Mamdani Responds to His Critics III

by Jun 30, 2009All Articles

posted by Mahmood Mamdani
In this final section of what has been a three-part response, I would like to address three issues. The first concerns that of the suffering of the victims. One critic says that I “seem to overlook the daily suffering of the Darfurians” [Abd al-Wahab Abdalla]; another claims I “minimiz[e] [of] the suffering and destruction by the people in the region” and that this is “a disgrace” [Eric Reeves]; yet a third adds that I “miss[es] the appeal of the activist movement” precisely because I “refuse[s] to allow civilian suffering to enter the equation” and asks: “is historically and politically informed human rights advocacy in the context of (even in the aftermath of) extreme violence against civilian communities possible?”

The second issue bears on the responsibility of the perpetrator: What is the responsibility of the government of Sudan, specifically its President, in light of the arrest warrant recently issued by the President of the ICC? Is my book not a sophisticated apology for the political leadership of Sudan?

Finally, I shall address the question of the way forward in the aftermath of extreme violence, and of the difficult choices that lie ahead for the people of Darfur and Sudan.


If you go to a Save Darfur website, you will find a catalogue of atrocities: killing, rape, burning, and so on. You will even find video games that put you in place of one of the IDP residents – a child, an elder, a woman – who goes out in search of firewood or water and has to deal with a group of Janjawiid, the perpetrators. In the book, I called this “a pornography of violence”. As in pornography, this is a form of voyeurism, one that caters to the lust of the viewer – in this case the lust for blood – rather than to the need of the victim.

Save Darfur has become adept at commodifying human suffering, and marketing it. It has turned human rights activism into an entrepreneurial activity. Not surprisingly, others are trying to apply this technique elsewhere. In a recent debate with John Prendergast, I was struck by his clumsy attempt to transfer Save Darfur technology to Congo, and thereby connect the greed for minerals to mass rapes.

When Save Darfur markets suffering, it calls for a moral response from its audience. The effect of presenting activism as a moral imperative is to depoliticize it. Presenting activism as a moral imperative not only prioritizes action but also sets up a wall between the moral and the political and silences any political discussion of alternatives. I argued in the book that this is the real significance of the lessons Save Darfur purports to draw from the Rwanda genocide. Imagine your response if someone was to tell a doctor in an ICU ward that there is no time for diagnosis because the situation is urgent, and that there is only time for prescription. And then if this person went a step further to argue that the right to prescribe must belong to those most outraged and most concerned about the patient’s welfare – Saviors – regardless of their level of medical expertise. Who but those who do have to face its consequences or have the luxury to walk away from these can afford such activism?

In the discussion that followed publication of my book, I referred to the high school constituency organized by Save Darfur as its “version of child soldiers in African conflicts.” Some have found the analogy provocative. I consider this provocation an educational imperative. I have pointed out time and again that Save Darfur is not a peace movement but a mobilization for war. Every one of Save Darfur’s mobilizing demand – from the demand for sanctions, or disinvestment, or a no fly zone – are so many steps in a war dance. Save Darfur’s core interest is not reform, but punishment. When children and teenagers are mobilized in support for war, they should be seen as child soldiers, whether in Liberia or Uganda, Africa or America. This is not to say that these situations are the same. One outstanding difference between the African and American contexts is that Save Darfur presents a political mobilization for war as a moral crusade – which may be what makes it palatable, even attractive, to so many parents and guardians.

Its multi-media sophistication not withstanding, Save Darfur shares a common methodology with most human rights groups: catalogue atrocities, identify victims and perpetrators, ‘name and shame’ the perpetrators and demand that they be held criminally accountable. Read the field reports of Human Rights Watch or the International Crisis Group and you will find that, except for a pro-forma 1-2 page intro on history and context, the focus is on ‘naming and shaming’. I am struck by the difference in emphasis between local and international human rights groups: whereas local groups seem to stress context both in explaining conflict situations and in looking for ways to end conflicts, international human rights groups seem to consider context a distraction, one that detracts from their mission to advance the universality of human rights.

