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Untangling the False Narrative of a 'New Humanitarianism' for Darfur
[Book Review] Mahmood Mamdani's 'Saviors and Survivors'
Ronda Hauben (netizen2)     Print Article 
Published 2009-03-31 09:48 (KST)   
In his book "Saviors and Survivors," Mahmood Mamdani describes how US Secretary of State Colin Powell "made two pivotal presentations" during his term in Office under George Bush. The first presentation was his defense of the US government claim that there were Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) in Iraq, thus establishing the pretext for the illegal US invasion of Iraq. The second false narrative Powell was instrumental in creating had to do with the claim that there was genocide being carried out in Darfur.

With respect to Powell's claims of WMD in Iraq, much of the mainstream media in the US dutifully went along with the US government propaganda campaign by creating a false narrative to justify the US government's military attack on Iraq.

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There has been the general acknowledgement by some of the mainstream media that their advocacy on behalf of the US government claim of WMD in Iraq was a serious failure of responsibility to the public. "Saviors and Survivors" demonstrates that the same failure has once again become the thrust of the US mainstream media's support for the unsubstantiated claim of genocide in Darfur, as the excuse for the pursuit of the President of Sudan by the International Criminal Court (ICC).

This false narrative, as Mamdani explains, looks at the violence in Darfur through the eyes of the War on Terror, which provides the language, the images and the sentiment for interpreting Darfur. "In doing so," writes Mamdani, "the War on Terror has displaced the history and politics of Darfur while providing the context to interpret and illuminate ongoing developments in Darfur. The more such an interpretation takes root, the more Darfur becomes not just an illustration of the grand narrative of the War on Terror but also a part of its justification." (p. 71) To show the fallacy of this grand narrative Mamdani sets out "to restore the historical and contemporary context of Darfur."

Only then will it be possible," he proposes, "to explain the dynamic that fuels the conflict and the motivation that drives it."

Mamdani traces the roots of the Darfur genocide narrative to statements in 2004 by Powell, George Bush, and a resolution passed by the US Congress. The narrative was then spread by the Save Darfur Coalition and the advertising agency it hired to popularize its version of reality. On June 30, 2004 George Bush proclaimed the violence in Darfur to be genocide. A few weeks later, on July 22 the US House and Senate passed resolutions declaring there to be genocide going on in Darfur. Then on Sept. 9, in testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Powell revised earlier statements where he had resisted administration pressure. In his September statement to the US Congress, he said that, "genocide has been committed in Darfur." He placed the responsibility on the Sudanese government."

Genocide, however, has a specific definition. This requires the intent to wipe out a race or national, ethnical, or religious group of people.

Though the violence in Darfur did not accord with this characterization, the Save Darfur coalition has endeavored to present the conflict in Darfur as one between Arab settlers and native Africans. But the people in Darfur do not fit into the categories presented by the Save Darfur coalition. The history of Darfur, as Mamdani demonstrates in his book, is one of a mixing of peoples, and of the transition of people from one livelihood to another. Prior to British colonial rule, there was a trend in Sudan away from tribes. British colonial rule introduced retribalization and the effort to create a form of identity for the Sudanese consistent with Britain's colonial aims. It introduced the concept of settlers and natives into what was an indigenous population where such concepts were nonexistent and inappropriate.

Even after its independence from Britain, Sudan has had a tumultuous past, partly due to the Cold War rivalry that utilized Darfur as an outpost of the struggles between the US, Israel and France against the former Soviet Union and Libya going on in Chad.

Mamdani shows how the civil war in Darfur, reaching a crisis in 1987-1989, preceded the coup that brought al-Bashir to the head the government of Sudan. Hence to place the blame for the civil war on al Bashir, as the Save Darfur Coalition, and the ICC Prosecutor Luis Ocampo have done, is contrary to the historical record. There is a serious problem in Darfur, explains Mamdani. As a consequence of the drought that began in the 1960s, the desert area of Sudan has steadily expanded, moving southward 100 kilometers. This led to a fight over land and political power resulting from the subsequent loss of both grazing land and farming land.

Along with the struggle over the right to the land or grazing rights, has been the struggle over the distribution of political power. The British colonial administration distributed the land and the right to administer the land to certain sectors of the population, thereby depriving other sectors not only of access to the land but also to political influence.

Mamdani describes how one of the manifestations of the false narrative presenting the conflict in Darfur as genocide, has been the way that the numbers of those killed in the years after 2003 has been misrepresented.

