Vol. 29 No. 5 · 8 March 2007

The Politics of Naming: Genocide, Civil War, Insurgency

Mahmood Mamdani

4853 words

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 so 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 now. 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 in Darfur should not be subject to ‘political or civilian’ considerations and that 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? Why should an intervention in Darfur not turn out to be a trigger that escalates rather than reduces the level of violence as intervention in Iraq has done? Why might it not create the actual possibility of genocide, not just rhetorically but in reality? Morally, there is no doubt about the horrific nature of the violence against civilians in Darfur. 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 defined by the War on Terror. On the one hand, there was a struggle for power within the political class in Sudan, with more marginal interests in the west (following those in the south and in the east) 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 1970s, co-operation 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 Janjawiid – that became the vanguard of the unfolding counter-insurgency. The worst violence came from the Janjawiid, 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 the state level and resource-sharing at the community level, land being the key resource.

Since its onset, two official verdicts have been delivered on the violence, the first from the US, the second from the UN. The American 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; according to the Jerusalem Post, the alert was ‘the first ever of its kind, issued by the US Holocaust Museum’. The House of Representatives followed unanimously on 24 June 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, the Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, then the chair of the African Union, visited UN headquarters in New York. Darfur had been the focal point of discussion in the African Union. All concerned were alert to the extreme political sensitivity of the issue. At a press conference at the UN on 23 September 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. What we know is not that. What we know is that there was an uprising, rebellion, and the government armed another group of people to stop that rebellion. That’s what we know. That does not amount to genocide from our own reckoning. It amounts to of course conflict. It amounts to violence.

By October, the Security Council had established a five-person commission of inquiry on Darfur and asked it to report within 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 the chief prosecutor of South Africa’s TRC, Dumisa Ntsebeza. In its report, submitted on 25 January 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). Yet, the commission insisted, they did not amount to acts of genocide: ‘The crucial element of genocidal intent appears to be missing … it would seem that those who planned and organised attacks on villages pursued the intent to drive the victims from their homes, primarily for purposes of counter-insurgency warfare.’

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). If the government stood accused of ‘crimes against humanity’, rebel movements were accused of ‘war crimes’. Finally, the commission identified individual perpetrators and presented the UN secretary-general with a sealed list that included ‘officials of the government of Sudan, members of militia forces, members of rebel groups and certain foreign army officers acting in their personal capacity’. The list named 51 individuals.

The commission’s findings highlighted three violations of international law: disproportionate response, conducted on a widespread and systematic basis, targeting entire groups (as opposed to identifiable individuals) but without the intention to eliminate them as groups. It is for this last reason that the commission ruled out the finding of genocide. Its less grave findings of ‘crimes against humanity’ and ‘war crimes’ are not unique to Darfur, but fit several other situations of extreme violence: in particular, the US occupation of Iraq, the Hema-Lendu violence in eastern Congo and the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Among those in the counter-insurgency accused of war crimes were the ‘foreign army officers acting in their personal capacity’, i.e. mercenaries, presumably recruited from armed forces outside Sudan. The involvement of mercenaries in perpetrating gross violence also fits the occupation in Iraq, where some of them go by the name of ‘contractors’.

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’ (24 March 2004). Only three days later, he upped the ante: this was no longer ethnic cleansing, but genocide. ‘Right now,’ he wrote on 27 March, ‘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 29 May, 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 25 February 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’. Following the publication of the report, Kristof began to scale down his estimates. For the first time, on 23 February 2005, he admitted that ‘the numbers are fuzzy.’ Rather than the usual single total, he went on to give a range of figures, from a low of 70,000, which he dismissed as ‘a UN estimate’, to ‘independent estimates [that] exceed 220,000’. A warning followed: ‘and the number is rising by about ten thousand a month.’

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 3 May, Kristof noted with dismay that not only had ‘Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick pointedly refused to repeat the administration’s past judgment 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’. As an alternative, Kristof cited the latest estimate of deaths from the Coalition for International Justice as ‘nearly 400,000, and rising by 500 a day’. In three months, Kristof’s estimates had gone up from 10,000 to 15,000 a month. Six months later, on 27 November, Kristof warned that ‘if aid groups pull out … the death toll could then rise to 100,000 a month.’ 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 (16 June 2004) but then gave a scaled down estimate of between 70,000 and 220,000 (23 February 2005). The number began once more to climb to ‘nearly 400,000’ (3 May 2005), only to come down yet again to 300,000 (23 April 2006). Each time figures were given with equal confidence but with no attempt to explain their basis. Did the numbers reflect an actual decline in the scale of killing in Darfur or was Kristof simply making an adjustment to the changing mood internationally?

