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Reflections on Mahmood Mamdani’s perspective on Darfur

By Amir Idris

July 20, 2009 — Many academics and policy makers have written about the causes of Sudan’s political violence. Much of the discussion however focus either on the colonial or the postcolonial periods. The themes of racial identity and unequal economic development have dominated the scholarship on Sudan’s civil wars. Whereas the proponents of racial identity stress the role of the postcolonial state, the advocates of unequal economic development emphasis the contribution of British colonialism. Consequently, issues of domestic slavery, colonial policies of indirect rule and the nature and meaning of nationalism have been either ignored or given little attention. Mahmood Mamdani’s work fills an important gap in this debate. In his book, Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and War on Terror, New York: Pantheon Books, 2009, Mamdani moves beyond the traditional perspective which tends to emphasis race, ethnicity, religion and other social identitifications as sources of tension and political violence. He brings history and politics back into the debate on the continuing political conflict by locating the pre-colonial, the colonial into the postcolonial context.

In Saviors and Survivors, Mamdani highlights two interconnected concerns: the analytical weakness of the Save Darfur campaign and the importance of reconceptualizing the conflict in Darfur as political conflict rather than racial one. According to him, the central theme of the Save Darfur campaign is that the conflict is racial. He rejects the depolitization, naturalization and demonization of a certain group as killers. Mamdani sees the conflict as a political contest over who belonged and who did not belong in the political community. In the sense that the conflict is presented as struggle over the meaning and the content of citizenship. He has done so by highlighting the history and politics of colonialism and the meaning of nationalism. He also argues that the solutions to the long conflict in Darfur can only be achieved by viewing the conflict as a political complex made up of local, regional, national and international conditions that have evolved through an historical process of state formation.

Mamdani arranges his discussion to cover related topics in chapters dealing with state formation via unresolved colonial issues. These topics include administrative leadership, conflicts at the community level, the treatment of the south, the growth of nationalism via imposed Arabized identity, and the regional and national conflict in Darfur. In arguing his thesis Mamdani presents a very fascinating narration of Sudan’s history. He argues that colonialism and nationalism are at the core of the crisis. Struggle over land rights and political power is central to understanding the regional dimension of the Darfur conflict. At independence, Mamdani asserts Sudan’s nationalists failed to understand the political realities that they were inheriting, and did not develop inclusive policies that transcended ethnic and tribal identities. Consequently, the northern elites, with their traditional monopoly on power and wealth, dominated the new postcolonial state and projected their Arab and Muslim identity onto the postcolonial state. Those from southern and western Sudan did not readily fit into the national story of Sudan as an Arab and Muslim nation, allowing the state to treat them not as citizens but as subject vulnerable to state violence and cultural domination.

His work raises many interesting questions and points to many gaps in the current scholarship. For example the discussion on the relationship between land rights, power and the formation of identities at the community level is very crucial in understanding the process of exclusion and inclusion in the context of Darfur. The discourse on Arabism, Islamism and Africanism is crucial in making sense of the complexity of the nation building project.

There are some issues, however, which need further discussion. In his treatment on nation building, Mamdani made a distinction between Arabism and Islamism. Although the distinction is welcome in the sense that it highlights the differences between two types of nation building projects: the latter is inclusive and the former is exclusive. But the history of state formation in postcolonial Sudan has taught us something different. In both cases, the outcome of these two projects is a racialzed state with an exclusive vision of nation. The ideological and political principles of the state geared towards overemphasizing race and religion. The state has always been an active participant in enforcing Arabism as one of the pillars of the nation building project. In southern Sudan, the regional government tends to enforce ethnicity as a marker of a southern identity. Of course, what counts is not what Arabism and Islamism should be, but rather what Arabism and Islamism have been on the ground. Successive postcolonial Sudanese regimes have treated non-Arabs and Arabs as though they have different entitlements. Those who are considered ‘Arabs’ by the racialized state are treated as citizens, and those who are periveced as non-Arabs are treated as subjects. Consequently, successive Sudanese governments, parliamentary and dictorial alike, have glorified the history and culture of the Sudanese ‘Arab’ so much that they have insisted on assimilation as the only tool to national integration.

