Conflict Trends 2009/4

Saviours And Survivors: Darfur, Politics And The War On Terror

Book Review

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The conflict in Darfur, Sudan, has attracted a tremendous amount of attention in the last six years. Scholars, humanitarian organisations and investigative commissions and panels sponsored by the African Union and the United Nations have produced a large amount of information and analyses regarding the context, actors, causes and consequences, underlying goals and interests, and other dynamics that have been driving the conflict. These analyses, which reflect the different views and interests of the various groups in Sudan and in the West, are human rights, political science or anthropological narratives of Darfur in particular, and Sudan in general.

Saviours and Survivors deviates from this narrow focus and situates Darfur in the historical and contemporary world context. The book’s central theme is a critique of the assumptions and biases underpinning the Save Darfur Coalition – the American organisation that has championed and internationalised the Darfur situation. The author recognises that the discourse over the conflict in Darfur has been highly polarising. He questions the prevailing orthodoxies and whether the “quick fixes” coming from the West can solve the problems in Darfur.

The book is divided into three parts and nine chapters, which are structured around four profound ideas. The first idea is a critical analysis of the dominant narrative that informs the writing of Sudan’s history. At the heart of this narrative are two related ideas: Arabisation and settler-native dichotomy (pp. 75-108; 145-170). The book interrogates these two ideas by digging deep into the historical evolution of Darfur and Sudanese society. It explores ancient sultanates and merchant kingdoms that existed prior to the formation of the modern state, and unpacks their internal dynastic contradictions and rivalries. It also analyses the socio-political issues that divide the centre of power in Khartoum and the peripheries such as Darfur, and their related ideological foundations.

Mamdani’s historical account presents the conflict in Darfur more as a product of a long encounter between the colonial and post-colonial powers in Africa, and less as an outcome of immediate political grievances. He unpacks the term Arabisation, and weaves it into a larger theoretical analysis that includes Egypt. He also delves deep into the settler-native theoretical dichotomy – which is the central argument in his other two books, When Victims Becomes Killers: Colonialism, Nativism and the Genocide in Rwanda and Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism. The settler-native framework critiques historiography where the core narrative is that pivotal social and economic change in African societies was driven from outside. In this narrative, the key to political history was the relation between settlers (or outsiders/drivers of change) and the natives. Mamdani applies the argument to Darfur’s history, which depicts some groups as settlers and others as natives. As he notes, the settler-native dichotomy played a key role in the 1987-1989 conflict in Darfur (p. 170). Mamdani summarises his critique with a call for an alternative narrative.

The book’s second central idea is that the conflict in Darfur started as a civil war in the region, in which all actors saw themselves as victims (pp. 231-236). The civil war raged in 1987-1989, long before the National Islamic Front (NIF) came to power – and it did not involve the central government. “It was known as the Arab-Fur war,” Mamdani writes. “For the first time, all Arab tribes came together under a single banner known as ‘the Arab Gathering’…” (p. 236). Among the key causes of the conflict were climate changes and desertification. The key driver of the conflict, however, was the “tribal definition of right of access to productive natural resources” (p. 244), whose core element is the settler-native narrative. Consequently, the conflict took on “ideological and ‘racist’ leanings which were heavily laden with tribal bigotry” (p. 233). Mamdani avers that one of the key reasons the NIF coup actors cited, when they overthrew the government of Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi in 1989, was his government’s failure to stop the conflict in Darfur. The author argues that the government became a party to the conflict after 1989, when its resolution attempts failed. That argument notwithstanding, Mamdani does not excuse the failure of the government of Sudan to resolve the conflict after 2003.

The third idea in Mamdani’s book revolves around the politics of the Save Darfur Coalition (pp. 48-71). Though Mamdani appreciates that Save Darfur directed media and public attention at the height of the worst violence, his analysis advances several critiques against the coalition. First, he questions the coalition’s marketing and fundraising – which paid for offices, salary expenses and mobilisation in the United States, but it is not clear how many Darfuris it actually “saved”. Second, he queries the coalition’s failure to acknowledge the decline in mass violence and atrocities in Darfur after September 2004. Third, he questions the coalition’s understanding of the history of Darfur and Sudan, and the narrative it champions. Fourth, Mamdani critiques the coalition for the way it integrated the conflict in Darfur with the War on Terror (pp. 63-65). According to Mamdani, the Save Darfur Coalition links the conflict in Darfur to the global discourse on American power and the War on Terror. In both cases, the Arabs are on the “wrong or bad side” – as genocidaires in Darfur and as terrorists elsewhere. As he writes, “Darfur gives the Warriors of Terror a valuable asset with which to demonise an enemy: a ‘genocide’ perpetrated by Arabs” (pp. 63-64). For Mamdani, highlights of this agenda include downplaying the African engagement in Darfur and resultant successes and the ending of violence on the ground; campaigns for international troops to Darfur; and the indictment of Sudan’s leadership at the International Criminal Court.

The fourth idea in the book traces common features between the conflict in Darfur and conflicts in other post-colonial African societies (pp. 271-300). Among the cases that Mamdani considers is the counter-insurgency war against the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda. He also contrasts retributive justice as advocated in Darfur, and restorative justice that evolved from South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Mamdani draws important lessons from these cases, and highlights among them the importance of internal reconciliation (pp. 290-300).

Saviours and Survivors has several typographical errors. It also takes a strong position that can be misconstrued as an apology for the elite, who have governed Sudan since independence. Nonetheless, the book is very powerful. It is very clear in its main theme, and courageously addresses the contradictions of contemporary Africa. Mamdani avoids the two errors common among commentators on Africa: outright pessimism and the idea of “deliverance just around the corner”. He appropriately critiques the cartoon version of Darfur and Sudan, which portrays western humanitarian agencies positively as the “saviours”, and Darfurians negatively as only just the “survivors”. The book also provides commendable intellectual depth. Its critique of the dominant narrative that informs Darfur’s history challenges the minds of scholars and general readers alike.

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