Mamdani Responds to His Critics I

by Jun 30, 2009All Articles

posted by Mahmood Mamdani
Never having been the focus of blog attention, I could not have realized what a privilege it would be to have such an extended focus on my book. I can only thank all those who have spent hours, in a few cases may be even days, poring over its contents. Over the next week, I hope to post a series of three responses to comments made during the period April 7 to 26. I shall try and engage what I consider the most serious criticisms. The first post – this one – will respond to questions regarding the scholarship in the book [and factual inaccuracies/typos identified by some readers]. The second posting will discuss questions about the ideas, practices and politics of the Save Darfur movement. The third and final posting will focus on the way ahead, including how to respond to the suffering of the people of Darfur, and to the politicization of key identities [victim, perpetrator, survivor]. I hope to do this in a way that may contribute to taking the discussion forward, rather than freezing it in a defensive posture.

The discussion in the book is structured around five big ideas: a critical analysis of the dominant paradigm that undergirds the writing of Sudanese history and is informed two big ideas, (a) Arabization, and the associated (b) settler-native framework; a historical claim that (c) the conflict in Darfur began as a civil war in which both sides saw themselves as victims, which unfolded before the Islamist government came to power and in which the central government was not involved; an analysis of (d) the distinctiveness of Save Darfur mobilization in the context of contemporary American politics and the ways in which it partakes of the logic of the War on Terror; and, finally, (e) a search for a way forward in Darfur and Sudan, by highlighting common features between the conflict in Darfur and other post-colonial African conflicts so as to de-exceptionalize the former, and theorize the settlements that ended the latter. I will deal with (a) and (b) in this posting, (c) and (d) in the second post, and (e) in my final response.


“The conventional history of Sudan,” I wrote in Saviors and Survivors, “is written as the history of migration, the movement of influential individuals (‘wise men’), and gifted groups (‘Arabs’) as well as the spread of extraordinary ideas and practices (‘Arabization’). … The ‘wise stranger’ is invariably an outsider, said to have married into a leading insider family. As one who is supposed to have initiated the process of ‘Arabization,’ his role is akin to that of a miracle worker for he is identified as the founder of the state. To this extent, focus on the ‘wise stranger’ tends to substitute for an analysis of the actual process of state formation. This is why it is not at all surprising that we should find an alternative account to the miraculous role of the ‘wise stranger’ in histories that treat state formation as the political consequence of a larger social and economic history.” [p. 93]

I found that alternative historical account in several writings, including that of historians, anthropologists and folklorists. The most consistent of these was the history of the Funj written by Professor Jay Spaulding. When Professor O’Fahey complains that I “appl[y] Spaulding’s ideas on ‘Arabization’ of Funj to Darfur, where they are not applicable,” he misunderstands my project. For its purpose was never to claim a similarity between Sinnar and Dar Fur. My interest was rather to point out the theoretical implications of Spaulding’s historical narrative. To make that point fully, I integrated Professor Spaulding’s findings in a larger historical discussion of “Arabization”, one that includes Egypt.

“If ‘Arabization’ means the spread of the Arabic language and an associated culture, all available evidence indicates that the experience of Sudan is no different from that of Egypt. … The spread of Arabic was linked more to its status as a language of official administration, law, commerce, and religion than to the actual weight of Arab immigrants. Without a direct association with power, there would have been no Arabization. The only thing to keep in mind is that that power did not have to be an Arab power. If the spread of Arabic in Egypt was the work of the Mamluk state, in Sudan it was the work of two indigenous sultanates: Funj and Dar Fur.” [p. 92]

Settlers and Natives

It is one of the remarkable features of our times that some of the most deeply embedded assumptions in the writings of colonial historiography were embraced by some of the most leading nationalist historians. The privileging of migration in colonial history-writing went alongside a set of other assumptions: that pivotal social and economic change was always driven from the outside, and that key to political history was the relation between settlers and natives.

In my earlier work on Rwanda, I found these assumptions to be at the heart of a history that painted Hutu as natives and Tutsi as settlers. This assumption was also at the core of much colonial history-writing on West Africa, such as in accounts linked Berber migration to the formation of Hausa states. The counter-narrative, what I call the alternative historiography, can be found in the writings of the historians at Ahmadu Bello University, particularly Abdullahi Smith and Yusuf Bala Usman.

