Lecture Hop: Divided on Darfur

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In which Bwog staffer Armin Rosen sits in on a peaceful disagreement over peace. 

mamdaniIf 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.”

sachsAnd 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.

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  1. Aarrghhh  

    I helped organize half the Darfur events last year and I didn't hear about this. Boo.

  2. c'09  

    Seriously, take Major Debates. Mamdani is one of the most brilliant people I've ever had the privilege of hearing speak.

  3. Major Debates  

    In the Study of Africa sucked.

  4. no no

    it's brilliant. he is not only passionate and genius, but endearing, too. he engages with students in the class and talks about very relevant issues. i had a shitload of work to do today, but i went to major debates, as i always do, because i get so much out of the class. it's more rewarding than procrastinating with online tv! i have an intellectual crush on mamdani that will last forever. he is what every professor should be like because he makes his students think. it's my senior year, but i've finally found the reason i came to columbia - for experiences like the ones he's provided, just by lecturing in class.

  5. a good read

    probably sums up what he said today, and very well:

  6. Save Darfur  

    SUCKS, I agree with Mamdani, it is a poorly run organization that is often out of touch with the issues, and is insanely self righteous. Having worked for advocacy NGO's, I found the Save Darfur spawn to be among the least educated, perhaps it's because they don't do any of their own policy.

  7. Confused  

    Mamdani already made this position pretty clear. (Last year I think.) Why were the other scholars in the room so shocked?

  8. attendee  

    Guess the Bwog didn't stick around for Darfur activist extraordinaire John Prendergast who also blasted Mamdani for his criticism of the activist community. But Prendergast (and Bwog) didn't quite get it right. What Mamdani was saying was that they ignored the success of the African Union troops in 2005 -- troops that, Mamdani agreed, ultimately failed in their mission, (because of lack of funds from the EU and US) thus allowing violence to escalate again. So he isn't saying there is no violence now. But it seemed Prendergast somehow took Mamdani to be saying that all the activists do is lie, and responded in his speech later by pointing out all the great things they do. Which was really a complete non-sequitor to Mamdani's argument, but everyone clapped anyway, because I'm sure he (Mamdani) managed to offend half the room given how many UN folks and activists were there.

    I also agree this should have been WAY better advertised, but I think they probably wanted to keep the audience small and largely expert-heavy to keep the feeling of a conference of peers, not a speaking event for an audience... which is really unfair to all the activists on campus and everyone in SIPA, the Earth Institute, etc. etc. who would have had an interest.

  9. Major Debates  

    is absolutely the best class I've ever taken, and Mamdani is absolutely the best lecturer I've ever had. Seriously, take his course. You will never look at the world, or your relation to it, the same way again.

    Also, his other big beef with the activist community is that it completely polarizes the conflict into bad Arabs and good Africans. These identities are made to be mutually exclusive and historically constant. Mamdani correctly argues quite the opposite.

  10. the bottom line

    This idiot Mamdani is merely taking the position of Arab extremists (of which he is no doubt one himself), who refuse to admit that people of their own race are slaughtering their Muslim brethren in the Sudan. It's disgusting, and those of you who uncritically lap up such drivel are Columbia cliches.

  11. refreshing

    It's refreshing to be around people that are on the wrong side of history on every matter.

  12. could someone  

    please exlpain the terms of debate a bit more fundamentally? preferablly briefly outlining both sides arguments as objectively as possible

  13. shira  

    mamdani is not an arab, he's a ugandan of south asian ancestry. i realize that poster #15 was being sarcastic, but i thought i should just throw that out there given that some people might not know much about mamdani's background. #12/13, say what you will about the politics of columbia students, but don't make ridiculous unfounded claims in the process, because it makes you look bad.

  14. arab nor not

    He is still undoubtedly an extremist. And incidentally, don't worry about me. I'm not the one that looks bad.

    • que?  

      What do you mean "he's an extremist?". I think he is genuinely concerned about Darfuris, which is good, although his views are kind of radical - extreme even, but the colloquial connotation of "extremist" is essentially terrorist or fundamentalist.

      Anyway, as an activist with a group (not Save Darfur) that did a lot of pro-Darfur campaign work last semester, I'm kind of annoyed that he chose to focus on criticizing the activist community. The movement to end a genocide was a grass-roots one lead by activists, and quite frankly, know one would know about the issue and nothing would have been done about it if it wasn't for the awareness raising campaigns conducted by activists. Sure we aren't perfect, and sometimes there was a tendency to lose the details, but it's 200,000+ people dead and 3million displaced. Let's keep our priorities straight.

      • I would guess  

        that his priorities are to most effectively prevent the current atrocities in Sudan, and further, to not undermine efforts elsewhere to stop atrocities. Read the article linked lays out Mamdani's ideas very well, explaining quite simply how the activist community, though well intentioned, has gone astray...and presents a solution. No one can knock the activists for makind Darfur an international issue that the world cares about, but they can be criticized on other grounds now that public awareness has been raised.

