Darfur: Context for Those Who Would Demonize
Hardly any academic journal that I know of would knowingly invite an employee of an organization under critical scrutiny in a book to be its sole reviewer. Not surprisingly, Sean Brooks’s review turns out to be a sophisticated apology for Save Darfur Coalition, the organization he works for. It is both inconsistent and misleading.
In a nut-shell, Sean Brooks’s argument is two-fold: (a) Save Darfur is a well-meaning organization that faced a steep learning curve during which it may have made some mistakes (such as exaggerating the numbers of victims), but it corrected these soon enough (actually from the summer of 2006) and is now fit to function as the Obama government’s “˜political and human rights watchdog’ on Sudanese affairs; (b) the merits of Saviors and Survivors are primarily academic and are by and large confined to the historical analysis of Darfur. When it comes to the present, however, its author relies mainly on secondary sources and has little to say that is new. But the real damage of the book is political, for in confining the scholarly analysis to history and context, Mamdani ends up – “wittingly or not” – promoting the Sudanese government’s central narrative.
Brooks begins with a narrative of Save Darfur’s learning process. In this narrative, he chooses to single out my 2007 essay in the London Review of Books as “one of the first major rebukes” received by Save Darfur. The compliment aside, the fact is that the very first public rebuke that Save Darfur received was in 2006 from a U.S. government agency, the Government Accountability Office, which sent to the Department of State, Congress, and the media – and released on its website – the report of an expert group mandated to evaluate the reliability of six different estimates of mortality in Darfur, including some by those working closely with Save Darfur. The experts unanimously faulted Save Darfur-affiliated researchers for both highly inflated estimates and faulty methodology. This rap on its knuckles not withstanding, Save Darfur continued to use the same figures in expensive public campaigns globally for years to come. Any researcher aware of this would be reluctant to take what Brooks calls “the coalition’s past misuse of mortality figures” as just part of an inevitable learning process, and look for a more compelling reason to explain this stubborn refusal to acknowledge the changing reality on the ground.
Brooks’s narrative claims that Save Darfur took its lead from an International Crisis Group report of June 2006, which called for an expanded UN military presence, “unhindered access for humanitarian workers to reach those in need,” and further diplomacy to craft a workable peace deal. Brooks is surprised that any one in their right mind would seek to question any of these pursuits. I am surprised that Brooks is so innocently unreflective about his organization’s conduct. Let me take the most seemingly innocent of these pursuits. In every African emergency I know of since the 1960s, be it the result of famine or internal conflict, there has been an inevitable standoff between international NGOs claiming to represent “˜victims’ and the government of the country in question. Under dispute has been the question of accountability. The international NGOs demand “unhindered access” to the “victims,” whose representatives – or at least benefactors – they claim to be. In plainer language, they claim freedom from accountability. They demand of African governments freedoms they would not think of demanding from their own governments and know would not get from governments in other parts of the non-Western world. I am no apologist of sovereign governments, but so long as we live in a world constituted by sovereign powers, I insist that any attempt to qualify or restrict sovereignty be applied across the board to all powers. If we are unwilling to do this, we must respect the sovereign rights of every state.
Brooks, unfortunately, chooses to focus on the specifics of my critique of Save Darfur – the accuracy of figures, the constant implication that those who died were all killed, the racialization of perpetrators, and so on – but chooses to ignore the more general issues at stake. One of the points I raised was that Save Darfur was emblematic of a new kind of advocacy in the United States: Save Darfur has married the organizational practices of classical anti-war and anti-apartheid groups to savvy public relations techniques associated with Madison Avenue advertizing to realize an agenda characteristic of a private lobby rather than a public interest group. True, Save Darfur was free of government control and successfully harnessed public pressure to shape government policy. But the truly worrying thing is this: free of any public accountability, Save Darfur had neither any interest in educating the public about the policies it advocated, nor in promoting a public debate about those policies. There were no teach-ins, no debates; even at rallies, the emphasis was not on the participation of scholars of Sudan or of Darfur or of international affairs more generally, but on show biz and media personalities, those with name recognition. Instead of drawing lessons from this, Brooks is quick to distance Save Darfur from these “actors, writers, and advocates who advocate on behalf of Darfur’s victims” and “continue to distort the realities of Darfur.” Save Darfur masqueraded as a public interest group, but behaved very much in the tradition of a private lobby. Rather than turn Save Darfur into a watchdog for the Obama administration, I should think we need a watchdog to alert us to the real interests that control and steer Save Darfur and similar organizations.
Regarding Brooks’s methodological critique of my work, he has this to say: “Relying primarily on secondary sources much of Mamdani’s story, which describes the root causes of tribal tensions in the region, has been told repeatedly by scholars like Alex de Waal and Julie Flint.” But then, in the sentences that immediately follow, Brooks hastens to acknowledge two “partly new” aspects to the analysis. The first is that the conflict in Darfur began as an internal “tribal” war, before the present government came to power in Khartoum. The second is that “Mamdani also correctly highlights the history of double-marginalization of Darfuri Arab tribes.”
