From the Editor’s Keyboard

Darfur: The Avoidance Word Still Screams Its Name.

15 October 2006 at 18:35 | 556 views

In a recent speech at the 50th Anniversary of the 1st International Conference of Black Writers & Artists in Paris, Wole Soyinka(photo) warned against the neglect of those who remain silent against the crimes against humanity in Darfur: "As the armies of the Sudanese state mass for the final onslaught on its long determined design of race extermination, that future will stigmatise you one and all, will brand you collaborators and acccomplices if you abandon the people of Darfur to this awful fate, one that so blindingly scrawls its name across the supplicating sands and hills of Darfur - Genocide!"

By Wole Soyinka, Guest Writer.

Was it not here, on this same French soil, in this culture proud nation that sometimes appears to conflate the very notion of civilization with whatever is uniquely French, that a culture warrior once took the bulldozer to a hamburger joint some years ago? His mission was to stem the tide of a neo-barbarism that, for the French, is synonymous with whatever is American. Lost on that protector of French cultural purity was a thought that must have tickled the collective memory of former French colonials: the Macdonalisation or Disneyisation of the French urban landscape was a kind of poetic justice in a reverse play of history. MacDonalds had arrived from the former colony of another European power to challenge the cultural hermeticism of a former colonizer.

The circumstances, and action directe of the bulldozer response differed somewhat from the strategy embarked upon by the poet and statesman Leopold Sedar Senghor, Aime Cesaire, Leon Damas, Diop, Rene Depestre and other cultural militants - to adopt Senghor’s own expression - in their own time.

They were also protesting - right on the terrain of their colonizers, and as protagonists of a distant civilisation - the ascendancy of others over their own cultures and civilization. Theirs was of course a far-reaching protest, initiated within the enemy camp, against the lop-sided dialogue between France and her possessions, one that had turned the African mind into a mere cultural receptacle of France, indentured it to European identity and values. Thus, Negritude - to give it its name - was compelled to commence by a seemingly separatist strategy, one that restated an African cultural matrix in contradistinction to the European.

The implication of this, on the surface, was that the paracletes of Negritude commenced with a proposition of two distinct, parallel cultures, two monologues - one, the European, the other, black African. It was, in plain language, a strategy of fighting fire with fire. Those who recall the phase of
black nationalism in the United States and in apartheid South Africa - Back to Africa, Black is Beautiful, Black Consciousness etc - will easily recognize in Negritude both heir to, and precursor of a tradition that is born of displacement, domination and dispossession. Its strategy provoked accusations of counter racism from white liberal thought - phrased benignly perhaps by Jean-Paul Sartre as - anti-racist racism. Would all extant racial discourse - all contemporary propositions and projects of cultural separatism were equally benign, and even, as in this case, propitious for the harmonization of the human race. For even this separatist assertiveness was eventually guided into the predication of convergence with others. This optimistic outlook, the mutual insemination of cultures, under Leopold Sedar Senghor’s restless historicism, expanded to embrace the Arab world and its cultural actualities, to which he gave the name - Arabite. It was the culminating annunciation of what history itself had long proclaimed, one that would result, inexorably - in Senghor’s formulation - as the Equilibrium of twentieth-century Humanism, the Civilisation of the Universal.

It would be more than sufficient, in my view, if our gathering today achieved nothing more than an evocation of that optimism, a reunion of minds, a celebration of identity and origin, and an opening up of the collective memory for interrogation, to determine what may be jettisoned, and what to re invigorate as a racial contribution to the quest for the universal. It would still remain deeply satisfying if we have merely responded to the human impulse towards celebration, carving out a brief pause for ourselves from the crushing demands of an increasingly unstable world, its negativities, its season of fear and menace, simply to bask, for two or three days in the boldness of a 50- year old initiative that sought to wean a closed, imperial and aggressive world of its racist limitations. It would be sufficient to celebrate that moment, fifty years ago, when the citizens of the continent of disdain, and their brothers and sisters in the Diaspora joined minds to demolish the doctrines on which the mission of colonialism was raised, and challenge the scriptures - both religious and philosophical - on whose authority the inhuman commerce in black flesh - Arab and European - had been justified. Celebration may choose to limit itself to the euphoria of that event, but one that may also be followed by the sobriety of ‘the morning after’ when reflection takes over, and the expressed or implicit summons of the occasion begin to resurface, enjoining a re-designing of the future, of a re-positioning of attitudes, replacing complacency with re-dedication, disturbing one’s peace of mind with the summons of a familiar imperative: a task that remains unfinished, even after fifty years.

The very prospect of such a reunion, even before the event, may however have provoked an alertness to current, thematically contingent actualities, realities that exhibit the very provocations which, in no small measure, aroused a need for that original gathering, over and beyond the mere wish for a meeting of minds. Realities that make the bulldozer almost a benevolent act, since that agent of cultural eradication has since given way to the armoured truck, the flame thrower, the strafing aircraft and the fragmentation bomb.

