[Marxism] Mamdani on Darfur

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Mar 30 07:24:27 MDT 2009

NY Times, March 30, 2009
Books of The Times
The Darfur the West Isn’t Recognizing as It Moralizes About the Region

Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror
By Mahmood Mamdani
398 pages. Pantheon Books. $26.95.

For many who survey an African landscape strewn with political wreckage, 
nowadays merely to raise the subject of European colonialism, which 
formally ended across most of the continent five decades ago, is to ring 
alarm bells of excuse making.

Clearly, the African disaster most in view today is Sudan, or more 
specifically the dirty war that has raged since 2003 in that country’s 
western region, Darfur.

Rare among African conflicts, it exerts a strong claim on our 
conscience. By instructive contrast, more than five million people have 
died as a result of war in Congo since 1998, the rough equivalent at its 
height of a 2004 Asian tsunami striking every six months, without 
stirring our diplomats to urgency or generating much civic response.

Mahmood Mamdani, a Ugandan-born scholar at Columbia University and the 
author of “When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism, and 
Genocide in Rwanda,” is one of the most penetrating analysts of African 
affairs. In “Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on 
Terror,” he has written a learned book that reintroduces history into 
the discussion of the Darfur crisis and questions the logic and even the 
good faith of those who seek to place it at the pinnacle of Africa’s 
recent troubles. It is a brief, he writes, “against those who substitute 
moral certainty for knowledge, and who feel virtuous even when acting on 
the basis of total ignorance.”

Mr. Mamdani does not dismiss a record of atrocities in Darfur, where 
300,000 have been killed and 2.5 million been made refugees, yet he 
opposes the label of genocide as a subjective judgment wielded for 
political reasons against a Sudanese government that is out of favor 
because of its history of Islamism and its suspected involvement in terror.

At his most provocative Mr. Mamdani questions the distinction between 
what is often labeled counterinsurgency and genocide, saying the former, 
even when it kills more people, is deemed “normal violence” while the 
latter is considered “amoral, evil,” and typically it is the West that 
does the labeling.

Although he uses the United States war in Iraq as an example, with the 
International Criminal Court recently issuing an arrest warrant for 
Sudan’s leader, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, Mr. Mamdani’s most compelling 
example is the treatment of a crisis in neighboring Uganda.

In Uganda, long one of Washington’s closest African friends, Mr. Mamdani 
traces the history of ethnically targeted “civilian massacres and other 
atrocities” against the brutal insurgency known as the Lord’s Resistance 
Army. In 1996, under President Yoweri Museveni, a second phase of that 
war began “with a new policy designed to intern practically the entire 
rural population of the three Acholi districts in northern Uganda,” Mr. 
Mamdani writes. “It took a government-directed campaign of murder, 
intimidation, bombing and burning of whole villages to drive the rural 
population into I.D.P. (internally displaced persons) camps.”

In 2005 Olara Otunnu, a former Ugandan ambassador to the United Nations, 
denounced the government’s tactics, saying, “An entire society is being 
systematically destroyed — physically, culturally, socially and 
economically — in full view of the international community.”

But as elsewhere in Africa, Mr. Mamdani says, the International Criminal 
Court has brought a case against only the enemy of Washington’s friend, 
the Lord’s Resistance Army, remaining mute about large-scale atrocities 
that may have been committed by the Ugandan government. In this pattern 
the author sees the hand of politics more than any real attachment to 

Many argue that what makes Darfur different from other African crises is 
race, with the conflict there pitting Arabs against people often called 
“black Africans,” but here again Mr. Mamdani takes on conventional 
wisdom. “At no point,” he states flatly, “has this been a war between 
‘Africans’ and ‘Arabs.’ ”

Much foreign commentary about Sudan speaks of its Arabs as settlers, 
with the inference that they are somehow less African than people 
assumed to be of pure black stock. If whites in Kenya and Zimbabwe, not 
to mention South Africa, vociferously maintain their African-ness, what 
then to make of the Arab presence in Sudan, whose slow penetration and 
widespread intermarriage, Mr. Mamdani writes, “commenced in the early 
decades of Islam” and “reached a climax” from the 8th to the 15th 
century, “when the Arab tribes overran much of the country”?

More interestingly, the author maintains that much of what we see today 
as a racial divide in Sudan has its roots in colonial history, when 
Britain “broke up native society into different ethnicities, and 
‘tribalized’ each ethnicity by bringing it under the absolute authority 
of one or more British-sanctioned ‘native authorities,’ ” balancing “the 
whole by playing one off against the others.”

Mr. Mamdani calls this British tactic of administratively reinforcing 
distinctions among colonial subjects “re-identify and rule” and says 
that it was copied by European powers across the continent, with deadly 
consequences — as in Rwanda, where Belgium’s intervention hardened 
distinctions between Hutu and Tutsi.

In Sudan the result was to create a durable sense of land rights rooted 
in tribal identity that favored the sedentary at the expense of the 
nomad, or, in the crude shorthand of today, African and Arab.

Other roots of the Darfur crisis lie in catastrophic desertification in 
the Sahel region, where the cold war left the area awash in cheap 
weapons at the very moment that pastoralists could no longer survive in 
their traditional homelands, obliging many to push southward into areas 
controlled by sedentary farmers.

He also blames regional strife, the violent legacy of proxy warfare by 
France, Libya and the United States and, most recently, the global 
extension of the war on terror.

This important book reveals much on all of these themes, yet still may 
be judged by some as not saying enough about recent violence in Darfur.

Mr. Mamdani’s constant refrain is that the virtuous indignation he 
thinks he detects in those who shout loudest about Darfur is no 
substitute for greater understanding, without which outsiders have 
little hope of achieving real good in Africa’s shattered lands.

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