Professor and Provocateur: Factual Inaccuracies Undermine Mamdani’s thesis

by Jun 29, 2009All Articles

“Saviors and Survivors”, Making Sense of Darfur:
posted by Rebecca Hamilton

Saviors and Survivors by Mahmood Mamdani is a book that reads as having been written by two different authors. Let’s called them, Mamdani the Professor, and Mamdani the Provocateur. The Professor is nuanced and factual. The Provocateur makes broad assertions, some it seems for the sake of controversy alone, with a distinct disinclination to support these assertions with facts.

While the hand of the Professor is obvious in the bulk of the text, the Provocateur seems to be responsible for the first and last sections of the book. Unfortunately it is these sections that have attracted the most attention.

The Provocateur’s overall thesis seems to be the following: The U.S. government constructed Arabs as villains in the War on Terror, the Save Darfur movement and the U.S. government constructed Arabs as villains in Sudan, and these two things are related components of a Western conspiracy to re-colonize Africa. In the words of the Provocateur:

“The Save Darfur Coalition is determined there is only one way to save Darfur – that is, to occupy it through a military intervention. Its raison d’être is to be sought in the War on Terror.” (KL 860-67)(1)

While such statements may attract media attention, they may also turn off many of the people who should constitute part of the book’s readership – Darfur advocates.

Saviors and Survivors contains some mistakes that are so rudimentary it is hard to believe that a basic fact-checking process was even attempted by Mamdani or his editor/s.

For instance, the Provocateur refers to a campaign for external military intervention in Darfur, and states:

“The campaign scored its first victory when the UN Security Council passed two resolutions in succession: 1706 and 1769 in July and August 2006 respectively.” (KL 812)

In actual fact, 1706 was passed on August 31, 2006, and 1769 was passed on July 31, 2007. A quick check on the Security Council website could have corrected this. So could a phone call with any Darfur advocate. However despite his book being pitched as being about Darfur advocacy, Mamdani’s footnotes reveal he did not speak to any advocates at all. Not one.

In another similarly verifiable inaccuracy, the Provocateur states that in the application for the arrest of Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir, the ICC Prosecution misuses a mortality estimate (presented by the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters, CRED) of 118,142 dead between September 2003 and January 2005. In the words of the Provocateur, the ICC Prosecution:

” . . . presents what is a global tally, of all civilians (”Arabs” and “non-Arabs”) who died from all causes – not just violence but also drought and desertification – as if it were a tally of only “non-Arab” civilians who died from only violence.” (Italics in original) (KL 4798 – 805)

The first problem with this statement is that the CRED report itself states that the figure of 118,142 is a calculation of the deaths that may be attributed “directly as a consequence of the war.” (Italics added) (CRED report, p.35). Thus contrary to what the Provocateur states, the tally does not include deaths attributable to drought and desertification.

The second problem is that the ICC Prosecution’s application does not, in fact, present the number as a tally of only non-Arab civilians who died only from violence. This is readily apparent in the Prosecution’s publicly available redacted version of its application, which states:

“There exists no definitive account of the total number of civilians killed in Darfur since 2003. [TEXT REDACTED], [TEXT REDACTED]. According to this report, the number of people [note: not “non-Arabs”] dead as a consequence of the conflict during the period September 2003 – January 2005 is 118,142, of whom approximately 35,000 were killed and 83,000 died as a consequence of injury, starvation, lack of water, or conditions in the camps. ” (Prosecution Application under Article 58 (public redacted version), para 11 )

The Prosecution’s application presents exactly what the source of the figure states the figure represents. There is no misuse of the figure, and this clear to anyone who reads both the Prosecution’s application and the CRED report.

If one is to believe the Provocateur (and belief in the writer is essentially what it comes down to, since he provides precious little objective bases for his claims) then Darfur activists actively avoid knowledge (in the words of the Provocateur, they have a “contemptuous attitude towards knowing”) (KL 130 -38). Parenthetically, I might observe something of a contemptuous attitude towards knowledge lurking when someone sets out to “examine the movement’s history, organization, and message” – and then proceeds not to speak with anyone in the movement.

