Mamdani Contra Mundum

by Jun 29, 2009All Articles

posted by Martin Daly

Someday – if this has not been done already – someone will add up the number of works on Darfur published since, say, 2003 and compare it with the number published in the thousand years before then. The result is unlikely to surprise Mahmood Mamdani, one of whose themes in Saviors and Survivors is the unwonted attention that has been paid to the continuing crisis in Darfur and the reasons for that attention. His explanation is persuasive, but it is vitiated by defects in his marshalling of evidence and the intemperance with which it proceeds.

Although the book is organized in three parts – “The Save Darfur Movement and the Global War on Terror” (pp. 19-71); “Darfur in Context” (75-227); and “Rethinking the Darfur Crisis” (231-300) – it may be said to have two main points of focus, the history of Darfur and the nature of the global reaction to the recent crisis. Over fifty pages of Notes (pp. 301-56) retail (often undigested) statistical and other factual information and some of the more tendentious political hobbyhorses of the main text. The Select Bibliography (357-73) is light on primary sources.

Mamdani’s targets, and indeed to some extent necessarily his target audience, are the partisans of the “Save Darfur” movement, an impulse clearly set out in his Introduction:

Save Darfur activists combine a contemptuous attitude toward knowing with an imperative to act. Trying hard not to be ‘good Germans’, they employ techniques of protest politics against their own [U.S.] government – and now the government of China – and turn a deaf ear to experts who they claim only complicate the story with so many details as to miss the main point…. Above all, they strip Darfur – and the violence in Darfur – of context. (pp. 6-7)

He goes on:

Calling the violence in Darfur genocide has had three consequences. First, it has postponed any discussion of context while imposing the view of one party…. Second, it has conferred impunity on these same partisans by casting them as resisters to genocide. Finally, the description of the violence as genocide … has served to further racialize the conflict and give legitimacy to those who seek to punish rather than to reconcile…. Rwanda was the site of genocide. Darfur is not. It is, rather, the site where the language of genocide has been turned into an instrument. (pp. 7-8)

From the outset, then, Mamdani comes down against the Save Darfur movement, those who label the events in Darfur as genocide, and at least implicitly (and often explicitly) the “resisters”. Before dealing with his characterization of those actors, it is useful to point out his own “attitude toward knowing”, for the book, at least in its treatment of the history of Darfur, is poorly written.

Mamdani’s unfamiliarity with the subject is betrayed in a number of neologisms, misnomers, and infelicitous renderings of Sudanese terms and historical usages. He refers to “Beja” and “Funj” as places rather than peoples, the “Ansar” as a sufi tariqa, states that jallaba get their name from their dress (jallabiyya), rather than the other way around, and he is innovative and inconsistent in transliteration from Arabic. He mis-names a British governor-general (p. 162) and a Sudanese dictator (p. 162 et passim), refers to the “Fellata” as a “tribe” (p. 238), and gets the name of the Graduates General Congress wrong (p. 161). Stating, “neither the Sultanate of Funj nor that of Dar Fur was a settler state” (p. 15) seems anachronistically to indicate a low opinion of readers. And what are we to make of the following, on p. 76?

When Turco-Egyptian forces captured the land to the south of Egypt in 1821, they officially named the country the Soudan, or ‘the land of the blacks’. The spelling changed from ‘the Soudan’ to ‘the Sudan’, and the article – the – was officially dropped in 1975 – in English, but remained very much alive in Arabic….

On a single jaw-dropping page (9) in the Introduction the author tells us that the Fur sultanate was a member of the League of Nations (a howler repeated at p. 152); that it was “incorporated into the Anglo-Egyptian colony of Sudan” in 1922; that there are tributaries of the Bahr al-Arab where there are not and is year-round water in wadis where there is not; and that desertification began in the 1960s or in the “late twentieth century” when, of course, it began much earlier.

Because of this unfamiliarity with the history of the Sudan, the sort of factual and technical errors previewed in the Introduction abound in the long historical heart of the book. Long quotations are inaccurately rendered (e.g. pp. 78-9, 83, 84, 313n11), usually with little effect; when checked against the original, “Bararians” (p. 137) were not Santandrean orphans but “Berberines”. Through either typographical error or misunderstanding we get such oddities as “Ja’alist” (p. 92), and “al-Zubayr Rahman (p. 136). Mamdani has the Mahdi meeting the future Khalifa Abdallahi “in Kordofan” (this took place at al-Masallamiya on the Blue Nile), after which “they migrated westward to the heartland of Darfur” (p. 138), a journey that did not take place. He makes Marchand a general (p. 142); knights Harold MacMichael at least twenty years too soon (pp. 143, 330n97), and has him joining the “Foreign Service” (p. 147); and credits the Milner Report (which dealt with Egypt and the Sudan) for issuing a “call for a general empirewide [sic] shift from direct to indirect rule” (p. 158).

