Darfur: Maddening complexity and difficult responses

Mahmood Mamdani’s Saviours and Survivors: Darfur, Politics and the War on Terror (2009) is the first book I’ve read so far ahead of my trip to Darfur (as part of the medical staff serving the SA peacekeepers) which has now been postponed to mid-October. What mixed reactions I’ve had to this book. I’ve been grappling for the past few days about how to review it and I’ve been collecting material as if I were writing a paper on this and not just doing background reading ahead of my trip. I’m not sure why it’s been so difficult to review. Perhaps I’ve been reliving my days as a researcher for an NGO which specialises in Africa’s international relations, which was the last job I had (in 2005) before commencing my training to become a clinical psychologist.

What I’ve found is that I’ve been frustrated with the complexity of the Darfur conflict as well as with how Mamdani’s arguments take the focus away from the real and tragic stories of the victims. In my clinical work, one death provides enough material for several months’ worth of therapy so how should I react to the tally of 300,000 dead in Darfur since the conflict began in earnest in 2003? And this is not even mentioning (except in passing) all the rapes and the burning of villages and the displacement of 2.7 million Darfuris from their homes. You also have the charge of genocide (levelled against the Sudanese government) and then the response, from academics such as Mamdani, that the West (largely influenced by the media) have been ignoring the historical and geopolitical context. As they rightly point out, we need to understand this conflict in terms of the legacies of colonialism as well as the US’s current War on Terror and, perhaps more importantly, as a fight for scarce resources in light of the very real effects of global warming.

Thinking around this issue, I was also struck by a comment from Judith Herman in Trauma and Recovery about how difficult it is to hold trauma in mind. Denial, repression, rationalisation — all of these are very common responses to trauma from survivors and witnesses alike, as is a tendency to blame the victim and to see things as domestic disputes. The mental image I had was of a woman going to the police station to lay a charge against her abusive husband and the police saying that there’s not much they can do since it’s a domestic issue. The West’s response to Darfur, however, has been much more forthright and this was Mamdani’s point of departure with Saviours and Survivors (S&S).

In an interview with the Boston Globe in March 2009, Mamdani, who is a professor of government at Columbia University and also a ‘third-generation East African of Indian descent’, explained his focus on the Save Darfur Coalition (SDC):

“In a context where African tragedies seem never to be noticed, I wondered why Darfur was an obsession with the global media. The reason, I realized, was that Darfur had become a domestic issue here [in the US], thanks to the Save Darfur movement. So I thought it important to examine the movement’s history, organization, and message. I learned that this self-confessedly political group whose level of organization is phenomenal spends its annual budget of $15 million not on assisting victims but on spreading the message.”

Mamdani takes aim at the SDC and shows how, in his view, they are the human face of the US’s War on Terror. It’s a controversial view but he argues it extremely well, showing that while Americans have seen Iraq as a much more complex political and historical issue, Darfur has been seen in stark moral terms. The killings in Darfur are racial, they said, they’re evil and the West has a moral obligation to jump in and stop them. One of the things Mamdani does is to show how the racial issue is far from simple. The ‘Arabs’ who seemed intent on wiping out the ‘Africans’ were themselves African and most Darfuris would speak Arabic and be Muslim (although I doubt that they would call themselves Arabs). By narrowing the focus to Arab vs African, Save Darfur helped to galvanise popular support for one set of victims at a time when the US was fighting Arab opponents in Iraq and Afghanistan in particular.

This complex conflict initially erupted from 1987 to 89 as a civil war and then re-erupted in 2003 as an insurgency followed by a brutal counterinsurgency. Where genocide comes in is that part of the brutal counterinsurgency involved government-sponsored ‘Arab’ militia (notably the Janjawiid) who racialised the conflict by killing and raping landowning ‘African’ villagers. Whereas this conflict was initially one of landless nomadic groups attacking landed tribes, it quickly became seen as one of Arab versus African. What made the atrocities that much more despicable was that the Janjawiid’s attacks were often accompanied by bombing from the Sudanese air force. This is one of the reasons that the International Criminal Court wants Omar al-Bashir tried for war crimes.

