Darfur: A War of Definitions

February 28, 2009 § 2 Comments

Professor Mahmood Mamdani of Columbia University believes that defining the conflict as Arab against African is inaccurate and says much more about the potency of race in the West rather than the relevance of the notion in Darfur. He believes that estimates of 400,000 dead in Darfur are inflated, irresponsible and unrealistic.

Mamdani, who was named as one of the top 100 public intellectuals in the world by the US magazine Foreign Affairs in 2008, is from Uganda, and is the current chair of the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA), Dakar, Senegal.

He is the author of numerous books and articles, including the book Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism. His upcoming book, Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, politics and the War on Terror will be published in English by Pantheon (Random House, New York) on March 17, 2009 and by Verso (London) a month later.

Following is the full interview conducted by IOL correspondent in Khartoum, Sudan, Isma’il Kushkush.

IslamOnline.net (IOL): The conflict in Darfur is often described in the media and by activists as a war pitting “black Africans” against “Arabs”. How accurate do you think this description is?

Prof. Mahmood Mamdani: Even if you take the terms for granted, the majority of the “Arabs” in Darfur — the southern Rozayqat [Arab clans] — are not involved in the conflict. If you narrow the focus to those who are involved in the conflict, which is the northern Rozayqat, the Fur, the Masaleet, and the Zaghawah, then you realize that the distinction which best captures the difference between them is that the northern Rozayqat are those tribes in Darfur who received no [tribal] homeland, no “dar”, in the colonial dispensation, because the colonial dispensation did not give a tribal homeland to those who were fully nomadic and were thus without settled villages. At the same time, the colonial dispensation gave the largest homelands to peasant tribes with settled villages.

The conflict between the “dar-less” tribes and those with “dar” was triggered by an ecological crisis.  According the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP), the Sahara expanded one hundred kilometers over forty years. This came to a head in the 1980s pushing the nomadic tribes in the north down south and triggering a classical ecological conflict around the lush central Darfur mountains, the Jebal Marra.

If you step away from the conflict and ask if the description “black African” and “Arab” tribes is adequate to describe those who live in Darfur, a number of questions would arise. First, it is curious to have the adjective “black” before the adjective “African” since all those who live in Darfur are “black”. The interesting distinction is between “Arab” and “African”.  The first mention I have found of this in any consistent way was in the writings of [Winston] Churchill, The River War, and then in the 1920s, of [Harold] MacMichael. Both of them basically distinguish between “Arab” and what they call “Negro”. Both assume that “Arabs” are settlers and “Negroes” are natives, and they sketch a history of interaction between settlers and natives whereby the settlers “civilized” and “Mongrelized” natives. Out of this interaction are said to have come the contemporary Arabs of Sudan. This historiography doesn’t claim that these Arabs of Sudan were themselves settlers but a mix of settlers and natives.

The colonial census that followed dispensed with a notion of a mixed race. Instead, it distinguished between different kinds of natives and settlers. The natives were divided into “Negroid westerners” of Darfur, and Nilotics and Hametics of central Sudan. The settlers are described as “Arabs”. Now the interesting thing is that the census counts the Arab clans of Darfur as not belonging to Darfur but as part of a single settler tribe called “Arabs”. The other interesting thing is that it does not define “Arabs” as those who speak Arabic at home. Because if you count those speaking Arabic at home, they are more than 50 percent of the population in both Darfur and Sudan as a whole. But those counted as “Arabs” are a minority, roughly a third of the population.

How did they decide who is “Arab” and who is not? In preparing for the census, MacMichael suggested that it have three basic categories: “tribes”, “groups of tribes”, and “races”. “Groups of tribes” put together tribes that spoke the same language. The really curious question was what was a “race”? A census taker was advised to ask a respondent “what is your tribe” and to record the answer without any question. So the tribe of a person was what that person said was the tribe. But that’s where it stopped. Then the census authorities decided which of the “groups of tribes” this tribe belonged to, and then the “race” to which this “group of tribes” belonged. And it’s that last decision that was totally political or politicized, because race was an entirely political category, it was not a cultural category. It reflected the lines of demarcation that the colonial state wished to create or deepen in the “native” population.

