“Darfur Debate Ends With More Questions Than Answers”

by Jun 30, 2009All Articles

posted by Semhar Araia
In no less than 24 hours since the much anticipated Mamdani-Prendergast debate on Darfur at Columbia University on April 14, bloggers have run amok with all kinds of biased summaries of the event. Reading the Twitter and blog posts, it really sounded like there wasn’t any substantive discourse on the issues and that Darfur activists really were “under fire“.

But my non-Columbia affiliated perspective took away much more from the debate than what’s been posted so far and I think it’s time for a more thorough overview and analysis of the evening.

First, let’s be clear. The purpose of the debate was simple and outlined by the moderator, Columbia University Law School professor, Peter Rosenblum. It was to discuss the problem in Darfur and to identify ways forward for Sudan .

These questions were intended to reveal just how in-depth and thought provoking the debate was supposed to, despite the flashy questions on the event flyer regarding the definition of genocide and the role of activist organizations.

The debate was also organized to let the public listen to a healthy and vigorous exchange from two of the most vocal and notable Africanists on Sudan, Columbia University Professor Mahmood Mamdani and John Prendergast, Co-Chair of the Enough Project.

One, an academic. The other, a practitioner. Now, I know and have worked with Prendergast and I follow Mamdani’s arguments regularly. So for Sudan junkies like myself, it was just too good to be true.

I sat nervously waiting for the verbal bloodshed and onslaught that was about to happen. But it never did. Gone were the inflammatory remarks, finger pointing, and short tempers. (Maybe not completely, but you get the idea.)

Instead of a huge collision, we watched a race that was slow to start and ended on two completely different roads. Not surprisingly, both panelists walked away thinking they won the debate!

Question 1 – What is the Problem in Sudan?
Prendergast: Prendergast answered with a narrative of a displaced Darfuri woman fearing for her life since the Government of Sudan expelled the humanitarian aid groups last month. He raised Sudan’s colonial history, its nation building challenges, the North-South’s war and its fragile peace and finally, Darfur and the Government of Sudan’s use of militia and brutal violence to quash the rebels. It was not a history lesson, nor did it claim to be. It was a review of the real challenges Sudan and its people are facing today and have faced for the last fifty years.

Mamdani: Mamdani explained where his fascination with the Darfur advocacy movement stemmed from and why he focused on mortality rates released by groups like Save Darfur and the World Health Organization. He provided a historical overview of the origins of the civil war in Darfur, his concerns with Save Darfur and its messaging, the ICC arrest warrant for Sudanese President Bashir, and emphasized the de-escalation of mortality rates in Darfur since 2005.

Question 2 – What Is the Way Forward for Sudan?
Prendergast: Prendergast presented five opportunities for peace in Sudan and emphasized that Africa remains a place full of hope and strength, with solutions for its own future. He proposed possible political, humanitarian, economic and military measures that could be undertaken by the Sudanese and the greater international community. He also examined the role of the Government of Sudan, the rebels, Sudanese civil society, permanent members of the UN Security Council, and global activists in the United States and abroad.

Mamdani: Mamdani stressed that justice should not be the driving motivation for the international community and Darfuris should use their own voices for justice. He argued that regional organizations and Sudan ’s neighbors should help solve the problem in Darfur, not the international community. He said the public was being misled on the crisis in Darfur and blamed media for the sensationalized stories we hear today. Mamdani also dismissed the notion that China and Russia had a critical role to play in helping achieve peace in Sudan .

Instead of providing new solutions for Darfur, Mamdani diverted the discussion from examining the actual problems in Sudan to the external problems affecting Sudan . How unfortunate during this critical time, he chose to focus his energy on messaging, statistical analysis and semantics, when 2009 has wracked the people of Sudan with the harshest realities on the ground imaginable.

Question & Answer Session
Darfuris, other Africans, and even some brave Columbia students, used the Q & A session to challenge Mamdani on the fallacy of his arguments, his factual errors, and seemingly apologist rhetoric on behalf of Khartoum.

For over an hour, audience members directed heated questions and comments to him, holding back their anger and confusion over his repeated dismissal over what so many Darfurians have been saying for years.

Ultimately, Prendergast’s proposals seemed to fall on the deaf ears of Mamdani and a majority of the audience. Clearly many came with their minds made up and chose to focus on Save Darfur and all its activist baggage – not on Darfur and its crisis.

So sadly, just as it began, the debate ended as if on two separate roads and the original purpose was again drowned out by the flashier, sexier side of who’s really to blame for Africa’s problems.

Semhar Araia is a consultant living in Washington, DC.

Response to “Darfur Debate Ends With More Questions Than Answers”

April 19th, 2009 at 2:34 pm
Since this post links my Huffington Post article, I thought it merits a response: http://longgonedaddy.wordpress.com/2009/04/17/this-is-not-how-the-prendergastmamdani-debate-went-down/.

It is not a very good description of the debate. It sounds like what Prendergast would’ve written had he been allowed to write a press release rather than actually debate Mamdani.

I agonized over the Huffington Post piece — I didn’t want to paint an overly critical picture of Prendergast’s performance just because I admire Mamdani’s critical thinking. And I don’t think I did a bad job — unlike other bloggers out there, I made no mention of Prendergast’s clothing, hairstyle or any other comments irrelevant to the debate. On the other hand, I also did not dwell on the people in the question-and-answer session who attacked Mamdani for a couple of reasons: (1) they seemed to be speaking with an agenda — not necessarily a bad thing, but their comments did not respond to what Mamdani had actually said and (2) in at least a couple of cases the questions were ugly personal attacks against Mamdani that he did not deserve. Speakers accused him of being a liar, a bad Muslim and basically complicit in the killings in Darfur. Whatever else you may say about him, Mamdani certainly does not deserve that kind of slander. I do not think it would have been valuable to repeat those things in my Huffington Post piece.

I have no doubt that those speakers who attacked Mamdani were speaking from a place of real emotional pain. However, because their comments did not correspond to what Mamdani actually said — he did not, for example, deny the suffering in Darfur, he just questioned Prendergast’s account of the scale of killing — it seemed to me that what they were really reacting to was seeing Save Darfur coming under attack. And I can understand that, because I’m sure as a refugee from Darfur it would feel as if the Save Darfur Coalition is your link to justice and an org that has done a lot for your cause, and it would feel terrible to see it come under attack.

The thing is, there are certainly interesting arguments to be made against Mamdani’s position. It’s just that Prendergast didn’t make them. One is that, whether or not Save Darfur has oversimplified (and in some cases gotten wrong) their description of the Darfur conflict, they have played a hugely important role in even putting Darfur on the map at all. Were it not for the movement — whatever its motivations — I seriously doubt people would be having these high-profile discussions right now.

Prendergast could have said this in the debate. He didn’t. When the YouTube version of the debate is posted, it will speak for itself.

What would be interesting would be to see activists, who especially at the grassroots level are full of a lot of positive good will and good intentions, listen to some of the academic criticisms of Save Darfur and maybe take them into account in their activities. There was a sign of that in the debate’s Q-and-A, when a woman, who I believe was affiliated with Save Darfur, thanked Mamdani for his perspective and asked what he thought the effect of the ICC case would be on the prospects for peace.

Grassroots organizers are not image-obsessed robo-activists, and I hope debates like this will provoke a lot of thought in the community.

Share this article:


Latest issue

Amandla 92