Darfur: the politics of naming

The similarities between Iraq and Darfur are remarkable. The estimate of the number of civilians killed over the past three years is roughly similar. The killers are mostly paramilitaries, closely linked to the official military, which is said to be their main source of arms. The victims, too, are by and large identified as members of groups, rather than targeted as individuals. But the violence in the two places is named differently. In Iraq, it is said to be a cycle of insurgency and counter-insurgency; in Darfur, it is called genocide. Why the difference? Who does the naming? Who is being named? What difference does it make?

The most powerful mobilisation in New York City is in relation to Darfur, not Iraq. One would expect the reverse, for no other reason than that most New Yorkers are American citizens and should feel directly responsible for the violence in occupied Iraq. But Iraq is a messy place in the American imagination, a place with messy politics. Americans worry about what their government should do in Iraq. Should it withdraw? What would happen if it did? In contrast, there is nothing messy about Darfur. It is a place without history and without politics; simply a site where perpetrators clearly identifiable as “Arabs” confront victims clearly identifiable as “Africans”.

A full-page advertisement has appeared several times a week in The New York Times calling for intervention in Darfur. It wants the intervening forces to be placed under “a chain of command allowing necessary and timely military action without approval from distant political or civilian personnel”. That intervention should not be subject to “political or civilian” considerations, and the intervening forces should have the right to shoot — to kill — without permission from distant places: these are said to be “humanitarian” demands. In the same vein, a New Republic editorial on Darfur has called for “force as a first-resort response”. What makes the situation even more puzzling is that some of those who are calling for an end to intervention in Iraq are demanding an intervention in Darfur; as the slogan goes, “Out of Iraq and into Darfur”.

What would happen if we thought of Darfur as we do of Iraq, as a place with a history and politics — a messy politics of insurgency and counter-insurgency? Morally, there is no doubt about the horrific nature of the violence against civilians. The ambiguity lies in the politics of the violence, whose sources include both a state-connected counter-insurgency and an organised insurgency, very much like the violence in Iraq.

The insurgency and counter-insurgency in Darfur began in 2003. Both were driven by an intermeshing of domestic tensions in the context of a peace-averse international environment. On the one hand, there was a struggle for power within the political class in Sudan, with more marginal interests in the West calling for reform at the centre. On the other, there was a community-level split inside Darfur, between nomads and settled farmers, who had earlier forged a way of sharing the use of semi-arid land in the dry season. With the drought that set in towards the late Seventies, cooperation turned into an intense struggle over diminishing resources.

As the insurgency took root among the prospering peasant tribes of Darfur, the government trained and armed the poorer nomads and formed a militia — the Janjaweed — that became the vanguard of the unfolding counter-insurgency. The worst violence came from the Janjaweed, but the insurgent movements were also accused of gross violations. Anyone wanting to end the spiralling violence would have to bring about power-sharing at state level and resource-sharing at community level, with land being the key resource.

Since its onset, two official verdicts have been delivered on the violence, the first by the United States, the second by the United Nations. The US verdict was unambiguous: Darfur was the site of an ongoing genocide. The chain of events leading to Washington’s proclamation began with “a genocide alert” from the management committee of the Washington Holocaust Memorial Museum. The House of Representatives followed unanimously on June 24 2004. The last to join the chorus was Colin Powell.

The UN Commission on Darfur was created in the aftermath of the American verdict and in response to American pressure. It was more ambiguous. In September 2004, Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, then the chairperson of the African Union, visited UN headquarters in New York. Darfur had been the focal point of discussion in the AU. All concerned were alert to the extreme political sensitivity of the issue. At a press conference at the UN on September 23, Obasanjo was asked to pronounce on the violence in Darfur: was it genocide or not? His response was very clear: “Before you can say that this is genocide or ethnic cleansing, we will have to have a definite decision and plan and programme of a government to wipe out a particular group of people, then we will be talking about genocide, ethnic cleansing.”

