From Mamdani to Mbeki: Radically Reconfiguring the Darfur Story in Theory and Practice (2)
II. The State, War and Sudanese Identity
Mamdani has in fact written not one book, but several. His attack on the enthusiastic but misinformed international response to the Darfur crisis is the first book. His tracing of the deep roots and complex manifestations of the conflict in Darfur is another. A third book traces the subtle shift the international order has undergone between the Cold War and the “War on Terror” and how this shift has played itself in Darfur. A fourth and no less important book delves deep into Sudan’s history and wades into the ongoing controversy about history and identity.
The identity question in Sudan, and in particular the role and place of Arab identity, has become an explosive one since the radical shift in the rhetoric of the Southern Sudanese rebels during the second phase of the civil war which started in 1983. In the earlier phase of the war (1955-1972) Southern rebels described all Northern Sudanese as “Arabs” and made the fight against “Arab hegemony” their chief goal. But since the Arabs were a majority, only separation could ensure liberation from this hegemony. By contrast, the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), which initiated the 1983 rebellion, began to argue, under its charismatic leader, the late Col. John Garang, that, first, the Arabs were not a majority in Sudan and, second, a majority of those claiming to be Arabs are in fact deluded “self-hating” Africans who deny their African identity. The SPLA’s strategy was thus first to build up a coalition of Africans, a designation reserved for those non-Arab speaking Sudanese, including sections of Northerners in the West, East and far North of the country. A second step was to convince the “Arabs” that they were in fact Africans who had been deceived about their identity.
The SPLA’s strategy achieved some success in areas such as the Nuba Mountains in the South West and Southern Blue Nile Region in the South East. This success was significant, since professional soldiers from the Nuba Mountains and Darfur played a crucial role in the counter-insurgency effort in the South under successive governments. There was partial success in the East where an Eritrean-backed militia claiming to represent the Beja allied itself with the SPLA. But the failure in Darfur was resounding. It is only after the SPLA was firmly on the road to signing a peace deal with “Arab” government in Khartoum that the rebellion in Darfur broke out, a bit too late for the “African coalition” to take shape. Ironically, the Sudanese army continues, in its rank and file, to be constituted overwhelmingly of “Africans”, mainly from the South and Darfur.
Mamdani waded into this controversy with great enthusiasm by attacking head-on the prevalent historiographical and popular views about the Arab identity of the Northern Sudanese. He accuses Sudan’s national historians of swallowing, line, hook and sinker, the colonial narratives of Arab immigration to Sudan. Those narratives held that large population movements had taken place over many centuries into Northern Sudan and Darfur, leading to the Arabization of these regions. Mamdani questions these narratives, arguing that no evidence existed about such large scale movements, while there is plenty of evidence that locals have taken over “Arab” (or at times “Fur”) identities when power relations dictated it. He thus agrees with the SPLA that the overwhelming majority of Sudanese Arabs are in fact locals who have taken over an Arab identity.
Mamdani’ point is that the identity conflict is based on erroneous assumptions promoted by the colonialists, and taken over by rebel insurgents, tribal ideologues and Save Darfur enthusiasts. Here the Arabs are seen as “outsiders” who were oppressing the African “natives”. The truth is that both groups are equally indigenous, and the war is in fact between the haves and have-nots: between tribes which have been allocated exclusive domains or “dars”, and those which were not.
There are a few problems with Mamdani’s proposed alternative narrative. To start with, no one in Darfur has ever accused the local “Arabs” of being outsiders. Whether they were genuinely Arab or not, some of these tribes can trace their presence in the region for centuries. The various parties in Darfur make a clear distinction between the indigenous Arabs and some recent immigrants from Chad and other areas in Western and Central Africa. “Recent” here is also relative, since some of the groups in question have lived in Darfur for decades. Still, Darfurians make a distinction between “foreign Arabs” and indigenous Arabs. But this is again a problematic distinction, as cross border movements of populations has also been part of an age-old pattern of migration in the region for both “Arabs” and “Africans”. Most tribes have cross-border presence, and many rebels who fought as part of the Darfurian movements had been officers in Chadian armies or officials there. Similar shifts have happened in the East between Eritrean and Sudanese identities, or in the South with Uganda. There was thus some exaggeration in portraying the conflict there as one between the alien and the indigenous. It is right, though, to see it, as Mamdani did, as a power struggle, one of its symptoms is the struggle over land and resources. Another was the denial of the right for some tribes to shelter, support and provide for their kin from across the border, which other tribes enjoy.
Another point has to do with the presumed “colonial” origin of the concept of Arab identity in Sudan, and the link of this identity with actual migration. The notion that colonial officials-scholars (epitomized by Sir Harold Alfred MacMichael (1882-1969)) have “invented” and circulated the narratives of Arab identity, and duped the Sudanese historians into accepting them is a problematic one. It neglects the fact that MacMichael did not make up those narratives, but derived them, a bit uncritically it could be argued, from the Sudanese themselves. The national historians did not thus appropriate foreign colonial narratives, but their own.