The links between colonial historiography and colonial statecraft are deep, and I tried to draw them out with a discussion that connected history-writing to census-making and the actual legislation that followed. Professor Daly wonders why I should be spending time talking about MacMichael when the census was implemented twenty years after MacMichael left Sudan. The answer is that even if the census was carried out in the 1950s, the categories that drove the census were drafted in the period that began in the 1920s, and MacMichael was key to this intellectual work – as I show in the book.

The forging of settler and native as political identities was key to the statecraft we know as indirect rule. This is the subject on which all three of my scholarly interlocutors converge. They raise two objections. The first comes from Professor Daly and Dr. de Waal. When it came to indirect rule, they argue, there was no political project. Rather, it was the result of British pragmatism, muddling through as it were, or working within existing constraints. The rationale of indirect rule was economic, not political, says Professor Daly: “It was cheap.” It was a necessity, concurs Alex de Waal: “There were no more than 8 or 10 British administrators in the territory.”

Neither Professor Daly nor Dr. de Waal seem to understand what is meant by “indirect rule.” I suspect this is why Professor Daly writes that “Indirect Rule was practiced in fact long before it was adopted in theory”, and Alex de Waal agrees. British administrators in the colonies were always few, and colonial administration was always on the cheap – whether under “direct” or “indirect” rule. This is why on-the-ground administration was always the responsibility of native staff working under British supervision. Whether British or French or Belgium or for that matter Portuguese, colonial rule would have been impossible without African intermediaries. The real question was: who would those intermediaries be? Direct and indirect rule gave different answers to this question. The intermediary with direct rule was the educated class, native products of Western schools. But the intermediary of indirect rule was tribal leadership. The shift from direct to indirect rule was not an economic one to cheaper administration; rather, it was a political shift, a change of intermediaries, from educated native strata to tribal leaders. I narrate the hallmarks of the debate re Sudan and Darfur, focusing, first, on this shift in Sudan and Darfur through a debate that focuses, first, on the shift from the educated stratum to traditional leaders, and then, on the reasons for preferring tribal leaders over religious products of Islamic madrassas.

The second objection on the subject of indirect rule comes from Professor O’Fahey. He claims that there was no “retribalization” in Darfur, for the British “simply tinkered with the boundaries they had inherited from the Sultanate.” The statement belies a shallow understanding of the meaning of “retribalization.” For “retribalization” does not refer as much to a change of boundaries as it does to a change in the mode of rule, first through a change in intermediaries (“tribal chiefs”) of rule, and then through a change in the rules themselves. Critical to these change were two rules that were described as “customary” and that were the gold standard in every British “indirect rule” colony. The first concerned land, the second administration. Both made a distinction between “native” and “non-native” tribes. Access to land was said to be a “customary” right of members of native tribes, not non-natives. Second, chiefs – whatever the nomenclature – were also “customarily” appointed from members of native tribes. These two practices made for a mode of governance that translated tribe from a more or less benign cultural identity to a systematically malignant form of political discrimination. Indirect rule colonialism turned on a double discrimination, racial at the center and tribal in the provinces.

In a valuable discussion of the land system, Professor O’Fahey points out that the hakura system was not as widespread as he had previously thought, that it was in fact more concentrated in two geographical areas. And he points out that individual ownership in the Sultanate was never freehold in an absolute sense. Out of the blue, he concludes, it is “absurd” to contrast the British and the Sultans in matter of land policy. But he proceeds to undercut this claim as soon as he makes it. First, he points out that, under the Sultanate, “outsiders were granted estates in tribally-owned territories” and that this led to “the immigration into such estates of settlers from elsewhere” – pointing to a process of de-tribalization under the Sultans. If he had discussed administration – particularly the appointment of magdums, state administrators, in local areas regardless of their ethnicity – he would have shown how the practice of state administration also led to de-tribalization.

Second, Professor O’Fahey admits to being puzzled by what is a key question for our query: “how hakura transferred itself from meaning estate in eighteenth and nineteenth century documents to ‘tribal ownership rights’ [DPA, paragraph 158] is unknown to me.” He then goes on to elaborate this puzzlement: “Again in Abuja, I was struck by the way hakura was equated with the notion of a mono-ethnic tribal homeland with the dominant ethnicity having absolute freehold rights”; and finally, “I do not think mono-ethnic ‘racially pure’ homelands is the way to go.”

