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«Annex VII: Review of Mahmood Mamdani’s Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror Eric Reeves Madeline Zehnder, research and ...»

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An Archival History of Greater Sudan, 2007 – 2012

Annex VII:

Review of Mahmood Mamdani’s

Saviors and Survivors:

Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror

Eric Reeves

Madeline Zehnder, research and editing


In a disturbing development that began in 2005-06, a backlash has grown against

American-led advocacy efforts on the part of Darfur. To be sure, much of the American and other international advocacy campaigning at the time was excessively simplistic and seemed more intent on “consciousness raising” than informed, politically astute pressure on international actors of consequence, especially the Bush administration. As part of this backlash, several variously motivated re-writings of Darfur genocide’s early years appeared. Some of this “re-writing” grew out of the reflexive leftist rejection of the idea that American advocacy on a broad scale could get something right, although such advocacy did fail in the case of Darfur. The example of South Africa, however, seemed to make no difference to this assessment.

Other “re-writing” was more subtle and sometimes entailed a denial or disowning by influential writers of their statements about genocide in Darfur as a means of distancing themselves from the rabble of grass-roots advocacy. In an August 2004 commentary in the London Review of Books, Sudan researcher Alex de Waal

declared of the Darfur genocide—I believe quite eloquently and accurately—that:

This is not the genocidal campaign of a government at the height of its ideological hubris, as the 1992 jihad against the Nuba Mountains was, or coldly determined to secure natural resources, as when it sought to clear the oilfields of southern Sudan of their troublesome inhabitants.

This is the routine cruelty of a security cabal, its humanity withered by years in power: it is genocide by force of habit.

I have cited de Waal’s brilliant synoptic history a number of times, but must also acknowledge that de Waal now says he no longer believes that what occurred in Darfur amounts to genocide—without satisfactorily accounting for his changed view. Currently, he serves as an advisor to the African Union, a role in which it would certainly be inconvenient to argue that genocide has occurred in Darfur given the AU view of these matters. The Obama administration has, at various moments, also attempted to revise its account of Darfur’s realities for diplomatic purposes.

By far the most ambitious effort to re-write Darfur’s narrative is Mahmood Mamdani’s Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror. I was offered an expansive review opportunity by the editors of Dissent Magazine in the print edition of Fall 2009, and seized that opportunity with alacrity.

“Getting Sudan Wrong,” Reviewof Mahmood Mamdani’s Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror, Dissent Magazine, Volume 56, Number 4 (Fall 2009) The Darfur genocide has the perverse distinction of being the longest and most fully chronicled genocide of the last century. Our contemporaneous knowledge of what happened and what is happening comes from dozens of comprehensive human rights reports dating from 2003 and earlier, accounts from international humanitarian organizations, and detailed research by policy and advocacy groups such at the International Crisis Group and Refugees International. And there is extraordinary congruence in the accounts. Although some, such as Human Rights Watch, have found it difficult to come to consensus on the question of “genocidal intent,” there is broad agreement about the ethnically targeted nature of the crimes and the role of the Khartoum regime in orchestrating the deaths of hundreds of thousands and the displacement of some three million Darfuris, overwhelmingly from the non-Arab, African tribal populations of the region.

To be sure, there are disagreements: over mortality levels, the designation of “genocide,” and preeminently over the appropriate international policy responses.

But the narrative of what has occurred is remarkably consistent, and collectively the accounts reflect thousands of interviews of Darfuris, both in Darfur and in the refugee camps of Eastern Chad, as well as countless individual reports by onthe-ground observers. The fullness, consistency, and authority of the narrative has guided many of the Darfur advocacy efforts, both in the United States and Europe.

Yet there is a growing effort in some quarters to rewrite the “Darfur narrative,” an effort that entails a wholesale revision of key features of this vast catastrophe.

There are corresponding efforts to excoriate the Darfur advocacy movement as a primary culprit in prolonging the crisis, to downplay the suffering and destruction that have occurred over the past seven years, and most notably to diminish the Khartoum regime’s responsibility for what has occurred. The most aggressive and pernicious of these efforts is Mahmood Mamdani’s Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror. In the spirit of full disclosure, I should acknowledge that I am the target of several pages of Mamdani’s account of mortality totals for the genocide, even as I would argue that this account is filled with error and incomprehension, demonstrating no familiarity with either the statistical or the demographic and epidemiological issues that I and others working on mortality totals must confront in the absence of comprehensive cluster sampling (something the Khartoum regime has long refused to allow).

But Mamdani’s harshest criticism is of what he refers to as the “Save Darfur movement.” Because there is an organization with the name “Save Darfur Coalition” (SDC)—which indeed has a good deal to answer for—as well as a much broader American advocacy effort on behalf of Darfur that is not represented by SDC, Mamdani has an easy time conflating the two whenever he finds it convenient. There are also moments in which his reference is simply ambiguous, as in

his extraordinary suggestion that Darfur advocacy is complicit in the “War on Terror”:

Only those possessed of disproportionate power can afford to assume that knowing is irrelevant, thereby caring little about the consequences of their actions. Not only is this mind-set the driving force behind the War on Terror, it also provides the self-indulgent motto of the human rights interventionist recruited into the ranks of the terror warriors. This feel-good imperative can be summed up as follows: as long as I feel good, nothing else matters. It is this shared mindset that has turned the movement to Save Darfur into the humanitarian face of the War on Terror. [page 6] The suggestion that the various individuals and organizations that have called for humanitarian intervention in Darfur are ignorant, “feel-good” recruits is simply astonishing. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Physicians for Human Rights, Human Rights First, Refugees International, and the International Crisis Group—all these are strong advocates of robust protective action on the ground in Darfur. And these are some of the most deeply informed and principled organizations in the world. How can they all be so wrong? Mamdani’s answer comes in a single phrase: “historical ignorance.” These groups—as well as many genocide scholars, specialists in international relations and military affairs, and even students of Sudan—simply don’t know their Darfur history and have been seduced into accepting a series of propositions that Mamdani presumes to demonstrate are in error. But the problems with Mamdani’s own history of Darfur are so serious, his research so dependent on secondary sources, his methods so obviously and tendentiously selective, that in the end he provides not so much an account of the origins of the Darfur conflict as a highly ideological version of this conflict—a version with gaping holes, consistent overstatement, and scandalous errors of fact. Most dismayingly, he fails fundamentally to come to terms with the role of the National Islamic Front/National Congress Party (NIF/NCP) regime in Darfur’s destruction.