In the 23 April column, Kristof expanded the list of perpetrators to include an external power: ‘China is now underwriting its second genocide in three decades. The first was in Pol Pot’s Cambodia, and the second is in Darfur, Sudan. Chinese oil purchases have financed Sudan’s pillage of Darfur, Chinese-made AK-47s have been the main weapons used to slaughter several hundred thousand people in Darfur so far and China has protected Sudan in the UN Security Council.’ 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’. Would the logic of his 23 April column not lead one to think that those with connections to the insurgency, some of them active in the international campaign to declare Darfur the site of genocide, were also guilty of ‘underwriting’ war crimes in Darfur?

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’. This voyeuristic approach accompanies a moralistic discourse whose effect is both to obscure the politics of the violence and position the reader as a virtuous, not just a concerned observer.

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. This process, known as Arabisation, was not an anomaly in the region: there was Amharisation in Ethiopia and Swahilisation on the East African coast. The third meaning of ‘Arab’ was ‘privileged and exclusive’; it was the claim of the riverine political aristocracy who had ruled Sudan since independence, and who equated Arabisation with the spread of civilisation and being Arab with descent.

‘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) – ‘African’ as Bantu and ‘African’ as the identity of anyone who spoke a language indigenous to Africa. 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. Nat Hentoff of the Village Voice wrote of the Save Darfur Coalition as ‘an alliance of more than 515 faith-based, humanitarian and human rights organisations’; among the organisers of their Rally to Stop the Genocide in Washington last year were groups as diverse as the American Jewish World Service, the American Society for Muslim Advancement, the National Association of Evangelicals, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, the American Anti-Slavery Group, Amnesty International, Christian Solidarity International, Physicians for Human Rights and the National Black Church Initiative. 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 by a university audience: ‘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, four 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 one million to three 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 America’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. In Kristof’s words, the point is not so much ‘human suffering’ as ‘human evil’. 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. The more thoroughly Darfur was integrated into the War on Terror, the more the depoliticised violence in Darfur acquired a racial description, as a genocide of ‘Arabs’ killing ‘Africans’. Racial difference purportedly constituted the motive force behind the mass killings. The irony of Kristof’s columns is that they mirror the ideology of Arab supremacism in Sudan by demonising entire communities.*

Kristof chides Arab peoples and the Arab press for not having the moral fibre to respond to this Muslim-on-Muslim violence, presumably because it is a violence inflicted by Arab Muslims on African Muslims. In one of his early columns in 2004, he was outraged by the silence of Muslim leaders: ‘Do they care about dead Muslims only when the killers are Israelis or Americans?’ Two years later he asked: ‘And where is the Arab press? Isn’t the murder of 300,000 or more Muslims almost as offensive as a Danish cartoon?’ Six months later, Kristof pursued this line on NBC’s Today Show. Elaborating on the ‘real blind spot’ in the Muslim world, he said: ‘You are beginning to get some voices in the Muslim world … saying it’s appalling that you have evangelical Christians and American Jews leading an effort to protect Muslims in Sudan and in Chad.’

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. In December 2004, Kristof recalled the lessons of Rwanda: ‘Early in his presidency, Mr Bush read a report about Bill Clinton’s paralysis during the Rwandan genocide and scrawled in the margin: “Not on my watch.” But in fact the same thing is happening on his watch, and I find that heartbreaking and baffling.’

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. That lesson is inscribed at the heart of Samantha Power’s book, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. But it is the wrong lesson. The Rwandan genocide was born of a civil war which 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 former because it was excluded from the settlement and the latter because it was unwilling to share power in any meaningful way.

