The international community is presently engaged in a high-stakes game of poker with the government of Sudan. At stake is the legitimacy of the International Criminal Court, the permanent sitting tribunal whose purpose is to punish those that commit the worst crimes against humanity. Also hanging in the balance are the lives of 2.5 million Darfurian refugees who have been driven from their homes by a scorched earth counter-insurgency campaign launched by the Sudanese government in response to rebel attacks in the region in 2003.Both sides in this international stand-off have already demonstrated a willingness to sacrifice those lives for the sake of the principles they support. The Sudanese government has thrown out 13 international aid groups who provide the food and medicine necessary to sustain those refugees, under the pretext that they gathered evidence for the ICC against Sudan’s president, Omar al Bashir. The ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo went ahead with the indictment in full knowledge that this was the likely consequence. He claims to be acting in the interest of justice alone, without reference to the political or humanitarian situation – and no one disputes that by arming and abetting mounted Arab proxies (later dubbed “devils on horseback” in the press) to put down a rebellion with indiscriminate violence against civilians, al Bashir violated the spirit and letter of international law (as have many rulers before him). We have a struggle for primacy between the two principles – national sovereignty and international law – that seems likely to define global politics for the rest of this century.
Providing an accurate account of these principles, and the intricate politics in which they are embedded, involves wading through self-serving and overwrought claims from both sides while weighing two genuine and incommensurable claims to legitimacy. In his new book, Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics and the War on Terror, the distinguished Africa scholar Mahmood Mamdani does his readers the considerable service of laying waste to many of the dangerous and self-serving illusions of one side of this argument. But he erects a mirror edifice of illusions in its place; getting the story straight requires disentangling the true from the misleading in Mamdani’s account.On one side, there are the claims of universal justice that the ICC purports to represent. The ICC is the institutional face of a growing movement seeking to make real the promise of “Never Again” inscribed into the Convention on Genocide of 1948. The ICC indictment of al Bashir was the first against a sitting head of state, and it was hailed in editorial pages across America as a great progressive advance for global justice. Even those who worried about the consequences of the indictment still placed hope in its deterrent value. The goal was to worry the minds of subsequent heads of state tempted to use mass rape and murder as a counter-insurgency tactic.
Taken on its own terms, in narrow isolation, this is a worthy and unassailable mission. But nothing exists in narrow isolation, least of all moral purity and universal justice. Such claims exist in a real world of actual politics amid complicated histories, which many Darfur activists have made it their business to elide – portraying the conflict in Darfur as what Mamdani dubs “a morality tale unfolding in a world populated by villains and victims who never trade places and so can always and easily be told apart”.On the other side are the rights of sovereign governments to govern themselves without outside interference, which the Sudanese government and the Arab nations that have rallied to its side purport to defend. Sovereignty has been, since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, the currency of the international system, and, as Mamdani reminds us, a privilege hard-won by postcolonial states only recently.
In the wake of the American misadventure in Iraq, the weird confluence of moralistic rhetoric and bellicose policy that characterised Bush’s foreign policy, the complicity of so many ostensibly liberal hawks caught up in the Iraq War fervour, and a history of one-sided enforcement of humanitarian rules, it should surprise no one that the leaders and intellectuals of formerly colonised states are wary of the claims to universal justice emanating from what Mamdani dubs the “new humanitarian order”. At this week’s Arab Summit in Doha, Arab leaders, many of them signatories to the ICC, (which the United States has refused to sign) lined up in unanimous support of al Bashir.
The human rights lobby views this emphasis on sovereignty as the first and last resort of butchers who employ anti-colonialist rhetoric to defend their crimes. Weary of the grubby compromises of diplomats and corporations willing to do business with tyrants and criminals, one faction of the human rights community calls for armed western intervention to defend helpless victims of state violence everywhere. The Save Darfur movement, an aggressive and media-savvy coalition “whose scale recalls the anti-war movement of the late 1960s and 1970s”, rose up with the intention to turn Darfur into a test case for western action to halt what it called a genocide in progress.
Mamdani devotes the first section of his book to assailing the credibility of Save Darfur. He accuses them of inflating the scale of the killing, obfuscating the reality of a “civil war” and “cycle of insurgency and counter-insurgency” that it called genocide, bombarding viewers and readers with “a pornography of violence” that removed the conflict from its political context, sustaining an impression of ongoing genocide long after the claim was plausible, portraying the conflict in racialised terms as a genocide conducted by Arabs against Africans and ceaselessly advocating for hard-line policies more likely to harm than to the help the victims they intended to save. On each of these counts, Mamdani assembles a more or less devastating case. Save Darfur publicised a figure for the number of deaths – 400,000 – that was twice as high as reliable estimates (Mamdani cites a study commissioned by the US Government Accountablity Office to this effect) and escalated its rhetoric at precisely the moment – January 2005 – when the scale of killing fell dramatically. Save Darfur have continued to clamour for aggressive action despite a humanitarian crisis that was largely stabilised due to the cooperation of the Sudanese government with aid agencies that had reduced the mortality rate to between 100 and 200 month in Darfur – “below emergency levels”, according to World Health Organisation.