In the 1920s, the British tried to create two confederations in Darfur. They called one the Confederation of Arab Tribes and the other the Confederation of Zurga tribes. There was no mention of “African” tribes; the notion of “African” arose later after independence.

Hitherto, I have given you an account of what was done from above. Before we can discuss what happened after independence, we need an account of initiatives from below, how different groups came to identify themselves as “Arabs”. An Arab self-identity was a history of multiple assertions from different vantage points as it was the result of different initiatives. The material I read suggests several distinctions. First, it suggests a very clear distinction between the nomadic Arab tribes of the west [Sudan] and the settled Arab tribes of the riverine Sudan. The nomadic Arab tribes are really part of the nomadic Saharawi population that historically moved around the rim of the Sahara. Very little is known of their history prior to that movement. The settled Arab tribes of riverine Sudan do not have one history; they seem to have several histories. The presumption that they are migrants from the Middle East does not hold. This presumption presents the history of a small minority as the history of all.

If one reads the history of the Sultanate of Funj, and I am thinking mainly of Jay Spaulding’s writings, it becomes clear that a process called “Arabization” — which is seen as a product of immigration in both colonial and nationalist historiography — is actually better understood as a consequence of the history of “state formation”. The earliest claim to be an Arab seems to come from the royalty of the Funj Sultanate and it seems to echo a common claim among royalty in the region during the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries. All the way from Western Sahara right up to Ethiopia, all of them claimed to have descended from one or another section of families in the Holy Land. The Ethiopian kings have claimed to have descended from King Solomon and most of the Islamic royalties claim to have a connection to the House of the Prophet.

The second major assertion came in the eighteenth century with the development of a commercial civilization along with the development of towns. Spaulding says that at the beginning of the eighteenth century there were two towns in Funj and they both were basically administrative towns. By the end of the eighteenth century, there were between twenty and thirty towns and they were mostly commercial towns. These commercial towns were dominated by merchants in association with the “holy men” — the fuqara [religious leaders] —, a conflict emerges between the royalty and the merchants over the rules that would be used to decide new kinds of disputes, disputes arising from commerce. The royal house held that “tradition” must decide and the merchants disagreed, holding that shari’ah [Islamic law] must decide. Coming out of the Byzantine period, “shari’ah” was very commerce-friendly and it was wholly understandable that merchants would want such a code to decide the outcomes of commercial disputes. The merchants won the contest. The merchant-backed mobs used their own armed groups to tame the king by appointing regents who would advice the king to rule. It is in this context that the merchants declared themselves “Arabs”. The merchants and the fuqara didn’t just claim to be decedents of “Arabs”, they claimed to be “Arabs”.

The third assertion that “we are Arabs” came from popular classes in the nationalist period. It was strongly influenced by Nasserism and other anti-colonial movements. The anthropological studies by Wendy James in the southern Funj show that as they engaged with power, different sections embraced different identities. Some became Arabs, some claimed to be Funj, and some championed prior identities as “authentic”. The Arabs of riverine Sudan came from different histories. They are not a single people. Some were immigrants, others came from the merchant classes of the Funj, and others were former slaves who claimed the identity Arab. My understanding is that “Arab” itself was not a racial identity; it couldn’t be. Arab is actually a multi-racial identity. Nor is it a single cultural identity because those who speak Arabic are not all considered to be “Arab” in Sudan. It is much more of a political identity; it is an identity embraced in relation to the state, and even racialized in the process.

