Mamdani and the Uses of Darfur

by Jun 30, 2009All Articles

posted by G. Pascal Zachary
I can’t comment on Mahmood Mamdani without first confessing to my bias. I’m a fan. His Citizen and Subject is a signal book in African studies. He understands the collision of past and present in Africa as well as anyone. He also has a flair for turning a great phrase, a capacity which I as a professional writer can perhaps appreciate more fully than most. His term “decentralized despotism” is the best brief summation for colonialism in Africa, far more revealing of both the brutality and the chaos of it than the antiseptic label of “indirect rule.” Mamdani also confront squarely the contradictions of contemporary Africa, avoiding the two common polarities among commentators on Africa: to see doom everywhere or deliverance just around the bend. His intellectual bravery permits him to formulate such as telling axioms as, “The tendency of African governments has been to play reform in one sphere against repression in the other” (Citizen, 300). Where many others perceive simplicity, he finds complexity. And since in my view, the biggest problem in African studies is lack of intellectual depth – and the impulse, especially by visiting economists and some activists to present a cartoon version of the sub-continent, subordinated to their missions (“end poverty”) or tactics “stop X” – Mamdani’s self-conscious intellectualism is both welcome and necessary.

I’ve never met Mahmood Mamdani (and not for lack of trying either). Earlier this month, I listened to him speak in Berkeley, California, on Friday April 10, not far from where I live. I honestly I had no notion of the topic of his address, so when he began speaking about Darfur, which I later realized is the subject of his latest book, I was pleased. I’ve never been to Darfur, so my information is second-hand. I have been a skeptic of what we might Darfur-mania in the media and in policy circles but I’ve only produced one sustained piece of writing on the subject, a review essay in 2006 published in Salon, “A Problem from Hell: does applying the generic label of ‘genocide’ to violence in Darfur make it even harder to stop the killing?”

In this essay, which reviewed two important books on Darfur, by de Waal and Flint and by Gerard Prunier, I insisted that what we might call “stories” about Darfur have much traction with media because they advance the interests of different factions in the West. The stickiest of those stories is of course the “genocide” one, which in my Salon essay I also questioned, drawing on Prunier’s own arguments from his Darfur: The Ambiguous Genocide.

So given my preferences, Mamdani’s approach to Darfur immediately appealed to me. I especially enjoyed his relentless carping and complaining about Save Darfur, an American advocacy group that seems to treats bad things happening in Africa as a “product”” that can be “marketed” in exchange for a certain kind of currency – part moral, part political and part pure entertainment. I smiled when Mamdani criticized Save Darfur as mobilizing “child soldiers,” by which he meant naive American students, in a campaign that diminishes Africans as part of an argument to “save” them. I wholly agree with Mamdani that Westerners should neither use Africa as a means for bolstering our own compromised morality nor should we presume that the good intentions of “humanitarian interventionists” render beyond criticism, at least outside of their own cloistered sanctuaries.

So as I listened to Mamdani earlier this month, I found myself agreeing with him on the big issues. And yet I gradually became impatient with him. Perhaps because I so quickly grasped his main points about Darfur – these were, after all, not particular new points, given my own writing and most obviously Prunier’s important work – that I found myself wondering whether Mamdani had anything new to tell us about Darfur. He mentioned a visit he’s made to the area, though he seemed short on atmospherics; he also seemed not particularly current. The state of Darfur is after all a moving target. Moreover, with a new U.S. president, there’s a clear feeling of anticipation: when will Obama move on Darfur? What will he do? Unfortunately, Mamdani never said anything in his lecture about how Obama might approach Darfur, or what the president should do. This omission is regrettable, since Obama, more than any other American, will drive the new stories told about Darfur in the months and years ahead.

Finally, after about an hour and a half of listening to Mamdani, and well into the audience question period, I came to accept that no one was prepared to challenge Mamdani on what struck me as the two weakest conceptual arguments. Let me recount these before closing.

The first problem for Mamdani is his presentation of Save Darfur as a kind of activist bogey-man. Rather sounding like a Rush-Limbaugh impersonator, Mamdani grants all manner of power and influence to Save Darfur. Perhaps I am uninformed, but I have the completely opposite impression of this group. They indeed make a lot of noise around Darfur, but none of their central propositions were embraced by the Bush administration. If anything, Mamdani exaggerates the power of Save Darfur. From a greater distance, the group seems like a harmless assembly of moralizers. They may busily congratulate themselves for the strenuous exercise of conscience, and they may raise some funds through the dubious use of suffering Africans as props in their own dramas, but the “brains” beyond Save Darfur are doing nothing more objectionable than what hundreds, even thousands, of American civic activists do every day.