In the use and rendering of sources we encounter similar problems. Cunnison’s Baggara Arabs is mis-titled (p. 302n10); Abd al-Ghaffar Muhammad Ahmad and Mansour Khalid are misnamed (p. 322n86, 338n12). Was The Daily News really “a British government publication” (p. 139)? Some citations of sources are problematic, e.g. “SAD E/5/11,5,6”, a reference to a document in the Sudan Archive of Durham University Library that must be wrong; lengthy documents in that archive are assigned one-page references (e.g. “The Problem of the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan”, “Indirect Rule for Pagan Communities”). There is confusion owing to typographical or other errors, for instance in the Bibliography’s list of “Interviews/Personal Communications”, where “Immanual de Solva” and “Emmanuel de Silva” (p. 359), both interviewed or communicated with on May 7, 2007, are presumably the same person; and how did an author born in 1947 communicate with Sir James Robertson on July 10, 1945 (p. 359)?

Whether because of a plethora of minor errors or from an excess of enthusiasm in pressing a controversial case, Mamdani draws conclusions about the whole range of Sudanese history that are at odds with factual information easily available in standard works. Thus he states (p. 76) that in 1821 “Ottoman and British forces based in Egypt invaded Sudan”. He ironically buys in to British propaganda about the “brutality” of the Turkiyya (p. 137 et passim), and about the de-population of the Mahdist era (p. 142); refers to the Mahdiyya as an “uprising against British and Turco-Egyptian forces” (p. 139); and appears not to know that Khartoum was destroyed during the Mahdiyya (pp. 136-7). The Mahdi’s family suffers, too, as when the Imam al-Hadi is said to have succeeded his nephew, al-Sadiq (p. 185).

H.A. MacMichael, the doyen of the Sudan Political Service in the 1920s and early 1930s, is Mamdani’s particular target. While MacMichael was indeed an unreconstructed imperialist whose voluminous writings on the Sudan are loaded with racist tropes and colonial stereotypes, Mamdani credits him with too much influence. He also mis-quotes him (pp. 83, 84, 313n11), mis-reads him (pp. 79, 82), mis-titles him again (p. 80), and even “miscounts” him (p. 79). Condominium policy-making was much more complicated and nuanced than Mamdani would have it, and there is no direct line running from MacMichael’s genealogical pastimes to the deliberate under-development of Darfur.

But the British colonial project, according to Mamdani, “revolved around three very modern techniques: gathering census data, writing histories, and making laws” (p. 146), and in all this, he avers, MacMichael’s role “cannot be overstated” (p. 147). But it can be, as when Mamdani credits him with the census schema implemented twenty years after MacMichael had left the Sudan (p. 147), and pumps up the sinister importance of census data to the British who, however, had left the Sudan for good even as the census was under way (1955-56).

The author need not also have taken on two outstanding historians of the Sudan, Yusuf Fadl Hasan and R.S. O’Fahey, in order to justify his own work. Of O’Fahey, the premier historian of Darfur, Mamdani writes (p. 318n50): “O’Fahey has observed that West African migration has been ‘unobtrusive’ though ‘continuous”. One may ask, Unobtrusive to whom? Presumably to the historian.” Hard words, wholly gratuitous.

Indeed, in contrast to these and other historians, Mamdani goes to great lengths to discern ancient roots to Darfur’s current troubles. Thus we have extensive exposition of “Nationalist History” (pp. 86-101) – this is where Yusuf Fadl Hasan comes in – the Arab conquests of the Near East, the Mamluks, the Fatimids, the medieval slave trade, a great deal about nomadic migrations a millennium or more ago, excursus to the Uduk and Ingessana (while impermissibly moving Wendy James from Oxford to Cambridge [p. 102]), and – Nubian patriots take note – a “process of Arabization and Islamization … completed in Upper Nubia” (p. 92) hundreds of years ago.

Mamdani’s riposte to the historians, beginning on p. 93, is “The Funj: An Alternate History of African Arabs”. Ironically this version omits all the old theories of Funj origins that once preoccupied historians of the Sudan, instead opting to explain how “Arabization” took place within the Funj sultanate. Insofar as this has anything to do with Darfur – a sultanate far, far away and a few hundred years ago – there are mistakes here, too. The “Arabs in the Nile Valley” are not all “sedentary groups” (p. 103); and what is meant by “the incorporation of the region into the larger slave plantation economy” in the late 18th century (p. 135) is at best unclear. Indeed, while much of this is irrelevant, little attention is paid to the important (and easier-to-document) twentieth-century migration from Darfur to the Nile Valley.

The alternative history of Darfur may be summed up in a paragraph on pp. 143-44:

When [the Mahdist] revolution came to Darfur, it was not Spartacist but Sufi. The soldier-slaves in Darfur were always armed, and they constituted the bulk of the sultan’s army. Slavery was a counterweight to tribal identity and a building block of state formation. But the armed slaves of Darfur did not provide its revolutionaries. Churchill understood this better than any colonial official. It is Sufism that heralded an egalitarian rebellion against authority. The center of that revolution was Darfur, from which it spread to Kordofan and then the north…. And then came the counterrevolution, led and organized by the British. The center of the counterrevolution was also Darfur. And the core of the counterrevolutionary agenda was to reorganize state and society – by retribalizing them.