Realities where - to bring it all to the present - a presumably modern state, with its massive weaponry of coercion, has replaced the local maverick, acts in full confidence of the control of its own borders, and in a project for the alteration of the demography of a humanised space, its history, its cultural uniqueness - in short, a project for the eradication of its thriving humanity.

Even as we speak, even as the world is distracted by other heated zones all over the globe, one such project is taking place on the black continent, with the passive complicity of that continent’s rulers.

Those who have had the dubious privilege of reading the manifestoes of the arrowhead of a state policy of ethnic cleansing, the Sudanese Janjaweed, an agenda pronounced, without ambiguity, as the Arabisation of the Sudanese nation - will surely have squirmed at the naked language of racial incitement, its claims of race superiority, complemented by the language of contempt and disdain for the indigenous African. It is not quite what Senghor had in mind when he embarked on his fraternal annunciation of arabite and his proposition for a north-south, negro-arab collaboration of cultures: Je ne parle meme d’arabisme.... je parle d’arabite, de cette arabite qui est le foyer irradiant des vertus de l’eternal Bedouin.

How Senghor, humanist idealist, would shudder today at the perversion of that vision on reading contemporary tracts in which a state commits itself -through its surrogates - to the eradication of partners in that optimistic venture, actively condones the elimination of those cultural partners who, to add to the grim irony, were autochthones of that land long before the arrival of the current apostles of race supremacy, a pernicious fantasy that one hoped had been rebuked by monumental race criminalities of the past - the Arabo-European enslavement of and trade in the commodity of African peoples, by the Jim Crow culture of governance by lynch mobs and segregation laws in the ‘brave new world’ of the American mainland, by the lessons of the Holocaust, the atrocities of Apartheid South Africa and even, so lately, the horrors of Rwanda. It is clearly the ambition of the Sudanese government to surpass these records of dishonour, and the world appears to accept that it deserves to succeed, that it is right and just that an African nation join its name to the long catalogue of racist infamy. Enjoy the starkness and concision of directives from authenticated documents taken from the headquarters of one Sheik Musa Hilal, acknowledged leader of the Janjaweed: Change the demography of Darfur. Empty it of all African tribes.

The nation that is Sudan belongs to two families of the world community - Arab and African. These are structured, with global recognition, as the Arab League, and the Africa Union. It is depressing to observe the studied indifference of one - the Arab family - to the criminality of one of its members, a nation historically placed as a cultural bridge between two races, just as, in Senghor’s cultural architecture, the North Africa Arab world represents the bridge between Africa and Europe. The African family, for its part, manifests a shaming impotence that permits a re-enactment of a history that forged the chains of colonial bondage. But there is also a third, overarching family that is common to both - the United Nations. When a deviant branch of that family of nations flouts, indeed revels in the abandonment of the most basic norms of human decency, is there really justification in evoking the excuse that protocol requires the permission of that same arrogant and defiant entity, one that is unambiguously indicted in the court of universal censure, before it goes to the rescue of its abused, violated, and dehumanized victims?

One finds it odd that this alibi for inaction was not invoked before the rigorous intervention in former Yugoslavia, an intervention that not only brought a rogue regime to heel, but oversaw the return and rehabilitation of the dispersed populations of ethnic Albanians and Moslem Croats. If the lightning speed at which the UN responded to the recent Middle East war and its aftermath is explained away by the willingness of the belligerents to accommodate, indeed to demand the presence of peace enforcers from the United Nations, we are still left with the example of intervention in central Europe over the strenuous resistance of the murdering regimes. That leaves the African situation in what category, exactly? Equals before the family structures of rights and responsibilities, or yet again, fifty years after the first organised challenge to a racist order, as the marginalised orphans of history?

As we speak, the Africa Union is preparing to abandon the peoples of Darfur, leaving them at the mercy of murdering, raping, and burning gospellers of race doctrine, withdrawing even its pathetically inadequate protection forces which, at the very least, provided a moral presence and a modicum of restraint. We are speaking here of a nation where mass rape is proffered as compliment to Senghor’s vision of cultural metissage. This is the established profile of a regime that has given its peers their marching orders, read them the riot act and delivered its ultimatum, and the African family has chosen to obey, to beat a retreat on schedule, with its tail between its legs. The Arab Family, one to which belongs a primary moral authority irrespective of the location of its member on the black continent, has steadfastly refused to call Sudan to order, indeed placed obstacles in the way of sanctions. But by what right does this speaker impose this moral responsibility on the Arab world?

