From the Editor’s Keyboard

The politics of apologetics: genocide denial, Darfur version

30 May 2007 at 05:52 | 528 views

Kwesi Kwaa Prah critiques Mahmood Mamdani’s writings on Darfur. He posits: ’Mamdani indulges in technicist sophistry, tip-toeing nimbly around the real issues in Darfur and effectively providing solace to the Khartoum regime.’

By Kwesi Kwaa Prah, Guest Writer.

In the aftermath of the collapse of Nazi Germany in 1945, the singularly heinous crimes of Herr Hitler and his followers were subjected to global and detailed scrutiny.

The genocidal campaign against European Jewry, which he and his hordes flagitiously described as the ’final solution’, was brought to the wider notice of humanity as the atrocities in and out of the Nazi death camps (the ’Vernichtungslager’ and ’Todeslagers’), under Hitler’s equally mephistophelean disciple Heinrich Himmler, came to light.

It was at this time that the inane excuse by many Germans: ’wir haben nicht gewusst’ (’we did not know’) caught the world’s attention. Many Germans were claiming that while the devilry was going on, they saw nothing, spoke nothing and heard nothing.

In our pronouncements about the devilry that is going on in Darfur, we need to be careful not to put ourselves in a position where we offer similarly lame explanations. Even more crucial is the need to avoid providing by word and deed comfort and succour to the perpetrators of evil in Darfur.

We have seen the genocidal barbarism that Rwanda descended into in 1994, when between 500,000 and 800,000 people were butchered in three months.

This genocide was mostly carried out by two extremist Hutu militia groups, the Interahamwe and the Impuzamugambi, during a period of about three months from 6 April through mid-July 1994.

Since the 1960s, the brutal carnage of the Angolan war, the Liberian war, the Sierra Leonean killing fields, the Casamance imbroglio, wars in Guinea, Mozambique, Uganda, Guinea Bissao, the incessant slaughter in both the Congos, the Sudanese wars, the Chadian civil wars, the Tuareg wars, the Central African Republic, the Nigerian civil war, the collapse of the Somali state as we knew it, the Eritrean and Ethiopian wars and other internecine conflicts have left Africans benumbed and traumatised, with little and sporadic respite from intermittent but continued blood-letting. With weak democratic institutionalisation, tin-pot dictatorships and warlordism, the immediate future of Africa and Africans look bleak.

We appreciate the fact that in all wars, all the contending parties claim God to be on their side. None invoke the devil’s name in their support. In South Africa, the truth and reconciliation process revealed some atrocities committed by the insurgents.

But, it would be grossly disingenuous to suggest that in either scope or intent, those that were fighting the racist government committed crimes anywhere near equal to the fiendish villainy of the apartheid regime.

As Herr Hitler’s war drew to an ignominious close, the greatest fear of German citizens in the face of Soviet military advances was treatment at the hands of Soviet forces who had suffered about 20,000,000 dead (military and civilian). Through these colossal sacrifices, they had broken the back of the Nazi war machine. In Darfur, we know that the insurgents have also been responsible for atrocities. But the moral standing of the perpetrators and the resistance are worlds apart; and the scale of the atrocities incomparable.

We can debate ad infinitum whether or not the tragedy of Darfur has reached genocidal proportions; or whether it is a counter-insurgency and an insurgency; or whether it is a civil war or not a civil war; or whether it is as brutal as the Iraqi case; or whether the numbers of people that have been killed in Darfur are anywhere near the numbers that have been killed in Iraq. The bottom line is that these two scenarios represent enormous tragedies in our times, and deserve the attention and anger of humanity against who are responsible for them.

The Bush administration started the tragic misadventure in Iraq with lies about weapons of mass destruction (WMD), which were never there. But the grounds for this misadventure had long been in preparation. In February 1998, Bill Clinton argued: ’What if Saddam fails to comply [with UN sanctions], or we take some ambiguous third route which gives him yet more time to develop this (WMD) programme? He will conclude that the international community has lost its will...[that] he can go right on, and do more to rebuild an arsenal of devastating destruction. And some day, I guarantee you, he’ll use this arsenal.’

On 31 October 1998, Clinton signed the Iraq Liberation Act, which stated: ’it should be the policy of the United States to support efforts to remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein from power’. And, in that same year, 1998, the US Congress authorised President Clinton to ’...use US armed forces pursuant to UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 678 to achieve implementation of UNSCRs 660-667.’

