By Mahmood Mamdani
29 October, 2004
can we name the Darfur crisis? The US Congress, and now Secretary of
State Colin Powell, claim that genocide has occurred in Darfur. The
European Union says it is not genocide. And so does the African Union.
Obasanjo, also the current Chair of the African Union, told a press
conference at the United Nations Headquarters in New York on September
23: "Before you can say that this is genocide or ethnic cleansing,
we will have to have a definite decision and plan and program 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."
Is Darfur genocide
that has happened and must be punished? Or, is it genocide that could
happen and must be prevented? I will argue the latter.
Sudan is today the
site of two contradictory processes. The first is the Naivasha peace
process between the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) and the Government
of Sudan, whose promise is an end to Africa's longest festering civil
war. The second is the armed confrontation between an insurgency and
anti- government militias in Darfur. There is need to think of the south
and the west as different aspects of a connected process. I will argue
that this reflection should be guided by a central objective: to reinforce
the peace process and to demilitarize the conflict in Darfur.
The peace process
in the South has split both sides to the conflict. Tensions within the
ruling circles in Khartoum and within the opposition SPLA have given
rise to two anti-government militias. The Justice and Equality Movement
has historical links to the Islamist regime, and the SLA to the southern
The Justice and
Equality Movement (JEM) organized as part of the Hassan Turabi faction
of the Islamists. Darfur, historically the mainstay of the Mahdist movement,
was Turabi's major claim to political success in the last decade. When
the Khartoum coalition - between the army officers led by Bashir and
the Islamist political movement under Turabi - split, the Darfur Islamists
fell out with both sides. JEM was organized in Khartoum as part of an
agenda for regaining power. It has a more localized and multi- ethnic
presence in Darfur and has been home to many who have advocated an "African
The Sudan Liberation
Army (SLA) is linked to SPLA, which first tried to expand the southern-based
armed movement to Darfur in 1990, but failed. The radical leadership
of that thrust was decapitated in a government assault. Not surprisingly,
the new leadership of SLA has little political experience.
The present conflict
began when the SLA mounted an ambitious and successful assault on El
Fashar airport on April 25, 2003, on a scale larger than most encounters
in the southern civil war.
The government in
Khartoum is also divided, between those who pushed the peace process,
and those who believe too much was conceded in the Naivasha talks. This
opposition, the security cabal in Khartoum, responded by arming and
unleashing several militia, known as the Janjawid. The result is a spiral
of state- sponsored violence and indiscriminate spread of weaponry.
In sum, all those
opposed to the peace process in the south have moved to fight in Darfur,
even if on opposing sides. The Darfur conflict has many layers; the
most recent but the most explosive is that it is the continuation of
the southern conflict in the west.
For anyone reading
the press today, the atrocities in Sudan are synonymous with a demonic
presence, the Janjawid, the spearhead of an "Arab" assault
on "Africans." The problem with the public discussion of Darfur
and Sudan is not simply that we know little; it is also the representation
of what we do know. To understand the problem with how known facts are
being represented, I suggest we face three facts.
First, as a proxy
of those in power in Khartoum, the Janjawid are not exceptional. They
reflect a broad African trend. Proxy war spread within the continent
with the formation of Renamo by the Rhodesian and the South African
security cabal in the early 1980s. Other examples in the East African
region include the Lord's Redemption Army in northern Uganda, the Hema
and Lendu militias in Itori in eastern Congo and, of course, the Hutu
militia in post-genocide Rwanda. Like the Janjawid, all these combine
different degrees of autonomy on the ground with proxy connections above
Second, all parties
involved in the Darfur conflict - whether they are referred to as "Arab"
or as "African" - are equally indigenous and equally black.
All are Muslims and all are local. To see how the corporate media and
some of the charity-dependent international NGOs consistently racialize
representations, we need to distinguish between different kinds of identities.
Let us begin by
distinguishing between three different meanings of Arab: ethnic, cultural
and political. In the ethnic sense, there are few Arabs worth speaking
of in Darfur, and a very tiny percent in Sudan. In the cultural sense,
Arab refers to those who have come to speak Arabic as a home language
and, sometimes, to those who are nomadic in lifestyle. In this sense,
many have become Arabs. From the cultural point of view, one can be
both African and Arab, in other words, an African who speaks Arabic,
which is what the "Arabs" of Darfur are. For those given to
thinking of identity in racial terms, it may be better to think of this
population as "Arabized" rather than "Arab."