By October, the Security Council had established a commission of inquiry on Darfur and asked it to report in three months on “violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law in Darfur by all parties”, and specifically to determine “whether or not acts of genocide have occurred”. Among the members of the commission was Dumisa Ntsebeza, former head of the investigative unit of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

In its report, submitted on January 25 2005, the commission concluded that “the Government of the Sudan has not pursued a policy of genocide … directly or through the militias under its control”. But the commission did find that the government’s violence was “deliberately and indiscriminately directed against civilians”. Indeed, “even where rebels may have been present in villages, the impact of attacks on civilians shows that the use of military force was manifestly disproportionate to any threat posed by the rebels”. These acts, the commission concluded, “were conducted on a widespread and systematic basis, and therefore may amount to crimes against humanity” (my emphasis).

At the same time, the commission assigned secondary responsibility to rebel forces — namely, members of the Sudan Liberation Army and the Justice and Equality Movement — which it held “responsible for serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law which may amount to war crimes” (my emphasis).

The journalist in the US most closely identified with consciousness-raising on Darfur is the New York Times op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof, often identified as a lone crusader on the issue. To peruse Kristof’s Darfur columns over the past three years is to see the reduction of a complex political context to a morality tale unfolding in a world populated by villains and victims who never trade places and so can always and easily be told apart. It is a world where atrocities mount geometrically, the perpetrators so evil and the victims so helpless that the only possibility of relief is a rescue mission from the outside, preferably in the form of a military intervention.

Kristof made six highly publicised trips to Darfur, the first in March 2004 and the sixth two years later. He began by writing of it as a case of “ethnic cleansing”: “Sudan’s Arab rulers” had “forced 700 000 black African Sudanese to flee their villages” (March 24 2004). Only three days later, he upped the ante: this was no longer ethnic cleansing, but genocide. “Right now,” he wrote on March 27, “the government of Sudan is engaged in genocide against three large African tribes in its Darfur region.” He continued: “The killings are being orchestrated by the Arab-dominated Sudanese government” and “the victims are non-Arabs: blacks in the Zaghawa, Massalliet and Fur tribes”. He estimated the death toll at a thousand a week. Two months later, on May 29, he revised the estimates dramatically upwards, citing predictions from the US Agency for International Development to the effect that “at best, ‘only’ 100 000 people will die in Darfur this year of malnutrition and disease”, but “if things go badly, half a million will die”.

The UN commission’s report was released on February 25 2005. It confirmed “massive displacement” of persons (“more than a million” internally displaced and “more than 200 000” refugees in Chad) and the destruction of “several hundred” villages and hamlets as “irrefutable facts”; but it gave no confirmed numbers for those killed. Instead, it noted rebel claims that government-allied forces had “allegedly killed over 70 000 persons”.

The publication of the commission’s report had considerable effect. Internationally, it raised doubts about whether what was going on in Darfur could be termed genocide. Even US officials were unwilling to go along with the high estimates propagated by the broad alliance of organisations that subscribe to the Save Darfur campaign.

The effect on American diplomacy was discernible. Three months later, on May 3, Kristof noted with dismay that not only had “Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick pointedly refused to repeat the administration’s past judgement that the killings amount to genocide”, he had “also cited an absurdly low estimate of Darfur’s total death toll: 60 000 to 160 000”.

Anyone keeping a tally of the death toll in Darfur as reported in the Kristof columns would find the rise, fall and rise again very bewildering. First he projected the number of dead at 320 000 for 2004 (June 16 2004) but then gave a scaled down estimate of between 70 000 and 220 000 (February 23 2005). The number began to climb once more to “nearly 400 000” (May 3 2005), only to come down yet again to 300 000 (April 23 2006). Each time, figures were given with equal confidence, but with no attempt to explain their basis.

In the Kristof columns, there is one area of deafening silence, to do with the fact that what is happening in Darfur is a civil war. Hardly a word is said about the insurgency, about the civilian deaths insurgents mete out, about acts that the commission characterised as “war crimes”.

Newspaper writing on Darfur has sketched a pornography of violence. It seems fascinated by and fixated on the gory details, describing the worst of the atrocities in gruesome detail and chronicling the rise in the number of them. The implication is that the motivation of the perpetrators lies in biology (“race”) and, if not that, certainly in “culture”.