Save Darfur shares its broad framing with the War on Terror, starting with the claim that mobilization around Darfur is a moral crusade rather than a political option. Like the War on Terror, Save Darfur obscures the political and social causes of violence. Indeed, any attempt to discuss the causes of violence is seen as detracting from the ‘suffering’ of victims. The overriding claim is that violence is its own explanation, so that the only way to end violence is more violence. From this point of view, violence is not only the problem; it is also the solution. Given time, Save Darfur, this lavish, multi-million dollar, giant, advertizing campaign would be as deadly in its consequences as the War on Terror.

Is it at all desirable to have a mass US-based movement concerned with wars and conflicts, in Sudan or elsewhere in Africa? I have no doubt that such a movement would be highly desirable. It should, first of all, be a peace movement and not a Save Darfur-type mobilization for war. Second, instead of a moral crusade that obscures the politics of war and conflict, such a movement should highlight the political context of the conflict and thereby promote a discussion of political choices. The result would be to focus public attention on the issues that drive the violence, rather than a claim that violence is its own explanation. Third, rather than making the public believe that African problems can only have external solutions, such a movement should educate the public that a durable solution will not be possible without substantial internal support combined with a process capable of healing internal rifts,. Such an education would have the advantage of teaching the public the difference between solidarity and intervention.


Is to explain the context of a conflict, the issues that led to the violence and reproduce it, the same as apologizing for the perpetrator? Those who feel so have argued that my book functions as a sophisticated apology for the Government of Sudan in general, and its President in particular, in a context where the ICC has issued a warrant of arrest for President al-Bashir.

In the book, I put the question of responsibility in the context of Save Darfur publicity that inflated the record of atrocities in Darfur so as to market its activism more effectively. It recalls the claims of the architects of the Iraq war that they talked of the existence of WMD in Iraq not because they knew this to be true but because they thought it would be the most effective way to launch a war of choice. It also recalls the fact that the U. S. Congress passed a unanimous resolution on genocide in Darfur and then the State Department followed with an “Atrocities” Mission to find out the facts. Then there was the Washington Post editorial that was so infuriated with Robert Zoellick’s claim that the mortality in Darfur was less than 100,000 that it demanded that he use “better figures” – not more accurate figures – the next time.

I identified at least five distortions in Save Darfur publicity. The first concerned its highly inflated claim of 400,000+ dead (during the high point of the conflict in 2003-04) in contrast to the estimate of roughly 120,000 from CRED, the WHO-affiliated research lab in Belgium, that the panel of experts appointed by GAO considered the most reliable. Second, I discussed Save Darfur’s silence regarding the fact that there were multiple causes of death, the two main ones being drought/ desertification and direct violence. CRED estimated that +/- 35,000 had died from direct violence in 2003-04. In other words, not all those who died were killed. Without further research, it would be difficult to show how many of those who died of the effects of drought/ desertification (such as diarrhea and dysentery among infants and children) would have been saved had there not been a raging conflict. Third, Save Darfur has silent about yet another significant fact, which is the history of the conflict, the fact that it began in 1987-89, before the present government came to power, but at a time when the big powers – including the U.S., France and Israel, alongside Libya and the Soviet Union – were already active in Chad and, by extension, in Darfur. In other words, the big powers were involved and implicated in the Darfur conflict before the present government came to power in Khartoum. Finally, Save Darfur’s claim that the violence continues [in its words, “the genocide continues”] flagrantly disregards all ground level reports of a dramatic decline in the level of violence since late 2004, including the most recent report to the Security Council from the UN Secretary General’s envoy to Sudan, that the number of deaths from violence in Darfur had averaged less than 150 from January 2008 to April 2009, and that Darfur was no longer an emergency but “a low intensity conflict”.

We can now turn to the ICC. The judges at the ICC threw out the Prosecutor’s application for a warrant of arrest based on the charge of “genocide” but they upheld his application for a warrant on the charge of “crimes against humanity” and other lesser charges. What are we to make of this? This was not a trial but part of a pretrial process. The judges were saying that if the facts, as stated in the Prosecutor’s application, are assumed to stand, then there is a case to answer. The facts themselves have not been on trial, and will not be until a trial is held. My point is that most of the facts will not withstand scrutiny in the event of a trial. But some will.