Then there is Arab
in the political sense. This refers to a political identity called "Arab"
that the ruling group in Khartoum has promoted at different points as
the identity of power and of the Sudanese nation. As a political identity,
Arab is relatively new to Darfur. Darfur was home to the Mahdist movement
whose troops defeated the British and slayed General Gordon a century
ago. Darfur then became the base of the party organized around the Sufi
order, the Ansar. This party, called the Umma Party, is currently led
by the grandson of the Mahdi, Sadiq al-Mahdi. The major change in the
political map of Darfur over the past decade was the growth of the Islamist
movement, led by Hassan Turabi. Politically, Darfur became "Islamist"
rather than "Arab."
Like Arab, Islam
too needs to be understood not just as a cultural (and religious) identity
but also as a political one, thus distinguishing the broad category
of believers called Muslims from political activists called Islamists.
Historically, Islam as a political identity in the Sudan has been associated
with political parties based on Sufi orders, mainly the Umma Party based
on the Ansar and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) based on the Khatamiyya.
In sharp contrast to the strongly Sudanese identity of these "sectarian"
and "traditional" parties is the militant, modernist and internationalist
orientation of the type of political Islam championed by Hassan Turabi
and organized as the National Islamic Front. Not only in its predominantly
urban social base but also in its methods of organization, the NIF was
poles apart from "traditional" political Islam, and in fact
consciously emulated the Communist Party. Unlike the "traditional"
parties which were mass-based and hoped to come to power through elections,
the NIF - like the CP - was a cadre-based vanguard party which hoped
to take power in alliance with a faction in the army. The fulfillment
of this agenda was the 1989 coup which brought Turabi's NIF into power
in alliance with the Bashir faction in the army.
As a political identity,
"African" is even more recent than "Arab" in Darfur.
I have referred to an attempt by SPLA in 1990 to confront the power
in Khartoum as "Arab" and to rally the opposition under the
banner of "African." Both the insurgency that began 18 months
ago and the government's response to it are evidence of the crisis of
the Islamist regime and the government's retreat to a narrower political
Third, both the
anti- and the pro-government militia have outside sponsors, but they
cannot just be dismissed as external creations. The Sudan government
organized local militias in Darfur in 1990, using them both to fight
the SPLA in the south and to contain the expansion of the southern rebellion
to the west. The militias are not monolithic and they are not centrally
controlled. When the Islamists split in 1999 between the Turabi and
the Bashir groups, many of the Darfur militia were purged. Those who
were not, like the Berti, retained a measure of local support. This
is why it is wrong to think of the Janjawid as a single organization
under a unified command.
Does that mean that
we cannot hold the Sudan government responsible for the atrocities committed
by Janjawid militias that it continues to supply? No, it does not. We
must hold the patron responsible for the actions of the proxy. At the
same time, we need to realize that it may be easier to supply than to
disband local militias. Those who start and feed fires should be held
responsible for doing so; but let us not forget that it may be easier
to start a fire than to put it out.
The fight between
the militias on both sides and the violence unleashed against the unarmed
population has been waged with exceptional cruelty. One reason may be
that the initiative has passed from the communities on the ground to
those contending for power. Another may be the low value on life placed
by the security cabal in Khartoum and by those in the opposition who
want power at any cost.
What is the Solution?
I suggest a three-pronged
process in the Sudan. The priority must be to complete the Naivasha
peace process and change the character of the government in Khartoum.
Second, whatever the level of civilian support enjoyed by militias,
it would be a mistake to tarnish the communities with the sins of the
particular militia they support. On the contrary, every effort should
be made to neutralize or re-organize the militia and stabilize communities
in Darfur through local initiatives. This means both a civic conference
of all communities - both those identified as Arab and those as African
- and reorganized civil defense forces of all communities. This may
need to be done under the protective and supervisory umbrella of an
African Union policing force. Finally, to build on the Naivasha process
by bringing into it all those previously excluded. To do so will require
creating the conditions for a reorganized civil administration in Darfur.
