By Charlie Kimber
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Interview: Mahmood Mamdani on Darfur

This article is over 13 years, 2 months old
In his new book Mahmood Mamdani puts the war in Darfur in historical context and challenges the Save Darfur Coalition's characterisation of the conflict and its call for international intervention. He talks to Charlie Kimber
Issue 337

You reject the label genocide and question overblown estimates of how many have died in Darfur. This can seem to trivialise the suffering. Why is this an important question?

One does not have to inflate actual suffering to take it seriously. In 2006 the US government’s audit agency, the Government Accountability Office, got together with the Academy of Sciences and appointed a panel of 12 experts to evaluate the reliability of six different estimates on excess deaths in Darfur at the peak of the violence in 2003-4.

The panel agreed unanimously that the highest estimate, of roughly 400,000 dead, coming from Save Darfur linked researchers, was the least reliable. The most reliable estimate was of roughly 120,000 from the World Health Organisation (WHO) affiliated Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED) in Belgium.

The CRED research also showed up other distortions in Save Darfur publicity. One was that the deaths had multiple causes, the main ones being drought and desertification, and direct violence.

The WHO said that between 70 and 80 percent of deaths were a result of drought and desertification, and these were mainly infants and children dying from diarrhoea and dysentery, and that between 20 and 30 percent, mainly young male adults, had died from direct violence. CRED estimated the number of those killed by direct violence at around 35,000.

Another fact that Save Darfur publicity has been quiet about is that the violence has a history. It began as a civil war inside Darfur in 1987-89. The war had three major causes.

The first was the land system bequeathed to Darfur by British colonial power. Britain divided up the land in Darfur into many tribal homelands, except that it favoured settled over nomadic tribes, so much so that the camel nomads of the north were given no tribal homeland. Then came the 40-year drought and desertification which led to an extension of the Sahara’s southward boundary by almost 100 kilometres, forcing the nomads to move south. The result was a classic ecological conflict between nomads and peasants over the best-resourced land in central Darfur, the Jebel Merra.

Finally, the spillover from the civil war in Chad in the mid-1980s militarised Darfur. This was a direct effect of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, which led to an expansion of the Cold War into this part of Africa.

The expanded Cold War focused on Chad as the US, France and Israel supported one side and Libya and the Soviet Union the other. If one side was in power in Chad the opposition crossed the border into Darfur. The direct consequence was the militarisation of Darfur – Darfur was without water in the 1980s, but it was awash with AK-47s.

The important point to realise is that the big powers were involved in Darfur even before the present government in Sudan came to power.

The second issue to keep in mind is that the civil war was over land. In the reconciliation conference in 1989 both sides gave their version of the conflict. It is striking that each saw itself as a victim: one side claimed to be the victim of genocide (the word used was “holocaust”) and the other side claimed to be the object of “ethnic cleansing” by those claiming to be natives of Darfur. When Save Darfur talks of genocide, it is both obscuring the real causes and history of the conflict, and reproducing the version of one side in the civil war of 1987-89.

What is the agenda of those behind groups such as Save Darfur?

Besides inflating the consequences of the conflict, its use of the word “genocide” is blatantly a political attempt to depoliticise the issue by presenting support for one side as a moral compulsion.

What is the role of the “war on terror” in framing the Darfur conflict?

Save Darfur shares a common frame with the “war on terror”. First is the claim that this is not a political conflict driven by issues but a moral crusade against evil. Second, the conflict is decontextualised, as it is presented in abstract moral terms, thereby stripping it of both history and politics.

On the Save Darfur website you will see a catalogue of atrocities: killings, rape, burnings and so on. Along with like-minded human rights groups, Save Darfur catalogues atrocities, identifies perpetrators and victims, and demands that perpetrators be named and shamed – and punished. The assumption is that violence is its own explanation; driven by perpetrators, not by issues. Any attempt to focus on issues is derided – as with the “war on terror” – as an apology for perpetrators. Thus follows the conclusion: the only way to do away with violence is more violence, the only difference being that “our” violence is said to be good and moral, but “theirs” is bad and evil.

What is the contrast between Uganda and Sudan, and what does this show about the treatment of US allies?

The governments in both Sudan and Uganda faced an insurgency in marginalised regions, Darfur in Sudan and the Acholi districts in Uganda. In both cases the governments organised counter-insurgencies that resembled a local version of George Bush’s global “war on terror”. That is where the similarities end, for whereas the government in Sudan was not a US ally, the government in Uganda was.

