbers reflect an actual decline in the scale of killing in Darfur or was Kristof simply making an adjustment to the changing mood internationally?
In the 23 April column, Kristof expanded the list of perpetrators to include an external power: ‘China is now underwriting its second genocide in three decades. The first was in Pol Pot’s Cambodia, and the second is in Darfur, Sudan. Chinese oil purchases have financed Sudan’s pillage of Darfur, Chinese-made AK-47s have been the main weapons used to slaughter several hundred thousand people in Darfur so far and China has protected Sudan in the UN Security Council.’ In the Kristof columns, there is one area of deafening silence, to do with the fact that what is happening in Darfur is a civil war. Hardly a word is said about the insurgency, about the civilian deaths insurgents mete out, about acts that the commission characterised as ‘war crimes’. Would the logic of his 23 April column not lead one to think that those with connections to the insurgency, some of them active in the international campaign to declare Darfur the site of genocide, were also guilty of ‘underwriting’ war crimes in Darfur?
Newspaper writing on Darfur has sketched a pornography of violence. It seems fascinated by and fixated on the gory details, describing the worst of the atrocities in gruesome detail and chronicling the rise in the number of them. The implication is that the motivation of the perpetrators lies in biology (‘race’) and, if not that, certainly in ‘culture’. This voyeuristic approach accompanies a moralistic discourse whose effect is both to obscure the politics of the violence and position the reader as a virtuous, not just a concerned observer.
Journalism gives us a simple moral world, where a group of perpetrators face a group of victims, but where neither history nor motivation is thinkable because both are outside history and context. Even when newspapers highlight violence as a social phenomenon, they fail to understand the forces that shape the agency of the perpetrator. Instead, they look for a clear and uncomplicated moral that describes the victim as untainted and the perpetrator as simply evil. Where yesterday’s victims are today’s perpetrators, where victims have turned perpetrators, this attempt to find an African replay of the Holocaust not only does not work but also has perverse consequences. Whatever its analytical weaknesses, the depoliticisation of violence has given its proponents distinct political advantages.
The conflict in Darfur is highly politicised, and so is the international campaign. One of the campaign’s constant refrains has been that the ongoing genocide is racial: ‘Arabs’ are trying to eliminate ‘Africans’. But both ‘Arab’ and ‘African’ have several meanings in Sudan. There have been at least three meanings of ‘Arab’. Locally, ‘Arab’ was a pejorative reference to the lifestyle of the nomad as uncouth; regionally, it referred to someone whose primary language was Arabic. In this sense, a group could become ‘Arab’ over time. This process, known as Arabisation, was not an anomaly in the region: there was Amharisation in Ethiopia and Swahilisation on the East African coast. The third meaning of ‘Arab’ was ‘privileged and exclusive’; it was the claim of the riverine political aristocracy who had ruled Sudan since independence, and who equated Arabisation with the spread of civilisation and being Arab with descent.
‘African’, in this context, was a subaltern identity that also had the potential of being either exclusive or inclusive. The two meanings were not only contradictory but came from the experience of two different insurgencies. The inclusive meaning was more political than racial or even cultural (linguistic), in the sense that an ‘African’ was anyone determined to make a future within Africa. It was pioneered by John Garang, the leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) in the south, as a way of holding together the New Sudan he hoped to see. In contrast, its exclusive meaning came in two versions, one hard (racial) and the other soft (linguistic) – ‘African’ as Bantu and ‘African’ as the identity of anyone who spoke a language indigenous to Africa. The racial meaning came to take a strong hold in both the counter-insurgency and the insurgency in Darfur. The Save Darfur campaign’s characterisation of the violence as ‘Arab’ against ‘African’ obscured both the fact that the violence was not one-sided and the contest over the meaning of ‘Arab’ and ‘African’: a contest that was critical precisely because it was ultimately about who belonged and who did not in the political community called Sudan. 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.
The depoliticisation of the conflict gave campaigners three advantages. First, they were able to occupy the moral high ground. The campaign presented itself as apolitical but moral, its concern limited only to saving lives. Second, only a single-issue campaign could bring together in a unified chorus forces that are otherwise ranged as adversaries on most important issues of the day: at one end, the Christian right and the Zionist lobby; at the other, a mainly school and university-based peace movement. Nat Hentoff of the Village Voice wrote of the Save Darfur Coalition as ‘an alliance of more than 515 faith-based, humanitarian and human rights organisations’; among the organisers of their Rally to Stop the Genocide in Washington last year were groups as diverse as the American Jewish World Service, the American Society for Muslim Advancement, the National Association of Evangelicals, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, the American Anti-Slavery Group, Amnesty International, Christian Solidarity International, Physicians for Human Rights and the National Black Church Initiative. Surely, such a wide coalition would cease to hold together if the issue shifted to, say, Iraq.
