Darfur: On Listening
I have spent many hours in Darfur observing how outsiders ask questions and listen to the answers they are given. It is easy to end up with the answers they expect and want, often unconsciously putting words into people’s mouths. (Quite often, in a rush to record a definite answer or opinion, they literally put words into people’s mouths, demanding, “so you mean ‘X'” and taking polite assent to mean informed, voluntary and comprehensive agreement.)
This was the topic of my very first publication on Darfur, “On the perception of poverty and famines” (International Journal of Moral and Political Philosophy, 1987). Visitors to the region, typically from aid agencies, asked people about the value of the aid they were getting. People were enthusiastically thankful. The relief food was called “Reagan” after the man who had donated it, and aid officials were told that without “‘esh Reagan“ people would surely starve to death.
As soon as it started raining in June 1985, the people who had told us that they had nothing to live off except “Reagan” quietly slipped away from the relief camps, left the aid supplies, returned home, started planting, and resumed their normal lives. When I asked people how they actually survived the famine year, “‘esh Reagan“ was a pretty minor factor. The way to get to that conclusion was not to ask people what they thought about relief food (I didn’t find anyone who said it was a bad thing, or unimportant) but to observe what people actually did, or to let them tell their stories in their own words, at length.
If a foreigner asks Darfurians, “whom do you trust to deliver justice?” the answer is unsurprising. As Semhar Araia writes, most Darfurians “felt strongly that the ICC was the only body they could trust to bring justice to their lives.” If an outsider asks Darfurians, “who can provide peace?” or “who can provide security?” equally unsurprising answers will come.
It is like the U.S. public opinion survey in 2005 which found that most Americans supported UN intervention in Darfur “to stop genocide”””the phrasing of the question presumed the efficacy of the action which in turn determined the answer. (I owe this example to Steve Fake and Kevin Funk’s Scramble for Africa, page 265. They note that a still higher number were in favor of greater U.S. support to the AU mission in Darfur””a fact that didn’t seem to rank so highly with advocates and policymakers.)
I have attended a number of consultations in Darfur over the last two months, in IDP camps, villages and more formal meetings with civil society and community leaders. The consultations were convened by the African Union. I like to hang around on the fringes, chatting to people who are less directly involved in the formalities. Seeing a white person, some community leaders come to me to assure me, discreetly, that they trust me more than the African leaders, and that they support the ICC. Others, seeing me in the company of an African Union delegation, earnestly and quietly tell me the precise opposite. I have observed the same person say completely different things in different contexts. It’s not deceit or even contradiction: it’s that courtesy demands saying certain things, context constrains what can be said, and the ways in which questions are posed””or discussions left unfinished””means that only one part of a complicated picture emerges. In some cases, political instructions dictate that certain things are said in a formal exchange, and other messages passed when the proceedings have formally closed.
Switch from brief exchanges of views to long, informal and circuitous discussions, and different perspectives emerge. Switch from hypothetical questions about ideal outcomes, to practical accounts of what people are doing for themselves, and the story is very different. In many parts of Darfur, local leaders are solving the immediate problems they face, and in doing so, tackling complicated questions about accountability, reconciliation and rebuilding communities and livelihoods.
Questions about justice are among the most sensitive. In some fora, any mention of the ICC””except in the context of condemning it””is taboo. However, I was impressed by the extent to which the AU Panel succeeded in creating a space for genuinely open debates. Testament to this is that even in discussions held in the presence of government officials and NCP stalwarts, we heard many of the same opinions that were expressed in government-free zones such as militant IDP camps and areas held by the armed movements.
One vigorous and frank discussion about justice began with me asking the leaders of a Fur community how they had reconciled with their immediate Arab neighbours. This was a particularly pertinent question as two years ago they had insisted that reconciliation with these people””whom they then called “Janjawiid”””was impossible. Today they didn’t mention that, but rather said that the tribes had done dreadful things to each other, and it was necessary to live together as neighbours once again.
I asked about reconciliation with the slightly more distant Arab groups that had been much more active as militia during 2003-04 and had become integrated into the government’s military structure. The question focused on the tribal leader. “As sheikh of the tribe, we can reconcile with him. As military commander we demand that he faces justice,” was the answer””at first. When it came to politically-motivated crimes, as they saw it, the mechanisms for reconciliation were not up to the job. (As it turned out, they were equally bitter about executions carried out by rebel commanders as the atrocities of the Arab militia””and demanded justice for these too.)
But the specific reason why the people demanded accountability for the militia commander was “he was carrying out the instructions of the government.” What about those who stood behind the commander, giving him orders? “Definitely they should face justice.” Up to President Bashir? “Yes, up to President Bashir. He is the one who ordered that our people be uprooted.”
There then followed a long discussion among the community leaders, in which they discussed the pros and cons of prosecuting the tribal chief-cum-military commander, other government officials, and the president. I listened. There was no agreement among them about what prosecution might entail. The most senior wanted to arrive at a single and clear position to present to me, but I found their disagreement much more interesting than any formula that they hoped to fashion from their unresolved discussions. What was most important was that they didn’t have a single or clear position””and that the significance of anything they said depended on the context. They weren’t “for” or “against” the ICC in any simple way.
There were some points of agreement among the community leaders. For example they all agreed, without any prompting, that there could be no peace with the government if the president were to be prosecuted. The question was how to use the threat of prosecution to extract concessions, and what the concessions and guarantees should be. The question of “justice” was much broader than just criminal prosecution. Just as outsiders tend to project their assumptions about “justice” onto Darfurians, these Darfurians were assuming that the “justice” which the ICC would deliver would correspond to their needs and demands.
One man argued that when Bashir himself delivered justice, defined as reversing the uprooting of the displaced people, then the threat of prosecution should be lifted. In this discussion, they used the term ibada“”conventionally translated as “genocide”””to refer to mass forcible displacement. All present concurred that when the mass displacement was remedied, the people’s demands would be met and the president would then be allowed to go free (we didn’t discuss whether he should stay as president or not).
I didn’t ask many questions but I did ask if Bashir should pay for the crimes committed. The answer was a unanimous “yes.” Their understanding of “payment” was chiefly in terms of what his government should do””restitution, return, peace, development. Interestingly, cash compensation did not figure. There was no mention of a trial or jail term as “payment.” (I didn’t ask whether one man spending twenty years in prison in The Hague would be considered appropriate “payment” for the Sudan Government’s actions in Darfur.)
Be careful what you listen out for: you may hear what you expect. An essential skill of a good mediator is to listen for the unexpected or contrarian, to explore controversy rather than hastening towards consensus which may turn out to be a false one. I am encouraged by the fact that three former presidents who head the AU Panel have shown these skills.