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Measuring the Drowned and the Saved in Sudan

A Review of Mahmood Mamdani’s Saviors and Survivors : Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror

By Michael Deibert *

Submitted to AlterPresse on June 10, 2009

The conflict in the Darfur region of western Sudan, along with the ongoing conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia, represents one of the most vexing challenges on the African continent confronting the international community today.

A dispute which the United Nations estimates has killed at over 200,000 people and displaced at least 2 million since 2003 [1], the conflict in Darfur has seen Sudanese military and government-aligned militia forces (the latter collectively know as janjaweed) squaring off against an array of rebel groups who in recent years have splintered into an ever-shifting tapestry of alliances.

Mahmood Mamdani, a professor of government and anthropology at New York’s Columbia University, is the latest in the line of academics to try and make sense of Sudan’s tangled history with Saviors and Survivors : Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror (Pantheon Books), a book whose bile unfortunately overwhelms its reason.

Mamdami theorizes that the international movement calling for international intervention to halt the violence in Darfur is essentially a deliberate extension of the Bush-era “War on Terror” doctrine of preemptive military action, a doctrine which led to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. While this a thesis certainly worth exploring, the chief problem with Mamdani’s book is that the author reveals a vision so stilted and distorted by the Iraq debacle that he seems to only be able to view all of world history - including that of Sudan - through its lens.

When Mamdani unfavorably compares the mobilization against the Iraq war as tepid in comparison to the mobilization against the Sudanese government’s actions in Darfur, one wonders if he is unaware of the massive demonstrations that took place in early 2003 demanding that no military action be launched in Iraq. A demonstration that took place in New York in February of that year numbered around 100,000 protesters, numbers that those seeking to halt the violence in Darfur could never dream of approaching in sheer scale.

But advocacy itself is a problem, Mamdani argues, pouring particular scorn on the Save Darfur Coalition, a U.S. based grouping of nearly 200 religious, political, and human rights organizations of varying political stripes.

Sneeringly dismissing the group as a collection of “the Christian Right and Secular Zionist groups,” “the humanitarian intervention lobby” and “African American and Christian groups,” Mamdani assails, without apparent irony, the tendency of Save Darfur to “rely on the evidence of their eyes and avoid any discussion of context.”

Mamdani recounts Save Darfur’s organizational structure - boringly normal to anyone familiar with the workings of non-governmental organizations - as if revealing a smoking-gun about the illuminati at the Darfur debate’s core. Though grudgingly granting that the movement “initially had the salutary effect of directing world attention” to the horrendous violence in Darfur. it now “must now bear some of the blame for delaying reconciliation,” a seeming wild overstatement of the group’s lobbying power.

Leaving aside the fact the Save Darfur is part of a global, not national, solidarity movement with the victims of Darfur’s violence (a movement which includes organizations such as Urgence Darfour in France), some of Mamdani’s more damming claims would appear not to stand up upon further inspection. His assessment that Save Darfur’s minutely-detailed maps of the tide of ethnic cleansing in the region are “a full blown pornography of violence...almost none of it telling you when it happened,” is simply false. Satellite evidence on the group’s website is marked with both the month and the year of attacks and the destruction of buildings therein [2]

Perhaps the book’s most troubling aspect, one that is of a piece with some of Mamdani’s more outlandish claims about the Save Darfur coalition, is a worrisome pattern of simplification and omission when digging into the actual mechanics of how the Darfur counter-insurgency was conceived and conducted.

The murderous handiwork of janjaweed leader Musa Hilal is relegated to two sentences in the book’s 398 pages. By contrast, in their 2005 assessment Darfur : A Short History of a Long War, veteran Sudan observers Julie Flint and Alex de Waal wrote of Hilal that “Arab supremacy has converged with criminal impunity, and the result has been cataclysm.” As much as any one individual, Musa Hilal has helped bring Darfur to its current wretched state, but you wouldn’t know it from reading Mamdani’s book.

Sudan’s president, Omar al-Bashir, who seized power in a 1989 coup launched with the support of the National Islamic Front of al-Bashir’s then-ally Hassan al-Turabi, is likewise strangely absent from Mamdani’s analysis, except for Mamdani’s claim that none of the charges laid against al-Bashir by the International Criminal Court (ICC) “can bear historical scrutiny.”

The ICC charges, which call for al-Bashir’s arrest on five counts of crimes against humanity and two counts of war crimes [3]
are, despite Mamdani’s claims, not a departure from the ICC’s usual mandate, but rather quite similar in their language to charges laid out against Germain Katanga and Mathieu Ngudjolo, two of the militia leaders in the Ituri conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the early part of this decade [4]. Despite this, Mamdani declares that the Sudanese president’s guilt or innocence is less important to Africa than “the relationship between law and politics,” as if the continent is a suitable canvas over which academics to theorize, but not where lawyers and judges can enforce the rule of law

Chronicling the splintering within the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) rebel movements in 2005 - which made the situation even more perilous for Darfur’s long-suffering civilians - Mamdani focuses heavily of the freelance banditry of various rebel factions, with far less attention is paid to the activity of government-aligned militias. Such outrages as the slaughter of over 100 civilians by Sudanese government forces in Darfur in February 2008 [5] go unrecorded, with Mamdani stating flatly at one point that the “Janjawid was not an ideological forces nor the fighting arm of an ideologically driven movement.”