Mamdani also calls Darfur activists the “humanitarian face of the War on Terror.” (KL 130-38). Putting aside the problem that Darfur activists are far from the monolith the Provocateur paints them to be, I found it hard to accept the link he drew to the War on Terror (I don’t disagree there is a link – but I don’t think it is the one he tries to make):

“Is genocide a label to be stuck on your worst enemy . . . part of a rhetorical arsenal that helps you vilify your adversaries while ensuring impunity for your allies – so that impunity is conferred as a reward upon those who join the War on Terror?”(KL 1147)

Presumably the Provocateur would answer his rhetorical question in the affirmative. The problem is that the facts point in the opposite direction. The U.S. government put the genocide label on the Sudanese government. But at the time that this label was applied, the Sudanese government’s well-documented expulsion of Osama bin-Laden and their subsequent counter-terrorism cooperation with the CIA made them an ally, not an adversary, in Bush’s so-called the War on Terror.

Segments like this became so frustrating that I was inclined to give up on disentangling the reality from the rhetoric in the first and last sections of the book. However in a couple of instances where his assertions were so blatantly false on their face, I was compelled to piece them apart.

As one example from the first part of the book, there is a segment on Darfur mortality estimates. Mamdani states:

“Soon after [emphasis in original] President Bush declared that the violence in Darfur constituted genocide, the U.S. Department of State financed an NGO alliance named Coalition for International Justice (CIJ) to conduct an alternate study of mortality in Darfur.” (KL 444-51)

There is a significant problem with this statement – namely that the State Department did not finance CIJ to conduct a mortality study. In fact the only time the State Department financed CIJ to do anything was in 2004 – before the U.S. declared that Darfur was genocide.

But let us backtrack a little, because there is room for confusion.

The State Department funded CIJ to do an “Atrocities Documentation” study in mid-2004. The State Department did this because the question of whether or not Darfur was a genocide had come up and they wanted their own research done on it before making a decision. According to those who worked on the study, the funding given to CIJ was used solely to “recruit, hire and direct” a team of independent investigators to collect statements in Chad during the summer of 2004. The State Department then did their own analysis of the statements in order to reach the Powell genocide determination in September 2004. CIJ also retained copies of the statements their team had collected.

Then, in April 2005, a Northwestern University Professor by the name of John Hagan, formulated a mortality estimate with the assistance of his colleagues, Wynnona Rymond-Richmond and Patricia Parker. CIJ had given Hagan access to the statements it had collected back in 2004, but this was done completely independent of the State Department, and formed only one part of the sources Hagan drew on for his study.

This was spelled out in a footnote of a 2006 Government Accountability Office (GAO) assessment of different mortality figures for Darfur, which stated that Hagan’s 2005 study (as well as two different mortality studies by others) did draw “at least in part, its numbers of violent deaths on the “Atrocities Documentation Team’s” survey of Chad refugees . . .” The figure produced by Hagan and his colleagues in April 2005 (396,563 deaths over a twenty-six month period) is what Mamdani refers to as “the CIJ mortality study.” It is true that CIJ announced the findings of the mortality study that Hagan led. However it stretches the facts beyond breaking point to assert that the State Department financed CIJ to do a mortality study in April 2005.

Having his initial facts wrong, Mamdani then gilds the lily:

“Circumstantial evidence points to the conclusion that the U.S. government’s decision to launch an alternative study was politically motivated.” (KL 444-51).

This “alternative study” he refers to is Hagan’s April 2005 mortality study which, as noted above, was not in fact launched by the State Department. The original mortality figure against which Mamdani states the Hagan study was an alternative to was a study by the World Health Organization (WHO). Mamdani then goes on to discuss the findings of a “WHO affiliate, the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED)” which placed excess deaths from September 2003 – January 2005 at 118, 142. Mamdani continues:

“Apparently not happy with the accuracy of the CIJ study it had financed, the State Department compiled its own estimate, “for internal policymakers,” of excess deaths.” (KL 458-65)

This internal estimate was of 63,000 – 146,000 excess deaths in the period March 2003 – January 2005, and although Mamdani implies that this “internal” estimate was kept quiet, it is plainly visible as the “U.S. Department of State estimate” in the publicly available May 2005 mortality report issued by CRED (p.21). Interestingly, given his attempt to portray Hagan’s April 2005 study as having been funded by the State Department, Mamdani chooses not to point out that the May 2005 CRED report, containing the lower-end estimates, was “generously supported” by the State Department – as noted in the report’s acknowledgments.