It is too bad that precisely when Professor O’Fahey arrives at the moment of truth – how the colonial state forged tribal rights around the identities settler and native – he seems lost. We may not know exactly how the notion of rights became tribalized from the sultans to the DPA, but surely we cannot doubt the trend. Nor are we in the dark about the thrust of these changes over time: the substantially de-tribalizing trend of developments under the Sultanate, the Turkiyya and the Mahdiyya, and the very political decision by the British colonial authority to build on the very thin legacy of the Ali Dinar period. Whoever tries to figure out the genealogy of the native-settler paradigm will find that the clues inevitably lead to the British colonial period.

Alex de Waal thinks otherwise: “Rather than Sir Harold MacMichael, it is the ideas and practices of Hassan al Turabi, Ali al Haj, Abdalla Ali Masar, Abdalla Safi al Nur, and their colleagues, which deserve pride of place in any analysis of how ideas of identity, race and authority were written into contemporary Darfurian society.” I have argued in the book, extensively, that nationalists of all hue – not just Islamists – seemed to have embraced the colonial paradigm hook, line and sinker. But this cannot justify de Waal’s claim for it is ahistorical: the conflict in Darfur began in 1987, before the Islamists came into power. When they met at the reconciliation conference at El Fasher, both sides to the first phase of the conflict in 1987-89 were already presenting their grievances as “natives” and “settlers.” From whence came these ideas and practices?

I have learnt a lot from the scholarly contributions of Professors O’Fahey and Daly, and from my friend and colleague Alex de Waal. But their contributions to this blog have made me aware of how un-selfconscious they are of the theoretical apparatus they employ to interpret the facts at their disposal. Their attitude recalls a well-known empiricist assumption: that facts speak for themselves. Whatever their other differences, they seem united in championing an orthodoxy that has belittled the historical significance of Sudan’s – and Darfur’s – colonial experience and its contemporary relevance.


The mistakes in the manuscripts can be divided between factual inaccuracies and typos.

1. In a post on another site, Rebecca Hamilton has pointed out – rightly, I might add – that President George W. Bush’s speech affirming that the violence in Darfur was genocide was not given on June 30, 2004, as stated in the book, but on the same date in 2005. She then asserts – wrongly, in my view – that this acknowledgment would change the interpretation that follows in the book. The correct timeline of events should be as follows:

• June 24, 2004: genocide resolution introduced in both Houses of Congress
• June 30, 2004: Powell speaks to the media at Khartoum airport denying that genocide had occurred in Darfur.
• July 22, 2004: Congress resolves that genocide is taking place in Darfur, Sudan
• September 9, 2004: Colin Powell testifies to Senate Committee on Foreign Relations that “genocide has been committed in Darfur”. That same day President Bush issues a White House statement making the same claim.
• September 21, 2004: President Bush speaks to the UN General Assembly “of horrible crimes in the Darfur region of Sudan, crimes my government has concluded are genocide.”

Around the time Congress unanimously resolved that ‘genocide’ was occurring in Darfur – in July/August 2004 – the Department of State put together a research team comprising officials from State and USAID, and members of the CIJ [Coalition for International Justice] and the American Bar Association, to conduct interviews in refugee camps in Chad. As I say in the book, “its executors seemed to be in such haste that they did not even wait for the findings of the WHO study,” even though its data base was far more representative than the data the State-organized “Atrocities Documentation Team” gathered from refugee camps in Chad. Furthermore, the State Department never published these findings – leading to the GAO recommendation “that the Secretary of State promote greater transparency in any of its future death estimates for Darfur or other humanitarian crises.” These findings were later published by CIJ, in 2005. Not only did they occupy the high end in the mortality estimates examined by the team of experts convened by the GAO, the experts also questioned their reliability.

This brought into question the purported difference between the resolution passed by both Houses of Congress – unanimously – on July 22, and the finding in Secretary Powell’s testimony on September 9 and President Bush’s statement that same day, for it was said that even whereas the Congressional resolution was passed before the Atrocities Documentation Team had gathered data, the State Department determination was evidence driven. Not only did this claim seem to fall apart, it was also clear that every branch of the U S Government had fallen in line in the short space of two months in the face of Save Darfur activism. The lobbying had been the most effective with Congress, and continued to be so. The State Department, in contrast, seemed to alternate between giving way to the lobby and resisting it.

2. Rebecca Hamilton also questions my interpretation of findings in the CRED study – but unfortunately stops short of a full analysis of those findings. CRED estimated 118,142 “excess deaths“ which it “attributed to violence, disease and malnutrition because of the conflict during this period” (September 2003 to January 2005). Of these, 35,000 were “deaths due to violence”. Given that desertification and drought preceded the conflict, the report leaves unanswered an important question: how many deaths from disease and malnutrition were due to drought and how many due to the conflict?