In December 1998, Clinton’s national security council advisor Sandy Berger’s view was that: ’for the last eight years, American policy towards Iraq has been based on the tangible threat that Saddam poses to our security. That threat is clear’. What has so far been little appreciated is the fact that control of oil resources formed an important, but little discussed, reason for the Bush intervention to topple former US protégé Saddam Hussein.

The American public knows better now, and will know more in the future about the Bush administration’s unspoken and hidden war aims. Iraq is everyday on world television. The bombings and gore are unfailingly harrowing.

Darfur has for long been a little known place in Africa. Now, for the past four years, it has been thrust into the forefront of our imagination. People have slowly come to learn about the contradictions and conflicts of the Afro-Arab borderlands. The contestation and conflict between pastoralists and sedentary cultivators runs roughly parallel to Arab and African in Darfur, between an Islamist tradition from the north-east and a tradition from West Africa; between African language-speakers and those who prefer or rely on Arabic and Arabic customs.

Islam found a footing there in the 16th century, and took on the more mystical Sufi forms common to other parts of sub-Saharan Africa. The most impoverished are the African groups. These latter also form the social bases of the insurgency. What needs to be categorically stated is that competition over resources does not necessarily lead to war and/or genocide. It is the way such competition and other allied problems are resolved which is ultimately determinant and decisive. If democratic and culturally tolerant policies are advanced, it is possible to avoid conflict.

Mamdani’s Darfur

Over the past three to four years, Mamdani has written two articles which confuse issues and intentionally or unintentionally throw dust in our eyes with regards to what is happening in Darfur, and whether or not we can describe it as genocide. The first article I saw appeared in the collection of the 2004 Editorials from Pambazuka News.[1] The second article has recently been put out in the March 2007 issue of the London Review of Books.[2]

My attention was drawn to the second article by a young colleague who asked in an email: ’I don’t know why Mamdani has been...a denialist of the racist genocide in Darfur. Please direct me to any readings which may enlighten me on this matter.’ Mamdani indulges in technicist sophistry, tip-toeing nimbly around the real issues in Darfur and effectively providing solace to the Khartoum regime.

Mamdani’s implicit audience in both papers is the American public. He directs a great deal of his attention to outlining how the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, ’often identified as a lone crusader’ on Darfur, has succeeded in spreading a false alarm about genocide. He effectively establishes an eloquent and bruising debate between himself and Kristof about ’naming’. But in all this, he makes controversial assertions, some of which are examined here.

In the first paper, by the same title, Mamdani asks: ’How Can We Name the Darfur Crisis?’ In the second paper, the title becomes: ’The Politics of Naming: Genocide, Civil War, Insurgency.’ The two papers cover almost the same ground, but in the recent paper, Mamdani attempts, ineffectually, to beef up his evidence. He also discusses Iraq more fully. However, with the introduction of the Iraq tragedy into the discussion, he tries to shift and dilute the argument and focus of his whole discourse from what he wants to say about Darfur: that genocide is not taking place; taking to pyhrric semantics about genocide. It is a position, an argument, stated in the passive mood.

The question could be asked more actively: ’what is happening in Darfur?’ This is more direct and avoids much of his obfuscation and intellectual ducking and diving. Mamdani assembles a wealth of facts; but he does not see his way successfully out with a synthesis. In my estimation, this is partly the result of his methodological drift towards postmodernism. One cannot quarrel with many of Mamdani’s facts and some of the historically attestable substance of his argument. It is in his judgment and the way he draws inferences between these facts that his selection of saliency fails him.

It is an ironic lesson that Gen. Bashir and his dictatorship will find comfort reading Mamdani. They have committed no genocide; although about a third of the population of groups such as the Fur, Messalit, Zaghawa, Birgid, Daju, Berti, Tama, Tunjur and others have been forcibly been dislocated from their homes and villages and forced to flee across the border to the miserable safety of cross-border refugee camps in Chad through a deliberate combination of torture, rape, gunfire and aerial bombardment, by aircraft and helicopter gunships.

The murderous Janjaweed are now also operating in Chad. There are 200,000 refugees in the cross-border Chadian refugee camps. Estimates are that between 220,000 and 300,000 people have lost their lives since early 2003 through this campaign of state-sponsored terror. 2,000,000 of a former Darfur population of about 6,000,000 are now in surrealistically overcrowded refugee camps. The Sudanese government is using ethnic cleansing and forced displacement as a counter-insurgency strategy. It is useful to recall that, ’ethnic cleansing’ as a descriptive phrase was a euphemism used by Slobodan Milosevic to describe the mass killings in the former Yugoslavia.