What does this mean?

One thing it means, Mamdani tells us, is that “British administrative policy … was shaped by one supreme objective: to remove every trace of Mahdist influence…. The first step … was the formal restoration of the kingdom of Dar Fur, except this time as a Fur sultanate” (p. 152). True, the British initially feared Sudanese “fanaticism” of the Mahdist type, but restoration of the Fur sultanate, in 1898, had nothing to do with this. And by the time the sultanate was overthrown in 1916 the British were already routinizing Sudanese Mahdism in collaboration with Sayyid Abd al-Rahman, the Mahdi’s son.

When one finally gets to points of relevance to the current crisis, two issues stand out, one historical and the other political. The first has to do with what Mamdani sees as confusion or deliberate obfuscation surrounding victim and perpetrator in Darfur, the result, he states, of British tribal policy, a colonial carving out of dars for the lucky sedentary population at the expense of the nomadic and, thus, dar-less population. This in turn, during a post-independence era of drought and increasing pressure on the land, brought about unwonted levels of migration and conflict. Far from exacerbating this conflict, Mamdani continues – controversially to say the least – the Khartoum regime of the day (meaning the Nimeiri regime of 1969-84) tried ham-fistedly to reform local government, failed, and thus lost control of a volatile situation.

Mamdani’s political point, and possibly the main reason for the book, is to hammer home the theme of manipulation in the use of the word “genocide” to describe events in Darfur. There is plenty of blame for him to assign: to colonial administrators who created racial categories, to politicians, Sudanese sectarian leaders, Zionists, the Holocaust industry, celebrities, academics playing fast and loose with statistics, publishers (as this reviewer has cause to know), purveyors of the War on Terror, Darfur rebel leaders, regional powers, and various others. And since making the case for genocide – whose victims are the Masalit at least, and probably the Fur – depends on proof of intent, there will still be plenty of room for demurral, tit-for-tat arguments about Black and Arab, identity, first language spoken at home, and the rest. Meanwhile, in the camps….

For all the book’s concentration on the history of the Sudan, almost no research was conducted in the vast archival sources available to the author in Khartoum, London and Durham: the National Records Office in Khartoum is mentioned (as “the National Archives”), but its relevant collections are not cited; from the Sudan Archive at Durham the Bibliography mentions but nine documents, mostly set pieces by MacMichael. Some published annual reports are cited, and many interviews. The secondary sources are oddly assorted, and Mamdani often cites a work tangential to the subject under discussion rather than one or another of the principal sources. The discursive substantive notes – several two pages long or more – range from Bornu to the Great Wall of China and are often wide of the mark, e.g. a ramble on the Roman Empire (p. 330n2), a long erroneous note on the Turkiyya (p. 329n87) citing a Khartoum University M.Sc. thesis, and reference (p. 337n4) to Francis Deng’s War of Visions (rather than, say, Sanderson and Sanderson or Douglas Johnson) for the colonial regime’s “Southern Policy”. That policy is said (p. 179) to have spanned the period 1922-1947 (but in fact was adopted in 1930), and Mamdani falls for the old canard that the policy aimed at attaching the South to “a settler-dominated federation of East African territories” (p. 175).

In the end, Mamdani’s purpose is less to blame the colonial regime for the current crisis as to flay the Save Darfur movement for not knowing anything about it. The historical gloss is largely stage-setting for a tableau of surprising vehemence. Save Darfur is depicted as a U.S. movement born of student politics, dependent at several turns on people and organizations associated with the Israeli lobby, grossly misinformed by the likes of Nicholas Kristof and (especially) Eric Reeves, deeply anti-Muslim and anti-Arab, duped (at best) by partisans of the War on Terror. “To understand this movement”, Mamdani writes (pp. 61-2),

One needs to appreciate that Iraq makes some Americans feel responsible and guilty, just as it compels other Americans to come to terms with the limits of American power. Darfur, in contrast, is an act not of responsibility but of philanthropy. Unlike Iraq, Darfur is a place for which Americans do not need to feel responsible but choose to take responsibility…. Darfur appeals to Americans who hate to pay taxes but love to donate to charities.

Strong words. Mamdani is surely on to something here, whether it is original or not. Casting events in Darfur – and more, the global response to them – as parts of much larger historical processes is surely correct. But when he states (p. 300) that “undergirding the claim that a genocide has occurred in Darfur is another, born of colonial historiography, that Arabs in Sudan – and elsewhere in the African continent – are settlers who came in from the outside and whose rights must be subordinate to those of indigenous natives”, he protests too much: the Arab-as-settlers theme has no support among respectable commentators. And when he concludes that “In its present form, the call to justice is really a slogan that masks a big power agenda to recolonize Africa”, we appear to have reached “Other Business” on the authorial agenda.

M.W. Daly is author of Darfur’s Sorrow: A History of Destruction and Genocide (Cambridge 2007).

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