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Khartoum’s best friend?
Mahmood Mamdani has chosen to act as an apologist for the Sudanese regime. By Joshua F Leach
n his memoirs, the famous twentieth century intellectual Arthur Koestler refers to himself and others who attempted to raise awareness about the Holocaust as screamers. Like Cassandra, they tried to warn the world of what was happening, before it was too late, but, few people listened or understood at that time. I think most of us in the human rights movement would like to be screamers ourselves when the time is right. Wherever the atrocities and crimes of the present and the future may strike, we intend to raise the alarm. A situation like Darfur – where atrocities are ongoing, well-documented, and met with inaction and procrastination by the international community – seems as good a time as any for screamers to shift into high gear, as many have in fact done. Yet, there is one author who does not aspire to be a screamer, who fears that amid all the screaming, the calm voice of reason is being ignored. This is Columbia University professor, political scientist, and Africa expert Mahmood Mamdani, who takes as his primary targets the Save Darfur Coalition, various international human rights groups, and individuals he labels as human rights fundamentalists. Part of a broad swath of post-colonial and anti-imperialist academics, Mamdani clearly conceives himself as a member of the political left and an enemy of global power. Despite this (or perhaps because of it), his views often lead him to act as an apologist for the many atrocities and oppressions around the globe which can not be traced to any Western hegemon. His point about the need for clearheaded analysis, is, like many of his points, plausible enough, yet utterly irrelevant to his main thesis, which is indefensible. However, since his views are likely to influence many who would prefer inaction and complacency in Darfur, it is worthwhile to examine them in detail.


Mamdani sets himself the seemingly impossible task of arguing that the events in Darfur do not constitute a genocide, or anything beyond the ordinary violence which accompanies conflicts in Africa. Certainly, he does not regard the violence in Darfur as any worse than that occurring in the Congo, Uganda, or anywhere else where long-term, intractable conflicts are being played out. Yet, it is Darfur which has received the bulk of the media attention. He believes that Sudan has been singled out for political reasons. There is an Arab government sitting in Khartoum, and the United States has chosen to target it in order to demonise its enemies and contribute to the greater war on terror, or so Mamdani implies. The agents of this war on terror, according to Mamdani, include Save Darfur; well-known human rights groups such as Amnesty International, Human

Saviors and survivors Darfur, politics, and the war on terror BY Mahmood Mamdani Pantheon, 2009

Rights Watch, Refugees International; religious groups running the gamut from the Unitarians to Jews, Muslims, Catholics, and Evangelicals. All of whom have come out in favour of international humanitarian action in Darfur. Mamdani’s book is not addressed to victims of violence everywhere (or, anything else which might have salvaged his moral credibility), but, to those fighting for an independent African Union. He has done more than just about any other intellectual to downplay the atrocities in Darfur, and while I am not in a position to question his motives, it seems likely that Omar al-Bashir and his government in Khartoum would regard the author as the closest thing they have to an ally in a North American university. Nowhere in the entire book the figure of 2.7 million is mentioned. That is the 2.7 million Darfuris who have been internally displaced by the fighting. Meanwhile, Mamdani does his best to make a case for ludicrously low estimates of mortality figures in Darfur – little more than a few hundred a month after the worst period of fighting ended in 2005 – while brushing off the figures reported by human rights groups and experts such as Eric Reeves, which put the death toll between 300,000 and 400,000. He also gives an account of the history of the atrocities which is belied by the facts. His account holds that tensions between landless and landed have been going on for decades in Darfur and along the Sudan-Chad border, exacerbated by drought and famine which eventually led to civil war. Rebel militias and Janjaweed nomads all committed atrocities in such conflicts, and the Khartoum government’s counterinsurgency, which began in 2003 as a response to a Darfuri rebel raid, was simply a bit more violent than usual. Mamdani claims that, at the most, about ten thousand were killed during this early period and that mortality dropped off entirely after that point thanks to the

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Aerial view of a burned-out village in Darfur: Photo by Physicians for Human Rights.

efforts of the African Union. Admittedly, conclusive data is hard to come by in such a situation, yet numerous sources suggest that Mamdani is entirely wrong in this estimate. Eric Reeves claims that hundreds of thousands of Darfuris died during this early time period alone. While this may not be absolutely proven, satellite imagery and the work of human rights experts do indicate that about ninetenths of African villages in Darfur have been completely destroyed since 2003. Nearly all of this violence has been a product of the Khartoum government, which, as even Mamdani admits, has extensive links to Janjaweed militias acting as pro-government paramilitaries. It is well-documented that they have committed atrocities on a grand scale, poisoning wells with corpses, displacing entire populations, deliberately targeting food sources in order to trigger famine, and so forth. Much of the killing has not come about by putting people to the sword, but this does not change the genocidal character of the events. The intent to destroy an entire people is clear. What better evidence could there be of genocide than that Bashir and the ruling regime have not stopped the atrocities. Mamdani wrote his book

after the International Criminal Court arrest warrant was issued against Bashir, but the book was written too early to mention the most recent action of Bashir’s government: the expulsion of all humanitarian groups from Darfur who were serving the almost fully displaced population. This left 1.5 million refugees without any source of healthcare and 1.1 million without food, according to various sources who have spent far more time on the ground than Mamdani, who gives no sign of ever having visited a refugee camp in the region. What else could this recent act be but a direct attempt to destroy the millions of vulnerable people who depend on humanitarian aid? Some of Mamdani’s points are plausible, yet they are completely irrelevant to the question of whether or not international humanitarian action is needed in Darfur. He is correct to say that the recruits in the Janjaweed ranks are not devils, but incredibly poor, young, and disadvantaged people. But no one in the human rights community would say anything different. Most people are victims to some extent in such conflicts, especially those on the ground. Yet, one group of people remain victimised by no one – those who have

comfortably masterminded the genocide, from Khartoum. These and the Janjaweed leaders, not the recruits, are being targeted by the ICC and would be brought to justice by an international action. Mamdani is also right that Darfuri rebel groups have committed atrocities as well. But no one wants to take the side of the Darfuri rebels. An international action would attempt to end violence entirely in the region. It is merely the case that almost all of the violence is emanating from the government side, so it is this side which receives the bulk of global condemnation. Finally, Mamdani makes the point that the Arab and African labels in the conflict are mostly for show. They are the product of colonial categories and little else. Therefore, any conflict between them is not ethnically driven but merely a competition for resources. Again, this is true to some extent. Very often ethnic conflicts are, at heart, about competition for resources. If all sides felt they were getting a square deal, there would be no conflict. All racial categories are invented beyond a certain point as well. They certainly have no biological basis, but, they can have very real political consequences. If one looks at Rwanda, for instance, the Hutu-Tutsi conflict was based on nothing more substantial than a false dichotomy invented by colonial administrators. No one can deny that a real genocide took place there. This is why the human rights movement charges genocide in Darfur. That other conflicts outside of Darfur are not receiving their fair share of media attention is no doubt true and regrettable, which is why we have a need for independent media committed to holding all human rights abusers to account. But, instead of making this legitimate point, Mamdani has chosen to act as an apologist for the Sudanese regime, to stifle progress towards justice, and to stand up for some of the world’s worst human rights abusers. One wishes he could have used his intellect in the service of a better cause. �

Joshua F Leach – currently a student at the University of Chicago – is a writer and human rights advocate.


January/February 2010

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