From Mamdani to Mbeki: Radically Reconfiguring the Darfur Story in Theory and Practice (3)
III. The Mbeki Mission and the Way Forward
Mamdani is right on target in his criticism of the Save Darfur tendency to offer simplistic solutions and manifesting misguided belligerence and a blind belief in the virtues of aggressive external intervention, in particular the military variety, as an instant solution for the crisis. His bewilderment at the way in which local groups (IDPs, rebel forces, and regime opponents) appear to endorse this perspective neglects an important point with regards to the symbiotic relationship between external activists and local actors. Save Darfur uses its belligerent rhetoric precisely because it has already taken sides in an ongoing conflict, and is in fact reproducing the rhetoric of the rebels and their constituencies. It is no surprise then that the local actors should endorse that rhetoric which is an extension to both their own propaganda and war effort. But Mamdani is right in noting that this belligerence magnifies and complicates the conflict, rather than help resolve it. It also reinforces intransigence among the parties, in particular by creating the illusion of an impending decisive external intervention which would resolve the issue quickly to the benefit of one side.
Mamdani (and some of the commentators on his book) are also right to warn that external mechanisms (the ICC, the UN, foreign intervention and activism) are no substitute to an internal political process of accommodation and reconciliation. In fact the insertion of foreign mechanisms into the body politic has all the characteristics of a “transplant”, which could be easily rejected by that body. The ICC has suffered such forceful rejection from the Sudanese and African bodies politic, and has become the object of deep revulsion that could not be simply explained by the blaming the Sudanese or Africans for being corrupt lovers of genocide.
However, all this still leaves some deeply disturbing questions unanswered. Neither Mamdani nor his critics deny that serious rights violations have taken place in Darfur, and that the government is responsible for the bulk of them. They are also aware of the disturbing recurrence of mass atrocities in Africa and elsewhere in recent years, and revulsion against these in the wider international community, which had in turn provoked the deep thinking behind responsible for institutions and doctrines such the ICC and R2P. And it is no coincidence that one of the chief architects of the R2P doctrine is a Sudanese lawyer and diplomat, Dr Francis Deng, the current Advisor to the UN Secretary General on the Prevention of Genocide. Deng also happens to be a major contributor to the debate on Sudanese identity, reiterating a position close to that of the SPLM (and not far removed from Mamdani’s) on the question of Arab-Sudanese identity. My friend Deng and I had a heated but largely civilised debate on this issue, since I happen to disagree with him strongly.
Mamdani’s point appears to be that this line of thinking has veered onto the wrong track, and the institutions have proved to be counter-productive. As he rightly notes, had the ICC been operative and empowered during the South African conflict, no resolution would have been found for it. The ICC is also currently seen as an obstacle to peace-making in Uganda. And one shudders to think how busy such a court would be if Israel were ever to be brought under its scrutiny.
But what is the alternative then? To let atrocities go unpunished or unchecked in the search for peace? Or just hold the parties involved politically accountable but not criminally so, as he suggests? And what does political accountability consists in?
It is difficult to disagree with Mamdani that external do-gooders need to back off and let the parties to the conflict in Darfur work it out among themselves. Even the UN Security Council in its most recent resolutions reiterated the (obvious) point that no military solution is possible for the conflict, and no alternative to an inclusive political accommodation. But this leaves unanswered the nagging question about how to resolve the accountability issue.
And this is where the recently convened AU Darfur Panel chaired by former South African President Thabo Mbeki comes in. The panel, appointed last February and comprising two other former African presidents (from Burundi and Nigeria), was tasked with coming up with ideas for pushing the peace process forward and achieving reconciliation, in addition to coming up with a formula for dealing with the perpetrators of war crimes. The panel was supposed to submit its report by the end of July, but it has yet to indicate it readiness to do so even as August is fast receding.
The Panel has already been accused of preparing proposals favourable to the Sudanese regime, given that the AU which appointed it has already made clear its opposition to the ICC warrant. The Panel’s chairman has also expressed opinions close to those of Mamdani on survivors’ (as opposed to victors’) justice. However, Mbeki has rejected such criticisms, arguing that he was keeping an open mind on all issues, and will continue listening to all stake holders. He has spent nearly forty days in Darfur, meeting thousands of people in the process.
The questions Mbeki and his team of elders and experts have been tasked with answering are indeed challenging and daunting. In the end, it would be the people in Darfur specifically and in Sudan generally, who should come up with the answers for these questions. It is they, as Mamdani rightly pointed out, who will have to live together and live with the consequences of their choices. Only by achieving reconciliation on the basis of the famous Lebanese formula, “no victor and no vanquished” would such a reconciliation be achieved. This would only be possible if all sides offer meaningful concessions and not insist, like the Shakespearean Merchant of Venice, on literal justice and their pound of flesh. For just as in Shakespeare’s drama, that pound of flesh could not be extracted without putting the whole body in mortal danger, some forms of punitive justice can only be achieved by a total destruction of the whole country. The alternative to compromise and reconciliation is a fight to the finish, which, ironically, could only be resolved through the institution of a proper genocide, by eliminating or completely subjugating one side. Even if this was possible, it is not a desirable course of action.
The drawback of foreign inputs in the conflict has been to create the illusion among some parties about the possibility of such a “clean end” to the conflict in which the “evil” side would be clearly vanquished. As a result, one side was made too insecure to contemplate meaningful concessions, the other too confident and arrogant to do so. It is important that the Mbeki contribution should not become just another “foreign” prescription for the parties to take it or leave it. Its virtue, if it were to have one, must be to place the parties in front of their responsibilities, and demand a limit to foreign interventions and the distortions they create.
We have a moral duty towards all the past victims of this conflict: their suffering cannot be overlooked or belittled. But we have an even more abiding moral duty towards future victims of conflict. If ultimate justice for those victims can only be achieved if hundreds of thousands more perish or suffer, this might not be the wisest course. But of course we all know this. Wars are forms of compulsive gambling: it is difficult to know when to stop. The SPLA could have obtained during the period 1985-1989 a much better deal than the present one under Naivasha in 2005, twenty years and perhaps one million victims later. The majority of the seriously splintered Darfur rebel groups appear to have already lost their gamble in that many will not survive to cash in on those elusive winnings.
The best tribute to the victims of this and previous conflicts may be to help establish a fairer social and political system in which future generations in Sudan would not need to go to war. The current government must shoulder the bulk of the burden in bringing this about. They should not wait for the Mbeki recommendations to make a move. What needs to be done is already obvious: end the war now and begin the process of reconciliation. The great error of the proponents of disembodied “international justice” has been the erroneous belief that justice can be done while the conflict was still going on. In this case, this would not be justice, but conducting the war by other means. You cannot publish a final account of a business while the shop is still doing brisk business. You will have to wait for the end of the business day/week/year to make sense of what has happened, and whether the final tally was a loss or a profit. It is the same with justice. For if things continue as they are, the accusation of genocide may continue to be bandied about, only against different perpetrators. For justice as well as for peace, the war must stop. Otherwise, it will be the guns which take care of the justice part.
Abdelwahab El-Affendi is an ESRC-AHRC Fellow in the Global Uncertainties Programme, UK. He is based at the University of Westminster.