The phenomenon is hardly new. Goody reminds us that this is how the Anglo-Saxons emptied most of England of Celts, pushing them to the western extremities of the island. That was also how the Latins moved north into once German lands. From the sixteenth century onwards, European expansion involved the constant transfer, confinement or destruction of so-called ’primitive’ peoples throughout the Americas, in Australia, South Africa and the Antilles. Again and again, indigenous populations were reduced to ’ethnic minorities’. Since the second world war, three devastating operations of ethnic cleansing have historically been registered in the Mediterranean, Middle East and the Indian subcontinent: the partition of India, the creation of Israel in the late 1940s and the division of Cyprus in 1974.[3]

Both the sustained brutal carnage of Iraq and the slaughter in Darfur are horrific realities of our times. There is strong similarity with respect to the main protagonists in the cycle of violence. Much of what Mamdani says about the similarities is acceptable.

In Iraq, since the American invasion and the end of the conventional war to overthrow Saddam Hussein, an insurgency against the coalition of invasion forces and the current Iraqi US-backed government has emerged and is growing by the day. The main butchers in Iraq now are the vigilantes, sectarian militia and paramilitaries pitching Shia against Sunni, and vice versa.

In Darfur, the vigilantes, sectarian militia, and paramilitaries are Arabised or Arab groups. The Sudanese government is supporting these groups with weapons and aerial bombardment to effect scorched earth policies of ethnic cleansing. In a recent article in the Al Ahram Weekly, Gamal Nkrumah quoting Sudanese First Vice-President Salva Kiir, a Southern Sudanese, writes that: ’Khartoum’s proxy militia, the ethnic Arab Janjaweed are wreaking havoc on the hapless indigenous non-Arab population of Darfur. Furthermore, the Sudanese President’s failure to hold his cronies accountable for trashing his country’s international reputation by defying the international community’s wish to deploy UN troops has exacerbated the situation.’[4]

Understanding Darfur

In order to understand what is going on in Darfur and much of the Afro-Arab borderlands we need to take a broad historical view of the situation.

It must be remembered that Arabs first entered the African continent almost 1,400 years ago. The first Arabs to enter Africa were early followers of the Prophet Mohammed who sought refuge in Christian Ethiopia in what is often called ’the first hejra’ in 615 A.D.

A quarter of a century later, the Arabs, under the military command of Amr ibn al-As, by fire and sword, pushed their way into Egypt during the great movement of expansion of the lands of the Caliphate. This was during the caliphate of Umar b. al-Khattab. By the end of the 7th century, the territory of the Caliphate in Africa had expanded westwards to the Atlantic, covering what are now the countries of the Mahgreb: Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco.

By fair or foul means, today, Arabs and Arabised Africans occupy about a third of the African continent, and the processes of the Arabization of Africans continue. Darfur and much of the Sudan are squarely located in the frontline and vortex of this process. It is an expansionist process, which Africans must address. Is this acceptable? My view is that it must be halted. Africans are happy to be as they are. Arabisation is unacceptable.

Mamdani asks: ’Is Darfur genocide that has happened and must be punished? Or, is it genocide that could happen and must be prevented?’ He argues the latter. The basic weakness in this thinking is that an ahistorical and undialectical assumption has been made in the understanding of genocide.

The point is that, genocide is not only an event; indeed it is rarely simply so. It is, more significantly, a process. by that, I mean we are not going to wake up one day and find that overnight, we have moved from a pre-genocidal to a genocidal reality. Genocide is almost always a consequence of an approach to warfare. Once the foundations and direction of a genocidal route have been put in place, baring seriously mitigating circumstances or major reverses on the war-front, genocide is fairly consequential. The question we must ask therefore: is there a genocidal process underway in Darfur? What are the politics and ideology of the insurgency and counter-insurgency with respect to the phenomenology of genocide? When we understand the ideology of the counter-insurgency we can ascertain if the intention and process is genocidal or not.

In an article, which appeared in the Washington Post on 30 June 2004, Emily Wax writing from El Geneina tells the story of three young women who walked into a scrubby field just outside their refugee camp in West Darfur:

’They had gone out to collect straw. They recalled thinking that the Arab militiamen who were attacking African tribes at night would still be asleep. But six men grabbed them, yelling Arabic slurs such as "zurga" and "abid", meaning "black" and "slave". Then the men raped them, beat them and left them on the ground, they said. They grabbed my donkey and my straw and said, "Black girl, you are too dark. You are like a dog. We want to make a light baby", said Sawela Suliman, 22, showing slashes from where a whip had struck her thighs as her father held up a police and health report with details of the attack. They said, "you get out of this area and leave the child when it’s made".’