My book asks the reader to reflect on why one government has been targeted as the perpetrator of a “crime against humanity” but not the other.

The Darfur conflict is often portrayed as “Arabs against Africans”. Yet anyone who knows anything about the region is struck by the history of fluidity and mixing between those groups. Can you explain?

Anthropologists have long written about how Fur (non-Arab) could become Rizeigat (Arab) and vice versa with a change in lifestyle (from peasant to nomad or vice versa) and a corresponding change of membership in the lifestyle community.

Whereas this fluidity explains the fuzzy borders of identity communities, the more important point is to challenge the assumption that Arabs are settlers in a native land. The fact is that Arab tribes of Sudan did not come from outside as settlers, but are as local as other tribes. They became Arabs over time. I cite work by historians and anthropologists to show that different groups became Arab at different times: the royalty in the 16th and 17th centuries, merchants in the 18th century, popular classes later.

The main point is that there is no single history of Arabs of Sudan. Instead there are multiple histories. There is no connection between the settled Arab tribes of the Nile Valley and the nomadic Arab tribes of Darfur. Whereas many of the riverine Arabs are identified with power and privilege, the Arabs of Darfur are the poorest and the least educated in Darfuri society, and the least represented in the state apparatus in Darfur. If Darfur is marginal to Sudan, the Arab tribes of Darfur are doubly marginal.

How did colonialism, and the British in particular, lay the basis for division in Sudan and Darfur?

Colonialism laid a foundation through history-writing, conducting a census and implementing a system of laws. It wrote a history of Sudan as one of Arab settlers conquering native tribes. As early as the 1920s, the British began to prepare a census for Sudan, which was ultimately carried out in the mid-1950s. The census was driven by three categories: tribe, groups of tribes (really language groups) and race. Arab and Negroid were defined as separate races in the census.

It is legislation that gave teeth to the categories in the census. Though racialisation was important at an ideological level, it was tribalisation – not racialisation – that drove administrative practice. Both land and administration were tribalised. To have “customary” access to land and to be appointed to “customary” positions like that of “chief”, you needed to belong to a “native” tribe. The result was systematic discrimination against non-native tribes on a tribal basis. Tribe became the basis of discrimination in colonial Sudan. This is why the civil war of 1987-89 was waged as a tribal, and not a racial, war.

At the same time, it is with the civil war of 1987-89 that we hear of “Arab” and “African” tribes, rather than the Masariyya or the Rizeigat (“Arab”) or the Fur, the Masalit and the Zaghawa (“African”), joining “tribe” to “race”. This process is accelerated after 2003 as the international media and Save Darfur not only buy into this language but turn into its main purveyors.

This is the big difference between Rwanda and Darfur. In Rwanda race was an administrative – and not just an ideological – reality in the colonial period. In Darfur the administrative reality was tribe. In Darfur race is a relatively new concept in which the international community is heavily implicated.

Anyone who questions the imperialist solution for Darfur always faces the question, “What would you do, then?” Your answer seems based around action by the African Union (AU). I understand that response, but question whether the countries that dominate the AU (Nigeria, for example) are themselves sub-imperialisms or act in imperialism’s interest (Rwanda). Don’t we need a popular movement from below to bring real change?

I have two suggestions. Darfur demonstrates that if there is a short-run emergency requiring an external intervention, a regional intervention is better than a global one, for several reasons. One, it will be an intervention by peers, by those who can imagine themselves in your shoes. Second, it will be an intervention by neighbours, that is, those who do not have the choice of running away from the consequences of their actions (as did the US in Afghanistan).

Your question calls for a word of caution: one way to guarantee against local powers acting as proxies or pressing their own ambitions is to strengthen regional structures with a formal mechanism of accountability that explicitly rules out unilateral intervention, such as that by Ethiopia in Somalia or Uganda and Rwanda in Congo.

My second suggestion is that Darfur be dealt with like other ongoing conflicts in Africa. Experience shows that the best way to deal with these is to prioritise political reform over criminal justice, following the example of the post-apartheid transition, and the end of the civil war in Mozambique and Southern Sudan.

Saviors and Survivors (Verso, £17.99) is available from Bookmarks.

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