Most important for Mamdani’s purpose, though, is the Save Darfur Coalition’s emphasis on the race of the perpetrators and victims: “The central claim is that perpetrators and victims in Darfur belong to two different racial groups, Arab and African and that the Arab perpetrator is evil.” Mamdani is not content to say, as he does, that Save Darfur are committed to policies that will do harm. He intends to demonstrate that they are part of a more insidious agenda written into the War on Terror. To strip Darfur of its politics serves a political project of its own, and Mamdani makes it his mission to reveal its workings – what he sees as the foundation of a post-Cold War order in which American clients and proxies act with impunity while rogue states are subject to violent discipline at the hands of the international community, with America at its head. It is a politics notable for denying that it is a politics at all and, as Mamdani narrates it, one that portends a bleak future for the inhabitants of the developing world.
In the long historical section that makes up the centre of the book, Mamdani traces the centuries-long intermingling of Arab and African identities in Darfur, and their reciprocal permeability. He also shows how these identities were politicised under the “indirect” rule practised by British colonial administrators that pursued a policy of “re-tribalisation” of the various groups that shared Darfur by assigning homelands to certain groups and denying them to others.
This backdrop allows Mamdani, in his third and final section, to return to the question with which the book opens. Since Americans are inclined to regard Africa, to the extent that they regard it at all, as a site of “meaningless anarchy – in which men, sometimes women, and increasingly, children, fight without aim or memory,” why has there been “a global publicity boom around the carnage in Darfur”?
The worst conflict since the Second World War, with a death toll of 3.9 million between 1998 and 2004, raged in the Democratic Republic of the Congo; the figure of “excess deaths” caused by the Iraq war likely outstrip the same numbers in Darfur. Yet only Darfur, a conflict in a remote and impoverished region without oil or other significant exportable resources has generated a lavishly funded advocacy organisation. For Mamdani, the answer is embedded in the definition of genocide itself. “Only when extreme violence targets for annihilation a civilian population that is marked off as different ‘on grounds of race, ethnicity, or religion’ is that violence termed genocide,” Mamdani observes:
“Given that colonialism shaped the very nature of modern ‘indirect rule’ and administrative power along ‘tribal’ (or ethnic) lines it is not surprising that both the exercise of power and responses to it tend to take ‘tribal’ forms in these newly independent states. From this point of view, there is little to distinguish mass violence unleashed against civilians in Congo, Northern Uganda, Mozambique, Angola, Darfur, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ivory Coast, and so on. Which one is named ‘genocide’ and which one is not? Most important, who decides?”
The new humanitarian order is, as Mamdani describes it, “a bifurcated system whereby state sovereignty obtains in large parts of the world but is suspended in more and more countries in Africa and the Middle East,” in which subjects exchange their political rights as citizens of sovereign states for the “human” rights possessed by “wards in an open-ended international rescue operation” in a humanitarian “system of trusteeship” administered by an international community that lacks either accountability or responsibility. The world he describes he looks a lot like the world as the Palestinians under the jurisdiction of UNRWA see it, and the vision Mamdani projects of an Africa delivered piecemeal to the good intentions of the international community is a stark one.
A problem with this claim, however, is that the record of American policy in Sudan challenges it. Indeed, proponents of humanitarian intervention in Darfur make a diametrically opposite charge against the American government – that it has subordinated its interest in the cause of human rights to its desire to maintain relations with Sudanese intelligence to aid the War on Terror. Mamdani’s argument also passes over the American response to Sudan’s much longer, more brutal and more complex civil war, a two-decade conflict pitting Christians and animists from the south of the country against the Arab Islamist cabal to the north that controlled the state and the military.It was here that al Bashir pioneered the technique of using proxy war conducted by mounted Arab warriors. And it was this conflict that first aroused activist concern among the evangelical Christian movement at the base of George W Bush’s electoral coalition.
Islamists in Sudan were waging a brutal war against the Christian coreligionists of the single most belligerent electoral constituency in American politics. If the goal of American policy was, as Mamdani alleges, to “slice Africa by demonising one group of Africans, African Arabs”, then surely the Sudanese Civil War was the perfect opportunity to carry out this agenda. But the Bush administration instead expended considerable diplomatic resources cajoling the North and the South to make peace in a negotiated settlement that Mamdani himself acknowledges as Bush’s only foreign policy accomplishment.While there were plenty of hardline advocates for the fantasy of regime change in Sudan, the United States remained effectively committed to the stability of the Bashir regime, as the only guarantor of the peace deal it had signed, through the end of the Bush Administration.And so, when Mamdani describes the “the responsibility to protect” as “a slogan that masks a big power agenda to recolonise Africa”, he is mistaking the fantasies of American activists for the policies of their government. He is also asserting the existence of a hidden nefarious agenda where none exists, and providing a false clarity that is the merely the obverse of the good-and-evil dichotomy of the War on Terror and the humanitarian order that he assails.
This overreaching damages the credibility of Mamdani’s powerful and incisive criticism of the international justice movement. So much of what Mamdani argues is true, and so much of it cuts against the grain of the usual coverage of Darfur in ways that are essential for the broader public to understand. And neither he, nor the rest of us, can afford to squander the opportunity to set the record straight