Mamdani mocks the State Department for endorsing the findings of the 2006 GAO report, which found CRED’s estimates to be more reliable than Hagan’s. In so doing, he again conflates the 2004 Atrocities Documentation survey, which was an initiative of the State Department but never produced a mortality estimate, with Hagan’s 2005 mortality study, which produced the estimate of 396,563 but was not an initiative of the State Department:

“Presumably, Department of State officials kept a straight face while writing this response [endorsing the findings of the GAO assessment]. After all, the “Atrocities Documentation Team” had not only been “assembled by State” but also consisted of “officials from State and USAID” alongside others . . . At the same time, State had its own internal count of mortality in Darfur. What was one to make of the simultaneous functioning of the two faces of State, each giving a different set of mortality figures, so far apart that the external organ (”Atrocities Documentation Team”) claimed that the number dead (396,563 over a twenty-six month period) were no less than twice [that] recorded by its internal counterparts (98,000, to 181,000 over a twenty three month period). What could be the reason for what traders call double bookkeeping?” (KL 537-52)

Mamdani invites the reader to suspect foul play where there is none. The State Department did not have two different estimates going. This entire section of the book arises from Mamdani’s false premise that the State Department launched and financed the April 2005 mortality study that came up with a mortality estimate of 396,563. Once this mistake is recognized, none of the subsequent arguments follow.

As an example of the inaccuracies evident in the final section of the book, the segment on the International Criminal Court (ICC) is illustrative.

Mamdani states that in Sudan:

“the ICC has charged officials of the Sudan government for what the UN Commission on Darfur alleged were “crimes against humanity” but not leaders of rebel movements for what the same commission alleged were “war crimes.”” (KL5010 – 17).

He either does not know, or chooses not to mention, facts that would paint a more complete picture – namely that on 20 November 2008, the ICC Prosecutor applied for the arrest of members of one of the Darfur rebel groups, charging them with war crimes. The application that was not only public when made, but was also foreshadowed in the Prosecutor’s prior public statements as far back as July 2008.

Mamdani then moves to discuss the ICC’s work in the Congo, stating that:

“. . . the ICC has remained mum about the links between the armies of Uganda and Rwanda – both pro-United States – and the ethnic militias that have been at the heart of the slaughter of civilians.” (KL 5017-23).

This conspiratorial assertion is hard to reconcile with recent statements made by the Prosecution in open court, such as Deputy Prosecutor Bensouda’s opening statement in the Lubanga case, where she starts by explaining that:

“The armed conflict in Ituri is connected with the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and the two Congo wars. All of them are rooted in history and colonisation.”

Bensouda continues,

“The Prosecution will also show, your Honours, that Uganda and Rwanda officials supported different armed groups involved in the conflicts in Ituri. They provided military training and expertise, weapons and ammunition, uniforms and financial support. You will hear, your Honours, of the training received by Lubanga’s officers in camps in Ituri, in Uganda, and in Rwanda. You will hear Prosecution witnesses describe the parachuting of weapons and ammunition from Rwanda planes around the military training camp at Mandro and explain the connection between Bosko Ntaganda and the Rwandan authorities. The Prosecution, your Honours, will also tender evidence to show that Ugandan officials supported Lubanga, and this they did from 2000 to at least the end of October 2002 and that Rwandan officials provided support between mid-2002 and mid-2003.”

In both of the above instances, one could give Mamdani the benefit of the doubt since the events and statements that contradict his assertions arose 2-5 months prior to his book’s publication; perhaps he finished revising his manuscript earlier than this.

The same excuse cannot be offered regarding Mamdani’s treatment of one of the Court’s fundamental principles, known as “complementarity.”

As per Article 17 of the Rome Statute, the Court does not have jurisdiction to investigate or prosecute a case unless (in addition to other requirements) the country involved is “unwilling or unable genuinely to carry out the investigation or prosecution.” (RS, Art. 17(1)(a)). There may be any number of reasons why such a situation would arise, including when the justice system in the relevant country has the resources for most cases, but not for a given case requiring cross-country investigation, or when government involvement prevented the judiciary from being able to carry out genuine proceedings in the particular circumstance of the case. However Mamdani lumps such possible scenarios together under the general banner of ‘failed statehood.’