If we strip away the distortions of the Save Darfur marketing campaign, then we come to the kernel of the question of responsibility. By all accounts, the level of violence in Darfur in 2003-04 was extreme, and the slaughter of civilians during that period cannot be justified on any grounds. I have written that the government of Sudan carried out its own little War on Terror in Darfur in 2003-04, with a resulting massacre of civilians. No one can deny that the political power in Sudan, the al-Bashir government, must be held responsible for this, much as the de Klerk government in South Africa was politically responsible for the crimes of apartheid in the period before the anti-apartheid transition. The real question is what to do about it.

Before I discuss that, it is worth pointing out that Save Darfur has been responsible for practices worse than just inflating the numbers of the dead and misleading its audience on the causes of the death and the history of the violence. It bears direct responsibility for demonizing one side in the conflict – the side it has consistently identified as ‘Arabs’ or ‘light-skinned Arabs’ – as the perpetrators of atrocities in Darfur. Thus the widespread presumption in Save Darfur circles – and, alas, in much of the media too – that a Darfuri or Sudani ‘Arab’ is not an ‘African’, and that perpetrators are ‘Arabs’ and victims are ‘Africans’.

How many IDP camps in Darfur will admit Arabs? How many of the local staff employed by international NGOs are Arabs? The fact is that to be a Darfuri Arab today is to be presumed to be a perpetrator – at least by Save Darfur, by most international NGOs working in Darfur, and by most international media reporting on Darfur.

This presumption is so widespread that it has come to shape the narrative of the conflict in Darfur, even among those considered the most objective analysts of the situation. It is a rare essay that does not trace the roots of the present conflict to the activity of the supremacist “Arab Gathering”, forgetting that these activities need to be placed in their wider context, the events leading to the civil war in which if one side called for an “Arab Belt”, the other side called for an “African Belt.” In my discussion of the civil war, I cited presentations by secretaries on both sides made at the reconciliation meeting: if one side saw itself as the victim of a genocide – the term used was “Holocaust” – the other side claimed to be at the receiving end of ethnic cleansing carried out by those claiming to be native tribes of Darfur. The important point is that both sides saw themselves as victims in the civil war. But you will not find this in the standard historical account of the conflict.

The political effect of a distorted intellectual orientation can be seen in the fact that the most significant negotiation to date on Darfur – that at Abuja – left out one side in the civil war of 1987-89. Whereas the peasant militias – now rebel movements – were included, their nomadic counterparts – demonized as the janjawiid – were excluded. To what extent is this either defensible or desirable?

To answer the question, we need to look at the lessons of other conflicts, including Rwanda. The killing in the Rwandan genocide was triggered by the failure to implement the decisions agreed at the Arusha talks. The political process failed because it was not fully inclusive: the political right, the proponents of Hutu Power were identified with the Intrahamwe and thereby demonized – and excluded from the Arusha talks. Not surprisingly, they had no interest in defending the outcome of a political process from which they were excluded. A counter-example is Northern Ireland. Would the political process have been successful if the political wing of the IRA had been held responsible for the atrocities carried out by the military wing – demonized – and excluded from the political process?


It may help to frame another set of questions to highlight an alternative point of view. Can you stop a conflict by trying perpetrators of atrocities or do you need to address the issues that underlie the conflict? What happens when victorious victims demand justice in the form of criminal trials? Is the process likely to fuel the conflict and create fresh grievances?

The issue I raised in the book was not about the political responsibility of the al-Bashir government, which is a settled issue so far as I am concerned. Rather, I raised a larger and more important issue: how to end the conflict in Darfur.

Recent experience offers two paradigms as guides: the postwar paradigm is identified with Nuremburg, the post-apartheid paradigm is identified with the negotiations at Kempton Park in South Africa. The key question for us is not which of the two is the better paradigm but the conditions appropriate to each. The Nuremburg way is based on two assumptions. The first is that the conflict in question has ended, and that there is a clear victor who can administer justice. This is why Nuremburg is identified with Victors’ Justice. The second assumption is that perpetrators and victims of yesterday will not have to live together, for there will be a separate state – Israel – for survivors. Indeed, the language of Nuremburg reserves the identity ‘survivor’ only for yesterday’s victims.