  15. you say  

    "Arab extremists...who refuse to admit that people of their own race..." Define your terms here, buddy. You simply do not grasp the complexities of Sudan's racial and ethnic makeup, and thus the impossibility of determining one's Arab-ness or African-ness, (which as i stated earlier are not mutually exclusive), based on race. I don't think anyone denies that Muslims are being killed, and that Muslims are among the perpetrators. Mamdani certainly does not deny this.

    I'm not really sure what the "extremist" view is here...

    • race

      I grasp in no uncertain terms the fact that certain Arab ethno-centrists, do, in fact, view this conflict in stark racial terms, and refuse to accept the grim reality of the situation. This unfortunate truth even manifests itself in the actions of the Arab League.

      • stark racial terms

        what are stark racial terms?
        what is an Arab ethno-centrist?

        Because the US doesn't utilize stark racial terms or favor certain "races" or "cultures" over others?

        To which standard are you holding these "certain Arab ethno-centrists?"

  16. priority

    Priority "is." My mistake.

  17. SaveDarfur  

    OK people, let's think about this. There are two entities, among others, working in Darfur right now.

    One has singlehandedly made Darfur an international issue (unlike, say, North Kivu), worked for years on reconciliation, and all the while kept five million Darfuris alive who are entirely dependent on humanitarian assistance.

    The other has created the "stark racial terms" you see in Darfur today. After the SLA revolted in 2003, he could have tried for reconciliation. Instead, he used a genocidal method of divide-and-conquer to lay the groundwork for a future indirect rule. He said "Hey! I'm Arab. You're Arab (right? right?) Let's kill Blacks together!" Over 200,000 deaths and 4 years of terror later, he is watching with glee as every rebel group splinters and the Janjaweed do as well, because that way not a single Darfuri will get rights or gain human dignity.

    What Umar Bashir is doing in Darfur is exactly what the Belgians did in Congo and Rwanda 90 years ago. Your attitude toward it shouldn't change because of the guy's skin color. Yet this is what Mamdani is doing now.

    Hey Africa scholars: worried about "stark racialization?" Mass slaughter along ethnic lines does a remarkable job at that, far more so than a peacekeeping force ever could. Again, ask the people of North Kivu.

    Are we going to stop this genocide now, or wait until another five million people die when it spreads into Chad, CAR, and the rest of Sudan? If the two largest countries in Africa become failed states, wouldn't this "perpetuate racial stereotypes", which seems to concern some folks here more than the 5 million who are wasting away, today, at Darfur refugee camps?

    • yes,  

      the tactics used by Umar Bashir have exactly created the "stark racial terms" that we can all deplore. (Except not at all in the way you sarcastically "quote" him, conisdering that blacks are among those doing the killings). The problem is, SaveDarfur has accepted these terms.

      Even if SaveDarfur, or anyone, succeeds in stopping the atrocities, the identities of Darfuris will remain falsely and starkly racialized. Again, no one is knocking SaveDarfur for caring about Darfur and for doing really really important work to raise awareness and save lives on the ground. But simply because they've had certain successes doesn't mean they should not be criticized for their mistakes. Mass slaughter along ethnic lines does do a remarkable job of stark racialization, and in their attempt to stop the slaughter, SaveDarfur has absolutely perpetuated this stark racialization (sorry, I'm using that term way too much).

      The reason we need to be so vigil about racial, or ethnic, categorization is because unless we address it, NOW, they will continue to exist and they did in Rwanda for decades preceding the '94 genocide.

      What's to be done? We can have our cake and eat it too. Stopping atrocities and treating the Darfuris with dignity (i.e. not identifying in terms best suited to our goals, no matter how moral these goals are), are not mutually exclusive. We can increase humanitarian aid and show real solidarity with the fragile peace process in order to stop these atrocities, while also ceasing to speak of the Darfuri situation in the false terms of the "stark racialization". Terms which, as I have said, the perpetrators of violence have created, and strangely, though undeniably, Nicholas Kristof and SaveDarfur, have sustained.

  18. SaveDarfur  

    Let me ask you this: you're a Darfuri sitting in your village. Which is more important to you?
    1) How some college kid halfway around the world views the conflict
    2) The fact that tomorrow, you might be homeless or dead

    There ya go. I don't think the people in those camps care how we refer to the conflict. What they do care about is that we send food, and stop the violence. Now. They also are probably aware of the racial elements of the conflict, on the ground. As Janjaweed rape women and kill their children, they shout racial slurs and talk about impregnating her with an "Arab baby".