It is important to note that this was not an isolated incident. The mind and thinking behind such cruel and barbaric acts are telling. Years ago, Joseph Oduho, one of the founders of the Sudan African National Union in the south, drew my attention to the fact that the military principle of ’ibid yektul abid’ (’killing a slave with a slave’), has a history in the Sudan and was frequently heard during the First Civil War, 1956-1972.

Emily Wax’s testimony continues with the revelation that interviews with two dozen women at camps, schools and health centers in two provincial capitals in Darfur yielded consistent reports that the Arab Janjaweed militias were carrying out waves of attacks targeting African women. ’The victims and others said the rapes seemed to be a systematic campaign to humiliate the women, their husbands and fathers, and to weaken tribal ethnic lines. The pattern is so clear because they are doing it in such a massive way and always saying the same thing’, said an international aid worker who is involved in health care. She and other international aid officials spoke on condition of anonymity, saying they feared reprisals or delays of permits that might hamper their operations.

She showed a list of victims from Rokero, a town outside of Jebel Marra in central Darfur where 400 women said they were raped by the Janjaweed. ’It’s systematic,’ the aid worker said. ’Everyone knows how the father carries the lineage in the culture. They want more Arab babies to take the land. The scary thing is that I don’t think we realise the extent of how widespread this is yet.’ Another high-ranking international aid worker said: ’These rapes are built on tribal tensions and orchestrated to create a dynamic where the African tribal groups are destroyed. It’s hard to believe that they tell them they want to make Arab babies, but it’s true. It’s systematic, and these cases are what made me believe that it is part of ethnic cleansing and that they are doing it in a massive way.’

In El Fasher, the capital of North Darfur, about 200 miles east of El Geneina, ’Aisha Arzak Mohammad Adam, 22, described a rape by militiamen. They said: ’Dog, you have sex with me.’ Adam, who was receiving medical treatment at the Abu Shouk camp, said through a female interpreter that she was raped ten days ago and has been suffering from stomach cramps and bleeding. They said, ’the government gave me permission to rape you. This is not your land anymore, abid, go’.[5]

In another report, we are informed: ’When describing attacks, refugees often referred to Government of Sudan (GOS) soldiers and Janjaweed militias as a unified group; as one refugee stated, "the soldiers and Janjaweed, always they are together". The primary victims have been non-Arab residents of Darfur. Numerous credible reports corroborate the use of racial and ethnic epithets by both the Janjaweed and GOS military personnel; "Kill the slaves; Kill the slaves!" and "We have orders to kill all the blacks" are common. One refugee reported a militia member stating, "We kill all blacks and even kill our cattle when they have black calves". Numerous refugee accounts point to mass abductions, including persons driven away in GOS vehicles, but respondents usually do not know the abductees’ fate. A few respondents indicated personal knowledge of mass executions and gravesites.’[6]

Several observers and concerned parties have indicated that the tenets of the counter-insurgency include the view that the Islam of the insurgents is inferior or ideologically deficient at the mass base of society. Islam in Darfur, for the majority, is more of West African inspiration than of immediately easterly derivation. Daoud Ibrahim Salih, a refugee from Darfur and a founding board member and president of the Damanga Coalition for Freedom and Democracy, a group that developed from exiled Darfurian refugees in Cairo expresses himself thus: ’We, the Darfurians, did not commit any crimes, just that we are African...we are very ordinary people, as you can see from the pictures. Today, genocide is happening, right now while we are speaking, for my people in Darfur...we did not take Islam in the full package, which means assimilation and Arabisation...second, they want to take the land, because Darfur is a huge area...that’s why all of the Arabic countries are supporting Sudan’s government.’[7]

Apophthegmatically, Daoud Ibrahim Salih summarises the position thus: ’To stop genocide means to stop Arabization, to stop genocide means to stop assimilations, to stop genocide in Darfur means to stop the dividing of Africa.’[8] The then United Nations Secretary General, Kofi Annan, in characteristic understatement, in guarded and diplomatic style, has described the Darfur situation as ’bordering on genocide’.