John Holmes, the Undersecretary General for Humanitarian Affairs at the United Nations is responsible for the widely quoted claim that 300,000 died in Darfur since 2003. In April 2008 Holmes explained the source of his figures. Holmes says that he took the figures from a 2006 study of 200,000 dead and extrapolated upwards under the assumption that the same number of people died every year since. "That figure must be much higher now, perhaps half as much again." (p. 272)

The problem with this kind of logic, Mamdani writes, is that the large number of deaths during the period between 2003 and 2004, which the World Health Organization estimates to be 70,000, diminished substantially in the subsequent period. He cites the examination of the exaggerated figures by the US government accounting office (GAO) in their study in 2006. They report that both the Save Darfur Coalition's numbers of reported deaths and other such high accounts were gathered by methods judged to be faulty.

The misrepresentations of the situation in Darfur becomes part of a phenomenon Mamdani calls "the New Humanitarianism." By substituting humanitarian aid for political reform and dependency for political empowerment, a new form of colonialism is being developed in Sudan. Another piece of this dependency is the imposition of the form of western justice via the International Criminal Court in the place of encouraging the internal settlement of the Darfur conflict, as the African Union is attempting to do.

Describing this phenomenon, Mamdani writes:

"By involving extraregional organizations such as the ICC, big powers were able to criminalize responsibility for human rights violations, thereby moving the focal point of the process away from the political to the criminal -- at the same time feeding expectations on all sides that its object would be punishment, not reconciliation." (p. 292)

The problem with such a thrust to the conflict, Mamdani explains is that: "This combination of African violations tried through non-African interventions introduced a conflict resolution mechanism whose consequences in the political domain were the same as those of the Cold War-era Structural Adjustment Programs (SAP) in the economic field: Those who made decisions did not have to live with their consequences, nor pay for them." (p. 292)

As part of his research, Mamdani describes how he worked with the African Union with their Darfur-Darfur Dialogue and Consultation (DDDC) office in 2006. This program was part of the effort by the African Union to investigate the forces that led to the conflict in Darfur. Mamdani explains how the DDDC "had been set up as a result of a provision in the Abuja agreement that mandated it to promote consultation with and among different groups in Darfur so as to nurture an internal reflection on how to move beyond a conflict-ridden present." (p. 13)

The opening phase of Mamdani's work for DDDC involved day long meetings in three different states of Darfur with representatives of five different groups, traditional leaders, political parties, representatives of IDPs (internally displaced persons) from different camps, local community-based organizations and academics and intellectuals.

Mamdani found that the DDDC process made it possible for those who weren't armed to have a voice.

The International Non Governmental Organizations (INGO) working in Darfur, however, were skeptical of the DDDC process. "Like the United Nations," Mamdani writes, "the INGOs seem to have no patience with an internal political process. For them, the people of Darfur are not citizens in a sovereign political process as much as wards in an open-ended international rescue operation. They are there to'save' Darfur, not to 'empower' it." (p. 297)

Mamdani has done a remarkable feat in untangling the set of categories introduced by the US government and the Save Darfur Coalition. The goal of their activity is not a peaceful solution to the Darfur conflict, but it is, he explains, to advocate for military intervention. Even more remarkable, however, is the service his book does to provide a basis to understand an accurate narrative of what is at stake in Darfur and how the current conflict needs to be treated in a nonpartisan and impartial fashion to be able to find the means for a political solution.

The ICC indictment and then warrant issued for the arrest of the President of Sudan, for al-Bashir, is contrary to what is needed for such a political solution. Though the book "Saviors and Survivors" was written before the ICC issued a warrant for the arrest of al Bashir, the book challenges the false narrative which criminalizes justice and instead examines the historical and political roots which it is critical to understand in order to find the principles for a solution to the Darfur conflict.

Related URLs:

Definition of genocide: http://www.ess.uwe.ac.uk/genocide/gendef.htm

Ronda Hauben, "Politicizing 'Justice': UN, ICC Action Against Sudan", OhmyNews International, March 18, 2009.
http://english.ohmynews.com/articleview/article_view.asp?menu=c10400&no=384950&rel_no=1

Ronda Hauben, "ICC Prosecutor's Indictment of Sudan's President Questioned Journalists at UN press conference ask Ocampo about political motives", OhmyNews International, July 28, 2008
http://english.ohmynews.com/articleview/article_view.asp?menu=c10400&no=383263&rel_no=1

Mahmood Mamdani, "The New Humanitarian Order", The Nation, Sept. 10, 2008
http://www.thenation.com/doc/20080929/mamdani

Nizar Abboud, Review of "Saviors and Survivors" in Arabic.
http://al-akhbar.com/ar/node/125006

Ronda Hauben: Talk (with video links) by Mahmood Mamdani on book on Darfur, Netizenblog
http://blogs.taz.de/netizenblog/2009/03/29/talk_with_video_links_by_mahmoud_mamdani_on_book_on_darfur/

GAO 2006 Darfur Study, Darfur Crisis: Death Estimates Demonstrates Severity of Crisis, but Their Accuracy and Credibility Could Be Enhanced http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-07-24


A version of this article appears on my blog.
©2009 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Ronda Hauben

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