What the humanitarian intervention lobby fails to see is that the US did intervene in Rwanda, through a proxy. That proxy was the RPF, backed up by entire units from the Uganda Army. The green light was given to the RPF, whose commanding officer, Paul Kagame, had recently returned from training in the US, just as it was lately given to the Ethiopian army in Somalia. Instead of using its resources and influence to bring about a political solution to the civil war, and then strengthen it, the US signalled to one of the parties that it could pursue victory with impunity. This unilateralism was part of what led to the disaster, and that is the real lesson of Rwanda. Applied to Darfur and Sudan, it is sobering. It means recognising that Darfur is not yet another Rwanda. Nurturing hopes of an external military intervention among those in the insurgency who aspire to victory and reinforcing the fears of those in the counter-insurgency who see it as a prelude to defeat are precisely the ways to ensure that it becomes a Rwanda. Strengthening those on both sides who stand for a political settlement to the civil war is the only realistic approach. Solidarity, not intervention, is what will bring peace to Darfur.

The dynamic of civil war in Sudan has fed on multiple sources: first, the post-independence monopoly of power enjoyed by a tiny ‘Arabised’ elite from the riverine north of Khartoum, a monopoly that 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 that 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. African Union-organised negotiations have been successful in forging a power-sharing arrangement, but only for that arrangement to fall apart time and again. A large part of the explanation, as I suggested earlier, lies in the international context of the War on Terror, which favours parties who are averse to taking risks for peace. 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’. Nor was it mere idiosyncrasy that inspired the devotion with which many colonial officers and archivists recorded the details of barbarity among the colonised – sati, the ban on widow marriage or the practice of child marriage in India, or slavery and female genital mutilation in Africa. I am not suggesting that this was all invention. I mean only to point out that the chronicling of atrocities had a practical purpose: it provided the moral pretext for intervention. 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.

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Vol. 29 No. 6 · 22 March 2007

Mahmood Mamdani smears anyone who has supported humanitarian intervention in Darfur by implying that they are supporters of US military interventionism and adventurism (LRB, 8 March). How else are we to understand the repeated references in his article to ‘an Iraq-style intervention’, as if this was what Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the UN have had in mind in calling for a more forceful international response to the war crimes perpetrated in Darfur? Generally, they have called for a peacekeeping or peace-restoring force under a UN flag, which the regime in Khartoum has continued to resist, and which President al-Bashir has labelled part of a ‘Zionist plot’. Mamdani’s ‘Iraq-style intervention’ is a mirage: a unilateral US intervention in Sudan is extremely unlikely. But the idea of such an intervention plays into the hands of al-Bashir in his bid to remain in power. Mamdani fails to mention that one of the main reasons for the UN’s reluctance to use the term ‘genocide’ in relation to Darfur is that it would trigger an obligation to intervene, which a number of states on the Security Council (not least China, given its interests in Sudan) would be loath to do.

Article 2 of the UN’s 1948 Genocide Convention defines genocide as ‘acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group’ (my emphasis). One could be forgiven for thinking this definition applicable to the situation in Darfur. Mamdani seems to think the Khartoum-supported militias and the insurgents of Darfur equally guilty of war crimes. The difference between them has to do with the scale of the atrocities, the intentions of the respective parties, and the fact that the Janjawiid were often supported and bankrolled by the Sudanese Army.

Like many leftist post-colonial intellectuals Mamdani attributes most of what goes wrong in Africa and the Middle East to the pernicious influence of Western colonialism, leaving out of account the often destructive agency of post-colonial elites. He thinks that peace activists need to realise that ‘peace cannot be built on humanitarian intervention’ in Darfur: humanitarian intervention, he informs us, is ‘the language of big powers’ and ‘their civilising mission’. But what precisely (and after much equivocation) stopped the Serb war crimes in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s? Certainly the leftist arm of ‘solidarity’ of the kind that Mamdani proposes didn’t deliver any tangible benefits to Bosnians or Kosovars, and given Khartoum’s continual stalling and its harassment of international humanitarian agencies, there is little reason to think that things would be different for the people of Darfur. And what about Timor Leste, Congo and Burundi? Would their populations prefer continued indiscriminate murder at the hands of war criminals to humanitarian intervention? Mamdani needs to get out of his office and into the real world.