Kempton Park was born of the realization that neither of the assumptions that characterized Nuremburg obtained in the South African case. First, there was no victor, for the simple reason that this was an ongoing conflict. Second, perpetrators and victims of the ongoing conflict – whites and blacks in South Africa, like Hutu and Tutsi in Rwanda – have no choice but to live together. There will be no Israel for them. This is why the language of Kempton Park identifies all those who survived apartheid – and not just its victims – as Survivors, why I identify the overall paradigm as Survivors’ Justice.

Kempton Park was meant as a response to an entirely different set of questions from those that triggered Nuremburg. First: How do you stop the conflict? How do you convince adversaries that it is in their interest to stop the conflict? This could not be done by prioritizing criminal justice and threatening to take the political leadership of apartheid to court, because the people you would take to court are the very people you would need to stop the conflict. Second, rather than put justice on the back seat, the implication of Kempton Park was that one needed to make a distinction between different forms of justice – criminal, political and social – so as to prioritize political justice, the reform of the political system, over the other two. The rationale for this is simple: Political Justice affects groups whereas criminal justice targets individuals. Instead of encouraging the lust for punishment, the leadership of the anti-apartheid movement called for a trade off: an amnesty for individual leaders in return for an agreed political reform for all. The point was to change the rules, thereby to reform the political community, so as to give the living a second chance.

Not only has Save Darfur’s mantra of “continuing genocide” fed into the rhetoric of those looking for military as opposed to political solutions, it has also reinforced extreme tendencies on both sides of the conflict, on the one hand, rebels who think they simply have to wait to get power and, on the other, those on the government side who believe that any concession will just be a step down a slippery slope that will end with regime change.

The way forward does not lie in a military solution – whether an external invasion or a continuation of the cycle of insurgency/counterinsurgency – nor in the prosecution of those responsible for extreme violence and suffering, but in a political settlement capable of ushering in political reform. Ending he conflict through a political reform is likely to have its own price: first, an amnesty for the leadership responsible for mass atrocities; second, an agreement that social justice be put on the agenda only after political reform has been affected.

Like apartheid-era South Africa, Darfur is an ongoing conflict. As in the South African case, we are faced with a choice: either try those politically responsible for the killings, or win them over to an agenda of political reform. Let us remember that, instead of being tried and imprisoned, the leaders of apartheid sit in a post-apartheid parliament. The same is the case with the leadership of Renamo in Mozambique. And that same choice was made in ending the civil war in South Sudan. Why not in Darfur?

Responses to “Mamdani Responds to His Critics III”
May 23rd, 2009 at 12:03 pm
Brilliant and informative as usual from Mahmood Mamdani

Abd al-Wahab Abdalla:
May 24th, 2009 at 12:48 am
Dear Prof Mamdani
I have followed this debate with interest and I have found the exchanges here to be extremely illuminating including in some respects more so than your book. Having awaited your replies with anticipation I read them with a deepening sense of disappointment.

At the root of my frustration is methodology. You begin by posing some challenging questions which have not been asked by others which put Darfur in a different context. This was extremely successful for your London Review of Books essays which were polemics that served the educational purpose of interrogating assumptions and stimulating debate on your propositions. In your book you have used the same methodology of comparative and general hypothesizing to seeking to demonstrate your case on the basis of original source material and organizing the facts according to the propositions you have already established. It is essentially a comparative methodology which functions at a high level of abstraction applied to a political ethnographic case study.

The consequence is that Saviors and Survivors is a book of many parts each which is illuminating in precisely inverse proportion to the degree to which you are dealing with the detailed facts. Every reviewer has found it to be “stimulating” or a “corrective” or “incisive” because it asks the right questions and is such a refreshing change from the great mass of writing on Darfur which is like a prosecution brief that only demands the reader to conclude “guilty!” on every page.