Journalism gives us a simple moral world, where a group of perpetrators face a group of victims, but where neither history nor motivation is thinkable because both are outside history and context. Even when newspapers highlight violence as a social phenomenon, they fail to understand the forces that shape the agency of the perpetrator. Instead, they look for a clear and uncomplicated moral that describes the victim as untainted and the perpetrator as simply evil. Where yesterday’s victims are today’s perpetrators, where victims have turned perpetrators, this attempt to find an African replay of the Holocaust not only does not work but also has perverse consequences. Whatever its analytical weaknesses, the depoliticisation of violence has given its proponents distinct political advantages.

The conflict in Darfur is highly politicised, and so is the international campaign. One of the campaign’s constant refrains has been that the ongoing genocide is racial: “Arabs” are trying to eliminate “Africans”. But both “Arab” and “African” have several meanings in Sudan. There have been at least three meanings of “Arab”. Locally, “Arab” was a pejorative reference to the lifestyle of the nomad as uncouth; regionally, it referred to someone whose primary language was Arabic. In this sense, a group could become “Arab” over time. The third meaning of “Arab” was “privileged and exclusive”; it was the claim of the riverine political aristocracy who had ruled Sudan since independence.

“African”, in this context, was a subaltern identity that also had the potential of being either exclusive or inclusive. The two meanings were not only contradictory but came from the experience of two different insurgencies. The inclusive meaning was more political than racial or even cultural (linguistic), in the sense that an “African” was anyone determined to make a future within Africa. It was pioneered by John Garang, the leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) in the south, as a way of holding together the New Sudan he hoped to see. In contrast, its exclusive meaning came in two versions, one hard (racial) and the other soft (linguistic). The racial meaning came to take a strong hold in both the counter-insurgency and the insurgency in Darfur.

The Save Darfur campaign’s characterisation of the violence as “Arab” against “African” obscured both the fact that the violence was not one-sided and the contest over the meaning of “Arab” and “African”: a contest that was critical precisely because it was ultimately about who belonged and who did not in the political community called Sudan. The depoliticisation, naturalisation and, ultimately, demonisation of the notion “Arab”, as against “African”, has been the deadliest effect, whether intended or not, of the Save Darfur campaign.

The depoliticisation of the conflict gave campaigners three advantages. First, they were able to occupy the moral high ground. The campaign presented itself as apolitical but moral, its concern limited only to saving lives. Second, only a single-issue campaign could bring together in a unified chorus forces that are otherwise ranged as adversaries on most important issues of the day: at one end, the Christian right and the Zionist lobby; at the other, a mainly school and university-based peace movement. Surely, such a wide coalition would cease to hold together if the issue shifted to, say, Iraq.

To understand the third advantage, we have to return to the question I asked earlier: How could it be that many of those calling for an end to the American and British intervention in Iraq are demanding an intervention in Darfur? It’s tempting to think that the advantage of Darfur lies in its being a small, faraway place where those who drive the War on Terror do not have a vested interest. That this is hardly the case is evident if one compares the American response to Darfur to its non-response to Congo, even though the dimensions of the conflict in Congo seem to give it a mega-Darfur quality: the numbers killed are estimated in the millions rather than the hundreds of thousands; the bulk of the killing, particularly in Kivu, is done by paramilitaries trained, organised and armed by neighbouring governments; and the victims on both sides — Hema and Lendu — are framed in collective rather than individual terms, to the point that one influential version defines both as racial identities and the conflict between the two as a replay of the Rwandan genocide. Given all this, how does one explain the fact that the focus of the most widespread and ambitious humanitarian movement in the US is on Darfur and not on Kivu?

Nicholas Kristof was asked this very question: “When I spoke at Cornell University recently, a woman asked why I always harp on Darfur. It’s a fair question. The number of people killed in Darfur so far is modest in global terms: estimates range from 200 000 to more than 500 000. In contrast, 4-million people have died since 1998 as a result of the fighting in Congo, the most lethal conflict since World War Two.” But, instead of answering the question, Kristof — now writing his column rather than facing the questioner at Cornell — moved on: “And malaria annually kills 1-million to 3-million people — meaning that three years’ deaths in Darfur are within the margin of error of the annual global toll from malaria.”

