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How 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.
President 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."
Darfur genocide that has happened and must be punished? Or, is
it genocide that could happen and must be prevented? I will argue
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.
Darfur Conflict Politically
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 guerrilla movement.
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 Islam."
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.”
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.”
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.
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 identity, “Arab.”
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.
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.
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.
is the Solution?
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.
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.
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?
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."
Should We Do?
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.
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.
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.
Mamdani is Herbert Lehman Professor of Government and Director,
Institute of African Studies, at University of Columbia,
New York. Please send comments to email@example.com.
Copyright © 2004 Mahmood
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).