This leads to a more fundamental question: what is the status of myths of identity as they are produced and reproduced by different groups? Are these myths subject to “scientific” investigation? If the many Sudanese northerners regard themselves as ethnically Arab, use Arabic language exclusively and “trace” their genealogy to Arab ancestors, who has the right to tell them they are wrong to do so? If the Ethiopian Falasha community regards itself as Jewish and traces its ancestry to Jacob, who has the right to deny them this identity? Are European Jews more authentically Jewish than the Falashas? And on what grounds?
Mamdani is certainly correct with regards to the fact that the riverain “Arabs” in Sudan (but not the “Arabs” in Darfur) are made up largely of Arabized indigenous people. But so are the Egyptian, Algerian, Iraqi or Syrian “Arabs”. In all these regions, a tiny proportion of Arab immigrants mixed with the local indigenous people, and the bulk gradually assumed an Arab identity by choice, while others (a core of the Berber in North Africa, Kurds in Iraq, etc.) stuck to their original undiluted identities. If and when such identities are chosen or contested, it is an ideological rather than a scientific question. As Benedict Anderson argued about national identities, we are dealing here with “imagined communities”, and the imagination is only limited by itself. Some Sudanese “Arabs” may heed the advice that they were wrong to describe themselves as Arab, and it would be best if they defined themselves as African. Many are in fact thinking this way. But this is a political and ideological choice, not a discovery of the truth. By contrast, any attempts to impose an identity on a group in spite of itself, or deny it its chosen identity, is every bit as oppressive as using physical violence. One can think here of the Israelis insisting that the Palestinians did not exist, or the Turkish nationalists insisting that the Kurds in Turkey are in fact “Mountain Turks” who do not know it yet, or the Serb nationalists contention that the Croats or Bosnian Muslims in fact are Catholic or Muslim Serbs. And as we know from these examples, such a violent denial of identity quickly invites physical violence.
In this sense, Mamdani’s foray into the contests over identity may have serious unintended consequence, and could easily blur the boundaries between ideology and scholarship. The contest over Sudanese identity is an ideological, rather than an academic one, and here Mamdani is more in his element as an ideologue of anti-colonialism and national liberation than an academic trying to unearth the “truth” about who the Sudanese are.
Mamdani is on more solid ground when he accuses the colonial authorities of having solidified and reinforced tribal divisions in Darfur and elsewhere in Sudan for ulterior motives. Dividing Darfur into effective tribal fiefdoms, complete with exclusive tribal authority over land and people, has certainly contributed to the ongoing turmoil. In this regard, the colonial administrators may not have been acting entirely out of choice, since the delineation of “dars” or tribal homelands followed existing practice. Some of the dars in question have in fact been actual small states which were incorporated into the Fur Kingdom during different phases in its life. However, the colonial policies have hindered the normal path of integration of these entities into the modern national state. In fact, modernity has had a perverse effect on the ways in which these traditional rights have been asserted. The evolution of modern agriculture and market economy has led many to assert communal rights as private property. Farmers began to enclose fertile land and take control of water sources, thus disadvantaging nomads who use these resources periodically, and have assumed an equal right of use of these shared resources for centuries. It was this explosive encounter between presumed “traditional” rights and norms, and modern practices which is at the root of the present disaster.
Mamdani rightly challenges the Save Darfur crowd and the prevalent narratives in the media and international forums about the Darfur conflict being one between evil Arab genocidaires on the one side, and innocent “African” victims on the other. In particular he challenges the notion that this was primarily a government-people war. For him, the conflict has roots in the resource conflict provoked by drought and environmental degradation. Drought caused the nomads to move south for survival, and led to conflict with settled farmers. This was later exacerbated by regional (Cold War induced) wars, such as the war in Chad, in which the US and France were involved against Soviet-backed Libya. The resulting abundance of arms, population shifts and the militarization of entire groups, caused local conflicts to escalate dramatically. The 1987-89 Fur-Arab war was the most important manifestation of this trend.
According to Mamdani, therefore, the war pre-dated the current government, which in fact exerted a lot of effort to end it when it came to power in June 1989. When the conflict flared up again in 1995, this time between the Masalit and their Arab neighbours, the government sided with the Arabs. This has led indirectly to the rebellions of 2003, in which other opposition groups played a role. Thus a conflict which had started as a local one in 1987 widened to involve other national actors, not to mention many foreign actors from the region and outside it. When the government failed to contain the rebellion, it shifted its tactics by giving the lead in the war to military intelligence, backed by nomadic militias and other volunteer forces. This was when the war went out of hand and mass atrocities occurred.