Your methodology falls down on the empirical detail because so much of it is simply incorrect. The errors in your book are not just stray mistakes which are inevitable and forgiveable and which can be corrected without undue impact on the main line of argument. The errors illuminate a basic lack of familiarity with the subject matter. Your charge against your critics that they are pedantic empiricists can only hit its target if you have got the facts straight yourself otherwise it looks as though you are arguing an a priori position which does not so much explain Darfur as explain away Darfur.

The central arguments in your book about the colonial impact and the post-colonial agenda are over-theorized and under-documented. In responding to criticisms on these your response is defensive and thereby illustrates the limits of your methodology. If you were extracting general themes from an analysis of the Save Darfur movement in order to illustrate a general point about the epistemological undergirdings of new globalizing social movements or the lack of historicity of ethical narratives about crisis that would be fine but if you are attempting to make specific points about the motivations, impact and falsity of what Save Darfur is doing then your approach by being blind to the internal contradictions of both the Darfur crisis and the Save Darfur movement becomes simplistic and too often plain wrong.

The theme that you develop in this last posting (which I find stimulating) on the distinction between victor’s justice and survivor’s justice is given almost no space either theoretically or empirically in the book despite the promise of the title. It is an example of the provocative Socratic method that worked so well in your first London Review of Books essay but poses more questions than it answers about the Kempton Park paradigm, the conditions under which it succeeded in South Africa and the objective and subjective factors which must be present for it to be successfully transferred to Sudan.

Khalid Al Nur:
May 24th, 2009 at 2:16 am
With respect, Professor, you have crossed the line into the absurd.

“Given time, Save Darfur, this lavish, multi-million dollar, giant, advertizing campaign would be as deadly in its consequences as the War on Terror.” Save Darfur has perhaps (mis)spent millions of dollars on advertizing billboards in the New York subway but this pales in comparison with the trillions devoted by the Pentagon, CIA and Department of Homeland Security on mobilizing American citizens and state institutions for the Global War on Terror.

“The government of Sudan carried out its own little War on Terror in Darfur in 2003-04.” The Khartoum government occasionally made the point that JEM had Islamist credentials and should have been on the CIA’s terrorist watchlist but no-one apart from yourself has ever compared Khartoum’s war in Darfur to the Global War on Terror.

Hafiz Mohamed:
May 24th, 2009 at 5:41 am
Dear Prof Mamdani,

I do agree with you that the security problem in Darfur region of Sudan started before 1989, not only that but the arms proliferation and banditry in Darfur was going on for the last 40 years, and that mainly due to the internal political problems in Chad, but the scale of the violence was very low in comparison with what has been happening since 2003.

The main reason for the escalation after 2003 was to due to the government of Sudan counter-insurgency policies when they decided to recruit the Arab militias, armed them and gave them a free hand. That led to the mass killing and displacement among the non-Arab population of Darfur region.
There is no comparison between what is happening in Darfur now and the pre-June 1989 conflict, which was a normal tribal conflict due to competition over land and resources between farmers and nomadic tribes. These conflicts are normal in Darfur region and also in the neighboring Kordofan region where we also have nomadic tribes that live side by side with farmers, which has been going on for hundreds of years and never developed into the types of conflict which we are watching now in Darfur. The June 1989 conference should had succeed if the leaders of the military coup of 30 June 1989, had not decided to force them to concluded the negotiations with any recommendations as quickly as possible. That why the conference failed to address that problem.

The main Darfur armed movement (Sudan Liberation Army/Movement) started as protection forces to protect villages from the attacks of Arab bandits before 2003. Then they turned to attack the government army and police after they realized that the government was supporting the Arab militias. That led to escalation of the crisis.

There is a misconception that the current tribal and racial conflicts in Darfur are due to competition over resources between farmers and herdsmen. This misconception had led to the use of traditional civil conflicts resolution mechanisms such as the old “Ajawid” or “Jodia” (leaders concerned and other assemble to solve problems), or tribal reconciliation conferences, or comprehensive security conference. There were more than 50 conferences in the three Darfur States. This has led to seeking for solutions that are permanent because of the insecure conditions in Greater Darfur, seen from the perspective of these affected by insecurity in the region. More than 100 researchers and papers, MAs and PhDs were presented seeking a solution for this problem. Governments and different regimes since independence have tried different ways over the last thirty years to address this issue.