Sindre Bangstad

Mahmood Mamdani is right about the parallels between Iraq and Darfur. However ‘civil war/insurgency’ and ‘genocide’ should be complementary rather than alternative ways of naming these conflicts. In both cases insurgency and civil war have given rise to genocidal policies: in Darfur on the part of the regime and allied militias against the Fur, Massilit, Zeghawa and others; in Iraq on the part of the Sunni and Shia militias. The complexities of these relationships in Darfur are certainly not captured by some of the simpler anti-genocide campaigners, but the UN Commission’s refusal to name the conflict as a genocide following what Mamdani rightly calls its ‘painstaking’ analysis was a sordid political compromise. And while he is right to warn of the real dangers in ‘humanitarian’ intervention, the debacle that has followed the invasion of Iraq should not push the whole question of protecting threatened civilian populations off the agenda.

Martin Shaw
University of Sussex

Vol. 29 No. 7 · 5 April 2007

Mahmood Mamdani begins his piece on ‘The Politics of Naming’ (LRB, 8 March) with a parallel between ‘state-connected counter-insurgencies in Iraq and Darfur’. But the counter-insurgency in Iraq is organised by a foreign power and is the result of foreign occupation while the counter-insurgency in Darfur is organised by the national government and has no foreign cause. Whatever one thinks of US policy in Iraq, it has no genocidal component. In Darfur the ‘counter-insurgency’ is ethnic cleansing at the least and borders on genocide. Professor Mamdani quotes President Obasanjo of Nigeria to defend the idea that the violence in Darfur is not of a genocidal nature since we do not have proof of a ‘plan’. But we do not have proof of a plan in either the Armenian or the Rwandan genocides.

Professor Mamdani is right about the international community’s lack of interest in the war in the Congo, the most murderous conflict since the Second World War, but he insists on the Hema-Lendu conflict in the Ituri region as if it were the only violent conflict in the country and talks of ‘the two sides’, apparently projecting a kind of Tutsi-Hutu framework on the Ituri, whose victims represent, to the best of my knowledge, about 2 per cent of the total number of fatalities in the Congo in the period. He describes the ‘Hema and Lendu militias’ as ‘trained by the US allies in the region, Uganda and Rwanda’, but these militias were never properly trained by anybody, which is one reason they were so wild and murderous. Finally, the Hema and Lendu have nothing to do with the Tutsi and the Hutu. The Lendu are a Sudanic tribe loosely related to the Alur while the Bantu Hema are a sub-group of the Ugandan Banyoro. To see these tribes as ‘US proxies’ is untenable. It was the Ugandans (not the Rwandans and even less the Americans) who used them, though they were not responsible either for their antagonisms or for their political strategies. Mamdani trivialises Darfur by saying that violence in Central Africa is recurring and banal, that Darfur is nothing special, and that in any case the factor responsible above all others for these various evils is US imperialism.

It is also the case that Mamdani does not understand the complex dialectics of Arab identity in the Sudan. First, he draws a parallel between the processes of ‘Arabisation’ in Sudan and ‘Amharisation’ in Ethiopia or ‘Swahilisation’ in East Africa. But these processes are indigenous whereas ‘Arabisation’ in the Sudan has always been the result of a process of cultural diffusion from the vastly broader ‘database’ of international Arabism, which has introduced a monstrous paradox: in the Sudan the agents of Arabisation are themselves despised as ‘niggers’ (the Arabic word used is abd, ‘slave’) by the very people whose approval they court and in whose name they kill. This has nothing to do with either Amharisation or Swahilisation. Another consequence is the plurality of types of ‘Arab’ in the Sudan (what Alex de Waal has called ‘differential Arabism’) and the fact that the western Arabs (mostly Baggara, to make it simple) are not respected by the riverine tribes who rule the country. Mamdani is completely confused when he writes that ‘the victims of the ethnic cleansing (mostly the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa tribes) speak Arabic like their killers.’ I suspect that he does not know the word rottana (‘gibberish’) which the ‘true’ Arabs use to speak disparagingly of the languages of these tribes. When you speak some kind of rottana you are not an Arab. That’s the whole point. But Mamdani is so intent on trying to prove that Darfur doesn’t represent a case either of genocide or of ethnic cleansing but simply a civil war a bit more brutal than the others, that he bends the facts to suit his theory. Or perhaps he does not know the facts.

Professor Mamdani would like us to see Darfur in its historical context. If he himself were to do that, he would recognise the possibility that genocide is the logical conclusion of what has been happening over the last thirty years.

