Sudan: Bringing the Politics Back In
With Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics and the War on Terror, Mahmood Mamdani has, in his usual provocative manner, ignited a relevant and appropriate debate on Darfur and what needs to be done to resolve the crisis. Until recently, certain activists had a near-monopoly on publicity, and in doing so they defined not only the immediate response to Darfur, but also all the issues surrounding Sudan. Political, humanitarian and security issues were all defined by an activist constituency. All other entities, including the UN and AU which have a considerable presence on the ground and have their own sources of information and analysis, were intimidated into silence, and often reduced to responding to assertions made by organizations with only a fraction of the knowledge. With thousands of monitors and a detailed local knowledge and analysis the UN, was overshadowed by hit and run missions by western advocacy groups, which often arrived, spent a few days mining the information of UN and AU staff members and Sudanese professionals, and then went away and imposed their own interpretations on the information they had extracted. This externally driven a priori definition of Sudan’s crisis had to be challenged, and Mahmood has succeeded in doing that.
There are four arguments which I find compelling in Saviors and Survivors. They are: (1) his argument regarding how the Arabs are defined as “outsiders” versus the Africans as “indigenous,” (2) the way in which a certain brand of activists have become detached and unaccountable, (3) the under-acknowledged role of Africa and African institutions in responding to Darfur, and (4) the primacy of politics in any solution.
First, the argument regarding the Arabs as outsiders versus the Africans as indigenous. The way the Darfur issue has been discussed in the international community has consolidated this depiction. We can see the Arabs depicted outsiders to Sudan, and within Sudan, as outsiders to specific communities. This depiction is creating its own momentum and people in Sudan are defining the issues in this manner. In Darfur, the Arabs are now compelled to say, “We are Darfurians.” They need to insist that they are part of the solution and not just a problem. This notion of Arabs as incomers entered the communal discourse well before the war but has been entrenched by saturation western coverage. Mercifully, both the JEM and SLA responsible leadership do not share this. They have a legitimate critique of how power is monopolized by the center, with most of those who dominate power having Arab origins, but this has nothing to do with the claim that Arabs are outsiders.
The redefinition of Arabs as outsiders has serious implications not just in Sudan but across West Africa. As resources dwindle, arms become available, and as competition for power intensifies, the issue of indigenous versus outsider becomes a driving narrative. It is a way of framing politics by exclusion, which has been a destructive force in conflicts such as Cí´te d’Ivoire. This is a danger that must be seriously considered and tackled before it locks entire countries into its logic. Mahmood has seen these processes at work in different parts of Africa, most notably Uganda, Rwanda and the Great Lakes, and highlighting it in Darfur is consistent with his previous work. We should pay attention to his warning, as it is based on a deep understanding of how these processes operate.
Second, Mahmood obliges us to focus on the activists and specifically the danger of activism becoming an end in itself. Rather than acting in solidarity with a domestic political agenda, activism on Darfur become entranced with its own image and is ending up spinning on itself. Mahmood, myself and a generation of Africans are all activists, coming from a background of political struggle for liberation and democracy. Activism as practiced today, in America especially and focused on Africa, has a completely different character. We feel dismayed and let down that the word “activist”, which we once owned and which was a badge we proudly wore, has been appropriated by others with such different worldviews.
Western activists are now empowered with unprecedented resources, not for purposes of the traditional NGO work of advocacy in solidarity with domestic political forces, but advocacy that is focused on overwhelming domestic political actors and defining a solution to the problem that forces the international players to buy into it. The activists are very ambitious in this, using a narrative that makes claims about “genocide”, a word which they have adopted because of its power to compel western governments to intervene. Once they have taken on this narrative, they have no choice, except to demand for regime change. Even when they deny it, this is where their narrative leads. Individuals within these groups may have a better and more nuanced understanding, but the thrust of what they do, whether they intend it or not, is to consolidate power relations that reduce people in the countries they are concerned with to mere victims, spectators in the politics of their own countries. From the perspective of Darfur, this approach has really gone beyond accountability and solidarity into destabilization and continuation of conflict. The label “victim” is in serious danger of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, the antithesis of the liberation which we aspired to a generation ago.
Mahmood has raised this question in a typically forthright and uncompromising manner. What he has succeeded in doing, which no-one else has done, is to force the activists to reflect upon the politics of their strategy and to demonstrate, in the clearest way possible, that there are other intellectually coherent and legitimate ways of seeing the Darfur crisis. The activists had become used to dominating the public discourse on Darfur in the international sphere. After Mahmood’s intervention, they need to raise their intellectual game. It is interesting to observe that they have hardly ever been able to do this, and keep recycling the same arguments as though the mere fact of repetition would make them win the argument.
Third, Mahmood raises the issue of African institutions and how they responded to Darfur. Mahmood makes a point that in the case of Darfur, the Africans actually took a much more robust stand than they were credited for. The Africans were involved in Darfur first, before anybody else. The African Union responded with what Africa has, which was moral condemnation, political engagement and human resources. Before anybody else, African states and the African Union were engaged with negotiating a ceasefire, demanding an end to the atrocities, and sending a mission of ceasefire monitors. The AU observer mission relied on Africans with the financial support from outside, which unfortunately proved to be an unsustainable formula. The AU presence by all accounts improved the situation on the ground in 2004 during the worst days of the crisis. The AU mediation achieved the one political breakthrough recognized by all parties, the 2005 Declaration of Principles, and conducted the most intense discussion of the details of power-sharing, wealth-sharing and security arrangements yet undertaken. As the months and years have passed since the end of the Abuja peace talks, that process, much-maligned by the activists, has looked better and better in comparison with what has been possible since.