He says that the Ugandan President was determined to bring the LRA case to the ICC “even if the prerequisite was to declare Uganda a failed state unable to bring violators of human rights to justice.” He goes on to state that “[T]he ICC prosecutor obliged, joining the Ugandan President in bypassing both the legislature and the courts and thereby declaring both incompetent and Uganda and “failed state!”” (exclamation in original)(KL 5030).

Failed statehood is never a pre-requisite for ICC jurisdiction. A decision to refer a case to the ICC never has been, or will be, a decision on whether or not the country making the referral is a failed state. The Rome Statute does not suggest this is the case (and one imagines the Ugandan President would be shocked to learn he was declared his country a “failed state” by referring the situation in northern Uganda to the ICC. )

The segments on mortality and the ICC are unfortunately reflective of a more general problem with the first and final sections of the book: namely, Mamdani seems driven to loosen the facts in order to shape them into his pre-determined thesis. With respect to certain conclusions, my sense is that had not treated the facts in this way it would have been impossible even attempt to state the conclusion he wanted to state. But the more unfortunate part is actually with respect to other conclusions, which I feel may have been valid, had their legitimacy not been undermined by the manner in which he approached them.

The Save Darfur Coalition does deserve a significant amount of critical scrutiny for the choices it has made. But examining the movement in this way – assuming it is a monolith, not interviewing any of the people actually involved in the movement, and inferring malignant intentionality without providing any basis – is hardly the most convincing approach.

Turning however, to the bulk of the book, which “the Professor” seems to be responsible for, I am largely full of praise. Although perhaps inaccessible to the general public, the writing is at times so carefully constructed that I was inspired to exclamations like “beautiful! Thank you for this clarity!” at various points in my notes.

Notably reliant on Flint and de Waal’s excellent book, Darfur: A Short History of a Long War, this middle section is an account of Sudan’s history from early sixteenth century Sultanate of the Funj, through to the present day. Unlike in the other sections of the book, Mamdani is mostly very specific about the claims he makes. For instance, he is careful to draw the reader’s attention to precisely what he is doing when he uses the word “tribe” (using it “in the sense in which the colonial power employed the term: as an administratively produced political identity.” (KL 3033). )
Mamdani can also be credited with enhancing nuance here, rather than diminishing it. As just one example, he draws out a distinction between two different types of hakura. The distinction between “administrative hakura” and “hakura of privilege” (KL 2041) was new to me, and Mamdani documented the origins of both in a way that was revelatory with regard to the power relationships over land in Darfur following the second ruler of the Keira dynasty.

Later in the section however, a few doubts reminiscent of my reaction to the first part of the book appeared again when he turned to the role of the present day regime in Khartoum. While not denying the extent of the human destruction in Darfur, he never-the-less is a little too ready to assume benign intent on the part of the Sudanese government. Referring to government involvement in the conflict as initially undertaken merely to “address the basic cause of the conflict” (KL 4077) he paints as neutral actions that were received as anything but by the people who were affected by them.

Still, there are parts of this central section that carry the thoughtful and useful analysis and contextualization of colonialism that we have seen in Mamdani’s earlier work. Unfortunately though, the reader is left struggling to disentangle these precious insights from the sweeping claims such as “justice is really a slogan that masks a big power agenda to recolonize Africa” (KL 3517) that appear again in the final section of the book.

In sum, I would recommend the central section of the book to anyone who does advocacy on Darfur . . . with one hesitation: My quip about the dichotomous reading experience aside, it is just one person who wrote this book; that being the case, the significant concerns about accuracy that I have with the first and last sections diminish my faith in Mamdani’s writing overall.
(1) I’m reading on a Kindle so can’t give the paper page number, but am providing the Kindle location as “KL”

Rebecca Hamilton is interviewing key Darfur negotiators, policymakers, commanders and advocates for her forthcoming book. She has set up a website to solicit questions that experts, journalists and citizen advocates would like to ask some of her upcoming interviewees – and she will podcast their answers back to you through the site.

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