Mamdani’s underlying point is that the US should stop telling other people what to do because the US carries the burden of responsibility for the situation in Iraq and in the forgotten Congo war. America did indeed play a role in Kagame’s murderous policies even if it did not initiate them. But Iraq has nothing to do with Darfur. Which is why the slogan ‘out of Iraq and into Darfur’ is not a contradiction. Yet given the extreme incompetence of America’s foreign policy creators and handlers, they would be likely to mess up even a morally worthy and politically feasible operation.

Gérard Prunier
Addis Ababa

Many of the claims that Mahmood Mamdani makes about the situation in Darfur echo those made in the mid-1990s about the situation in the former Yugoslavia. The Serbs and Bosnian Muslims and Croats were killing each other, it was said, because of an ancient ethnic hatred that we couldn’t understand, much less hope to heal, and the war was a civil war that it would be inappropriate, futile and perverse for outside powers to try to stop. Mamdani doesn’t claim that this sort of primordial conflict is taking place in Darfur. However, his moral agnosticism sounds very much like the typical argument for non-intervention: Darfur is a civil war, there are perpetrators on both sides, therefore we must reserve judgment. We reserved judgment in Bosnia until August 1995, when Nato bombed Bosnian Serb positions and halted the shelling of civilians by Serb artillery. Mamdani raises the spectre of Iraq to suggest the foolishness of the liberal internationalist impulse: ‘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?’ The success of the Nato air strikes in 1995 (and again in Kosovo in 1999) reminds us that we should be as wary of dogmatically ignoring the possibility of helping the victims of genocide as we are of claims of humanitarian concern on the part of those hoping to justify unjust wars.

Matthew Moore
New York

Mahmood Mamdani makes several errors – some of fact, some of judgment – in his piece on Darfur. It isn’t true, for example, that ‘the estimate of the number of civilians killed’ in Iraq and Darfur is ‘roughly similar’. The most credible recent numbers for Darfur, as recorded by Science magazine some months ago, suggest ‘at least’ 200,000 dead, with the real figure probably ‘much higher’: 450,000 is the figure given by Sudan expert Eric Reeves. The respected index of Iraqi deaths, iraqbodycount.net, meanwhile, records 65,000 dead. Moreover, the figures for Darfur do not take into account the widespread rape and burning of villages that have resulted in the removal of over a million people to ‘internal displacement’ camps, where their precarious existence is maintained by aid workers, who are themselves subject to attack. Nothing that has taken place in Iraq in the last three years comes remotely close to this.

To describe the situation in Darfur as a ‘civil war’ instead of ‘genocide’ or ‘ethnic cleansing’ implies that some kind of parity of force is shared between the government forces and the rebels. No such parity exists, and never has. Khartoum enjoys the benefits of a lavish foreign-investment boom. The principal investors in Sudan – chief among them Chinese state oil firms – have ensured a steady flow of revenue, 70 per cent of which has been spent on armaments. The government is in a position to dispatch military aircraft in advance of ground attacks. The rebel forces – scattered and brutal though they may be – have nothing like this sort of firepower.

Furthermore, by placing one side’s ‘crimes against humanity’ against the other’s ‘war crimes’, Mamdani posits a moral equivalence that doesn’t exist. The fact that consistent government and Janjawiid provocation created the insurgency, which they then savagely repressed, is nowhere mentioned. That ‘insurgents’ in Darfur ‘mete out’ civilian deaths is certain. Khartoum and its allies, however, have ‘meted out’ a hecatomb: scorched villages and scattered populations have been the hallmark of their work.

Sean Coleman

Mahmood Mamdani attempts to debunk the analogy between Darfur and Rwanda by suggesting that US closeness with the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) dates back to the genesis of the movement. But the RPF emerged from the military phase of Museveni’s National Resistance Movement in Uganda; and in this regard, was more a product of regional than international politics. When it first invaded north-eastern Rwanda in 1990, international interest in the conflict was limited to Belgium and France; there is no record of American interest or support for the RPF at this point, or indeed during the Arusha peace process or, finally, when the genocide began. US attention in Africa was firmly focused on the ongoing debacle in Somalia. All this had changed by November 1996, when the ‘war of liberation’ over Zaire/Democratic Republic of Congo began. The US recognised the rot of Mobutu’s regime, but how much support, formal or informal, it provided to the Rwandan/Ugandan advance at this point is a matter for speculation.