3. Professor Daly complains that the book is “light on primary sources.” But, then, my ambition was less to provide new information than to offer new interpretation of old and new information. Are the Fellata considered a tribe in the context of South Darfur? Can we consider the Ansar a Sufi tariqa? The former is a relevant question in the context of South Darfur politics. My claim regarding the Ansar was with qualifications but Professor Daly chooses to ignore these: “The Ansar are not an ordinary Sufi brotherhood. The Mahdi was a ‘post-Sufi’ who claimed that the time of the Sufi orders had come to an end (in the messianic sense) and that there was now only one order, the order of Muhammad, which he represented. The Ansar combined this explicitly anti-Sufi position alongside Sufi accoutrements (the organizational structure, the litany, et cetra.).” (p. 141) Professor Daly has been kind enough to compile a detailed list of typos, even a few factual inaccuracies (such as the claim I reproduced from a Communist Party publication that the Ali Dinar Sultanate was a member of the League of Nations). But in his zeal to compile as long a list of typos and mistakes, he also misleads: e.g., leading the reader to a reference to desertification on p. 9 but ignoring the much longer discussion on p. 207 which makes it clear that the earlier reference is indeed a typo; interpreting the reference to 1913 on p. 143 as if it were to the date of Sir Harold MacMichael’s knighting rather than to a speech he gave that year, as would be obvious to any discerning reader; ignoring that the Milner Report’s 1920 recommendations for a shift from direct to indirect rule were clearly situated in the context of a larger empire-wide shift. In haste, he also makes his own typos: e.g., ‘Berberines’ instead of ‘Burberines.’ In addition, there are false claims of improper citation (of Ian Cunnison, Baggara Arabs, on p. 302, n 10). And then there are historical references that he is simply unable to figure out: e.g., to plantation slavery in late 18th century, or to Roman citizenship at the time of the empire.

4. Finally, my apologies for shortening the name Abd al-Wahid Muhammad al-Nur to Abdel al-Nur, instead of Abd al-Wahid.

Mahmood Mamdani, May 4, 2009

Responses to “Mamdani Responds to His Critics I”
Mohanad Elbalal:
May 6th, 2009 at 3:40 pm
Mamdani for years groups like save Darfur have heavily influenced the press when it comes to darfur and as long as writers and commentaters stuck to the save Darfur story regardless of how sensationalist or unfounded their assertions were they were hailed as humanitarianists, however if any one tried to offer a more balanced and accurate view of Darfur,save Darfur and the right wing press would villanise them this has insured that other credible scholars would keep their opinions to themselves. Therefore allowing politicised writers such as Eric reeves who stick to the Save Darfur story to dominate discussion on the matter. So It is rightly expected that such writers who have been running a mock with the issue of Darfur unapposed for years to feel threatened by a credible scholar such as yourself.
I found the book to be factual,thorough and concise and I have come across many articles questioning the Save Darfur view on Darfur thanks to your book.

jan adriaan coebergh:
May 13th, 2009 at 10:00 am
As acknowledged by prof mamdani facts are important. Some of his criticisms of mortality studies above are incorrect and wrong.
Prof Mamdani states the state department never published the findings of the Atrocities Documentation Team, for which it was later criticised by the GAO. The GAO report criticised the state department, but these grounds were unfair. The state department findings were rapported on the 9th of september 2004 and is still available at:
A very good book was also written on the Atrocities Documentation Team (genocide in Darfur, investigating the atrocities in the Sudan, by Samuel Totten and Eric Markusen)

Why not wait a month for the WHO study published mid-october 2004? (which also had its flaws) The Atrocities Documentation Team study was not a traditional mortality study and in september 2004 did not offer a mortality figure; but it documented the types of attacks, the attackers and what people suffered. It was there for Powell and the state department to have facts to build their interpretations on. It was later interpreted by the CIJ and others as a mortality study, but was not at the time. So why wait for the WHO study (which was suffering from delays in disagreements with the Government of Sudan, of unknown duration in september 2004)

Perhaps by looking at the data the atrocities documentation team actually did collect and report in september 2004 Powell was actually, in his interpretation of the evidence, evidence driven in his determination of genocide. The facts are there. Maybe Prof Mamdani seems to want to overestimate the power of Save Darfur and decided to overlook these facts available to Powell.