Having said this, we need to acknowledge that a large schism exists between the Arabs of riverine Sudan and the Arabs of the west, meaning Darfur and Kordofan. The Arabs of riverine Sudan identify themselves with power, but the Arabs of Darfur are marginal to power. The historical fact is that whereas Darfur was marginal to Sudan, the Arabs of Darfur were the most marginal peoples in Darfur. In Darfur power was identified with the Fur, the Masaleet, and even the Zaghawah; but not the Arabs. I think that this historical fact is important to understand.

The notion of non-Arab as “African” also comes out of a nationalist assertion. My readings suggest two different assertions. A cultural assertion came out of the intellectual ferment among “Arab” intellectuals of riverine Sudan in the colonial period. Their discourse was around “the desert and the jungle”. This literary school claimed that the culture of the Arab in northern Sudan was actually a hybrid culture bringing together the sensibilities of the desert and the jungle, understood by some as “Arab” and “African”. The main point is that Sudan is a hybrid land with a hybrid culture.

The assertion that Sudan is “African” is more of a political development, one that comes out of the southern struggle against a northern and Arab dominated post-colonial state. Even this assertion was not singular. It gave rise to two very contradictory notions. The early notion mirrored the colonial assertion and described “Arab” and “Africa” as racial categories. The early Anya Nya claimed that African was a race. The later SPLA [Sudan People’s Liberation Army], particularly as defined by John Garang in his Koka Dam speech, defined African as a non-racial political identity. Garang made two claims. One, that “Arab” as a cultural assertion goes beyond Arabs, that “Aruba”, Arabness, is actually present all over Sudan. So it should not be confused with a racial category. And he says that it is legitimately part of the whole of Sudan. He also argues that we must understand “African” in non-racial terms. That Sudan is part of Africa and by virtue of that all the peoples of Sudan are “African”. So this is a new notion of Africa; a non-racist notion of Africa.

Although there was a strong organizational connection between the SLA [Sudanese Liberation Army], that emerges in Darfur in 2003, and the SPLA, I believe that the ideological notion of “African” that the SLA has embraced is not non-racial. Rather, it has embraced a racial notion of “Africa”, probably because it was instrumentally useful in its contention over land and resources with the nomadic Arabic speaking tribes of the north. This notion has been picked up by international groups, beginning with those that were in solidarity with the struggle in the south, particularly the SPLA. These solidarity groups have little understanding of what is different about Darfur, particularly the fact that — unlike “Arab” in south Sudan — “Arab” in Darfur is actually the name for the most oppressed. Instead, they proceeded to translate South Sudan into Darfur and the struggle in Darfur as one between “black African” and “Arab”.

IOL: Why do you think that activists and the media, especially the Western, define the conflict in Darfur in such a simplified manner: African vs. Arab?

Mamdani: Well, I think it is political. You can make sense of it not by focusing on those they are defining, but on their audience. Whereas the former live in Darfur, their audience is in the West. They understand that the Western audience would be quick to grasp a racialized distinction and would be easy to mobilize around it. It says much more about the potency of the history of race in the West rather than the relevance of the notion of race in Darfur.

IOL: The conflict in Darfur is described in some corners as “genocide”, while others reject that term and use “civil war”. Can you comment on the usage of the term “genocide”; is it accurate to describe conflict in Darfur as “genocide”?

Mamdani: If you read the two international reports on Darfur, one from the UN Commission on Darfur and the other from the International Criminal Court (ICC), you will find no great disagreement over how many people have died. The real disagreement is on what to call it. The UN Commission says that this is a “counter-insurgency”. They say the killings took place as a consequence of an effort to militarily defeat an insurgency. The ICC says no, this is evidence of a larger intention to kill the groups in question, the Fur, the Masaleet, and the Zaghawah.

How do you prove it? The claim is not made on the basis of those that have actually been killed; the claim is that they would be killed if the conflict went on because that is the intention of the perpetrators. From this point of view, the only way to arrest the killing is to arrest the political leadership of Sudan, and not to urge the two sides to negotiate. The UN Commission was arguing the reverse; that all efforts should be invested in negotiations and in stopping the conflict. The ICC seems to be arguing the opposite; that negotiations would only appease and give time to those who are bent on genocide. It seems to me that the ICC is responding not to what is going on in Darfur but to a particular constituency in the West.