This is simply untrue. Documents obtained from the Sudanese government in 2004 by Human Rights Watch - an organization whose work in Sudan Mamdani almost entirely ignores - demonstrate conclusively to any reasonable obersevor the involvement of the Sudanese state in the recruiting and arming of janjaweed to carry out violence on an ethnic basis [6]
. Mamdani’s silence on this score is inexplicable.

As the book progresses, Mamdani’s hyper-focus on actual imperialist history and presumed imperialist intent leads to a schizophrenia in the book that never fully resolves itself.

Often strongly and accurately critical of the actions of the United States in Africa, Mamdani nevertheless quotes, as his base source for the numbers of dead in the conflict, the Government Accountability Office, an arm of the U.S. congress. Mamdani’s seeming relegation of those who did not die directly from violence from his tally of the dead in Darfur, as if war-related starvation and disease leave the human body any less dead than a bullet, is one of the book’s more distasteful arguments.

Similarly, though, according to Mamdani, the United Nations is to be distrusted as a useful tool of neocolonialist designs, reports from UN organizations such as the United Nations Environment Programme are frequently referred to by the author for the apparently lucid analysis which they bring. Mamdani’s colonialism-under-every-rock approach is such that at one point he claims that brutal counterinsurgency methods originated with “colonial era settler wars against Amerindians,” which must come as news to anyone who has ever read Tacitus’ 2,000-year old account of the Roman conquest of Britain, or Thucydides’ even older History of the Peloponnesian War.

Mamdani also has an unfortunate tendency to make sweeping statements which he is unable to back up with evidence in his text. While he writes that the January 2005 report of the International Commission of Inquiry on Darfur to the United Nations found the government of Sudan not guilty of pursuing a policy of genocide, the actual wording of the report is a bit more muddled, reading in part as follows [7] :

The crucial element of genocidal intent appears to be missing, at least as far as the central Government authorities are concerned...the Commission does recognize that in some instances individuals, including Government officials, may commit acts with genocidal intent.

Stating as unchallenged fact that one of the main rebel groups, the JEM, was “developed” by Hassan al-Turabi (a charge that both al-Turabi and the JEM have denied) is an assertion that Mamdani never proves, despite repeating it several times throughout the book. The same goes for Mamdani’s contention that former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell made his famous September 2004 declaration that genocide was taking place in Darfur “under pressure.”

Mamdani’s tone when writing about the Sudanese themselves can often be jarring in its arrogance. Non-combatant Sudanese who call for an international military mission in Darfur are guilty of a “meager knowledge of developments” in their own country, while those issuing the same calls from within Darfur itself suffer from “naiveté.”

Despite the book’s flaws, through its middle half, Mamdani is relatively sober, and surveys the dramatic litany of coups, counter-coups and violent political skirmishes following Sudan’s 1956 independence from Britain in thorough if rather wooden fashion. Accurately pointing the finger at the governments of Ronald Reagan and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi for their roles in stoking regional conflicts throughout the 1980s, Mamdani neglects to explore in any depth the latter’s history of regional destabilization through support for brutal rebel armies such as Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia and Sierra Leone’s Revolutionary United Front.

Towards the end of Saviors and Survivors, Mamdani charges that “the Save Darfur lobby in the United States has turned the tragedy of the people of Darfur into a knife with which to slice Africa.” Going several steps further from this vituperative attack, he charges that the push to hold the authors of Darfur’s agony accountable for their actions is in fact “really a slogan that masks a big power agenda to recolonize Africa.”

Such strident statements do precious little to illuminate the actual dynamic - the context, as Mr. Mamdani would say - of the suffering of the disenfranchised, left at such loose ends and defenseless in the villages and refugee camps of Darfur and eastern Chad.

Despite its dismissive attitude towards the actual victims of violence in Sudan and their concerns, upon finishing Saviors and Survivors it is their voices - voice one searches for in vain in the book itself - that the reader most wishes to at long last hear.


* Michael Deibert is a Senior Fellow at New York’s World Policy Institute who reports frequently on Africa. He is the author of Note from the Last Testament : The Struggle for Haiti (Seven Stories Press).


[1United Nations and Darfur Fact Sheet, published by the Peace and Security Section of the United Nations Department of Public Information, August 2007.

[2Eyes on Darfur, Amnesty International project funded by the Save Darfur Coalition.

[33. Case The Prosecutor v. Omar Hassan Ahmad Al Bashir, International Criminal Court. and cases/situations/situation icc 0205/related cases/icc02050109/icc02050109.

[4Case The Prosecutor v. Germain Katanga and Mathieu Ngudjolo Chui, International Criminal Court. and cases/situations/situation icc 200104/related cases/icc 200104 200107/democratic republic of the congo.

[5“They Shot at Us as We Fled : Government Attacks on Civilians in West Darfur,” Human Rights Watch, May 2008.

[6"Darfur Documents Confirm Government Policy of Militia Support," Human Rights Watch, 20 July 2004.

[7Report of the International Commission of Inquiry on Darfur to the United Nations Secretary-General 25 January 2005.