Mamdani successfully calls into question Kristof’s extravagant and fabulous numbers. He also summons to witness Obasanjo and Ntsebeza. Obasanjo’s utterances feature in both the 2004 and 2007 articles. Obasanjo in 2004, at a time he was chair of the African Union (AU) and involved in delicate negotiations between the Khartoum regime and the Fur insurgents said that:

’Before you can say that this is genocide or ethnic cleansing, we will have to have a definite decision and plan and programme of a government to wipe out a particular group of people, then we will be talking about genocide, ethnic cleansing. What we know is not that. What we know is that there was an uprising, rebellion, and the government armed another group of people to stop that rebellion. That’s what we know. That does not amount to genocide from our own reckoning. It amounts to of course conflict. It amounts to violence.’

What Mamdani fails to add is that, in an address at the headquarters of the African Union (AU) in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, on 10 October 2006, Obasanjo, then president of the largest contributing country to the AU’s protection force in Darfur - set out the need for the AU to hand over to the UN there, while retaining its African composition: ’It is not in the interest of Sudan, nor in the interest of Africa, nor indeed in the interest of the world, for us all to stand by, fold our hands and see genocide in Darfur.’

Soon after the Darfur crisis exploded on the world scene, Ntsebeza, the well-known South African jurist, in work commissioned by the UN Security Council, had not at that stage found explicit grounds for declaring genocidal acts or intent in Darfur.

In his, ’Darfur: The Ambiguous Genocide’, Gerard Prunier informs us that the real logic of the war is related to a word which Nazism, the demise of colonialism and the development of scientific anthropology have marginalised into intellectual exile and political opprobrium: ’race’.

’In the 1980s Colonel Gaddafi and Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi gave an answer: Darfur was poor and backward because it was insufficiently Arabized. It had missed out in the great adhesion to the Muslim umma because its Islam was primitive and insufficiently Arabic. The situation was pregnant with the potential for enormous destruction because it fitted only too well within the broader context of racial prejudice in the Sudan.’[9]

Prunier points out that, during the 1980s, Gaddafi as self-appointed leader and modern prophet of the Arab world distributed vast quantities of arms in Darfur. His plan was to get rid of Africans and replace them with Arabs. It is the same Gaddafi who said at a press conference in Amman at an Arab League summit meeting in October 2000 that ’two-thirds of Arabs live in Africa and the remaining third must join the other two in Africa’. Mamdani is worried that an important contention of the international campaign against the Sudanese government and its proxy militias is that ’the ongoing genocide is racial: "Arabs" are trying to eliminate "Africans"’. But his objections cannot stand up against such evidence as produced here.

Arabisation and the assimilation of Africans

Arabisation has been the historical instrument for the expansion of the Arab culture and the Arab political world on the African continent. From the earliest times, the acculturation of conquered peoples, trading partners and the spread of Islam, became the motor for Arab expansion in Africa. In many parts of the world, Islam has not led to Arabisation. This is the case with Iran, Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, the countries of Central Asia, Turkey, and parts of China, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and some other areas of the world. Local cultural traditions have prevailed in spite of the penetrative influences of Islam.

For many Messalit, Fur, Birgit and Zaghawa, the Islamic religion sits astride an older African religious system. There have therefore often been combinations of indigenous pre-Islamic traits, and, at other times, Africanised and nativised Islam.

The popularity of these is what the Janjaweed see as a stumbling block to greater Arabisation. Like the Yezidi Kurds, the Fur practise, in effect, a religion, which is an eclectic mix of indigenous African pre-Islamic traditions and usages, and Islamic ones. But the injunction that ’Arabic is the language of the God’ has historically seduced many to bend to the sweep of Arabisation and Arabism.

Today the Nubians are about 3,000,000 in Egypt, a country of 70 million people. In the Sudan, the Nubians are very many more. Large sections of the Nubians, in both Egypt and the Sudan, have over centuries been Arabised. But in recent years a strong Africanist recollective tradition is affirming itself societally in Egypt in tandem with similar processes in the Sudan as a whole. Among the Beja around Kasalla, the Blue Nile region, the South Sudan, Nuba and Darfur. The noose is closing around what the Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement (SPLA) in its early years described as ’the Khartoum clique’.

From the onset of the postcolonial era in the Sudan, Arabisation has been an avowed political offering of the political elite. Both the military and civilian regimes in Sudan over the past half-century have upheld the policy of Arabisation. It is inherently a racist policy. Mamdani bemoans those he describes as ’demonizing Arabs’. It would have been useful to be explicit and explain this. If he is suggesting that those who are fighting Arabisation and the international campaign against genocide in Darfur are Arab demonisers, then he has clearly nailed his flag to his mast: The ideology of the war on the side of the counter-insurgency is Arabist.