To suggest that Kagame’s military training in the US is evidence of support or approval of the RPF is spurious, as is the drawing of an analogy with US military involvement in Ethiopia, where US engagement has a long and varied history. Odder still is the notion that ‘the US suggested to one of the parties [the RPF] that it could pursue victory with impunity.’ How? By stifling debate on Rwanda at the Security Council? By encouraging a withdrawal of UNAMIR, the UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda? With the genocide already well underway these actions encouraged the génocidaires, not the RPF.

The United States should be held responsible for what it did and failed to do in Rwanda and Central Africa, but as regards what happened before 1994, it should be accused of inattention, not interference.

Jannie Armstrong
Settle, North Yorkshire

Mahmood Mamdani argues that the advocacy movement and the Save Darfur Coalition, which I direct, emphasise the racial identities of the victims and perpetrators – framing the conflict as ‘Arabs’ versus ‘Africans’ – to generate domestic support for our campaign. This argument is fully inaccurate. On the contrary, the Coalition avoids using the labels ‘Arab’ and ‘African’ and encourages others to do the same. This effort to provide depth to a narrative that has indeed at times been oversimplified has helped the Coalition form key partnerships with leading Arab-American and Muslim-American NGOs in the US, as well as with NGOs in the greater Arab and Muslim worlds. These partners, too, are outraged by the horrors of Darfur.

From the beginning, the Save Darfur Coalition has called for the United States to support a multilateral protection force for the civilians of Darfur, to separate the people with guns from the innocent civilians being shot. It has not called for the overthrow of Sudan’s government. The Coalition believes that progress in providing adequate civilian protection in Darfur should occur in parallel with progress in the negotiations between the government of Sudan and the various rebel movements. This, we believe, is the only means to a sustainable peace – an area of agreement between us and Professor Mamdani. Whether or not the crisis in Darfur is unique, or is demonstrably the worst in the world, is less important to people of conscience than working urgently to end the violence innocent Darfurians face every day.

David Rubenstein
Save Darfur Coalition, New York

Vol. 29 No. 8 · 26 April 2007

The letters written in response to my article on Darfur (Letters, 22 March) raise five main issues. First, Iraq and Darfur. Gérard Prunier begins by contrasting the counter-insurgencies (Letters, 5 April). True, ‘the counter-insurgency in Iraq is organised by a foreign power and is the result of foreign occupation while the counter-insurgency in Darfur is organised by the national government and has no foreign cause,’ but how does this help us define political responsibility? Nuremberg set out the general principle that whoever is in power is responsible for atrocities that happen on his watch. It is of no consequence whether the power in question is that possessed by a national government or an occupying authority. Prunier also makes a distinction between a genuine counter-insurgency in Iraq and a pernicious one in Darfur. When every significant report coming out of Iraq seems to agree that ethnic cleansing is one of the consequences of the violence, as it is in Darfur, what is the difference?

Sean Coleman wonders whether it is a fact that similar numbers of civilians have been killed in Darfur and Iraq (Letters, 5 April). All we have to go on are estimates. The government of Sudan downplays civilian deaths in Darfur, and US officials in Iraq have flatly refused to keep a count of them. The most recent estimate for Darfur is between a low of ‘at least’ 200,000 (Science magazine) and the Save Darfur Coalition’s figure of 400,000. The figures given for Iraq range between a low of 150,000, proposed by Iraq’s health minister, and a high of 655,000 proposed by the Lancet.

Second, the matter of political violence and political identity. Prunier accuses me of ‘trivialising Darfur by saying that violence in Central Africa is recurring and banal, that Darfur is nothing special and that in any case the factor responsible above all others for these various evils is US imperialism’. From Sudan to Ethiopia, Uganda to Mozambique and Angola, and Ivory Coast to Liberia, most political violence in post-colonial Africa seems to be organised along ethnic lines. Why is that? Some have suggested that it has to do with the importance of ethnicity in African culture. I argue instead that it has to do with the politicisation of culture in the African colonies. When colonial reform replaced ‘direct’ with ‘indirect’ rule through compliant local authorities the effect was to make cultural difference the basis for administrative, legal and political organisation, thereby politicising ethnic difference and making ethnic identity the basis for political discrimination.