    It didn't have to be this way, and that's the problem with your post-Hutu Revolution Rwanda analogy. Darfur is not Rwanda in 1959, in the decades before the genocide. Darfur is Rwanda in 1919, as the racialization is taking place through slaughter and oppression. Darfur is under imperial rule as we speak, at the hands of the government in Khartoum.

    And, BTW, this is taking place completely independant of whether or not SaveDarfur calls it genocide or anything else. Know how I know? The killing started before anyone in the West even mentioned the Darfur genocide.

    So we have two issues here, which I think you're conflating:
    1) The CURRENT imperialism of Umar Bashir
    2) The PAST imperialism of the West, and its enduring legacy

    The second point is certainly important. Perhaps Kristof and SaveDarfur should be more attuned to their accordance with Bashir's categorizations. But that is completely unrelated to the violence on the ground.

    To fix the violence, and Bashir's current imperialism, you need troops--money--aid--advocacy--diplomacy. That means you need to mobilize people and resources superfast, and identify things in terms that are most suited to our goals. After the killing stops, and we know we're not about to lose a thousand Darfuris to starvation, we'll worry about the racialized stereotypes that Bashir started and SaveDarfur continued.

    Finally, this should give you a good idea of which issue is more urgent. You talk about racialization in the DECADES leading up to Rwanda. But ethnic Rwandans in Congo, up until probably the day before genocide, primarily identified as just "Rwandans", and weren't so concerned with Hutu vs. Tutsi.

    The situation on the ground changed that--fast. When all the (armed) refugees began streaming in, and establishing networks with local Banyarwandans and with groups within Rwanda, you had the Congolese Civil War within two years. The clock is ticking...

  19. Ok...  

    The humanitarian situation is most urgent, ergo, by any means--even by "stark racialization" (a phrase that is really poor)--we stop the violence. Fine.

    But as you say in your final paragraph, the Hutu/Tutsi divide didn't matter to Rwandans in Congo until the day the genocide began (I'd like to see the evidence for that, but I'll accept it here), but once it did begin, "racialization" occurred and within two years the Congolese Civil War starts.

    Thus, as we inch closer to stopping the atrocities, we must be increasingly vigil of not allowing the categorizations to continue...because as we see time and time again, if they remain the root problem is not solved. This is Mamdani's point: he's not just concerned with stopping the violence, though that is absolutely the primary concern, but he is also concerned with ensuring that it does not occur again in Sudan, Chad, or elsewhere. Once the atrocities stop, SaveDarfur better be just as passionate about reversing the categories they have perpetuated or else I fear, as no doubt Mamdani does, that this problem will simply arise again.

    PS...if, as you seem to say, SaveDarfur perpetuates the stereotypes because of the urgency of the situation, why then, has the same not been done for Kivu? Again I urge you to read the Mamdani's piece linked above, "The Power of Naming".

  20. save me  

    "What they do care about is that we send food, and stop the violence. Now."

    yes. save me, white man.

  21. SaveDarfur  

    I'm glad we agree that ending the violence should be of paramount importance. Unfortunately, that's not what Mamdani SAYS:

    "Why was this fiction [of increasing violence] continuing?" he asked. "Did these groups want more donations...was it part of a political agenda? I don't know."

    It would have been one thing if he said what you just said: "Good job SaveDarfur, but it would also be helpful to consider the racial politics. I happen to be an expert in this. So these are my suggestions for how the West can help political reconciliation."

    But that's not what he's done. I've read "The Politics of Naming", and heard Mamdani's views on this in many other forums. He's accused SaveDarfur of being "The Darfur Lobby". As David Phillips has said, he's aligned himself squarely AGAINST the SaveDarfur movement. In doing so, he has attempted to drag an unprecedented grassroots humanitarian movement through the political muck. This is morally untenable.

    I'm not sure if you're talking about Kivu now, or Kivu in 1994, so I'll address both. The pitiful Western response to the Rwanda genocide, and the tragedy that resulted, was a stinging failure for international human rights advocates. For many of us, making "Never Again" a reality was a spur to action. That's why we're trying to respond powerfully here.
    Why aren't we talking about North Kivu now, or about Iraq, with equal vigor? Both of these issues are far more complex, because neither has an Umar Bashir figure. Both are very racialized and see horrible atrocities along racial lines. But in neither case is there a single entity causing the racializing, and encouraging racial violence. Umar Bashir knows exactly what he's doing. This is the difference between civil war and genocide.

    To the poster directly above--where did you find internet in a Darfur refugee camp? Oh sorry, you're not in Darfur, you're in a nice comfy place typing on your keyboard and making fun of humnitarian efforts. I can't save you from your broken moral compass. You'll have to do that by yourself.