All this is correct, and Mamdani was right to point to the wider context and complex factors behind the conflict. The neglect for these complex factors has caused the activists and international actors both to miss the point and proffer simplistic analyses and ineffective remedies. Mamdani acknowledge the pivotal role of the government in the conflict and upholds its ultimate responsibility for the carnage, but this central point gets lost in process of “contextualization”. While the conflict started as a civil conflict, and is sustained by the polarizations existing in Darfur, a fair question to ask is: Where was the state in all this? The main function, indeed the primary function, of the state is that of a conflict resolution mechanism. Indeed even in Hobbesian terms, the primary justification of the existence of the state is to maintain internal peace. The parties to any conflict within a state must be able to regard it as an honest broker to which they can turn to adjudicate their differences. The state reserves for itself the sole right of deploying legitimate violence precisely on this account.
The state was not only absent during the 1987-89 conflict, but in fact the two coalition partners in the government at the time were perceived as having taken sides: the Umma was pro-Arab, while the DUP was sympathetic to the Fur. That is why the current regime succeeded in resolving the conflict in the first instance because it has been initially perceived as neutral in the conflict. When it later decided to take sides, it lost its primary role.
The overall conduct of the regime not only provoked the rebellion, but encouraged it. The regime has isolated itself internally by alienating most political forces, including many among its former supporters in Darfur. Its weakness forced it to give concessions to powerful, especially armed opponents, while it resolutely refused to consider the grievances or legitimate concerns of civil opponents. This encouraged the groups impacted by the internal conflict in Darfur to shift their target from local adversaries to the government. Their reasoning was that the government was the real enemy, and it was the one stoking the fires of the conflict in the first place. However, a major motive was that targeting the government was likely to generate more political support nationally and abroad, while fighting local adversaries would be seen as petty feuding. As already mentioned, the SPLA has for years been trying to launch an allied rebellion in Darfur for years; its earlier attempt in 1991 was an abject failure. The hope was also that a fight against the government would rally Darfurians around common demands.
But the crux of the matter has been the nature of the government’s response, which was by all accounts disproportionate. After suffering many defeats, it resorted in desperation to arming and unleashing assorted militias which were short on scruples and not completely under the control of any legitimate authority. There was a double abdication of responsibility here: first the state failed through its legitimate apparatus to quell a rebellion which defied its authority and its monopoly of legitimate violence; and second it failed to protect civilians from indiscriminate violence perpetrated by illegitimate armed groups not governed by the codes governing armed conflict. Of more current relevance, it refuses to bracket that period and bring those directly responsible to some form of justice, or at least to sideline them within the government machinery.
As already mentioned, Mamdani has almost single-handedly transformed a deafening monologue into a lively dialogue. He challenged in a radical way many of the positions and even assumptions behind the current discourse on Darfur. And like a good lawyer, he emphatically overstated his case. Colonial policies, the Cold War and the War on Terror have all contributed to the manner in which the war in Darfur unfolded and shaped the international response to it. But to see the problem mainly in terms of these influences is to miss the point. Darfur was not pre-programmed to happen, neither was the civil war in the South. To argue this is to be fatalistic and deprive the main actors of agency, a tendency for which he criticises the Darfur activists and their international backers. The colonial legacy could have been dealt with differently, and the conflict would have been averted then. The conflict itself could have been managed better.
Generally, Mamdani’s offers too much contextualising and not enough detailed analysis of what needs to be contextualised. This may indicate an over-reaction to what he sees as lack of context in the SDC logic, but it shows that one can err on the other side as well.
Abdelwahab El-Affendi is an ESRC-AHRC Fellow in the Global Uncertainties Programme, UK. He is based at the University of Westminster.
Abdelwahab El-Affendi have done Mamdani a great favor in the last two pieces, with respect fairness of mind and a desire to look at the things from as constructive an angle as possible. I wish Mamdani would do same about other people’s work or efforts. What Abdelwahab El-Affendi have not said, either out of respect or the desire to focus on the issues is that after setting up a few bogeymen and making contradictory statements Mandani arrived at the same conclusions the safe Darfur coalition arrived at i.e the government of Sudan is responsible for most of the violence. But this book will only surprise those who had not read Mamdani’s other works; like “When Does a Settler Become a Native? Reflections of the Colonial Roots of
Citizenship in Equatorial and South Africa.” Just like this new book of his, he screams cliches in one part of the piece and then pretends to be teaching something people do not already know about the cliches in another. There is of course the usual rambling. I don’t mind real criticism like that from the French historian Gerard Prunier towards the US and other players. But I get really upset when someone is inserting himself in disruptive way in a conversation over very serious matters.
I think the discussion of identity in Sudan is an important part of conversation that deserves to be addressed in more detail.
One thing that has struck me, however, is Mamdani’s insistence on stretching the fact that the media and Save Darfur had initially stressed the dichotomy of Arab vs. African into an assertion that the Arabs were somehow foreign invaders. I’m open to being corrected, but I don’t recall anyone in the media making such a claim, in Save Darfur or otherwise.
It’s hard, then, to see what purpose Mamdani’s shadowboxing serves, except to set up yet another straw man.