Indeed, at one moment in his concluding discussion of international justice and the War on Terror, he refers to “[Omar al-] Bashir’s own little war on terror in Darfur in 2003-4.” It is impossible to judge the tone of this extraordinary phrase, although its context suggests that Mamdani is arguing that only Western interference has made Darfur more than a “little” conflict. No matter that there are solid statistical and epidemiological grounds for believing that hundreds of thousands of people died during this time period alone, and that the destruction of 80 percent to 90 percent of all African villages has now uprooted millions, leaving them precariously dependent on an international humanitarian operation that was brutally curtailed by the Khartoum regime in March 2009. Few of these displaced people have any confidence that they will be returning to their lands in the foreseeable future, and Darfuris regularly tell me that despair is growing in the Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps and the refugee camps in Eastern Chad. A search of Mamdani’s index for humanitarian and human rights reports predictably yields virtually nothing. Physicians for Human Rights doesn’t make an appearance, even as its 2006 study (“Darfur: Assault on Survival”) remains our best and most detailed account of the genocidal character of destruction in Darfur. Despite the overwhelming responsibility of the NIF/NCP regime, Mamdani chooses to minimize its role in this ghastly story.

To all of which Mamdani may reply that this wasn’t his purpose: he isn’t trying to characterize the suffering of Darfuris or give an account of humanitarian efforts.

His purpose, announced decisively in his introduction, is to declare that Darfur is not the site of genocide, that the fighting is local in character, and to the extent that tribal and ethnic identities have defined the fighting, this is largely a result of British colonial administration. His two major claims are first, that the postcolonial conflicts in Darfur are best understood as the consequence of colonialism and second, that these conflicts long predate the nonexistent genocide. It is impossible in the compass of this review to rehearse the vast number of errors—some of very considerable significance—in the history Mamdani has fashioned from the large number of secondary works he has apparently read (there is no evidence of significant reading in primary sources). Fortunately, two of the preeminent historians of Darfur—Sean O’Fahey and Martin Daly—have weighed in with a catalog of these errors in an ongoing Web site review that offers a range of assessments of Saviors and Survivors, “Making Sense of Darfur.”1 Consider now his two major claims, both of which, I shall argue, are demonstrably false. The first is colonial “retribalization”—what Mamdani argues was the British effort to re-introduce tribal and ethnic identity as a means of ensuring the effectiveness of “native administration.” Whatever the British may have done in the South and elsewhere in Sudan, such “retribalization” was not the case in Darfur.

As O’Fahey notes, the British “simply tinkered with the boundaries they had inherited from the sultanate.” The instrument of ”retribalization,” according to Mamdani, was the hakura system of land tenure. He fails to realize that the hakura system was not co-extensive with the Darfur sultanate itself, but only with parts of it. This undermines the claim that the sultan’s ethnically ecumenical use of the hakura was a means of breaking down tribalism throughout Darfur. Hence his corollary argument

that the British “retribalized” Darfur during British colonial rule makes no sense:

he is wrong about differences in the awards to Arab cattle nomads (Baggara) in the south of Darfur and those to Arab camel nomads (Abbala) in the north; and he is wrong about any broader ethnic redefinition of Darfur. As O’Fahey bluntly states, “What the hakura or estate system meant in ethnic terms is almost impossible to decipher from the [primary historical] documents.” Mamdani clearly has not read these documents.

Second, Mamdani’s claim that the ethnic violence that emerged so intensely in the 1980s was a result of British colonial rule is a radical misreading of what happened in Darfur. Certainly, the spread of the Sahara southward through the Sahel and periods of drought in Darfur significantly increased the potential for conflict, and the war between the Fur and Arab groups (1987-89) may be a useful starting point for discussions of the nature of the genocidal conflict that began in 2003 (or perhaps earlier if we look at the destruction the non-Arab Massalit people endured from 1995-99). But to say that ethnic tensions, and the growing insistence on ethnic self-identity, increased from the 1980s onward does not begin to explain the realities we confront today. Ethnic rivalry and environmental degradation were perhaps necessary but they were not sufficient causes.

Notably, Mamdani pays almost no attention to non-Arab or African grievances against the National Islamic Front/National Congress Party regime, which came to power by military coup in 1989. He barely mentions the 1994 administrative division of Darfur into three states—a means of denying the Fur (the largest ethnic group in Darfur) a political majority in any of the new divisions. There is no mention of Khartoum’s increasingly asymmetrical disarming of African village protection forces or the collapse of the justice system for those with grievances against regime-sanctioned Arab militia violence. And of course all in Darfur suffered from acute political and economic marginalization as the NIF/NCP increased its stranglehold on national wealth and power.

Mamdani’s thesis about the re-introduction of ethnic tensions as a result of British policies is, as O’Fahey suggests, “absurd.” But beyond this, it is morally irrelevant to the clear ethnic targeting of African tribal groups by the Janjaweed militia, working in close coordination with Khartoum’s regular military forces.

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