Sindre Bangsted (Letters, 22 March) worries that such an analysis serves only to highlight ‘the pernicious influence of Western colonialism, leaving out of account the often destructive agency of post-colonial elites’. Far from it: to the extent that the colonial political model has been reproduced in post-colonial Africa, the responsibility lies with the political elites of independent Africa. The 1959 revolution in Rwanda was an example of this: as I argued in my study of the Rwandan genocide, When Victims Become Killers, the revolutionaries turned the colonial world upside down, but they failed to change it.

Prunier misrepresents my remarks on Congo. I did not claim that the killing in Congo is confined to the Ituri region. I take the violence in Kivu as illustrative because it involves paramilitaries, including child soldiers, trained by US allies; because its victims are discussed in terms of their racial identities, as in Rwanda; and above all because it has been ignored in spite of flagrant violations of even minimal standards of human rights. Prunier caricatures my reference to ‘US allies’ to suggest that I see ‘tribes as US proxies’; and, just as he downplays the US counter-insurgency in Iraq, he dismisses the role of US allies (Rwanda and Uganda) in fanning political violence in Kivu by saying that the ‘militias were never properly trained by anybody’. Finally, I claim that collective identities in Kivu acquired a racial character as they had in Rwanda or, for that matter, as they have now in Darfur. Prunier objects that these identities are not the same: ‘racialisation’ produced Hamites and Bantu in Rwanda, Nilotics and Bantu in Ituri and Arab and African (Bantu) in Darfur. But my interest lies in the similarity not of the identities produced, but of the processes involved.

Prunier’s main point is that the ‘complex dialectics of Arab identities in the Sudan’ make it a special case. According to him, the key difference between ‘Arabisation’ in Sudan and ‘Amharisation’ in Ethiopia and ‘Swahilisation’ in East Africa is that the last two are ‘indigenous’ while Arabisation is not. ‘Arabisation’ in Sudan has often gone hand in hand with ‘Islamisation’ just as ‘Amharisation’ in Ethiopia has usually gone hand in hand with ‘Christianisation’. Like Sudan, Ethiopia has historically had a north-south problem; the administration, based in the north, has been regarded as Christian, while the oppressed majority in the south is thought of primarily as Muslim. In Prunier’s terms, these processes – ‘Arabisation’, ‘Islamisation’ and ‘Christianisation’ – are the result of a process of cultural diffusion from elsewhere. But the real question is not whether they are foreign or indigenous: it is whether their spread is coerced or consensual.

I pointed out in my article that Arab identity in Sudan covers groups as diverse as the despised nomads in the western desert and the supremacist riverine elite in Khartoum. This isn’t exceptional: there are similar differentiations among the Islamists as well as the insurgent Africanists. Prunier distinguishes between indigenous and foreign ideologies, but it would be more illuminating to look at inclusive versus exclusive variants of these ideologies. Those who follow events in Sudan will know that the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement recently decided to shift its headquarters from Juba to Khartoum, signalling the ascendancy of a more open and inclusive ‘African’ ideological and political project within its ranks.

The third issue is the lesson of Rwanda. Jannie Armstrong (Letters, 5 April) suggests that the US ‘should be accused of inattention, not interference’ with regard to Rwanda and Central Africa because, in 1994, ‘US attention in Africa was firmly focused on the ongoing debacle in Somalia.’ But the debacle in Somalia was not a distraction: it was the experience that convinced the US to desist from direct intervention and return to the strategy of acting through proxies. Its proxy-based interventions in Africa had begun two decades before, in the aftermath of defeat in Vietnam: examples include the sustained nurturing of Renamo in Mozambique and Unità in Angola by South Africa. This went on for more than a decade and would not have been possible without the diplomatic and political cover provided by the Reagan-era policy of ‘constructive engagement’ with apartheid South Africa.

From a post-Vietnam perspective, Somalia was an aberration and Rwanda a return to business as usual. Armstrong is right to suggest that the Rwandan Patriotic Front ‘was more a product of regional than international politics’. The US did not manufacture the RPF, nor did it create the National Resistance Army in Uganda. But it built close relations with the latter during the late 1980s and, through it, with the RPF in the 1990s, providing crucial diplomatic and political cover even before the RPF assumed power in 1994.