None whatsoever, except on the authority of the protagonists of Arab culture themselves, on their own historic claims, such as the self-pronounced Arabist, the Sudanese prime minister, Ismail Al- Azhari, who, in 1965, made the following declaration:

‘We are proud of our Arab origin, of our Arabism and of being Muslims. The Arabs came to this continent, as pioneers, to disseminate a genuine culture and promote sound principles which have shed enlightenment and civilization throughout Africa at a time when Europe was plunged into the abyss of darkness, ignorance, and doctrinal and scholarly backwardness. It is our ancestors who held the torch high and led the caravan of liberation and advancement; and it is they who provided a superior melting-pot for Greek, Persian and Indian culture, giving them the chance to react with all that was noble in Arab culture, and handing them back to the rest of the world as a guide to those who wished to extend the frontiers of learning”

That lofty declaration - never mind its hyperbolic accents - but certainly one which Leopold Sedar Senghor would have endorsed as the ringing spirit of Arabite was made just less than a decade after the first gathering of the black writers and artistes of the world, impelled also by the need to situate their race and heritage accurately in a racist world. The claims of black civilization were no less resonant at that conference, no less proud, the mission of race retrieval no less impassioned. And the question we must ask the government of Sudan today is simply this: how does the current manifesto of the Janjaweed, the champions of Arabism, its project of cultural extermination, correspond to Al-Azhari’s manifesto of enlightenment - among numerous others.

Examine the tomes of attestation with the United Nations’ fact-finding missions, examine even the dossiers that have resulted in sealed indictments against named individuals both in government and in the autonomous order of the Janjaweed, soulmates of the Milesovics, the Radovan Karavics, the Radkos of eastern Europe, and tell us if Al-Azhari’s banner of enlightenment has not been besmirched by his Hitlerian apostles.

And the African family? I refer to the family of humanist idealism of whom the poets and philosophers sang or preached - Aime Cesaire, Leon Damas, Marcelino dos Santos, John Mbiti, Ogotimeli, Tierno Bokar and all. Did they not instruct that African humanism does implicate a concern, and a responsibility towards ‘my neighour’? And does that responsibility end with the rhetoric of power and the commodity of compromise? This African family, which vies for cultural honour with any race on earth, will be the subject of our gathering here, so for now, we shall merely let this question hang in the air: Has that family made any move to openly denounce or expel this renegade member?

What happens in private caucuses within the closed chambers of the so-called ‘peer review mechanism’ of NEPAD and other much vaunted structures of restraint, is cold comfort to those who are violated daily, who fight the hot and grainy wind for the rags on their backs, the pitiless sun for moisture, the camels for the dry clumps of grass that have escaped the fury of the Janjaweed arsonists. And as they leave their camps, in sheer desperation, to forage for more nourishing fodder, are they not set upon by the marauding Janjaweed, slaughtered, raped, mutilated and robbed of the last shreds of their innate dignity?

For the family of all, the United Nations, which again and again has been compelled to avow, ‘Never Again’, it continues to meet in impotence and debate in sterility. Sealed indictments against the identified violators of humanity are admirable, but they cannot replace the rigour and honour of prevention.

Not one member of the UN family has expressed its displeasure by expelling Sudanese diplomats from its borders. Not one has demanded that sanctions be universally applied to the Sudanese cesspit of criminal impunity. For decades, Libya was declared the pariah of the international community on suspicion and/or evidence of complicity in terrorist acts, and of harbouring terrorists within its borders - she was ostracized. What further dimension of state terrorism does the world need in order to act when a government unleashes its surrogates, armed to the teeth, supported, supplied, and logistically enabled by its own forces and intelligence services, authorised by well documented mandate of ethnic cleansing, its acts witnessed, recorded and reported by the United Nations’ own agencies, its results seared on the Sudanese landscape as mass burial grounds, ruins of burnt villages, poisoned wells, slaughtered livestock, in the swelling army of mutilated survivors, victims of gang rape, of diseased and overflowing refugee camps.

Words are our stock-in- trade, and writers are not slow to notice when a word screams out through absence and avoidance. Now what is that word that the United Nations, once again, has scrupulously skirted, a strategic avoidance, a moral liability that led, in this very recent memory to - Rwanda? The protocols are clear. Recognition of a certain dimension of criminality against a people, its culture, against the very existence of the people of Darfur compels the United Nations to act. But no, Darfur is not the heart of Europe.

It is not the heart of Lebanon or the borders of Israel. It is located in a land of disdain, recognized only as the home of want and occasionally - of much sought material resources So, just what is this word that accuses, damns, and will not be silenced? What is this word for which so many substitutes are massed, though derobed of the inexorable imperative, in the corridors and chambers of the United Nations?

As writers, we cannot cease to recognize and embrace our mission of testifying and laying ambush for escapist minds. Those who are alive today to witness this renewed perfidy, and their successors living or yet unborn in the mission of warning and bearing witness, will not forget. Let words, at the very least, be mobilized towards the fulfillment of responsibilities by those who are charged with the protection of the weak and helpless, the temporarily disadvantaged, let them persist in saying to you, all who hold the primary controls of the direction of a continent’s future, that that future will not forget, nor will it forgive. As the armies of the Sudanese state mass for the final onslaught on its long determined design of race extermination, that future will stigmatise you one and all, will brand you collaborators and acccomplices if you abandon the people of Darfur to this awful fate, one that so blindingly scrawls its name across the supplicating sands and hills of Darfur - Genocide!

• This Paper by Prof Wole Soyinka was presented at the 50th Anniversary of the 1st International Conference of Black Writers & Artists -Paris, 19-22nd September 2006.

Credit: Pambazuka News.