  22. Anonymous

    I don't like Save darfur. They're all about celebrities and image. They have MILLIONS of dollars and they use it for their "advocacy"...going around touring the country but What are they doing for Darfur? Where is all the money going? You want to help Sudan...go to Sudan. Or just donate and help agencies that are more grassroots. Save Darfur has been spewing nothing but hot air for years and they haven't saved jack!!!

  23. sean

    Mamdani really never ceases to amaze me. Whatever issue seems to be getting the most press is what he's all of a sudden an expert in. After the Rwandan genocide, he wrote a not-very-good book on that. Now Darfur is the topic of the day, so he's got a book coming out about that.

    Unfortunately for his readers, and likely his students, he doesn't actually know much about Sudan or Darfur. Gérard Prunier, someone who's researched Sudan for decades, had this to say about his silly LRB piece:

    Mahmood Mamdani begins his piece on ‘The Politics of Naming’ (LRB, 8 March) with a parallel between ’state-connected counter-insurgencies in Iraq and Darfur’. But the counter-insurgency in Iraq is organised by a foreign power and is the result of foreign occupation while the counter-insurgency in Darfur is organised by the national government and has no foreign cause. Whatever one thinks of US policy in Iraq, it has no genocidal component. In Darfur the ‘counter-insurgency’ is ethnic cleansing at the least and borders on genocide. Professor Mamdani quotes President Obasanjo of Nigeria to defend the idea that the violence in Darfur is not of a genocidal nature since we do not have proof of a ‘plan’. But we do not have proof of a plan in either the Armenian or the Rwandan genocides.

    Professor Mamdani is right about the international community’s lack of interest in the war in the Congo, the most murderous conflict since the Second World War, but he insists on the Hema-Lendu conflict in the Ituri region as if it were the only violent conflict in the country and talks of ‘the two sides’, apparently projecting a kind of Tutsi-Hutu framework on the Ituri, whose victims represent, to the best of my knowledge, about 2 per cent of the total number of fatalities in the Congo in the period. He describes the ‘Hema and Lendu militias’ as ‘trained by the US allies in the region, Uganda and Rwanda’, but these militias were never properly trained by anybody, which is one reason they were so wild and murderous. Finally, the Hema and Lendu have nothing to do with the Tutsi and the Hutu. The Lendu are a Sudanic tribe loosely related to the Alur while the Bantu Hema are a sub-group of the Ugandan Banyoro. To see these tribes as ‘US proxies’ is untenable. It was the Ugandans (not the Rwandans and even less the Americans) who used them, though they were not responsible either for their antagonisms or for their political strategies. Mamdani trivialises Darfur by saying that violence in Central Africa is recurring and banal, that Darfur is nothing special, and that in any case the factor responsible above all others for these various evils is US imperialism.

    It is also the case that Mamdani does not understand the complex dialectics of Arab identity in the Sudan. First, he draws a parallel between the processes of ‘Arabisation’ in Sudan and ‘Amharisation’ in Ethiopia or ‘Swahilisation’ in East Africa. But these processes are indigenous whereas ‘Arabisation’ in the Sudan has always been the result of a process of cultural diffusion from the vastly broader ‘database’ of international Arabism, which has introduced a monstrous paradox: in the Sudan the agents of Arabisation are themselves despised as ‘niggers’ (the Arabic word used is abd, ’slave’) by the very people whose approval they court and in whose name they kill. This has nothing to do with either Amharisation or Swahilisation. Another consequence is the plurality of types of ‘Arab’ in the Sudan (what Alex de Waal has called ‘differential Arabism’) and the fact that the western Arabs (mostly Baggara, to make it simple) are not respected by the riverine tribes who rule the country. Mamdani is completely confused when he writes that ‘the victims of the ethnic cleansing (mostly the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa tribes) speak Arabic like their killers.’ I suspect that he does not know the word rottana (’gibberish’) which the ‘true’ Arabs use to speak disparagingly of the languages of these tribes. When you speak some kind of rottana you are not an Arab. That’s the whole point. But Mamdani is so intent on trying to prove that Darfur doesn’t represent a case either of genocide or of ethnic cleansing but simply a civil war a bit more brutal than the others, that he bends the facts to suit his theory. Or perhaps he does not know the facts.

    Professor Mamdani would like us to see Darfur in its historical context. If he himself were to do that, he would recognise the possibility that genocide is the logical conclusion of what has been happening over the last thirty years.

    Mamdani’s underlying point is that the US should stop telling other people what to do because the US carries the burden of responsibility for the situation in Iraq and in the forgotten Congo war. America did indeed play a role in Kagame’s murderous policies even if it did not initiate them. But Iraq has nothing to do with Darfur. Which is why the slogan ‘out of Iraq and into Darfur’ is not a contradiction. Yet given the extreme incompetence of America’s foreign policy creators and handlers, they would be likely to mess up even a morally worthy and politically feasible operation.

    Gérard Prunier
    Addis Ababa

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