Vol. 29 No. 7 · 5 April 2007

Search by issue:

The Politics of Naming

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

Viva New Labour

Ross McKibbin acknowledges record spending on public services and the unprecedented electoral capture of power, yet discounts devolution and ignores Northern Ireland (LRB, 22 March). His deeper charge, that this government has done nothing to halt inequality, is simply unhistorical. Look at the global and long-term trends and it is remarkable how redistributive this administration has been. McKibbin obviously dreams that a previous Scottish Labour leader would have been more left-wing than the current Scottish-educated one and even more ambitious than the Scottish one lined up for us. But the idea that John Smith would have been ‘more socialist’ or electorally as successful as Blair is far-fetched. There is little evidence that he was ever likely to be as popular as Blair became. Smith didn’t accept that Labour had to alter its values – not just some of its policies – to change the political landscape. And, whatever you think of Iraq or Blair himself, that is what a decade of New Labour has done. As McKibbin grudgingly acknowledges in passing, this is now a country in which public services, liberal social attitudes and equality of opportunity sit alongside a real concern for international development and the environment. These are now baseline British values.

What people like McKibbin have to realise is that Britain was and to a large degree still is strongly conservative, capitalist and individualistic. Blair shared some of those values and his success was that he realised that aspiration, empowerment and the market need not be the enemies of social democracy.

Charlie Beckett
London NW5

Ross McKibbin credits the New Labour administration with ‘reasonable but not unusual administrative competence’. In this assessment is he taking account of the chaos at the Home Office, or the endless financial and service provision dramas in the Health Service? (This, despite a record increase in funding.) Then there’s the matter of awarding more work to private companies or consultants (another record increase) even when they did a bad job last time. Did he follow the Child Support Agency saga? Has he talked to any farmers or teachers, or indeed anyone on the receiving end of this administration’s ‘reasonable competence’ and the amazing amount of paperwork it generates?

Howard Millbank

What to Do with the Lords

Bruce Ackerman writes that, from 2009, the UK Supreme Court ‘will be able to force Parliament to think again if its legislation trenches on fundamental rights’ (LRB, 8 March). The impact of the new UK Supreme Court remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: Part 3 of the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 gives it no additional power to ‘force Parliament to think again’ in the field of human rights. The Supreme Court will have no more power in this area than is already enjoyed by the Judicial Committee of the House of Lords. Indeed, it will have the same power that every UK court has had since the Human Rights Act came into force in October 2000: the power to declare legislation incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights, but not to strike it down or invalidate its legal effect.

Eric Metcalfe

I would dispute Bruce Ackerman’s claim that an effective UK Senate ‘requires a repudiation of the very foundations of parliamentary democracy’. With a nod to the example of the German second chamber, I suggest the replacement of the Lords by a Senate in which the constituent nations of the UK would be represented (the number of members per nation being determined by its population as a proportion of the total UK population).

While the first-past-the-post system (along with the personal link it creates between MPs and their constituents) would be retained for the House of Commons, senators would be chosen from party lists, their numbers determined in strict proportionality to the percentage of the vote cast in each constituent nation in general elections. (Thus, a 20 per cent vote for Scottish Labour candidates in the general election would mean that 20 per cent of Scottish Senate seats went to Labour.)

This proposal has the virtue of tying the Senate into the parliamentary system, as its legitimacy is dependent on votes cast to elect constituency MPs. It would also have the advantage of counteracting the centrifugal forces unleashed by devolution without in any way compromising the commitment to home rule for the constituent nations of the United Kingdom.

Richard Tagart
Antwerp, Belgium

At the Movies

D.E. Steward claims there are no coyotes east of Boston but coyotes now prosper in Newfoundland, one and a half time zones east of Boston (Letters, 8 March). While it is neither Morocco nor one of the 50 united states, Newfoundland is too big to fall between the cracks.

Axel Harvey

Heroin Artists

In his review of Richard Witts’s Velvet Underground (LRB, 22 March) Mark Greif writes that ‘curiously no one in the Velvet Underground ever died of drugs, while the West Coast scene was ravaged.’ Certainly a plethora of closely related artists, all Warhol Factory worthies, managed a ‘pleasurable self-destruction’ – Jackie Curtis, Ondine, Jean-Michael Basquiat, Edie Sedgwick and Bobby Driscoll and counting. Richard Witts himself suggests, that although Nico who, after Reed and Cale, is the best-known member of the VU, technically died of a cerebral haemorrhage, a 30-year experiment with heroin made a significant contribution. Robert Quine, who in addition to releasing a series of seminal recordings of the band, played with Reed on his 1982 Blue Mask album, also managed a heroin-related death in 2004.

Jack Harris
University of Plymouth

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences