Lecture Hop: Divided on Darfur
Written by Bwog Staff
In which Bwog staffer Armin Rosen sits in on a peaceful disagreement over peace.
If you thought Ahmadinemania offered Columbians the best oratorical fireworks of the year, then you, dear reader, clearly weren’t at the Satow room for today’s Peace in Darfur conference. A mid-afternoon speech by anthro professor Mahmood Mamdani (whose Major Debates in the Study of Africa is building a well-deserved reputation as one of the best undergraduate classes out there–even though it’s only been offered twice) managed to overshadow an early-morning showdown between UN Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and Econ professor-to-the-stars Jeffery Sachs. Disagreeing over whether to put $2.6 billion into peacekeepers or sustainable development projects is one thing. Inflicting a disbelieving sense of shock upon a room of Save Darfur activists, Darfuri expats and human rights scholars…well that’s why you come to Columbia, right?
Of the many provocative claims the African studies czar made during a 20-minute, almost totally extemporaneous speech, two would prove particularly contentious. Firstly, he argued that the security situation had stabilized in Darfur and that advocacy groups like Save Darfur were spreading a “fiction” of an increasingly intense genocide. “Why was this fiction continuing?” he asked. “Did these groups want more donations…was it part of a political agenda? I don’t know.”
And secondly, he argued that the international legal framework presented an illegitimate form of prosecuting war crimes in Africa, and that the international community’s concept of “justice as retribution” prioritized revenge over peace. For Paul Van Zyl, the one-time executive secretary of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa (a country whose justice-free model of conflict resolution Mamdani had just held up as an example for Darfur) and speaker on an earlier panel, this postulation of a peace-justice binary couldn’t be allowed to slide. In the popular parlance, shit was about to escalate.
“The conclusions Mahmood Mamdani draws are profoundly wrong,” he said before he cautioned the attendees against “creating an atmosphere of impunity” through downplaying the significance of punishing the guilty parties in Darfur. After Mamdani offered a shrewd response in which he talked about the necessity of “demanding justice fairly,” it seemed like this sparring match of intellectual heavyweights was over. But conference organizer and SIPA visiting scholar David Philips had a parting shot of his own: “I would never impugn the advocates,” he said. “Without them nobody would in the room.”
When the session adjourned, the room was in a mild uproar, and Columbia’s most iconoclastic Africa scholar was mobbed–“I was profoundly offended by what you said,” said one Darfuri expat, claiming that the security situation had not improved in 2005 as Mamdani had claimed; finding the Herbert Lehman Professor of Political Science to be nonplused by his criticism, he took his case up with a satisfied-looking Jeffrey Sachs, who was stationed only a few feet away. Bwog jostled between some slightly peeved gentlemen brandishing Save Darfur Coaltion business cards in an attempt to overhear a different offended Darfuri plead his case with Mamdani; meanwhile on the 5 th-floor ramps, an odd mix of think-tankers, activists and scholars–still shocked by the professors impassioned and at times incendiary lecture–carried on heatedly in English and Arabic.
It was an electrifying back-and-forth, and the kind of thrilling exchange that you’d be lucky to see once or twice a semester. Bwog’s advice: today’s probably not the day to skip Major Debates.