I find it incredible that Brooks should acknowledge that both of the above points are “partly new” contributions in Saviors and Survivors(1), and yet does not grasp the fact that they are key to understanding what has been wrong with the negotiation process so far. To appreciate the link between the “tribal war” of 1987-89 and the insurgency-counter-insurgency that began in 2003, is to understand both the continuity and the difference between them. On the one hand, the tribal war became subsumed under the larger conflict that began in 2003; on the other hand, the tribal militias that had waged one side of the tribal war were elevated as “rebel movements” in 2003, whereas the militias on the other side were demonized as “the Janjawiid“. Save Darfur played a hugely important role in this demonization and must, therefore, be held at least partly responsible for its consequences. So demonized were the Arab Darfuri tribes by the sheer association with the “Arab Janjawiid“ that they had no representation at the Abuja peace conference in 2004. Nor was a reconsideration of the colonially crafted system of tribal homelands ever on the agenda of that conference.
Brooks repeats a point that Save Darfur functionaries have been making ad nauseum on other occasions: “Mamdani’s notes and bibliography include exactly zero direct quotes from Bashir and exactly zero articles about Darfur from the local, largely state-controlled Sudanese media.” And then: “The book lacks reference to even a single interview with any members of the Save Darfur Coalition or its close partners.” At least I cannot be accused of not dishing out equal treatment to both sides in this political conflict. The more interesting question is that Brooks does not stop to ask the question why. If I were writing a study of the policymaking processes of Save Darfur and the Government of Sudan, I would have every interest in interviewing leaders and functionaries of both. But I was not writing such a study. I actually had very little interest in how these two entities arrived at their decisions, or the sort of internal debates (if any) they carried out before reaching their final decisions. My interest was really in their public actions, not in their internal deliberations. Brooks is keen to demonstrate that Save Darfur was moved by good intentions; I am more interested in understanding the consequences of its actions, not whether its intentions were good.
The real concern of Brooks’s review is not the quality of the scholarship in Saviors and Survivors; it is that some of its conclusions may have ended up supporting some of the claims of the Government of Sudan: especially that the war in Darfur began as a tribal conflict that spiraled out of control for a whole host of reasons. Now, Brooks makes two different arguments and tends to shift between them. The first is that I do not denounce the violence of the Sudanese government sufficiently. My response is two-fold: I speak plainly and contemptuously of “Bashir’s little war on terror,” but I also insist that it was of a limited duration (between 2003 and 2004) and that the more important point is to highlight the changing context of Darfur. Brooks’s second argument is that “instead of condemnation, Mamdani gives the reader only history and “˜context’ for the Sudanese government’s actions.” The dismissive scare quotes in which Brooks places “˜context’ actually dismisses the very notion of independent scholarship. He seems to be saying nothing less than the idea that scholarship which does not invest its energy in condemning the bad – demonizing – is complicit with violence. This is where Brooks shows his true concern: scholarship be damned! Truth aside, the important thing is that your side be upheld, whatever the cost. I am afraid this is where we must part ways.
I wish to close this response by turning to two important questions that Brooks raises, both of which merit discussion. First: is the past important or not? Brooks answers this by bending over backwards to level the playing field – everyone, he argues, whatever their political hue – Israelis or Arabs or Americans – must account for the past. Not quite, though, for in Brooks’s eyes, only one organization must be exempt from having to account for its past. And that organization is Save Darfur. That said, I should point out that the real question is not whether or not the past is important. The real question is this: when is the past more important than the future, and when less? Clearly, the past matters hugely when it comes to criminal justice, less so when it comes to political reform. And this is true whether the issue at hand is the United States in Central America or Iraq or Afghanistan, or the conflict between Israel and Palestine.
Second: what are we to make of the enthusiastic participation of a number of Arab and African NGOs in the broad “˜Save Darfur’ movement? Why is Brooks so surprised that there is a debate among Arabs and Africans with regard to Darfur? Brooks would have done better to decipher the nature of this debate than just point to its existence. Indeed, every time I go home, I have often noticed that the more exasperated local NGOs become with the lack of accountability in local governments, the more these NGOs seem inclined to look beyond their national borders for an effective remedy. It may be that such a step is inevitable, even necessary, but I would only hope that those who take such a step remain vigilant, and not confuse international solidarity with foreign intervention.
(1)Brooks also complains that I contradict myself in two different writings on Darfur: that in 2004, and later in the 2009 book: “He writes, for example, “˜[T]he conflict in Darfur began as a civil war in which the government was originally not involved.’ This sentence is especially interesting since it seems to contradict Mamdani’s own writing from 2004 in which he states, “˜the security cabal in Khartoum . . . responded [to the first Darfuri rebel attacks in what became the civil war] by arming and unleashing several militia, known as the Janjawiid. The result is a spiral of state-sponsored violence and indiscriminate spread of weaponry.” Brooks seems to be oblivious to the fact that whereas the focus of the 2004 article is the larger conflict that began in 2003, the 2009 book is based on historical scholarship meant to illuminate this conflict; thus the focus on the 1987-89 “tribal war.”