And from there he went on to compare the deaths in Darfur to the deaths from malaria, rather than from the conflict in Congo: “We have a moral compass within us and its needle is moved not only by human suffering but also by human evil. That’s what makes genocide special — not just the number of deaths but the government policy behind them. And that in turn is why stopping genocide should be an even higher priority than saving lives from Aids or malaria.”

That did not explain the relative silence on Congo. Could the reason be that in the case of Congo, Hema and Lendu militias — many of them no more than child soldiers‚ were trained by the US’s allies in the region, Rwanda and Uganda? Is that why the violence in Darfur — but not the violence in Kivu — is named as a genocide?

It seems that genocide has become a label to be stuck on your worst enemy, a perverse version of the Nobel Prize, part of a rhetorical arsenal that helps you vilify your adversaries while ensuring impunity for your allies. Unlike Kivu, Darfur can be neatly integrated into the War on Terror, for Darfur gives the Warriors on Terror a valuable asset with which to demonise an enemy: a genocide perpetrated by Arabs. This was the third and most valuable advantage that Save Darfur gained from depoliticising the conflict.

If many of the leading lights in the Darfur campaign are fired by moral indignation, this derives from two events: the Nazi Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide. After all, the seeds of the Save Darfur campaign lie in the tenth-anniversary commemoration of what happened in Rwanda. Darfur is today a metaphor for senseless violence in politics, as indeed Rwanda was a decade before. Most writing on the Rwandan genocide in the US was also done by journalists. In We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families, the most widely read book on the genocide, Philip Gourevitch envisaged Rwanda as a replay of the Holocaust, with Hutu cast as perpetrators and Tutsi as victims. Again, the encounter between the two seemed to take place outside any context, as part of an eternal encounter between evil and innocence. Many of the journalists who write about Darfur have Rwanda very much in the back of their minds.

With very few exceptions, the Save Darfur campaign has drawn a single lesson from Rwanda: the problem was the US failure to intervene to stop the genocide. Rwanda is the guilt that America must expiate, and to do so it must be ready to intervene, for good and against evil, even globally. But it is the wrong lesson. The Rwandan genocide was born of a civil war that intensified when the settlement to contain it broke down. The settlement, reached at the Arusha Conference, broke down because neither the Hutu Power tendency nor the Tutsi-dominated Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) had any interest in observing the power-sharing arrangement at the core of the settlement.

The dynamic of civil war in Sudan has fed on multiple sources: first, the post-independence monopoly of power enjoyed by a tiny “Arab-ised” elite from the riverine north of Khartoum, a monopoly which has bred growing resistance among the majority, marginalised populations in the south, east and west of the country; second, the rebel movements which have in their turn bred ambitious leaders unwilling to enter into power-sharing arrangements as a prelude to peace; and, finally, external forces which continue to encourage those who are interested in retaining or obtaining a monopoly of power.

The dynamic of peace, by contrast, has fed on a series of power-sharing arrangements, first in the south and then in the east. This process has been intermittent in Darfur. To reinforce the peace process must be the first commitment of all those interested in Darfur. The camp of peace needs to come to a second realisation: that peace cannot be built on humanitarian intervention, which is the language of big powers. The history of colonialism should teach us that every major intervention has been justified as humanitarian, a “civilising mission”.

Now, as then, imperial interventions claim to have a dual purpose: on the one hand, to rescue minority victims of ongoing barbarities and, on the other, to quarantine majority perpetrators with the stated aim of civilising them.

Iraq should act as a warning on this score. The worst thing in Darfur would be an Iraq-style intervention. That would almost certainly spread the civil war to other parts of Sudan, unravelling the peace process in the east and south and dragging the whole country into the global War on Terror.

Mahmood Mamdani is Herbert Lehman Professor of Government and a professor of anthropology at Columbia University. His most recent book is Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War and the Roots of Terror. This is an edited version of his article in the March 8 2007 London Review of Books, published under the title The Politics of Naming: Genocide, Civil War, Insurgency

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