IOL: Why do you think the term “genocide” has been used to describe the conflict in Darfur but not in Congo or Iraq despite the similarities in the conflicts that pit the “state” against an “insurgency”?

Mamdani: The conflicts in Congo and Iraq are different; the scale of killings is much higher. In Congo it is said to be four to five million. In Iraq it is said to have exceeded a million. So from that point of view, these conflicts are much worse than that in Darfur. The conflict in Iraq arises from an occupation and resistance to an occupation. The conflict in Darfur started as a civil war between tribes in Darfur, 1987 and 1989, and the government was not involved at all. The government became involved, first in 1995 and then 2003, but it is still not an occupation, it is an internal conflict.

So why would what’s happening in Darfur be described as “genocide” while the numbers involved are less than in Iraq and when the conflict began as a civil war between tribes internal to Darfur and only then developed into an insurgency against the central government, followed by a counter-insurgency in response to that insurgency? Why?

The answer is basically that in international law “counter-insurgency” is considered a legitimate response by a government to an “insurgency”; “genocide” is not. Only if you call Darfur “genocide” you can justify an external intervention in Darfur. If you call it “counter-insurgency”, intervention becomes an “invasion” of Darfur. That’s the reason.

IOL: The number of “dead” in Darfur has been an issue of controversy. Can you comment on the studies made on this topic and is there a distinction between the terms “dead” and “killed” in Darfur?

Mamdani: We are fortunate that there was actually a review of all the major studies estimating the mortality in Darfur. The review was in 2006 by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) which is an audit agency of the US government. The GAO was asked to review six different studies of mortality in Darfur, including a study sponsored by the US state department estimating nearly 400,000 dead over eighteen months in 2003-2004, at the high end, and at the low end a study by the World Health Organization (WHO) estimating 70,000 dead over roughly the same period.

The WHO study made a distinction between those “dead” and those “killed”. It said that roughly 80% of these 70,000 had died from malnutrition, dysentery, from the effects of drought and desertification, and 20% from violence.

The GAO got together with and asked the American Academy of Sciences (AAS) to nominate a team of twelve experts. These experts went over the six studies, and they concluded that the high end studies were totally unreliable in terms of methodology, in terms of projection. Their findings are on the website. These were sent to the US State Department — which agreed with the GAO in writing — and to Congress, and then to the media, which basically ignored it. I find it quite amazing that it did not have any impact on the public debate in the United States or in the West. The public debate continued to be dominated by the Save Darfur Coalition and its totally inflated, irresponsible, and unrealistic estimates of 400,000 dead. The problem is that this is a very politicized movement which has had no effective counter-response.

IOL: Whatever the real numbers of dead in Darfur are, no one can deny a tragedy has occurred. But why do you think there is a contrast in the numbers of dead used by activist groups, the media, and even governments?

Mamdani: I think the answer is two fold: One, there is a legitimate debate. Let’s say, take the WHO figures, 70,000 died. 20,000 roughly died from violence, 50,000 roughly died from non-violent causes, mainly children dying from dysentery, things like that. Now the debate is this: One group says those who died from violence are the only ones who died from the conflict. The other groups say: Not really. Many of those who died from non-violent causes like dysentery really died from indirect effects of the conflict because the conflict stopped supplies from coming in. From this point of view, those who could have been rescued died, they died of dysentery, but really, had it not been because of the conflict, they would have been saved. That is a legitimate debate. It is a debate that appears in all cases like in the case of the American Indians who died in the Indian genocide you will find many died from diseases, like smallpox, which they did not have to die from. That is a legitimate debate.