There are many Africans on the continent and in the diaspora who reject Arabisation; who have no sympathy with the idea of changing Africans into Arabs; who are happy to be Africans and nothing else. They have that right. Other minorities in the Arab world continue to speak in increasing volume about the non-Arab character and otherness of their communities. They include Syriac, Moronites, Chaldeans, Assyrians, Kurds, Turkomen and Berber communities.

Many African intellectuals also took note of Osama bin Laden’s threats about Darfur. In 2006, He called for Islamist militants to prepare for a ’long war against the Crusader plunderers in western Sudan’. What such thinking cannot truly face up to is that both sides in the Darfur war are made up of Muslims, Arab Muslims and African Muslims. But, the African Muslims are regarded by their Arab fellow-inhabitants as heretics.

Most of us cannot support big-power intervention in the area, in whatever shape or form. But the AU in combination with the UN is, if well coordinated, acceptable. Many Africans are still waiting to hear, loud and clearly, Arab criticism of Sudanese government policy in Darfur. It is remarkable that the silence of members of the League of Arab States is so resounding.

The idea of assimilation and Arabisation of Africans comes to us in many guises. Ali Mazrui’s rendition of in September 2004 in an interview with an Arab media house, reads: ’I do believe that the African People and the Arab People are, at the moment, two people in the process of becoming one. So the process has been underway for centuries and they will, one day, be virtually indistinguishable, but at the moment it is a continuum, rather than a dichotomy.’[10]

An ethnic group is a group with a sense of common identity based on history, cultural affinities and solidarities of identification. Members of an ethnic group tend to identify with one another, or are so identified by others, on the basis of a boundary that distinguishes them from other groups. This boundary may take any of a number of forms - racial, cultural, linguistic, economic, religious, political - or differing combinations of these factors. Ethnic boundaries are frequently more or less permeable. Of all the factors which define an ethnic group, the racial factor is the least significant. Race is in anthropological usage, an ascribed/biological category; all the other factors are achieved categories. These latter are cultural. It is the cultural factor - understood to include language, traits and customary usages - which is the most important. It is nurture not nature which defines ethnicity. Ethnicity therefore largely overlaps with the notion of a cultural group.

Mamdani is mistaken when he writes: ’The various tribes that have been the object of attacks and killings (chiefly the Fur, Messalit and Zaghawa tribes) do not appear to make up ethnic groups distinct from the ethnic groups to which persons or militias that attack them belong. They speak the same language (Arabic) and embrace the same religion (Muslim).’

This is factually simply not correct. Arab ethnicities here include, the Baggara or Shuwa Arabs, Taisha, Rezeigat, Habbaniya, Beni Halba and others. In multilingual Africa, most people speak several languages. The fact that I speak English does not make me an Englishman. Arabic in the Sudan is a hegemonic language. In places like Darfur most people would know Arabic, but that does not make them Arabs. The Janjaweed are ethnically Arab militias armed and supported by the Sudanese government. Yes, they embrace the same religion, but the Arabs of the Sudan regard the Islam of Africans as inferior.

Mamdani writes that: ’the dynamic of civil war in Sudan has fed on multiple sources: first, the post-independence monopoly of power enjoyed by a tiny “Arabized” elite from the riverine north of Khartoum, a monopoly that has bred growing resistance among the majority, marginalized populations in the south, east and west of the country; second, the rebel movements which have in their turn bred ambitious leaders unwilling to enter into power-sharing arrangements as a prelude to peace; and, finally, external forces that continue to encourage those who are interested in retaining or obtaining a monopoly of power.’

He is correct in identifying the root cause of the conflict as the monopoly of power by what Garang often described as the ’Khartoum clique’. But why is Mamdani saying that this clique has monopolised and marginalised the populations of the south, east and west; then going on to say that the insurgents, the overwhelming majority in the east, south and west, should share power with what - in his own words - are ’a tiny Arabized elite from the riverine north of Khartoum’? In democracies, power rests with the majority. The English say, ’you cannot have your cake and eat it’.

He then goes on: ’The dynamic of peace, by contrast, has fed on a series of power-sharing arrangements, first in the south and then in the east. This process has been intermittent in Darfur. African Union-organized negotiations have been successful in forging a power-sharing arrangement, but only for that arrangement to fall apart time and again. A large part of the explanation, as I suggested earlier, lies in the international context of the War on Terror, which favours parties who are averse to taking risks for peace. To reinforce the peace process must be the first commitment of all those interested in Darfur.’