Mamdani’s second important claim is more worrisome to me. In Berkeley he tried very hard to make his audience believe that “the media” was responsible for many myths and misunderstandings about Darfur. Mamdani complains about media representations of Darfur, while at the same time saying virtually nothing about representations by the United Nations about Darfur. Indeed, many of Mamdani’s complaints about the media – that it repeats erroneous figures on Darfur deaths, for instance – should actually be directed at the U.N., whose agencies and staff are the source of very many of the “stories” about Darfur that Mamdani rejects.

In the end, I came away feeling that like almost everyone else who speaks on Darfur, Mamdani too has another agenda. Like all those he complains about who use Darfur to score points on matters of greater importance to them – repressive Islamic regimes, Christian tolerance, the value of military intervention, etc – Mamdani too subordinates Darfur to a broader set of stories he wants to tell about dysfunctional American power in the world, about misunderstood Muslims, about an Africa violated by Westerners from every point of the political spectrum. Mamdani may be right about all of these larger stories, but just he is wrong to exploit Darfur – as wrong as those he finds guilty of doing the same.

G. Pascal Zachary is author of four books, including “Married to Africa,” a memoir, published in January. More of his writings on Africa can be found at

Responses to “Mamdani and the Uses of Darfur”

April 18th, 2009 at 3:07 pm
hmm..Interestingly, his bias seems similar if more mild to Alex Harmon Snow’s:

Ana Majnun:

April 19th, 2009 at 12:41 pm
“The tendency of African governments has been to play reform in one sphere against repression in the other” is not an axiom, it is just a sentence, and a pretty bad one at that. Notice the hedging “tendency” (so can never be falsified) and the meaningless “play” (what exactly does it mean?) and then the un-evocative “sphere”… (oh, I forgot, social systems always come in circles, and in twos).
But I agree with your analysis of Mamdani’s talk and book. And you are so very right about his being unable to reconcile the rather small role of Save Darfur with the centrality to his message- especially since the critique he makes had already been very alive in the blogosphere and this (Alex’s) blog in particular.


April 19th, 2009 at 3:48 pm
I’m not wading into this, because I haven’t yet read the book, except to point out that it was in fact Mamdani’s earlier London Review of Books essay, “The Politics of Naming,” which did a lot two years ago to kick start precisely the conversation now “very alive in the blogosphere.”

Vagn Sparre-Ulrich:

April 20th, 2009 at 4:03 pm
To Jenny…

I read this thing of Alex Harmon Snow you referred to! It was interesting and refreshing to read such a biased piece, which often does not refer to the sources the conclusions are based on. But on the other hand, some of the conclusions have a core of truth. For example, the cargo ship hijacked by Somali pirates (that is what they are) which according to some sources was loaded with military hardware including tanks for the South Sudanese government (probably in order to strenghen its military capacity versus the army of Omar El Beshir’s Northerners). How come it was owned by an Israeli and the whole story behind it is very interesting and points (to my best knowledge) towards the grey zone where intelligence services wishing to cover their moves are operating. It could very well be one example of CIA clandestine operation supporting the Southerners against the North and Omar El Beshir’s government paid by the Americans. One example, maybe, of an American hidden hand playing in the quagmire of Sudanese entangled politics.

Eamon Kircher-Allen:

April 23rd, 2009 at 12:48 am
This is one of the most thoughtful criticisms of Mamdani’s work that I have read. I like the point about the “media” — an inexact term that glosses over the range of effort and thinking that goes into a lot of reporting. You’re right: there’s no reason not to be more specific. (We can try to be, though; here’s an essay I wrote about NY Times reporting on Darfur; Mamdani’s thinking definitely influenced it:

I think it’s a stretch, however, to say that Mamdani is exploiting Darfur. I imagine his intellectual enthusiasm for the subject stems from the fact that American activism around Darfur illustrates an intersection of different political forces that are particular to the era of the GWOT. Has he skewed major facts in the service of this enthusiasm? My impression is no.

Also, you may be right that Darfur advocates are “doing nothing more objectionable than what hundreds, even thousands, of American civic activists do every day”. Still, the movement is different from other lobbies I can think of, in that the majority of people backing it have no direct stake in what happens in Sudan. (Maybe Free Tibet is comparable.) In most cases, foreign policy advocates have some sort of connection to the countries they talk about. I think that difference is very interesting and merits the kind of energy that Mamdani and everyone on this blog are devoting to it.

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