There is a second debate that is not legitimate, which is entirely political. The best example is the Save Darfur Coalition and their figures of 400,000. Here you find two things: One you find an extrapolation which is completely unjustifiable and unwarranted. The GAO showed that they [Save Darfur Coalition] extrapolated from deaths in refugee camps in Chad without taking into account any local variations.

They also extrapolate from death rates from 2003, 2004, when the conflict was at its highest, by assuming that the same rate continued in 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2008. This is how the UN got its figure of 300,000 [last year] when Holmes, the undersecretary for Humanitarian Affairs said: “It was 200,000 in 2005 therefore it must be 300,000 now”. “Therefore”, meaning, if the same rate continues which is patently absurd, because the UN’s own people on the ground showed that the mortality rates — not just deaths from killings — dropped low in Darfur starting January 2005. It was less than 200 per month, in other words, less than it would take to call Darfur an “emergency”. So this kind of presumption, that nothing has changed, and therefore you just extrapolate from pre-existing rates, is totally unjustifiable.

Also unjustifiable is the Save Darfur Coalition’s refusal to acknowledge that people are also dying from another cause, drought and desertification. So instead of a debate on how many of those could have been saved had there been no conflict, there is simply silence. This too is a deliberate denial to acknowledge a developed catalogued by the UN’s own agency.

IOL: The conflict in Darfur is portrayed sometimes as a “moral issue”; one that pits “right” against “wrong” as opposed to a “political issue” with its various complications. Can you comment on that, and why do think it is portrayed as such?

Mamdani: It is very important how you define the conflict. In retrospect, one can see that none of those who were involved in this conflict when it began in 1987-1989 as a civil war — the northern Rozayqat one side, the Fur, the Masaleet, and the Zaghawah on the other side — really had control over the issues that triggered the conflict. The issues were no doubt complex.

The really long term issues stemmed from how the British redesigned the hakura [land] system that came out of the Sultanate of Darfur. It eliminated individual ownership and re-divided all the land as “tribal land” with larger hakuras for peasant tribes, smaller ones for semi-nomadic tribes with cattle and no hakuras for fully nomadic tribes with camels. That was one issue. The second trigger was ecological, the expanding desert, pushing the tribes in the north down south, leading to the conflict around Jebal Marra. In 1995, the government tried to solve this conflict by giving land to tribes without hakura, but they should have realized that since all the land in Darfur was already divided up, to do it by taking lands from tribes with hakura would restart the conflict, as indeed happened.

In 2003/2004 when the insurgency began, the government responded to it with a purely security framework with no regards for the issues that had led to this conflict with no attempt to solve the basic problem. Because the rebel movements are anchored in those tribes with hakuras, they are not raising the question of land; the question that pushed the hakura-less tribes into the conflict. The government is simply looking at the security question and the issues being raised by the rebels which is the marginalization of Darfur, but not looking at the issues internal to Darfur which created the conflict in the first place. So, the government has a very narrow vision. The government does not seem to have a Darfur vision. It is evident that Darfur is marginal. There don’t seem to be people with a Darfur vision in the government.

Those outside of Sudan, the Save Darfur movement in the US, are looking at it from their own vantage point which is not simply a global vantage point or a West-centered one, but worse, it’s the vantage point of the most reactionary circles in the US, those waging the “war on terror”. They are painting this conflict not as a conflict over questions of land, not a conflict over questions of law and order, an insurgency/counter-insurgency — which is how the Government of Sudan is seeing it —, but as a conflict between “Arab” and “African”; they’ve racialized the conflict completely. They are partly responsible for the conflict being racialized. Consider the fact that it is a much more racialized conflict now than it was five years ago.

When the Save Darfur movement claims that this violence is African versus Arab its explanation is not historical or political. Its explanation basically is that the Arabs are “race-intoxicated” and they are just trying to wipe out the Africans. The Save Darfur movement does not educate the people they mobilize about the history of Darfur. It does not educate them about what issues drive the conflict. So they know nothing about the politics of Darfur, the history of Darfur, the history of the conflict. All they know is that Darfur is a place where “Arabs” are trying to eliminate “Africans”. That’s all. Darfur is a place where “evil lives”, so they have completely “moralized” the conflict and presented it as a struggle against evil. This evil is thus portrayed as ahistorical, or trans-historical, living outside of history — except that evil is said to live in this place called Darfur and Sudan.

