From Mamdani to Mbeki: Radically Reconfiguring the Darfur Story in Theory and Practice (1)
I. Recolonisation without Responsibility
As many commentators have already pointed out, Mahmood Mamdani’s recent book, Saviors and Survivors has almost single-handedly shifted the debate on Darfur from a monologue (or a series of rival monologues) into a (very heated) dialogue. By taking head-on the dominant, rather one-sided narrative on the crisis, he had shocked and angered many, but enthused many others. However, a central question is this: what significance would such intervention have in practice? Would it translate into support for the regime in Khartoum, as some of Mamdani’s critics have argued? Or would it lead to some constructive rethinking of how to tackle the crisis, a process in which the Obama administration has already engaged in even before the book came out? Or would it just be talk, like many other interventions to-date?
The intellectual and ethical impact of the work was indeed remarkable. A lot of people had had a nagging and deep sense of unease with the Darfur conflict narrative as it unfolded in the international media and the official statements from international bodies, but they could not quite put their finger on it. On one side, they were sure that the people of Darfur have witnessed immense suffering, and that something needed to be done about it. But on the other, there was a nagging suspicion regarding the uncharacteristic enthusiasm by the United States and other dubious actors (such as Israel and its loyal lobbies) for the cause of Darfur. Whenever the US (especially under the Bush-Cheney administration) expressed enthusiasm for a humanitarian cause, a large number of sceptical thinkers and activists around the world instinctively reached for their metaphorical weapons.
Conspiracy theorists immediately speculated that oil or something of similar value must account for this bout of “acute humanitarianism” which gripped Washington without any prior warning. Others sensed another conspiracy to divide and subjugate yet another recalcitrant Muslim country. But little evidence existed to back these claims. All these people felt was that the US and its vociferous lobbies must be wrong. But they could not exactly figure how and why.
In one of those celebrated Eureka moments that that turn things around, Mamdani provided the missing piece of the puzzle: the smoking gun was found, and the mystery was solved. The missing link turned out to be the Save Darfur movement, a coalition of mainly American religious, humanitarian and civic organisations which led the campaign to put the Darfur crisis on the American and international agenda, with overwhelming and unprecedented success. The movement became an unstoppable juggernaut which bulldozed the US and international authorities into feverish and misguided action which compounded, rather than eased, the problem. The Save Darfur Coalition (SDC) is composed an unlikely alliance of opposites. At one pole, we have the usual suspects: religious right fanatics, pro-Israeli lobbies who had no qualms about human suffering when the human beings in question happened to be Palestinians, or Iraqis. On the other, there are veterans of the civil right movements and “human rights fundamentalists” who did not care what problems their fanaticism caused.
The Save Darfur Coalition worked to portray the Darfur conflict into simplistic black-and-white terms, with little regard for context or history. It was simply a question of evil genocidaires on one side, and innocent victims on the other. They have no idea how the war has started, and no concern about how it could best be ended. In fact, they wanted more war, not less. The Save Darfur Coalition was not a peace-seeking coalition, but a militaristic advocate of war. Its slogan was: “Out of Iraq and into Darfur!”
Iraq, where similar counter-insurgency tactics were used, including the employment of sectarian and tribal militias, is relevant here. Unlike Darfur, where readiness to quote (inflated) casualty numbers was in evidence, the US and its allies have made it a policy not to “count bodies” there. For them, how many people were killed in Iraq did not matter. Unlike Darfur, where estimates of deaths were shots in the dark, as few people saw actual dead bodies, in Iraq, dead body were dumped by the road side on a daily basis. But neither the US public nor the “international community” appeared to be moved by what has happened in Iraq, or for that matter in the Democratic Republic of Congo or even Chad which was next door to Darfur. Everyone seems to be fixated on Darfur, especially in the Congress, where former Presidential envoy Andrew Natsios was trying to tell the legislators that more murder and mayhem was taking place in neighbouring Chad than in Darfur. But he was forced to swallow his words and declare an ongoing genocide because the Congressmen and women craved one.
For Mamdani, the reason for this selective compassion had to do, on the one side, with the nature of American politics, and on the other with the structure of the world order. On the first issue, American politics has witnessed a marked deterioration in its quality from the engaged activism of the anti-Vietnam war movement to the depoliticized campaign on Darfur which united the far left and the extreme right around what appeared to be a “moral cause” that was above (and outside) politics. This campaign offers activists an escape from divisive politics where citizens are forced to acknowledge responsibility for the actions of their government, and into a rarefied moral universe where pure goodness is pitted against pure evil. While politically responsible action forces actors to struggle with their conscience, this act of charity towards far away victims makes the activists feel good about themselves. Unlike the Vietnam War protests, activists here do not have to face police or endanger themselves. In fact the real “activism” here was not the one performed by the volunteers (the “child soldiers” as Mamdani calls them: young school kids who sell the lemonade, send emails or collect donations) but by highly paid advertising executives who structure the campaign. What we appear to have here is more a feature of the consumer society than of a society of engaged and responsible citizens.
