Darfur’s Politics of Numbers
For Darfur watchers, the death toll is as much a political statement as an expression of fact. For those with just a passing interest in the region, ascertaining the number who have died involves making judgements on the credibility of estimates, given that these can vary by hundreds of thousands, depending on the source.
Bitter battles were fought over the number killed in Iraq and Lebanon 2006, with no resolution on the former, and recurrent objections on the latter. The battle for the death toll during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza is just swinging into action, with protracted disputes over accuracy expected. This does not bode well for accurate information from Darfur, an area over 1,200 times the size of the Gaza Strip and with far greater access concerns.
The estimates for the number of people who have died in the Darfur conflict range from 10,000 to 500,000 (occasionally more), with many other figures in between. A lot of the academic inquiry and methodology on the subject is discussed elsewhere on this blog.
While ballpark figures are accepted and extensively used (by humanitarian actors, advocates, policy-makers and the media), the range between these figures is more than enough to create doubt. From this doubt stems the politicised environment of death tolls.
Given the size of Darfur and the persisting difficulties in conducting methodologically sound fieldwork, it is a near-impossible task to produce a responsive, accurate death toll from mortality data, however it may be collected. Figures rely on sample interviews, assumptions, limited contextual information, and ultimately, extrapolation – meaning that those with a political interest in contesting these figures have ammunition with which to object.
It is a bold writer that opts for a lower figure – the closer the estimate is to that of the Sudanese government (10,000), the more that writer will be cast as an ‘apologist’. In truth, it is very rare to see anyone apart from the Sudanese government quote lower than 200,000.
Sam Dealey, then-Africa correspondent for Time magazine, wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times (12 August 2007) about the subject of Darfur death tolls, suggesting that the upper range numbers are likely to be excessive. He wrote of “mortality one-upmanship” between advocacy groups, and concluded that “ultimately, the inflated claims fuel a death race in which aid and action are based not on facts but on which advocacy group yells the loudest.”
This sparked a furious response, not least from Eric Reeves, activist and upper-range-figure advocate, who produced a 1,800-word rebuttal the next day denouncing Dealey as “a disgrace to journalism, and to the New York Times opinion pages.”
At times, then, the question of the death toll forces its way into the media, but does not sit comfortably or consistently there, as the inconsistent figures reveal a logical uncertainty when the media aims to present fact.
An advert placed by Save Darfur and the Aegis Trust in a British newspaper in summer 2007 stated: “After three years, 400,000 innocent men, women and children have been killed.” On 8 August 2007, the British Advertising Standards Authority upheld a complaint by ESPAC (the European-Sudanese Public Affairs Committee) that this figure was opinion, not fact. Shortly thereafter, James Smith of the Aegis Trust lamented that the wording had not read “up to 400,000″ (although this in reality would bring us no closer to a concrete figure).
The media, mindful of the imperative of fact, opts for a figure it can back up. The upper figure from a range provided by an institutional source usually suffices; currently, the most common figure is the UN’s estimate of 300,000. An article that mentions the figure given by the Sudanese government is very rare.
One footnote to add about the UN’s estimate of 300,000 is that it was subject to an arbitrary upgrade (from the 2006 figure of 200,000 to 300,000, an increase resulting from deaths attributable to disease and malnutrition) around spring 2008. Various media outlets reported the UN’s John Holmes comments at the time: “I am not saying I am sure… It is not a very scientifically-based figure,” but instead is “a reasonable extrapolation from the previous figures from studies done elsewhere.” This figure remains untouched and widely reported since then.
The use of these figures in the media is inconsistent; both individual journalists and newspapers themselves vary in the numbers they use. For example, a journalist for Britain’s Times newspaper used both 200,000 and 300,000 in articles published in February and March 2009 respectively, having previously used 300,000 for most of the previous year’s reporting. The same discrepancy can be seen in the Guardian, which predominantly quotes the 200,000 figure, but sometimes publishes 300,000.
When the application for the indictment of Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir was submitted to the International Criminal Court, a new figure of 35,000 was released into the public consciousness. This was the number of violent deaths for which Al-Bashir was alleged to be responsible, and comprises documented attacks dating from soon after the Al-Fasher airport attack in April 2003 to attacks in the Jebel Moon area in February 2008. It is worth noting that the actual arrest warrant for Al-Bashir does not give any number for deaths in Darfur, perhaps for fear that the attendant politicisation could cloud an issue of justice.
This figure is around one-tenth the size of the more usual 300,000, forcing the hitherto dimly conveyed distinction between violent deaths and death by disease, starvation and exhaustion from destitution in the aftermath of conflict to be considered with more clarity. However, the common media practice is to ignore the figure of 35,000 altogether, which saves on space and questions about the seeming conflict with the usual figure of 300,000.
It would be a surprise to many that the death toll for 2008 was around 1,600, according to soon-to-be published UN statistics. Of these, at least 700 were Arabs, and similar statistics exist for 2007. This seems a very low figure, just 0.5% of the 300,000 figure, which is so large that comparatively, the addition of 1,600 barely changes the total.
No newspaper will print an inexact 301,600 as the figure, so we fall back on repeating the same figure for at least a year’s coverage, creating the impression of an unchanging conflict, with seemingly none killed. Obviously, this is not true but it highlights the bluntness of the death toll figure as a tool: it can convey no information about the fluid dynamics of the Darfur conflict, offering instead a uniform statement of mass killing.
Given the simplification (Arabs vs Africans) used to portray Darfur in many sections of the media, it is worth noting that who and how those included in the overall figure died remains largely unknown and unconsidered: Arab, non-Arab, Sudanese government, civilian, be it in government, rebel, or inter-tribal attacks.
Away from the sporadic interest of the media, another serious issue in this politicised environment is that it can detract from important decisions that should be kept free from politics.
Statistics such as the number of dead must be credible in order to help political and public health decision-makers plan effectively for the short- and long-term strategies relating to the conflict, a process complicated by the need for political evaluation.
This goes equally for humanitarian aid groups who must manage a relationship with the host country. Humanitarian aid has become more politicised, critically so now in Darfur, as the aid group expulsions demonstrate.
Does use of upper-end death tolls encourage the Sudanese government to harden their stance regarding admitting and facilitating the function of aid organisations in Darfur? This is a hard question to answer substantively, but instinct would agree.
Moreover, would the humanitarian situation in Darfur have been eased by the universal quoting of a low-end figure? Would the Sudanese government have been more inclined to let aid agencies stay?
In a way this is a moot point now that the indictment of Al-Bashir has taken place. Those actors who hope to influence the death toll – and the displaced and those in need of humanitarian aid – now have a much more complicated opportunity to do so.
One final observation is that the figure of internally (and externally) displaced is often relegated to second place: the death toll is often quoted without the IDP figure, but never vice versa. Given that the largest humanitarian operation in the world is in Darfur, this demonstrates a perverse over-emphasis on the dead at the expense of the living.
Guy Gabriel is an adviser to Arab Media Watch