Mamdani’s Darfur “Activism”
A number of reviewers seem to be impressed by the research Mahmood Mamdani has done in producing his tendentious Saviors and Survivors. Perhaps if more were known about the history Mamdani purports to tell they would be less impressed. I’ll offer a single egregious example of error, but one so large in implication it should give serious pause to anyone tempted to regard Mamdani as a serious student of Darfur and Sudan. To maximize the chances that the implications of Mamdani’s error are taken seriously, I’ll borrow a passage from a recent posting on this site by Sean O’Fahey, perhaps the most distinguished historian of Darfur and Sudan alive today (and recent author of The Darfur Sultanate: A History, Columbia University Press, 2008):
“Concepts of superiority in Darfur were historically linked to Islam and not directly or solely to ethnic identity. The Fur, the largest ethnic group in Darfur, are clearly an amalgam of ethnicities that grew by
assimilation defined by Islam, but marked by the use of the Fur language (Fur was the court language until 1916) and allegiance to the Keira dynasty. In Saviors and Survivors, Professor Mamdani applies [Sudan historian Jay] Spaulding’s ideas about Arabisation/ Arabicisation under the Funj sultans along the Nile to Darfur. This is misleading; the ethno/political realities of the Funj state [in Eastern Sudan] and Darfur were quite different. Spaulding’s ideas of “enclaves” of Arabisation/Islamisation in the towns along the Nile, do not apply in Darfur if only because there were virtually no towns in the latter. Darfur is no way part of the Nilotic Sudan.” (“Ethnic Identity in
Darfur,” April 7, 2009.)
The simple truth is that Mamdani does not know Sudan or Darfur well, has cooked his political narrative in advance, and in his inaccurate and over-generalizing attack on American Darfur advocacy largely ignores the enormously and deliberately destructive actions of Khartoum in Darfur, even those of its central players: there is no mention in the book of Nafi’e Ali Nafi’e, the most powerful advisor to indicted President Omar al-Bashir and largely in charge of current overall Darfur policy; there is no mention whatsoever of Saleh Abdalla “˜Gosh,’ head of the rightly dreaded National Security and Intelligence Service, which has played such a central role in Darfur’s destruction; Vice President Ali Osman Taha is mentioned only twice and briefly, even as he took over the Darfur portfolio at the height of the violence in early 2004; there is no discussion of more than five years of systematic obstruction and harassment of humanitarian assistance to Darfur by the regime.
In the entire book there are only a half dozen references to the major human rights organizations that have consistently and authoritatively documented–in scores of reports–massive “ethnic cleansing” and crimes against humanity since 2003; and yet even these sparse references bear not on Darfur but other African crises. There is no mention at all of Physicians for Human Rights, which has made the most powerful case for a genocide determination, with comprehensive on-the-ground investigations (these are reflected in “Darfur–Assault on Survival: A Call for Security, Justice and Restitution.”) Nor does Mamdani anywhere discuss the substance of mortality data/reports he characterizes, including the investigation by the Coalition for International Justice along the Chad/Darfur border in August/September 2004, which generated the statistically critical document “Documenting Atrocities in Darfur”–the basis for the American determination that genocide was occurring in Darfur. This also has bearing on Mamdani’s frequently inaccurate and uncomprehending account of mortality in Darfur. “Documenting Atrocities in Darfur” is, I believe, the most important document extant bearing on violent mortality through summer 2004; its substance, methods, and purposes–and that of other reports–cannot simply be ignored, as Mamdani does.
Mamdani is a perverse mirror image of his homogenizing caricature of American Darfur advocacy. Such history of the region as he provides is totally derivative from previous scholarship (shaped to his political thesis), and his contact with the most significant elements of Darfuri civil society and the rebel groups seems minimal. His minimizing of the suffering and destruction endured by the people of the region is a disgrace to serious efforts to “make sense of Darfur.”