Mamdani argues that the root causes of the Darfur crisis lie in the colonial and nationalist period rather than in the Sultanate. He highlighted the division between those with Dar (home) and those without at the local and regional level. He also pointed out that the violence in Darfur has multiple causes: intertribal civil war, the environmental crisis, the Chadian civil wars, and the crimes attributed to rebel groups. I agree that race and culture are not the real causes of conflict in Sudan. Instead any analysis needs to refer to the twin historical legacies of slavery and colonialism. One of the drivers of state expansion in Sudan was the acquisition of slaves from southern and western Sudan during the pre-colonial periods. Both the kingdoms of Sinnar and Darfur relied heavily on slaves in building and consolidating their political and military power. The Islamization and the Arabization of these kingdoms also demarcated the boundaries between different cultural communities. It also created new meanings and perceptions about those who were perceived as non-Muslims, non-Arabs, and potentially enslaveable peoples. The focus on dominating other cultural groups because of their religion, race and descent laid the seeds of the racialized state with rights and entitlements awarded to the slave-owing elites who defined themselves as ‘Arab’ and Muslim. Therefore, practice of racism in the Sudanese context has been rooted in local histories of slavery and in the unequal distribution of wealth and power between regions and social groups. The practice of enslavement in the pre-colonial periods not only had political implications but also redefined social relations between groups who previously did not see themselves through the lenses of race and religion. This view of citizenship as a group’s entitlements rather than individual rights was reinforced during the colonial period, in particular through the policy of indirect rule beginning in the 1930s. But in the postcolonial period, and now specially in the context of Darfur, racism has sharpened within the climate of fear surrounding Darless groups who are threatened by drought and desertification, and armed and trained by a government that is determined to preserve its power by crushing internal insurgency.

Nevertheless, the framework of the book has made it easier for scholars and policy makers to situate the current Darfur conflict within the plurality of Sudanese civil conflicts, and to show linkages between Darfur, the Nuba Mountains, and southern Sudan. The conflicts in southern Sudan, Nuba Mountains, and Darfur occurred within the context of ‘Arab’ militarization. In the mid-1980s, the central government in Khartoum decided to arm ‘Arab’ tribal militias in order to wage proxy wars against southern Sudanese and against Nuba insurgents and civilians. ‘These militias were the forerunners of the Janjaweed who now ravage Darfur, even though the exact composition of these militias has differed. Similarly, in the late 1980s and the 1990s in southern Sudan and the Nuba Mountains, as in Darfur, militias on the ground were supported by the central government’s military intelligence and aerial bombardment campaign.’ But Darfur’s militarization was ravaged by another external influence. In the 1980s, the Libyan government began to arm Darfurian ‘Arabs’, with the objective of using them to overthrow the Chadian regime of Hissene Habre.

The book also emphasizes the importance of survivors’ justice which I agree with conceptually but not politically. For the notion of survivors’ justice in the context of Sudan raises the following questions: Under what political conditions survivors’ justice would work? Who has the right to invoke it in conflict and post-conflict situation? What is the role of the subaltern groups in making that decision? The reality on the ground is that 2.5 million people are living in refugee or internal displaced persons’ campus under worsening humanitarian conditions; hundreds of thousands of people have lost their lives. Could justice as punishment be used as a mechanism to pressure both sides to engage in credible peace talks? In the absence of a meaningful peace process, where violence against civilians continues and conditions worsen in refugee campus, it is problematic to argue that justice as punishment is an obstacle to peace. One of the lessons that we should learn from the failing Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) is absence of an accountability clause. A culture of impunity is deeply embedded in current structures of the Government of National Unity and the Government of Southern Sudan.

In conclusion, Mamdani’s contribution pulls together much of the critique of the stalled politics and atrocious practices of the present regime, but the solution he offers seems to define the structural problems away, by calling for the establishment of a broad-based government, reaching across existing boundaries. No mechanism is offered for either Sudanese or non-Sudanese to conceive of how this might be accomplished. Perhaps this is the ultimate utility of this stimulating study; it forces us to confront the dead end of Sudanese politics today, and the need for a new political project that moves beyond enforcing ceasefires by the African Union and the United Nations.

Dr. Amir Idris teaches African history and politics at Department of African & African American Studies, Fordham University, New York City. He is also the Associate Chair of the Department. He can be reached at: idris@ fordham.edu