The conclusion means of course that you have to eliminate this “evil”. There is no settlement to a conflict like that. You can’t settle it, you can’t negotiate, there is only one way to have peace and which is to eliminate the evil. So ironically they are trying to create that which they say they are combating.

IOL: We’ve discussed the issue of terminology in the Darfur conflict: “genocide” vs. “counter-insurgency”; “African” vs. “Arab”; “killed” vs. “died”; “moral issue” vs. “political issue”. Some would argue that it really does not make a difference if we make these distinctions. How important is it to have a correct understanding of these terms to reach a solution for the Darfur conflict?

Mamdani: How you define the problem shapes the solution. If you define it as a “war of liberation”, you have a different attitude to it. If you define it as “terror”, you have a different attitude to it. If you define the person as a “terrorist” or as a “liberator” you have totally opposite attitudes to that person. If you define “violence” as “self-defense” or as “aggression” you have a different attitude to that violence. If you explain the issues behind the violence you are more likely to address the issues to stop the violence. But if you portray the violence as “senseless” without any reason, with no issues, with no backgrounds, then you are likely to think that the only way to stop the violence is to target those involved in it.

So “definition” is crucial. “Definition” tells you what the problem is. And in a way, the entire debate rightly should be about what the problem is. Every doctor knows that diagnosis is at the heart of medicine; not prescription. Wrong diagnosis, wrong prescription, and the patient will die. The heart of medicine lies in the analysis.

Isma’il Kamal Kushkush is a Sudanese-American freelance writer currently based in Khartoum, Sudan.

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§ 2 Responses to Darfur: A War of Definitions

  • Kate says:

    What an interesting interview! At the Darfur Radio Project, we have touched on many of those issues. The whole discussion on whether or not the conflict is a genocide is particularly interesting, but does it ever seem like a distraction? I was also really interested in reading the clarification on the Arab/African issue- thanks for providing such a lengthy and informed explanation! At DRP, we try to provide equally informative and unsimplified analyses of the conflict. Check out our website and our March show, with pieces on refugee camps, Sudanese communities in Cairo, the upcoming ICC decision, and the relationship between China and Sudan, at http://www.darfurradioproject.org

  • Freeborn says:

    Both the absurd corporate media focus on African/Arab distinctions and the ascription of the “genocide” label as features of the conflict in Darfur are covers for Anglo-US interventionism.

    The incipient indictment by the ICC of Bashir is the next step in an ascending spiral of depradations against national sovereign states that stand athwart the corporate looting ops.currently ongoing at dire human cost across Congo and the Great Lakes.

    The media demonisation of Rwandan Hutus as genocidaires worked so effectively to help legitimize RPF interventions in Congo that the corporate elites who sponsored Kagame are keen now to install another client in Sudan.

    With the ousting of the Hutu regimes in Rwanda and Burundi in 1994 a nexus of Anglo-Israeli-US corporations have displaced the French and Belgian prospectors who formerly dominated the exploitation of strategic mineral wealth across the Great Lakes.

    AMF(out of Hope,Arkansas),Bechtel and Lonrho(the latter have a lock on British media coverage)are just some of the front-runners in Western-syndicated proxy wars sparked in Sierra Leone,Angola and Sudan.

    Sudan is logical next step for Rothschild/Soros-led trans-national elites bent on waging war using peace-keeping or humanitarianism as policy instruments in combination with threats of “international military action”.

    The Save Darfur campaign is linked to Anglo-Zionist advocacy groups,International Crisis Group and US Aid with corporate looting and geopolitical agendas with which most of us are all too familiar.

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