Political instability in Chad contributed to the insecurity in Darfur that increased during Numeri’s regime (1969-1985), especially after the heavy migrations of Chadians to Sudan and to Darfur in particular. Regularly they formed around the armed Chadian opposition, for example FROLINAT which was formed of armed organizations against Francois Tombalbaye. This movement (FROLINAT) began as a secret party in Chad since 1958 under the name (U.N.T) aiming at the alleviation of injustice suffered by most Chadian Muslim citizens and seeking a constitutional approach to achieve justice in the broadest sense after the independence of Chad. This party was banned together with other political parties in Chad in 1962 and most of the party leaders were arrested. Some were imprisoned and others fled to Darfur (Sudan) as political refugees, also to Algiers and Cairo from which they started struggling politically showing the injustice against Muslim Chadians. Libiya intervention in Chad’s internal politics also contributed to that crisis as most to arms to Chadian insurgencies used to pass through Darfur.

The Way Out

I think the way out is to allow Darfurians to sit together and sort out this problem without any intervention or influence from the Sudanese regime and the elites in Khartoum, The current process of negotiations (Doha) between Government of Sudan and JEM is going no where and will not lead to any peaceful resolution of the crisis. But the Sudanese government is obstructing that approach and that is very clear this month when they prevented delegates from attending the Mo Ibrahim Foundation conference for Darfur civil society in Addis Ababa.

Ernest Muganga:
May 24th, 2009 at 12:46 pm
Professor Mamdani has done us a big favor by pointing out the way in which the simplistic and universalistic prescriptions beloved by human rights organizations and ICG have become a means of disempowering national political actors struggling for their rights. A single idealistic template for solutions becomes the benchmark which all national organizations and politicians must follow with those who refuse to do so being shouted down as compromising on universal standards. We lose any sense of history and context and measure ourselves against a fictitious scale, and of course we are perpetually found wanting. Our national civil societies end up emulating this. The international organizations pick the most talented of our intellectuals and domesticate them as loyal servants of this orthodoxy. Worst of all, when we do succeed in solving our problems through our own efforts, these successes are not recognized as such because they do not conform to this ideal fashioned in New York or Paris or Geneva.

David Bashir:
May 24th, 2009 at 12:57 pm
Mamdani’s critics should ask themselves a simple question: why does his critique of Save Darfur resonate so strongly with the experience of people in Africa and the Arab countries? Perhaps Mamdani has made errors in his historical analyis or his details of the Save Darfur movement, but for many thoughtful and concerned citizens, the bigger picture he paints is completely consistent with their own experience of the behavior of would-be saviors and their total insensitivity to the history and society of the countries they are claiming to save.

Simon Barker:
May 25th, 2009 at 2:02 pm
I see Luis Moreno-Ocampo is busy whining again:

May 26th, 2009 at 6:31 pm
Mamdani does a superb job of demolishing his critics here as well as in the debate with John Prendergast at Columbia. Not to be missed.

Victor Manfredi:
May 26th, 2009 at 10:46 pm
“Saviors and Survivors” includes side comparisons, not just to the Bush43 crusades in Afghanistan and Iraq (as noted on this site), but also to the Bush41/Clinton Cold War endgame in Yugoslavia. The latter disaster has its own critical literature, including books by Diana Johnstone (”Fools’ Crusade”, 2002) and Jean Bricmont (”Humanitarian Interventionism”, Monthly Review 2006). These recent examples, among others of longer standing, demonstrate that a minimum condition for taking human rights rhetoric seriously is to admit its tendency to be coopted by imperial agendas. So long as this elementary point is still news to citizens of the countries that run the U.N. Security Council, Mamdani’s Darfur book will be necessary reading.

Paul Alexander:
May 30th, 2009 at 2:47 am
Brilliantly put Victor, you’ve summed it nicely.

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