To reinforce the peace process is the democratic rights of the majorities which need to be acknowledged and respected. The simple reason why African Union organised arrangements have time and again fallen apart is, as Abel Alier years ago wrote about the post-colonial ruling class in Sudan, because they have made an easy habit of dishonouring agreements.[11] They fear the implications of democracy in the Sudan.

In Mamdani’s view, apparently one of the most irksome facts about the Darfur international campaign is that ’the conflict in Darfur is highly politicized, and so is the international campaign. One of the campaign’s constant refrains has been that the ongoing genocide is racial: "Arabs" are trying to eliminate "Africans". But both "Arab" and "African" have several meanings in Sudan. There have been at least three meanings of "Arab". Locally, "Arab" was a pejorative reference to the lifestyle of the nomad as uncouth; regionally, it referred to someone whose primary language was Arabic. In this sense, a group could become "Arab" over time. This process, known as Arabization, was not an anomaly in the region: there was Amharization in Ethiopia and Swahilization on the East African coast. The third meaning of "Arab" was "privileged and exclusive"; it was the claim of the riverine political aristocracy who had ruled Sudan since independence, and who equated Arabization with the spread of civilisation and being Arab with descent’.

Is the definition of an Arab a question of taking your pick from among these different meanings Mamdani offers? The ’pejorative reference to the lifestyle of the nomad’ is literally and metaphorically a joke in much of the Arab world. Arabs know too well that the historic civilisation that is Arab, came from the Arabian peninsula. It is a culture and civilisation of which they are proud. Arabisation does not result from merely speaking Arabic as a primary language. It involves the acceptance and adoption of Arab culture as a package. Yes, the Arab identity in the Sudan has been characterised by privilege and exclusivity. That is why the marginalised majority of the Sudanese are putting up resistance to its domination.

In the history of the relations between Arabs and Africans, from time immemorial, Arabs have been masters, and Africans slaves. Indeed, ’black’ in much of the Arab world is equated with slave. Until today in Egypt, the so-called bawab (doorman, gate-keeper) is invariably a dark-skinned Nubian from Egypt or the Sudan. We are reminded that ’the bawab class is the lowest of the low.’[12]

Amharization in Ethiopia and Swahilization on the East African coast has not gone on unchecked and unquestioned. In our lifetimes, we know that in Ethiopia, Amhara cultural dominance has been one of the factors underlying some of the conflict we have seen in the area. Swahilization remains largely a linguistic affair. It includes in its mould Christians, Moslems, African religionists and a whole variety of African language-speakers. Swahilis in East Africa do not control the state anywhere. They are Africans. Arabization is a different kettle of fish. Effectively and eventually, it totally effaces the cultural characteristics of Africans. This is why Africans in the region, who historically were Christians before they became Muslims, today regard themselves as Arabs and are prepared to embark on genocidal wars in the service of Arabism and Arabisation.

In search of Africans

When he comes to the issue of who is an African, Mamdani shifts into postmodernist over-drive and writes that:

’"African", in this context, was a subaltern identity that also had the potential of being either exclusive or inclusive. The two meanings were not only contradictory but came from the experience of two different insurgencies. The inclusive meaning was more political than racial or even cultural (linguistic), in the sense that an "African" was anyone determined to make a future within Africa. It was pioneered by John Garang, the leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) in the south, as a way of holding together the New Sudan he hoped to see. In contrast, its exclusive meaning came in two versions, one hard (racial) and the other soft (linguistic) - "African" as Bantu and "African" as the identity of anyone who spoke a language indigenous to Africa. The racial meaning came to take a strong hold in both the counter-insurgency and the insurgency in Darfur. The Save Darfur campaign’s characterisation of the violence as "Arab" against "African" obscured both the fact that the violence was not one-sided and the contest over the meaning of "Arab" and "African": a contest that was critical precisely because it was ultimately about who belonged and who did not in the political community called Sudan. The depoliticization, naturalization and, ultimately, demonization of the notion "Arab", as against "African", has been the deadliest effect, whether intended or not, of the Save Darfur campaign.’

Mamdani must not underestimate the power and relevance of language as an identification reference point. Language is a central feature of most cultures. Arguably, it is the most crucial feature. At the same time, it is one of the principal distinguishing features of homo sapiens as a culture creating animal. It is through language that we relate societally, through language that we transact our social lives.

