Mamdani, Narratives and the Message of ‘Be the Power’

by Jun 30, 2009All Articles

posted by Neha Erasmus
I was lucky enough to have benefited from the many astute reviews of Saviors and Survivors before I read it, which provided me with a caution to its weaknesses. Yet by the end of the book I was convinced that these weaknesses were less relevant than is strengths, and that there is great potential for positive progress from both.
Saviors and Survivors is essentially a book about the power of narratives: of how telling a story directly shapes our thinking of what we can or should do, and the responsibilities that therefore lie with a narrator.

Mamdani argues that groups like Save Darfur have been telling a partial story: a story of African versus Arab, of government versus people, and of the need for responsibility from saviours.

Mamdani, along with many others, knows the story to be far more complex than this. He presents the Darfur conflict as rooted in the history of Darfur, the legacy of colonialism and western and regional interests. He defines the duality as being between landowners and the landless, which includes but is not limited to ethnic rivalry. He presents a story of multiple perpetrators and victims and the need for responsibility from survivors.

Mamdani also relates a separate but important dichotomic narrative: that of the cloaked American aggressor in Iraq versus the overt American saviour in Darfur. He contrasts the American call for intervention in Darfur on moral grounds, with American caution of withdrawal from Iraq on the grounds of consideration for political complexity. This speaks to a greater question, which I believe is the basis of controversy over Darfur: whether the best approach to seeking solutions is through internalising or externalising processes.

Unfortunately, Mamdani is guilty of the same mistake of partiality that he criticises Save Darfur for. His coverage of the Government of Sudan’s involvement in the conflict is negligent in the same way that Save Darfur’s account of the Arab-African dichotomy is. He gives very little consideration to the current regime, both in terms of its counter-insurgency operations in Darfur, as well as its role in the historical process of how “ideas of identity, race, and authority were written into contemporary Darfurian society”, as described by Alex de Waal.

The book also has, as other reviewers have pointed out, a number of inaccuracies and sometimes allocates intent to actions with little evidence provided, laying it open to accusations of being purely ideological .

Yet every contribution holds within it something to consider and I think it would be a grave mistake to dismiss Saviors and Survivors on the basis of its historical inaccuracies or narrative biases. Mamdani sees mainly anti-Islamic imperialism behind Nicolas Kristof’s outrage that Arab countries have not spoken out about Darfur (p.59); therefore he dismisses what remains a very good question. We should be careful not to make the same mistake.

Mamdani’s contribution is his intuitive ideas and questions which ultimately build the case for an internalising approach to the problems of Darfur and the importance of this process for Africa in general.

Mamdani’s anti-imperialist ‘ideology’ is something that has been in the African consciousness for some decades, yet it is often difficult to articulate, as it manifests itself in so many different and subtle ways. For this reason such sentiments are often dismissed as radical conspiracy theory. There is much evidence that Western assistance functions as an extension of colonialism, but where Mamdani and I diverge is in the view that there is a general conspiracy of intent to do so (p.300).

From Dambisi Moyo, who argues that aid creates dependency and negates government accountability to citizens (among other things), to Binyavanga Wanaina who argues that the international expectations of Africans are so low that they actually disempower them from rising to challenges, Mamdani is part of an increasingly vociferous community of Africans and ‘Africans-by-heart’, who believe that the current methods of aid and intervention weaken rather than strengthen the continent.

Eric Miyeni perhaps said it best though, when he wrote ‘Don’t Fight the Power. Be the Power*’. In this moving essay he chastises people who complain about oppression in a company. He advises them instead to learn, build bridges, save money and then open their own company. He tells them then to “beat the hell out of them in the market place. Beat them because you work ten times harder and smarter and care ten times as much about what you do. Beat them Mandingo, because you are simply the best at what you do. Beat them this way, because this is the best kind of revenge when you really think about it. Isn’t it?”

It is the narratives of Darfur’s survivors that need to be told more. In the midst of their tragedy, Darfurians, like all people, have the potential to reclaim their existence through hard work, intelligence and unity, and they have much external good will to harness. Mamdani, however imperfectly, argues for such an approach and it would be wrong to ignore him.

*To read Eric Miyeni’s ‘Don’t Fight the Power. Be the Power’ register on and go to the Archives section (date: 01/12/2002).

Neha Erasmus is project coordinator for Justice Africa in London and Juba.

Response to “Mamdani, Narratives and the Message of ‘Be the Power’”

May 7th, 2009 at 7:16 pm
Excellent point. The people who should be most empowered to resolve Africa’s conflicts are Africans, not Western saviors. One blog recently wrote about how the opinions of certain racial groups, including Darfuris, may be suppressed within the Save Darfur Coalition. However, they focus on the language that SDC uses to describe the conflict and how these racial groups are portrayed by SDC, not on solutions to the conflict.

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