To understand the third advantage, we have to return to the question I asked earlier: how could it be that many of those calling for an end to the American and British intervention in Iraq are demanding an intervention in Darfur? It’s tempting to think that the advantage of Darfur lies in its being a small, faraway place where those who drive the War on Terror do not have a vested interest. That this is hardly the case is evident if one compares the American response to Darfur to its non-response to Congo, even though the dimensions of the conflict in Congo seem to give it a mega-Darfur quality: the numbers killed are estimated in the millions rather than the hundreds of thousands; the bulk of the killing, particularly in Kivu, is done by paramilitaries trained, organised and armed by neighbouring governments; and the victims on both sides – Hema and Lendu – are framed in collective rather than individual terms, to the point that one influential version defines both as racial identities and the conflict between the two as a replay of the Rwandan genocide. Given all this, how does one explain the fact that the focus of the most widespread and ambitious humanitarian movement in the US is on Darfur and not on Kivu?
Nicholas Kristof was asked this very question by a university audience: ‘When I spoke at Cornell University recently, a woman asked why I always harp on Darfur. It’s a fair question. The number of people killed in Darfur so far is modest in global terms: estimates range from 200,000 to more than 500,000. In contrast, four million people have died since 1998 as a result of the fighting in Congo, the most lethal conflict since World War Two.’ But instead of answering the question, Kristof – now writing his column rather than facing the questioner at Cornell – moved on: ‘And malaria annually kills one million to three million people – meaning that three years’ deaths in Darfur are within the margin of error of the annual global toll from malaria.’ And from there he went on to compare the deaths in Darfur to the deaths from malaria, rather than from the conflict in Congo: ‘We have a moral compass within us and its needle is moved not only by human suffering but also by human evil. That’s what makes genocide special – not just the number of deaths but the government policy behind them. And that in turn is why stopping genocide should be an even higher priority than saving lives from Aids or malaria.’ That did not explain the relative silence on Congo. Could the reason be that in the case of Congo, Hema and Lendu militias – many of them no more than child soldiers – were trained by America’s allies in the region, Rwanda and Uganda? Is that why the violence in Darfur – but not the violence in Kivu – is named as a genocide?
It seems that genocide has become a label to be stuck on your worst enemy, a perverse version of the Nobel Prize, part of a rhetorical arsenal that helps you vilify your adversaries while ensuring impunity for your allies. In Kristof’s words, the point is not so much ‘human suffering’ as ‘human evil’. Unlike Kivu, Darfur can be neatly integrated into the War on Terror, for Darfur gives the Warriors on Terror a valuable asset with which to demonise an enemy: a genocide perpetrated by Arabs. This was the third and most valuable advantage that Save Darfur gained from depoliticising the conflict. The more thoroughly Darfur was integrated into the War on Terror, the more the depoliticised violence in Darfur acquired a racial description, as a genocide of ‘Arabs’ killing ‘Africans’. Racial difference purportedly constituted the motive force behind the mass killings. The irony of Kristof’s columns is that they mirror the ideology of Arab supremacism in Sudan by demonising entire communities.[*]
Kristof chides Arab peoples and the Arab press for not having the moral fibre to respond to this Muslim-on-Muslim violence, presumably because it is a violence inflicted by Arab Muslims on African Muslims. In one of his early columns in 2004, he was outraged by the silence of Muslim leaders: ‘Do they care about dead Muslims only when the killers are Israelis or Americans?’ Two years later he asked: ‘And where is the Arab press? Isn’t the murder of 300,000 or more Muslims almost as offensive as a Danish cartoon?’ Six months later, Kristof pursued this line on NBC’s Today Show. Elaborating on the ‘real blind spot’ in the Muslim world, he said: ‘You are beginning to get some voices in the Muslim world . . . saying it’s appalling that you have evangelical Christians and American Jews leading an effort to protect Muslims in Sudan and in Chad.’