The time when AMIS deployed was the very same time when the activists were raising the bar on Darfur. The activist argument was that the issue could only be met by an international force, preferably NATO, though they were ready to settle for the UN. So the debate the activists have unleashed actually came at the expense of the African presence. Instead of arguing for upgrading AMIS, or at most changing the mission into another multilateral institution, the rationale for the campaign became to prove how the Africans are incapable and are failing. They hammered this point so much so that it degenerated into claiming the complicity of Africans with what they called genocide. In spite of the attack against them the Africans persevered and helped negotiate a hybrid arrangement of a joint UN-AU force.
Serious damage was done by the activists against African peacekeeping capacities, which have now been tarred as inadequate throughout the continent. The agenda of building an African peacekeeping force with a force structure and doctrine appropriate to the particularities of African conflicts, which was a vibrant issue just a few years ago, has been set back if not killed off completely. Within Darfur, the activists’ messages were so inciteful that certain communities saw the African character of UNAMID as an impediment to their aspiration. The kind of grumbling about institutional shortcomings that is the staple of any field mission or operational NGO was inflated into a universal verdict of condemnation. Once recycled by activist oped writers in America the same opinions returned to Darfur with the imprint of legitimacy from on high. So, anything the Africans have done is not good enough for the activists, who instead demand the UN, by which they mean white people.
In spite of all this the Africans continue to be helpful in Darfur and continue to exercise influence. Africa continues to provide peacekeepers for Darfur and it is taking the lead in political and peace initiatives.
The last point is the primacy of politics. Mahmood’s analysis privileges politics. Instead of seeing the politics of Darfur through the simplified lens of good and evil, Mahmood sees the humanitarian crisis and human rights violations through the lens of politics. In doing so he is speaking the same language as his most politically astute Sudanese critics, who fully recognize that the labels “genocide” and “criminal” are tools in the political lexicon and not the anchor for analysis. Internationally, the entire narrative of “Darfur” has been framed within by a depoliticized “evil.” Mahmood’s book provokes us to think politically about what has happened in Darfur and how the legacy of marginalization which Darfurians are suffering from, can only be redressed by political reform. By political reform Mahmood refers to changing the way politics has been conducted, which requires a political struggle and redefinition of the issues, and creating a new dispensation for the whole of Sudan. Mahmood clearly articulates that the issue of justice does not exist in abstract. Justice exists within a political order and unless the political framework allows, justice cannot be done. He argues that it is only when the configuration of the political space is changed that justice will be served.
This is exactly what we have been hearing from the Darfurian people. In every consultation we have held, whenever we have asked the question about justice, the answer has not come back in terms of privileging trials and punitive accountability, but in terms of dealing with inequities in development and political representation, overcoming marginalization and restoring livelihoods, and establishing the rule of law and the presence of the state and its services. Only in that context and in that order do Darfurians speak about punitive accountability. The AU itself is on record condemning impunity in the strongest terms. Africans demand accountability, and the AU Panel on Darfur is looking into how to link peace, justice and reconciliation, while also recognizing that without politics there is no way to address the Darfur issue.
An important conclusion that follows from this is that changing the political dispensation can only be done by Sudanese. Any authentic and legitimate political reform is primarily the product of the struggle of the Sudanese people. Therefore the slogan of “Save Darfur” becomes meaningless because the emphasis is put on external factors. It reduces the people of Darfur and Sudan into spectators rather than they themselves being an agent of change. Unfortunately, this slogan, because of its intensity and the resources behind it, was able to penetrate certain circles within the Darfurian and Sudanese elite, distorting their ability to focus internally, and encouraging them to put their priority on external salvation. We hear this too, especially among the most frustrated constituencies in Darfur. What is especially tragic is that this externally-oriented militancy has strengthened very reactionary forces in Sudan who want to perpetuate the marginalization of Darfur. It has given them the mantle of nationalism.
The fact of the matter is that Darfur is an integral part of Sudan. We cannot imagine Sudan without Darfur. Darfurians were instrumental in establishing Sudan’s first independence under the Mahdi and its second independence in 1956, and in building the character of the state. Historically, Darfurians have not been victims: they have been active leaders on the national political scene. Today, we are seeing a move by the national political parties, all of which have strong Darfurian representation at the leadership level, to accept their responsibility for finding a solution to the crisis. This is the foundation for finding a solution.
Saviors and Survivors has succeeded in doing something very significant, which is prompting a dialogue on American activism on Darfur and how it stands in relation to the politics of Sudan. Mahmood has succeeded in arresting the monopoly of Save Darfur monologue on Darfur. To date, the response to his critique has not been substantive. It has been disappointingly thin, and has remained stuck on trying to prove that Darfur is “ongoing genocide.” It shows the activists have built their arguments on slogans and their horizons do not extend beyond their own world. Mahmood has challenged that. But the activists still stick to the politics of victimhood, and refuse to go beyond first principles. In this political retrogression, I wonder if we should still use that honorable word “activists” to describe them. Sudan is too important, for its forty million citizens and for the continent of Africa, to be left to this kind of “activist.”