It is also disingenuous to suggest that many of the deaths from disease and malnutrition were due to drought. Drought has been a longstanding problem in Darfur (the WFP was already feeding 220.000 people in Darfur in 2002). It is a problem of all mortality analysis in Darfur that the baseline rates are poorly known. However to presume that in 2003/4/5 they are higher because of drought is just a stab in the dark and should therefore not be done.

So maybe these facts might not suit the theory of the incredible power of Save Darfur in influencing US policy.

Alex de Waal:
May 20th, 2009 at 4:55 am
I do not disagree that “nationalists of all hue” took on board broadly comparable conceptions of race and tribe. But they also embraced many other ideas including transcending ethnicity through modernization, and creating an Islamic state, some of which had intellectual lineages traceable to the colonial period, and some not. My point is that Sudan’s modern political thinkers and practitioners were creative and active participants in shaping their own society, rather than simply applying the templates derived from the colonial period.

A point of historical clarification is also needed here. The Islamists took power in 1989, but they were part of the government from 1977 to 1984, in 1985, and again from 1986 to early 1989. Their ideas and political practices were highly influential during these periods.

For example: Ali al Haj considered himself as a candidate for governor after the creation of Darfur region in 1980, but quickly realized he was unable to make much progress because he was from a small tribe of west African origin. The proposal to give Sudanese nationality and voting rights to the Fellata (Sudanese of Nigerian origin) was a joint proposal of the Umma and NIF, who were competing for the potential votes of this considerable constituency.

The militia policy was established at scale in Kordofan and south Darfur in July 1985, under the transitional government headed by Gen. Abdel Rahman Suwar al Dahab. The plan to recognize the militias as “popular defence forces” was proposed by PM Sadiq al Mahdi in 1988, later becoming a major plank of the Inqaz policy in 1989.

In 1988, three NIF MPs from Darfur resigned from the party and joined the DUP, protesting that the NIF was actively involved in the Darfur war, specifically that it was scheming to use the region as the base for foreign military forces in the Chadian conflict. The 1988 street protests in Khartoum demanded that the Umma-NIF coalition in power reverse its policy on Darfur and promote peace.

On the settlers/natives discourse at this time, there was a very specific and local dimension to this. (I do not say this was the only element: just that it was one element.) Settlers of Chadian origin, principally but not exclusively Arab, were settling in Wadi Saleh, to the disquiet of the Fur residents of the area. A dispute over this issue was one reason why the Umma candidate for Garsila surprisingly lost the election to the NIF candidate. (I was staying in a village just outside Garsila at the time and remember well the despondent faces of the Umma Party campaigners as they returned from the count, their campaign banners still draped on the side of their Bedford truck.) In that constituency, at least, the language of settlers and natives reflected the observable fact that new arrivals from Chad were staking out land claims year by year.

Alex de Waal:
May 20th, 2009 at 9:44 am
On the roles of the U.S. government and the Save Darfur movement on the question of genocide and the numbers of deaths, I plead guilty to empiricism. I don’t think that Mahmood Mamdani has fully succeeded in addressing the counter critiques of his critiques of these issues.

During the critical months in the middle of 2004, when the idea of a “Save Darfur” coalition was born, and the CIJ was commissioned to send the ADT to Chad, and Congress passed its resolution declaring Darfur to be “genocide”, the question of numbers was not part of the debate. The numbers controversy emerged only later.

The ADT survey was not conducted with the aim of deriving estimates for numbers of people killed. Its data were later used for that purpose, by John Hagan, in 2005. The State Department did not have either an official (public) or a private estimate for deaths at that time. These only came later.

The difference between the ADT-derived estimates and the DoS monitoring figures was less conspiracy than uncertainty derived from the “fog of war.” No-one really knew the real extent of what was happening (and in reality we still do not know). Estimates of violent deaths for that period vary considerably for the simple reason that it is extraordinarily hard to get good figures under these circumstances.

The Congressional resolution declaring that Darfur was “genocide” was passed in July before the results of any systematic inquiry were available. At that date the Save Darfur Coalition was still nascent, so crediting it with this achievement seems a bit premature. But “Save Darfur” activism was already occurring, among members of Congress, individual activists, and the organizations that were to form the core of the Save Darfur Coalition. What this seems to demonstrate is that a relatively small number of well-connected activists were able to move U.S. policy—in rhetoric at least—to a bold position. The mass movement for “Save Darfur” followed, rather than preceded, the U.S. government’s biggest policy steps on Darfur.

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