Fourth is Nato’s intervention in the former Yugoslavia. Leaving to one side the merits and demerits of the interventions of 1995 and 1999, it is appropriate to consider whether the example can easily be shifted to Darfur. To begin with, the interventions in Yugoslavia should be seen as regional rather than international; the analogy in Darfur would be the African Union intervention. Whether the type of intervention that Nato carried out in Yugoslavia, including air strikes, would be appropriate in Darfur depends on what the aim would be. I can think of three alternative objectives: first, overthrowing the government of Sudan, even at the risk of splitting the country into so many fragments that we would have to speak of the former Sudan as we do today of the former Yugoslavia; second, a ceasefire, which would presumably hold only so long as the intervening force remained; and third, political negotiations leading to a power-sharing deal between the current adversaries.

It is worth asking those who advocate foreign military intervention how it would help to end the civil war. Should the objective be to disarm the insurgents and end the counter-insurgency, or the reverse? Whichever way is chosen, the going will be tough: there is no escaping the fact that the way forward will have to involve a political settlement.

Matthew Moore worries that I am counselling inaction, and capitulating to an indefensible ‘moral agnosticism’ which holds that we ‘must reserve judgment’ because ‘there are perpetrators on both sides’ (Letters, 5 April). But that is hardly my point of view. What I counsel in lieu of a military intervention is a political process with two objectives in mind: a reform of the state that will build on the peace settlements in the south and east by extending power-sharing to insurgent elites in the west; and a resource-building initiative (the conflict in Darfur is driven in part by a lack of resources that the international community is best equipped to address but has yet to show serious interest in). The example to emulate is not Nato’s intervention in the former Yugoslavia, but the political settlement in the south of Sudan, which the Bush administration can count as its solitary foreign policy success.

Finally, the question of naming. There is much to say about Martin Shaw’s observation that ‘civil war/insurgency’ and ‘genocide’ may turn out to be ‘complementary rather than alternative ways of naming these conflicts’ (Letters, 22 March). The issue is how to prevent civil wars from degenerating into genocide. Genocide requires the involvement of ordinary men and women. In the cases I have studied, the ground for genocide is prepared by spreading fear, thereby convincing ordinary people that they must either kill or be killed. It is not an accident that most instances of genocide have occurred in the context of war; it seems absurd to suggest that extending the war is the way to prevent genocide.

Mahmood Mamdani
Columbia University, New York

If Sean Coleman wishes to play the numbers game with regard to Darfur and Iraq, he would be best advised to compare like with like. To quote the ‘most credible’ source on Iraq, as he does in relation to Darfur, he would be obliged to cite the Lancet survey of 2006, which estimated 655,000 deaths in Iraq with a 95 per cent confidence interval of 393,000 to 943,000 ‘excess’ deaths. In other words, there is a 95 per cent chance that the minimum number of Iraqis killed as a result of the conflict up to June 2006 is more than the maximum number of deaths – 255,000 through May 2006 – attributed to the conflict in Darfur by the Science magazine article quoted by Coleman.

Elliott Green
London School of Economics

Vol. 29 No. 10 · 24 May 2007

Both Mahmood Mamdani and Elliott Green uncritically accept the Lancet’s estimate that the number of ‘excess’ Iraqi deaths caused by the conflict up to June 2006 was between 393,000 and 943,000, yet there are serious reasons to doubt the credibility of this claim (Letters, 26 April). A joint research team led by the Oxford physicists Sean Gourley and Neil Johnson and the economist Michael Spagat at Royal Holloway concluded, in a report published in Science, that the study was ‘fundamentally flawed’ in a way that systematically exaggerates the death toll. The Slate science writer Fred Kaplan, in a published debate with the authors of the report, calls the methods used ‘highly questionable’.

The United Nations reported that 34,452 violent deaths occurred in Iraq in 2006, based on data from morgues, hospitals and municipal authorities, while the Iraq Body Count reported approximately 24,500 civilian deaths. (Extrapolated over four years, these figures more or less accord with those quoted by the Iraqi Health Ministry.) The Lancet study, meanwhile, recorded an excess mortality rate of 14.2 deaths per 1000 per year as of June 2006, which would amount to 370,000 deaths for the whole year. In 2006, therefore, the Lancet records more than 300,000 violent deaths that have, bizarrely, gone completely unrecorded by any other means.

Sean Coleman

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