[Marxism] Mamdani on Darfur
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
By HOWARD W. FRENCH
SAVIORS AND SURVIVORS
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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