The other side of this coin on the international arena is the global “war of terror”, another export from Bush’s depoliticized America where the consumer-citizen had become as docile and as receptive of government propaganda as subjects in totalitarian regimes. The war in Iraq was just another manifestation of this turn in politics, as was the selective attention to conflicts such as that in Darfur in contrast to even more devastating conflicts in the DRC and Chad. Allies of the US and the great powers in the “war on terror” are permitted as horrendous atrocities as they can manage, but those who do not play ball face instant sanctions. The war on terror also provides the language and symbols for the popularized narrative on the violence in Darfur. Here we find the familiar image of the demonized “Arab”, perpetrator of terror and now, genocide.
The concept of “genocide” and its deployment thus becomes a politico-ideological tool to demonize opponents and offer allies what amounts to immunity and a carte blanche to do whatever they needed to do to win. It becomes just another tool in the “war on terror.
Further, Darfur has unmasked the tools of international hegemony as the African Union’s pioneering effort to contain the conflict was undermined and subverted in order to pave the way for a UN mission that would be more firmly under western control. The AU effort was attacked from the beginning as inadequate and deliberately set to fail by starving it of promised funds and equipment. Ironically, just as the SDC campaign went into full swing at the precise time when the conflict was winding down, the effort to discredit and replace the AU mission gained momentum just as the mission began to achieve concrete success by bringing violence down to below emergency levels.
A major corollary of Mamdani’s argument is that abandoning the stark black and white characterisation of the problem, brings us back down to earth and to everyday politics of compromise and reconciliation. The moment we realise that this is not genocide or any other manifestation of unadulterated evil, but a complex conflict in which each party has legitimate claims and valid interests, then we have to go back to mundane politics with its give and take, instead of hiding behind charged terms such as “genocide” in order to trump the legitimate claims of one party to the conflict. Similarly, the use of the International Criminal Court (ICC) as disembodied and ethereal dispenser of justice from across the oceans has to be abandoned. Justice cannot exist outside politics and cannot replace it.
This impacts the very notion of “humanitarian intervention” as embodied in the UN’s doctrine of the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P), which abrogates the concept of sovereignty and its corollary, citizenship. It treats the affected population as minors under the guardianship of others. This is the same logic which has been at the basis of the colonial project. Then as now, the right to protect endangered or disadvantaged minorities was the thin end of the wedge of colonial occupation. Ironically, it was also the colonial project, whether in Rwanda or Darfur, which prepared the ground for genocide and other atrocities by instituting artificial racial divisions between the people through its own racist classifications and unfair division of resources. Things are now coming back full circle, with the same pretexts being used to bring colonialism back in the new guise of humanitarianism, as a purely ethical project with no room for politics.
The ICC and similar devices of “humanitarian” intervention embody this new turn in international politics. And it is not merely its selective justice (where not only the powerful are exempted from justice, but also their clients as in Uganda, Congo and Rwanda) but its insistence on victors’ justice rather than survivors’ justice. The first seeks vengeance against the defeated party, while the latter seeks the reconciliation of competing rights. The former prioritises punitive justice over peace, while the latter pursues peace through reconciliation. On need not chose peace over justice, but justice must be contextualised within an overall political framework.
Like any colonial project worth its salt, this “humanitarianism” has to base itself on a policy of “divide-and-rule”. In this case, the project seeks to divide not only Sudan, but the whole of Africa, into Arab “settlers” and indigenous “Africans”. Those supporting or clamouring for external intervention in Darfur specifically want white foreigners to do this “intervention”. In this regard, the African Union mission was hounded and starved out to make room for the good white humanitarian knights to come to the rescue of the hapless Africans who are no longer citizens to be empowered, but victims to be rescued. In this regard, the Responsibility to Protect in fact becomes the height of irresponsibility, as its proponents in fact are not accountable to the local people for the consequences of their actions, and in fact do not care about the final results. It is recolonisation without responsibility.
Abdelwahab El-Affendi is an ESRC-AHRC Fellow in the Global Uncertainties Programme, UK. He is based at the University of Westminster.