I personally knew John Garang, for many years. Indeed, I spoke to him on the phone, long-distance, about a month before his very strange death. Nowhere does he define an African in the political terms Mamdani writes about. Garang was always a proud Dinka from Bor. Mamdani’s so-called inclusive definition of an African as ’anyone determined to make a future within Africa’ is most perplexing.

When I read this definition to an intern in the Centre for Advanced Studies of African Society (CASAS), Cape Town, Nana Kofi Appiah, his immediate and hilarious response was that this is an invitation to the pillagers of Africa. Does this sort of idea apply to other people in other parts of the world? Does a similar formulation apply to Chinese, Indians, Arabs or Europeans? If I arrived in China or India with a wish to make a future in these places, do I, on the basis of my wishes, become Chinese or Indian?

Cecil Rhodes, Verwoerd, Ian Smith were all people who were ’determined to make a future within Africa’. Were they Africans? I dare say they never even wished to be so regarded. Mamdani’s understanding of the so-called inclusive definition of an African makes Africaness very cheap. I say, ’if everybody is an African, then nobody is an African’.

We all know that, by appearance and looks, you cannot tell a Sunni from a Shia, a Northern Irish Protestant from a Catholic, a Palestinian from an Israeli, a Pakistani from an Indian. There are numerous other such examples. Black, in Darfur, does not really help us to identify an Arab from an African. The difference is more subtle and decisive. Africans are attached to more eclectic varieties of Islam than Arabs. They are more likely to be cultivators than pastoralists. They identify themselves as Africans and speak more African languages. They form the overwhelming majority of the population. For an American audience, black as understood in African-American parlance does not help us understand the nationality dynamics of Darfur. Africans are first and foremost a historical and cultural group. They identify themselves as such. Most are black, but there are blacks who are not African. From South India through Sri Lanka to Melanesia many such groups are to be found.

Years ago, I argued elsewhere that ’the racial definition of an African is flawed. It is unscientific and hence untenable. No serious mind today would use the race concept in any way except as an instrument for poetic imagery. What I am saying is that no group of people has been "pure" from time immemorial. Notions of purity belong to the language of fascists and the rubbish-bin of science. But before my observations are misunderstood let me take the argument into another direction. Most Africans are black, but not all Africans are black, and not all blacks have African cultural and historical roots.’[13]

Additionally, one must not forget that Arabism in Africa came largely through conquest and cultural domination. Therefore, even today, Arabisation and Arabism for Africans represent instruments of thralldom in a tradition, which precedes Western colonialism by a millennium.

1 Mahmood Mamdani. How Can We Name the Darfur Crisis? Preliminary Thoughts on Darfur. In, African Voices on Development and Social Justice. Editorials from Pambazuka News, 2004. Mkuki Na Nyota Publishers, 2005, pp. 256-262.
See also, K.K. Prah. Darfur Beyond the Crossroads: Struggles of African Nationalism in, African Voices on Development and Social Justice, ibid, pp. 249-256.

2 See, the London Review of Books. Vol.29. No.5. March 2007.

3 Jack Goody. How ethnic is ethnic cleansing? New Left Review. 7 January- February 2001.

4 See, Gamal Nkrumah. Masters at holding on. Al-Ahram Weekly. 5-11 April. p.9.

5 Emily Wax. ’We Want to Make a Light Baby’; Arab Militiamen in Sudan Said to Use Rape as Weapon of Ethnic Cleansing. Washington Post Foreign Service. Wednesday 30 June 30 2004.

6 See, Documenting Atrocities in Darfur. US State Publication 11182. Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor and the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, September 2004.

7 See, Experts Appeal for Action to Resolve Darfur Crisis.

8 Ibid.

9 Quoted here from, Harakati Shaka Lumumba. Darfur: A Wake-up Call for Africa. (Mimeo), Nairobi, Kenya. 12 November 2006. Appearing in Tinabantu, Vol.3, No.1, 2007.

10 Harakati Shaka Lumumba. Ibid.

11 Abel Alier. Southern Sudan. Too Many Agreements Dishonoured. Exeter: Ithaca Press, 1990.

12 See, Amina Abdul Salam. A doorman’s lot is not a happy one. The Egyptian Gazette, 29 March 2007, p.6.

13 Kwesi Kwaa Prah. Beyond the Color Line: Pan-Africanist Disputations. Trenton: Africa World Press, 1998, p.36.

* Kwesi Kwaa Prah is director of The Centre for Advanced Studies of African Society (CASAS), Cape Town.

Source: Pambazuka News.