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Mamdani: ‘Save Darfur’ movement is not a peace movement

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James North writes:
I remember Mahmood Mamdani
from 35 years ago, when he was the most dynamic leader of the
newly-organized union of graduate students at Harvard. Today he is a
distinguished professor at Columbia, one of our most original analysts
of Africa, most recently of Darfur. He is himself an African (from Uganda) of South Asian descent, and his decades of teaching and doing research all over his home continent command our interest.
His most recent work, Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror (Pantheon), is
really several books in one. A large middle section covers the
ethnic/tribal/political history of Darfur itself in enormous detail,
and will be useful mainly to Africa specialists. But his opening
segment, a brilliant dissection of the Save Darfur movement, should be
read by everyone who thinks they understand what is really going on
today in that area of Sudan.
His conclusion is similarly indispensable, in which he raises doubts
that the Western passion to pursue "justice" in places like Darfur can also promote peace.
First, the facts.

Two rebel movements in Darfur rose against the
Khartoum regime in 2003, which responded over the next 2 years with
murder and repression. Starting in 2005, all the experts agree, death rates there dropped dramatically. But, Mamdami notes, "The
rhetoric of the Save Darfur movement in the United States escalated as
the level of mortality in Darfur declined." He carefully documents that
prominent people in the Darfur solidarity movement, such as the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, are chronically vague about how many died and when.
Since then, the two Darfur rebel movements have splintered into 20
factions, some of which are fighting each other, and the civil war
element which was present from the start has only gotten worse. But the
Darfur solidarity movement continues to see the conflict in one
dimension, as "Arabs" committing "genocide" against "black Africans."

Mamdani says:

"It was a feat of imagination that required, at the
least, a combination of two things: on the one hand, a worthy
conviction that even the most wretched and the most distant of humans
be considered a part of one’s moral universe but, on the other, a
questionable political sense that the lack of precise knowledge of a
far-distant place need not be reason enough to keep one from taking
urgent action."

What’s more, Mamdami contends, and here the expert opinion is all on
his side, that the solidarity movement’s proposals –the most prominent
is to send foreign troops – will make a bad situation worse. He says

 "One needs to bear in mind that the movement to Save Darfur
– like the War on Terror – is not a peace movement: it calls for a military intervention rather than political reconciliation, punishment rather than peace."

Mamdani then makes a daring and original effort to interpret the
origins of the Darfur solidarity movement. He points out that Darfur
protests were far bigger than demonstrations against the simultaneous
U.S. war in Iraq,
in which far more people were then dying. He is not entirely sure why. First
he comes close to suggesting that the Save Darfur movement was a
deliberate or at least a convenient way to depoliticize opposition to
Iraq, especially among students. But then he suggests that Darfur may
be a roundabout way for Americans to avoid Iraq:

 ". . . Iraq makes some
Americans feel responsible and guilty. . . Darfur, in contrast, is an
act not of responsibility but of philanthropy. Unlike Iraq, Darfur is a
place for which Americans do not need  to feel responsible but
choose to take responsibility."

Whatever the explanation, Mamdani emphasizes that Save Darfur’s moral
outrage interferes with a peaceful settlement. He spends more than half
the book outlining the tangled ethnic, tribal, historical, regional and
environmental history
of the region. The reader’s head is swimming in names, but Mamdani’s
central point has registered: Darfur today is extraordinarily complex,
not reducible to simply "Arabs" vs. "Africans."
Toward the end of the book, Mamdani raises questions about the International Criminal Court (ICC), which last year indicted Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir for "genocide." He points out, reluctantly but realistically, that the demands of "justice" may conflict with "peace." If Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress
had in the early 1990s insisted on prosecuting the responsible
officials in the apartheid regime from top to bottom there would have
been no peaceful settlement. Similar painful compromises and
overlooking of past crimes were necessary in Mozambique and elsewhere.
He does recognize a "kernel of truth" in the International Criminal
Court’s indictment, with respect to "the period of 2003-4, when Darfur
was the site of mass deaths." He says, "There is no doubt that the
perpetrators of this violence should be held accountable, but when and
how is a political decision that cannot belong to the ICC prosecutor."
Maybe Mahmood Mamdani’s own African origins help protect him against
simple-minded moralizing. He is familiar at first-hand with human rights violations; his own family was expelled from Uganda in the early 1970s by the infamous (and at first Western-backed) dictator, Idi Amin.
But for him Africa is his original home, not a distant fantasyland in
which to work out his psychic conflicts. He has earned our respect and
considered attention.

James North

James North is a Mondoweiss Editor-at-Large, and has reported from Africa, Latin America, and Asia for four decades. He lives in New York City.

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