If many of the leading lights in the Darfur campaign are fired by moral indignation, this derives from two events: the Nazi Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide. After all, the seeds of the Save Darfur campaign lie in the tenth-anniversary commemoration of what happened in Rwanda. Darfur is today a metaphor for senseless violence in politics, as indeed Rwanda was a decade before. Most writing on the Rwandan genocide in the US was also done by journalists. In We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families, the most widely read book on the genocide, Philip Gourevitch envisaged Rwanda as a replay of the Holocaust, with Hutu cast as perpetrators and Tutsi as victims. Again, the encounter between the two seemed to take place outside any context, as part of an eternal encounter between evil and innocence. Many of the journalists who write about Darfur have Rwanda very much in the back of their minds. In December 2004, Kristof recalled the lessons of Rwanda: ‘Early in his presidency, Mr Bush read a report about Bill Clinton’s paralysis during the Rwandan genocide and scrawled in the margin: “Not on my watch.” But in fact the same thing is happening on his watch, and I find that heartbreaking and baffling.’
With very few exceptions, the Save Darfur campaign has drawn a single lesson from Rwanda: the problem was the US failure to intervene to stop the genocide. Rwanda is the guilt that America must expiate, and to do so it must be ready to intervene, for good and against evil, even globally. That lesson is inscribed at the heart of Samantha Power’s book, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. But it is the wrong lesson. The Rwandan genocide was born of a civil war which intensified when the settlement to contain it broke down. The settlement, reached at the Arusha Conference, broke down because neither the Hutu Power tendency nor the Tutsi-dominated Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) had any interest in observing the power-sharing arrangement at the core of the settlement: the former because it was excluded from the settlement and the latter because it was unwilling to share power in any meaningful way.
What the humanitarian intervention lobby fails to see is that the US did intervene in Rwanda, through a proxy. That proxy was the RPF, backed up by entire units from the Uganda Army. The green light was given to the RPF, whose commanding officer, Paul Kagame, had recently returned from training in the US, just as it was lately given to the Ethiopian army in Somalia. Instead of using its resources and influence to bring about a political solution to the civil war, and then strengthen it, the US signalled to one of the parties that it could pursue victory with impunity. This unilateralism was part of what led to the disaster, and that is the real lesson of Rwanda. Applied to Darfur and Sudan, it is sobering. It means recognising that Darfur is not yet another Rwanda. Nurturing hopes of an external military intervention among those in the insurgency who aspire to victory and reinforcing the fears of those in the counter-insurgency who see it as a prelude to defeat are precisely the ways to ensure that it becomes a Rwanda. Strengthening those on both sides who stand for a political settlement to the civil war is the only realistic approach. Solidarity, not intervention, is what will bring peace to Darfur.
The dynamic of civil war in Sudan has fed on multiple sources: first, the post-independence monopoly of power enjoyed by a tiny ‘Arabised’ elite from the riverine north of Khartoum, a monopoly that has bred growing resistance among the majority, marginalised populations in the south, east and west of the country; second, the rebel movements which have in their turn bred ambitious leaders unwilling to enter into power-sharing arrangements as a prelude to peace; and, finally, external forces that continue to encourage those who are interested in retaining or obtaining a monopoly of power.
The dynamic of peace, by contrast, has fed on a series of power-sharing arrangements, first in the south and then in the east. This process has been intermittent in Darfur. African Union-organised negotiations have been successful in forging a power-sharing arrangement, but only for that arrangement to fall apart time and again. A large part of the explanation, as I suggested earlier, lies in the international context of the War on Terror, which favours parties who are averse to taking risks for peace. To reinforce the peace process must be the first commitment of all those interested in Darfur.
The camp of peace needs to come to a second realisation: that peace cannot be built on humanitarian intervention, which is the language of big powers. The history of colonialism should teach us that every major intervention has been justified as humanitarian, a ‘civilising mission’. Nor was it mere idiosyncrasy that inspired the devotion with which many colonial officers and archivists recorded the details of barbarity among the colonised – sati, the ban on widow marriage or the practice of child marriage in India, or slavery and female genital mutilation in Africa. I am not suggesting that this was all invention. I mean only to point out that the chronicling of atrocities had a practical purpose: it provided the moral pretext for intervention. Now, as then, imperial interventions claim to have a dual purpose: on the one hand, to rescue minority victims of ongoing barbarities and, on the other, to quarantine majority perpetrators with the stated aim of civilising them. Iraq should act as a warning on this score. The worst thing in Darfur would be an Iraq-style intervention. That would almost certainly spread the civil war to other parts of Sudan, unravelling the peace process in the east and south and dragging the whole country into the global War on Terror.
Mahmood Mamdani is a Herbert Lehman Professor of Government and a professor of anthropology at Columbia University. His most recent book is Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War and the Roots of Terror. This article appeared in The London Review of Books.
Tuesday, March 13, 2007