To build confidence
among all parties, but particularly among those demonized as "Arab,"
we need to use the same standard for all. To make the point, let us
first look at the African region. The U.N. estimates that some 30 to
50,000 people have been killed in Darfur and another 1.4 million or
so have been made homeless. The figure for the dead in Congo over the
last few years is over 4 million. Many have died at the hands of ethnic
Hema or Lendu militias. These are Janjawid-type militias known to have
functioned as proxies for neighboring states. In the northern Ugandan
districts of Acholiland, over 80% of the population has been interned
by the government, given substandard rations and nominal security, thus
left open to gradual premeditated starvation and periodic kidnapping
by another militia, the Lord's Redemption Army (LRA). When the U.N.
Secretary General, Kofi Annan, flew to Khartoum recently, I was in Kampala.
The comment I heard all around was: Why didn't he stop here? And why
not in Kigali? And Kinshasa? Should we not apply the same standards
to the governments in Kampala and Kigali and elsewhere as we do to the
government in Khartoum, even if Kampala and Kigali are America's allies
in its global "war on terror"?
there is the daunting example of Iraq. Before the American invasion,
Iraq went through an era of U.N. sanctions, which were kept in place
for a decade by the US and Britain. The effect of the sanctions came
to light when UNICEF carried out a child mortality survey in 1999 at
the initiative of Canada and Brazil. Richard Garfield, professor of
Clinical International Nursing at Columbia University and chair of the
Human Rights Committee of the American Public Health Association calculated
"on a conservative estimate" that there had been 300,000 "excess
deaths" of children under 5 in Iraq during the sanctions. But the
sanctions continued. Today, the US does not even count the number of
Iraqi dead, and the U.N. has made no attempt to estimate them. Iraq
is not history. It continues to bleed.
This backdrop, regional
and international, should prompt us to ask at least one question: Does
the label "worst humanitarian crisis" tell us more about Darfur
or about those labeling and the politics of labeling? Are we to return
to a Cold War-type era in which America's allies can commit atrocities
with impunity while its adversaries are demagogically held accountable
to an international standard of human rights?
Some argue that
international alignment on the Darfur crisis is dictated by the political
economy of oil. To the extent this is true, let us not forget that oil
influences both those (such as China) who would like continued access
to Sudan's oil and those (such as USA) who covet that access. But for
those who do strategic thinking, the more important reason may be political.
For official America, Darfur is a strategic opportunity to draw Africa
into the global "war on terror" by sharply drawing lines that
demarcate "Arab" against "African," just as for
the crumbling regime in Khartoum this very fact presents a last opportunity
to downplay its own responsibilities and call for assistance from those
who oppose official America's "war on terror."
What Should We Do?
First of all, we
the civilians - and I address Africans and Americans in particular -
should work against a military solution. We should work against a US
intervention, whether direct or by proxy, and however disguised - as
humanitarian or whatever. We should work against punitive sanctions.
The lesson of Iraq sanctions is that you target individuals, not governments.
Sanctions feed into a culture of terror, of collective punishment. Its
victims are seldom its target. Both military intervention and sanctions
are undesirable and ineffective.
Second, we should
organize in support of a culture of peace, of a rule of law and of a
system of political accountability. Of particular importance is to recognize
that the international community has created an institution called the
International Criminal Court to try individuals for the most heinous
crimes, such as genocide, war crimes and systematic rights abuses. The
US has not only refused to ratify the treaty setting up the ICC, it
has gone to all lengths to sabotage it. For Americans, it is important
to get their government to join the ICC. The simple fact is that you
can only claim the moral right to hold others accountable to a set of
standards if you are willing to be held accountable to the same standards.
Finally, there is
need to beware of groups who want a simple and comprehensive explanation,
even if it is misleading; who demand dramatic action, even if it backfires;
who have so come to depend on crisis that they risk unwittingly aggravating
existing crisis. Often, they use the call for urgent action to silence
any debate as a luxury. And yet, responsible action needs to be informed.
For the African
Union, Darfur is both an opportunity and a test. The opportunity is
to build on the global concern over a humanitarian disaster in Darfur
to set a humanitarian standard that must be observed by all, including
America's allies in Africa. And the test is to defend African sovereignty
in the face of official America's global "war on terror."
On both counts, the first priority must be to stop the war and push
the peace process.
is Herbert Lehman Professor of Government and Director, Institute of
African Studies, at University of Columbia, New York. Please send comments
Copyright (c) 2004
This article was
first published in Pambazuka News 177, 7 October 2004, and is reproduce
with permission of the author and publishers ( http://www.pambazuka.org/index.php?id=24982).