Out of Africa

Out of Africa
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First Published: Fri, Jul 03 2009. 10 14 PM IST

 War cry: A Sudanese refugee. Stuart Price / AFP
War cry: A Sudanese refugee. Stuart Price / AFP
Updated: Fri, Jul 03 2009. 10 14 PM IST
Genocide is a loaded word. In international law, few words have the implications it has. When violence is called genocide, the world cannot be inactive, it must act; indeed the United Nations’ stance on genocide implores it to do so. It is a horror outside the spectrum of the thinkable; a crime against humanity that destroys a people.
War cry: A Sudanese refugee. Stuart Price / AFP
Since 2004, “genocide” and Darfur, a region in northern Africa’s Sudan, have been inextricably linked. Former US secretary of state Colin Powell called violence in the region genocide, and countries and companies have divested from any dealings with Sudan. Darfur has also been the buzz on college campuses and policy circles.
Yet, despite compelling reportage, little comprehensive, scholarly and probing work has appeared on the causes and foundations of the violence in Darfur. Celebrated genocide scholar Mahmood Mamdani has penetrated through the chatter in his new book, Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror. Mamdani, a political scientist at Columbia University, US, has been recognized for his previous groundbreaking study of the Rwandan genocide, When Victims Become Killers (2002).
Mamdani takes a highly contentious line in this new volume, arguing that what has occurred in Darfur is not genocide but an ideological perversion of events by the West. Mamdani estimates that from 2003-2004, between 70,000 and 400,000 individuals were killed there. Yet, these figures often pale in comparison to other worldwide catastrophes and conflicts. Mamdani finds that not only are the figures for deaths in Iraq far higher than in Darfur, but Iraq has a much higher proportion of violent deaths. Therefore, he asks: “So why do we call the killing in Darfur genocide but not that in Iraq? Is it because, despite the wide disparity in the number of excess deaths, whether violence-related or violent, victims and perpetrators belong to different races in Darfur but not in Iraq?”
Saviors and Survivors: Pantheon, 416 pages, $26.95 (around Rs1,300).
This is where the ingenuity of Mamdani’s book lies: He unravels the racial motivation of the violence, and the common Western framing of it as “perpetrated by ‘light-skinned Arabs’ on ‘black Africans’” Such a reading, he suggests, is facile and dangerous.
It has long been documented that certain human catastrophes outside of geopolitical or economic interest command little outside attention, while those with strategic interest are carefully tracked. But Mamdani finds that Sudan is anomalous in this regard: “Darfur has become the core concern of a domestic social and political movement in the United States, one whose scale recalls the anti-war movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s.”
The greater success of Mamdani’s work, though, is how he tracks the history of race in Sudan. He argues that colonial powers partially constructed racial identity to govern the region; and subsequently, these identities were absorbed by the state of Sudan after it gained independence. The problem, though, is how to distill these lessons, which Mamdani hasn’t necessarily explored. If these legacies are so entrenched, how can we overcome them?
Finally, Mamdani’s reading of international involvement and humanitarianism seems facile; he argues that such an order draws on Western colonialism, and almost writes off the project entirely. While certainly not ideal, international involvement in, say, the former Yugoslavia cannot be considered inappropriate.
Ultimately, though, within the bourgeoning cottage industry of genocide scholars, few voices resonate as insightfully as Mamdani’s, who has written a deeply compelling account of the Darfur crisis, the campaign and its context.
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First Published: Fri, Jul 03 2009. 10 14 PM IST