The Darfur the West isn’t recognising as it moralises about the region

For many who survey an African landscape strewn with political wreckage, nowadays merely to raise the subject of European colonialism, which formally ended across most of the continent five decades ago, is to ring alarm bells of excuse making.

For many who survey an African landscape strewn with political wreckage, nowadays merely to raise the subject of European colonialism, which formally ended across most of the continent five decades ago, is to ring alarm bells of excuse making.

Clearly, the African disaster most in view today is Sudan, or more specifically the dirty war that has raged since 2003 in that country’s western region, Darfur.

Rare among African conflicts, it exerts a strong claim on our conscience. By instructive contrast, more than five million people have died as a result of war in Congo since 1998, the rough equivalent at its height of a 2004 Asian tsunami striking every six months, without stirring our diplomats to urgency or generating much civic response.

Mahmood Mamdani, a Ugandan-born scholar at Columbia University and the author of “When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism, and Genocide in Rwanda,” is one of the most penetrating analysts of African affairs.

In “Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror,” he has written a learned book that reintroduces history into the discussion of the Darfur crisis and questions the logic and even the good faith of those who seek to place it at the pinnacle of Africa’s recent troubles. It is a brief, he writes, “against those who substitute moral certainty for knowledge, and who feel virtuous even when acting on the basis of total ignorance.”

Mr. Mamdani does not dismiss a record of atrocities in Darfur, where 300,000 have been killed and 2.5 million been made refugees, yet he opposes the label of genocide as a subjective judgment wielded for political reasons against a Sudanese government that is out of favor because of its history of Islamism and its suspected involvement in terror.

At his most provocative Mr. Mamdani questions the distinction between what is often labeled counterinsurgency and genocide, saying the former, even when it kills more people, is deemed “normal violence” while the latter is considered “amoral, evil,” and typically it is the West that does the labeling.

Although he uses the United States war in Iraq as an example, with the International Criminal Court recently issuing an arrest warrant for Sudan’s leader, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, Mr. Mamdani’s most compelling example is the treatment of a crisis in neighboring Uganda.

In Uganda, long one of Washington’s closest African friends, Mr. Mamdani traces the history of ethnically targeted “civilian massacres and other atrocities” against the brutal insurgency known as the Lord’s Resistance Army.

In 1996, under President Yoweri Museveni, a second phase of that war began “with a new policy designed to intern practically the entire rural population of the three Acholi districts in northern Uganda,” Mr. Mamdani writes.

“It took a government-directed campaign of murder, intimidation, bombing and burning of whole villages to drive the rural population into I.D.P. (internally displaced persons) camps.”

In 2005 Olara Otunnu, a former Ugandan ambassador to the United Nations, denounced the government’s tactics, saying, “An entire society is being systematically destroyed — physically, culturally, socially and economically — in full view of the international community.”

But as elsewhere in Africa, Mr. Mamdani says, the International Criminal Court has brought a case against only the enemy of Washington’s friend, the Lord’s Resistance Army, remaining mute about large-scale atrocities that may have been committed by the Ugandan government.

In this pattern the author sees the hand of politics more than any real attachment to justice. Many argue that what makes Darfur different from other African crises is race, with the conflict there pitting Arabs against people often called “black Africans,” but here again Mr. Mamdani takes on conventional wisdom.

“At no point,” he states flatly, “has this been a war between ‘Africans’ and ‘Arabs.’ ”

Much foreign commentary about Sudan speaks of its Arabs as settlers, with the inference that they are somehow less African than people assumed to be of pure black stock.

If whites in Kenya and Zimbabwe, not to mention South Africa, vociferously maintain their African-ness, what then to make of the Arab presence in Sudan, whose slow penetration and widespread intermarriage, Mr. Mamdani writes, “commenced in the early decades of Islam” and “reached a climax” from the 8th to the 15th century, “when the Arab tribes overran much of the country”?

More interestingly, the author maintains that much of what we see today as a racial divide in Sudan has its roots in colonial history, when Britain “broke up native society into different ethnicities, and ‘tribalized’ each ethnicity by bringing it under the absolute authority of one or more British-sanctioned ‘native authorities,’ ” balancing “the whole by playing one off against the others.”

Mr. Mamdani calls this British tactic of administratively reinforcing distinctions among colonial subjects “re-identify and rule” and says that it was copied by European powers across the continent, with deadly consequences — as in Rwanda, where Belgium’s intervention hardened distinctions between Hutu and Tutsi.

In Sudan the result was to create a durable sense of land rights rooted in tribal identity that favored the sedentary at the expense of the nomad, or, in the crude shorthand of today, African and Arab.

Other roots of the Darfur crisis lie in catastrophic desertification in the Sahel region, where the cold war left the area awash in cheap weapons at the very moment that pastoralists could no longer survive in their traditional homelands, obliging many to push southward into areas controlled by sedentary farmers.

He also blames regional strife, the violent legacy of proxy warfare by France, Libya and the United States and, most recently, the global extension of the war on terror.

This important book reveals much on all of these themes, yet still may be judged by some as not saying enough about recent violence in Darfur.

Mr. Mamdani’s constant refrain is that the virtuous indignation he thinks he detects in those who shout loudest about Darfur is no substitute for greater understanding, without which outsiders have little hope of achieving real good in Africa’s shattered lands.

Source: New York Times

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