Enough with the history lesson perhaps. But the point that I want to make on reading Mamdani’s book and the related reactions (mostly on the excellent Making Sense of Sudan blog, run by the Social Science Research Council), is that this conflict is so maddeningly complex. I agree with Mamdani that Africa should take the lead in resolving the crisis and I applaud the depth of his analysis. But I also want to criticise him both for his arguably unfair treatment of the humanitarian response as well as his failure to address in any meaningful way the atrocities that happened and the government’s role in them. He says, in his defence, that he speaks contemptuously of al-Bashir’s ‘little war on terror’ and he’s also clearly not an apologist for the Sudanese government (whatever New York Times op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof might say). But I think it’s the apparent lack of empathy for the victims that rankles me the most as well as a wilful insistence on seeing the worst in both the humanitarian response (particularly the SDC) and journalist-activists such as Kristof.

At one point in my reading I became fascinated with the war of words between Mamdani and Kristof (see the New York Review of Books here and here) as well as the SDC’s response at Making Sense of Sudan and the subsequent reactions. Perhaps this is typical of the dogfights that happens at universities / NGOs and in the media but it saddened me to see two very bright and articulate men apparently unable or unwilling to see the truth in the other’s position. Kristof labels Mamdani as an apologist for murderous dictators while Mamdani labels the SDC as ‘humanitarian entrepreneurs’ and neoconservatives who represent the human face of the War on Terror. (Incidentally, my search on Kristof called up a picture of him posing with Mia Farrow on a runway in Sudan, which says loads for me about the celebrity-as-activist).

A last point (for anyone who might have made it thus far): What I take out of all of this reading is the importance of owning our own stories and agendas and not being blinded by our pre-conceptions and defensiveness. Saviours and Survivors falls down ultimately, in my view, because as insightful and critical as Mamdani is of the West’s response to Darfur, he fails to apply the same reflexivity to himself and his own views, which limits his own response.

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6 Responses to Darfur: Maddening complexity and difficult responses

  1. Peter this is a fascinating review and I really appreciate the history lesson. I learned something from your post, and that is what blogging is all about, I think.

  2. Pete says:

    Thanks Lilian. I also learned a lot from reviewing it. Not an easy book to read or review but it does make me want to read other (more personal) accounts.

  3. litlove says:

    I also learned a lot – the problem with media coverage (and I know I am always harsh on the media, but for good reason, I promise) is always simplistic and sadly often ill-informed. I also really feel your anger at seeing two intelligent men fight a territorial war over opinion that mirrors the territorial conflict they are supposedly trying to elucidate. I hate that,too. The one good thing about the academic voice, as far as I can see, is that you have to recognise your own position in it, so it’s disappointing not to have others do that. Although politics, by its very nature, often encourages the zealous adherence to a particular point of view, without acknowledging that it is only a point of view.

    On a different topic, how are you feeling about the postponement of the trip to mid-October? Is this a relief or would you rather have it over with?

  4. Pete says:

    Thanks Litlove, it’s helpful to see it in that way (that they’re mirroring the conflict in their own conflict). As for the postponement of my trip, I’m relieved but generally just fed up. I just want to get it over with and come back but the incompetence of those supposed to be sending me there is staggering. They can’t even draw up a signal so how are they going to get me there and back by December (which is the new plan apparently)? Such a bad message to anyone who’s contemplating working here for a while.

  5. doctordi says:

    I can’t help but feel relieved about the postponement, Pete, that was my very first response to a complicated, thought-provoking post – just real relief that you won’t be entering this *FRAUGHT* environment for a little while yet. But you’re right – it’s no good having it hanging over your head instead, plus this organisational incompetence is NO comfort at all. We are watching an interesting series on DVD at the moment called Generation Kill, about Marines in Iraq -fictionalised – and the people in charge are a pack of sociopathic goons – really frightening to watch, even when it’s just actors. It has the alarming ring of truth.

    You’re right – this conflict and others are so, so complex, and I think all the players do themselves and the world a disservice by resorting to didacticism and dogma. Lilian posted a little while ago about how little room there is for doubt these days, and I think nowhere is this more true than in these bloody, devastating conflicts, where different sides seem unable or unwilling to concede they aren’t the sole answer to the problem. It makes cooperation less and less likely, and instead things worsen, drag on, and everyone loses, nobody wins.

  6. Grad says:

    Pete, I’m not sure how I feel about your postponement. I wish you weren’t going at all. Each time my son went to Iraq or Afghanistan, I’d live in dread of him going, but I wanted it over and him back safe. So…wow. Lot’s of emotion. This was a fascinating piece. I hate to admit it, but I knew very little about what was going on in Darfur. I know a little more now, thanks to you.

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