Humanitarian impulses vs. the facts

Saviors and Survivors:

Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror

MAHMOOD MAMDANI’s new book, Saviors and Survivors, has caused a major stir. That is hardly surprising since the book is a forceful and learned challenge to both the U.S. Congress and the Save Darfur Coalition’s (SDC) position on genocide and “humanitarian aid.” Contrary to what many reviewers and commentators have written, Mamdani does not deny or attempt to minimize the scale of violence in Darfur, nor is he an apologist for Sudan’s president Omar Hassan al-Bashir.

In fact, the book is not about the violence. It is about the West’s response to that violence and represents an attempt to describe Darfur and Sudan in both its historical and present political and social realities. He insistently links the description of the violence as “genocide” and the advocacy of military intervention to U.S. political interests in the region and the “war on terror.” His discussion of the International Criminal Court (ICC) is equally unflattering.

According to Professor Mamdani, “[a]t no point has this been a war between ‘Africans’ and ‘Arabs.’” Rather, it is a struggle for ever-decreasing natural and political resources between landed and landless people at the local level beginning in 1987, which then spread to the national level in 2003–04 through a counterinsurgency campaign by the government. After decades of drought increased the reach of the desert by one hundred kilometers in the 1970s and 1980s, and disrupted the yearly rains, Darfur erupted into violence as armed militias clashed over land and political rights.

The violence in Darfur has been horrific, and there is no question that most human beings are emotionally and morally repulsed by violence. The solution to violence cannot, however, be based on our repugnance. It must be based on the knowledge of why it happens and some reasoned way to stop the violence from reoccurring.

Mamdani is rightly harsh on the moralistic approach to activism that the SDC represents. And even though, as he points out, SDC has modified some of its original positions—Muslims are now included in the “faith-based” information packets, and the “Arabs against Africans” position is less in the forefront—the coalition’s insistence on military intervention and no-fly zones make it anything but a movement for peace. In fact, it is largely a lobbying group calling for military intervention in the province and therefore “no meaningful part of its annual budget [about $14 million] goes to help the needy in Darfur.”

Mamdani is especially harsh on the surface moralism of SDC, which he insists hides a very specific political position on the solution for Sudan and the people of Darfur. It is a moralism, moreover that insists that history and context are not important. In this way, you can “save Darfur” without knowing where it is, any of its history, or even who is fighting whom:

If you visit the Save Darfur Coalition website, you will find a record of atrocities—rapes, burnings, killings—some with graphic illustrations, maps, and satellite imagery, almost none of it telling you when it happened. There is no discussion of history or politics: no context, no analysis of the causes of political violence or possible consequences of a military intervention. What you see and what you get is a full-blown pornography of violence, an assault of images without context. This is the ‘CNN effect,’ the war as the camera sees it.

Mamdani insists that this moral stance has depoliticized the people, especially students, who bought into the SDC’s message. The coalition has “presented itself as apolitical but moral, its concern limited only to saving lives.” The problem, of course, is that the lives to be saved were deemed native to Sudan, and the lives to be demonized were Arab outsiders. This racist stance, which was aided by the rhetoric of the “war on terror,” privileged the violence of one side over the violence of the other. In reality, however, both sides are native to Sudan, are fighting over a political system bequeathed and little changed from colonial times, and both sides committed—and in some cases continue to commit—violent repression of the people in the refugee camps.

It is the second section of Saviors and Survivors, “Darfur in Context,” that is most challenging and somewhat problematic. To anyone unfamiliar with the pronunciation of African names and places, this section’s less-than-two-hundred-page race through a thousand years of history is a bit difficult to follow. Mamdani, however, is concerned to teach us both the process of Arabization—the adoption of language, religion, and culture—in sub-Saharan Africa, and the history of Sudan in time and in its relation to that process. The processes, frankly, are not dissimilar to those that spread culture and religion in Europe. Elites adopt that which connects them to other elites, and common people follow suit. Mamdani then describes the role of British colonialism in dividing the people of the province into “tribes” for administrative purposes, and granting land to settled farming folk but not to nomadic herders.

It is the continuation of the British land system, Mamdani explains, that helped precipitate the armed struggles of the late 1980s. Drought and desertification affected everyone, not just “Arab” nomads. Farmers as well as herders were forced to move to better watered lands, and to protect themselves began to enclose pasture and access to water.

The historical section of Saviors and Survivors is very teleological—drawing a straight line from Sufi religious leaders to the British carve-up of land that favored one group over another. Detail suffers, but it’s difficult to say how the job of countering the prevailing consensus on Darfur could be done much differently than in this valuable book.

There is much more in Saviors and Survivors. Professor Mamdani’s ability to explain the role of Lybia, the French, Chad, the ICC and a host of smaller players defeats description in so short a review. If you want to read the best condemnation of humanitarian intervention or the ICC, read this book. If you want to know more details, you can mine the exhaustive bibliography for sources.

In the end, by not calling for Western troops and Western planes to further the violence in Darfur, Mamdani’s position turns out to be far more moral than that of interventionists like those in the SDC, who insist that they, and they alone, occupy the moral high ground. It’s hard to imagine that a moral high ground based just on military intervention and emotion can amount to more than a hill of beans.


Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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