Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Darfur, Politics and The War on Terror by Mahmood Mamdani

On July 14, 2008, after much advance publicity and fanfare, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) applied for a warrant for the arrest of the president of Sudan, Omar Hasan Ahmad al-Bashir, on charges that included conspiracy to commit genocide along with other war crimes. The application charges al-Bashir with (a) racially polarizing Darfur into "Arab" and "Zurga" or "Black", (b) turning the 2003-5 counterinsurgency into a pretext to expel "Zurga" ethnic groups from their dars (homelands), and (c) subjecting survivors to "slow death" from malnutrition, rape and torture in their IDP (internally displaced persons) camps.

None of these allegations can bear historical scrutiny...

In the prosecutors mono-causal and one-dimensional version of history, colonialism turns into a benign "tradition" and any attempt to reform the colonial legacy of tribal homelands is seen as a dress rehearsal building up to genocide, just as any part of the historical record that suggests that the violence in Darfur has multiple causes (the 1987-89 inter-tribal civil war, the environmental crisis, the Chadian civil war, and the "war crimes" attributed to rebel groups by the UN Commission on Darfur) and thus multiple responsibilities, is expunged from the record. Having assumed a single cause of excess deaths in Darfur- violence- the application goes on to ascribe responsibility to a single source: "what happened in Darfur is a consequence of Bashir's will." This is demonization masquerading as justice.

The kernel of truth in the prosecutor's application concerns the period of 2003-4, when Darfur was the site of mass deaths. There is no doubt that the perpetrators of this violence should be held accountable, but when and how is a political decision that cannot belong to the ICC prosecutor. More than the innocence or guilt of the president of Sudan, it is the relationship between law and politics- including the politicalization of the ICC- that poses a wider issue, one of greatest concern to African governments and peoples...

The year 2003 saw the unfolding of two very different armed conflicts. One was in Iraq, and it grew out of war and invasion. The other was in Darfur, Sudan, and it grew in response to an internal insurgency. The former involved a liberation war against a foreign occupation, the latter a civil war in an independent state. True, if you were an Iraqi or a Dafuri, there was little difference between the brutality of the violence unleashed in either instance. Yet much energy has been invested in the question of how to define the brutality in each case: whether as counterinsurgency or as genocide.

Here we see the astonishing spectacle of the United States, which has authored the violence in Iraq, branding an adversary state, Sudan, which has authored the violence in Darfur, as the perpetrator of genocide. Even more astonishing, we have a citizens' movement in America calling for a humanitarian intervention in Darfur while keeping mum about the violence in Iraq. And yet, as we have already seen, the figures for the total numbers of excess deaths are far higher for Iraq than for Darfur. The numbers of violent deaths as a proportion of excess mortality are also higher in Iraq than in Darfur.

1 comment:

  1. The modern history of Sudan began with the establishment of the Kingdom of Funj at Sinnar (1504) and the Sultanate of Darfur at El Fashir (1650). These sacral kinships initiated a gradual process of de-tribalization whose apogee was uprising against British and Turco-Egyptian colonial forces - the Mahdiyya- which captured the central city of Khartoum in 1885, killing the British governor General Charles G. Gordon.

    The Mahdiyya was argueably the most impressive of the late 19th and early 20th century anti-imperialist movements for it united disparate peoples on a scale far wider than any movement the empire had previously encountered in the region. The fall of Khartoum and the death of Gordon sent shock waves across England, Europe, Turkey, and the other centers of power in the 19th century world. A British government publication 'The Daily News': "seldom in the memory of living man has news been recieved of such a disaster in England".

    By 1896 Britain had reconquered Sudan: General Kitchner dug up the body of the dead Mahdi, threw his body into the Nile and thereafter used his skull for an inkwell.

    Geographically the Sudan is the size of western Europe though it largely remains the size of a postage stamp in the minds of most Americans. Their knowledge of its society and history proceeds along an equivalent line. It would be useless to try to describe the consequences of the British conquest of Sudan- in its own terms-to reproduce Mamdani's narrative even in summary form - in this blog.

    Imagine then, if you will, that immediately after the American Civil war and the death of Lincoln, Britain had invaded America and re-established its colonial possession of North America, primarily for the purpose of developing the cotton producing regions of the deep south.

    It would put all its resources into doing just that- establishing important transporation and educational infrastructure in the south- while neglecting the development of other regions of the country. They might have continued with the abolition of slavery but encouraged a retrograde sort of feudal tenancy led by a planter elite whose offspring and allies would play important collaborative roles in the governance of other States and territories.

    Native Americans would be armed and encouraged to defend their existing territories against encroachments of other natives and white settlers. Royalists among the Americans would recieve privileged access to public office, property, education and the courts. Immigrants would be carefully sceened for loyalty and encouraged to settle in established ethno-religious- national enclaves.

    Territories would be governed autocratically by appointees from the Central government. In places like California outside groups like the Spanish or Chinese would be used to counter any attempt towards political unity and self-government. Industrial production would be discouraged, of course. A complex and arbitrary system- based on political expediancy of the moment- would be established to balance the interests of nomadic herders and settled agriculturalists.

    It is easy to imagine that after 80 or 100 years the burden of managing such an empire and the growing resentment of its subjects woud force the British to reliquish control and allow the Americans to begin governing themselves as a single national entity.

    But imagine as well that just at that point, when faced with the difficult job of uniting the country in the common interest- "with liberty and justice for all" a terrible and persistant drought arose, decimating the productive capacities of large portions of the settled agricultural and pastoral land upon wih Americans depended for their very lives and giving rise to widespread famine and internal migrations.

    There you have an analogy which may help bring to life the problems that have been afflicting the people of Sudan since they obtained nominal independence in 1953.