Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Mahmood Mamdani - Darfur, Politics and the War on Terror

Saviours and Survivors
Darfur, Politics and the War on Terror
Mahmood Mamdani

3 June 2009
Where? A very crowded G3 at SOAS

Mamdani was introduced by our good old Henry Bernstein. It seemed that Cramer did not have enough clout to get a bigger room for Mamdani's lecture. What a SOAS joke - some of the most important speakers have given their earth-shattering lectures in very small and forgettable rooms. It reminded me of the Ahmed Rashid lecture I went to waaay in the beginning. Oh that was fun. It was also in a tiny room but what a buzz and what a talk!

Bernstein said that he knows Mamdani for more than 30 years now. Mamdani was a public intellectual in the truest sense. He did not agree with everything Mamdani goes around saying but he is highly critical, independent and encourages debate.

Well, I was utterly excited to be at this lecture. We have had to read Mamdani during the year and, to be honest, I did not know of him before coming to SOAS. I remember being told that he was a 'radical' (I love this word, anyone who vaguely speaks the truth is a radical). Who pointed that out to me? I don't even remember. Oh yes, and my UNDP colleague Paavani who has studied at Columbia told me to read Mamdani as well. I think I was asking her something about Rwanda for one of my classes.

Mamdani started off in a very quiet and measured tone. I was wondering whether he would be speaking like this the entire time but his voice rose gracefully and fell where necessary. There were measured silences. There was so much passionate anger. It was a wonder. How can I explain it? A lecture means so much more when you can believe that the speaker him/herself actually believe what they are saying. That they are conveying a truth. I think from all our VCD lecturers, the people who really were passionate were Cramer and di John and I respect them all for it. In TPP, the great speakers were Bernstein, Subir Sinha and Denise. Zoe Marriage's book is unbelievably passionate, sincere and deeply sensitive but unfortunately, she cannot seem to convey her passion in her lectures.

Mamdani said that he was interested in political violence - the issues that drive political violence in a historical context, particularly in the post colonial context in Africa. What got him interested in writing the book on Darfur was how globalised this conflict had become as compared to say, Rwanda. From the outset, Darfur was the focus of a domestic political movement in the US 'Save Darfur'. $ 14 million was raised for "advocacy." Save Darfur certainly did give the conflict publicity however it created distortions of the reality:

i) how many people died at the height of the violence? Estimates made by the Americans put the numbers killed at the height of the violence 2003-2004 at 400,000 and those made by WHO between 50-70,000. Those made by the JAO turned out to be the least reliable while those made by WHO were more realistic.
ii) were the dead killed? Of the 50-70,000 killed, 70-80% died from consequences of drought and these were mostly children and women.
iii) silence about the violence Does this violence have a history? Was this violence driven by issues?
iv) violence declined dramatically in 2004 The average number killed per month was 200 reported by the UN. The decrease in violence was brought about African Union efforts which brought the warring parties together. The only paper which carried this report in the UK was the Independent. At the same time, the UN on a higher level was throwing out figures that 300,000 were killed. (Classic tales of lack of coordination in the UN)

If you visit the Save Darfur website, you will see the accounts of murder, rape, burning of villages, documentation of perpetrators and victims. He said this Save Darfur along with aid agencies is 'naming and shaming' ultimately for the purpose of criminal justice. This framing in which violence is for violence sake and not of issues and without history is also shared by the War on Terror. This framing, this publicity got him interested deeper into the conflict.

Before 1987, the conflict was local, isolated and relatively reconcilable. From 1987 to 1989, the conflict become province-wide. It was waged with unparalleled brutality. Like all conflicts, there is not once explanation but several causes:

1) A deep cause was the land issue which can be traced to the British colonial period and the division of tribal lands. More land was given to settled tribes.
2) The trigger was drought, a four-decade long drought. A conflict ensued between the peasants and nomads - who would control the the land would survive the drought. This became a main cause of the brutality.
3) Technology. Darfur and the region became integrated into the Cold War. Chad's civil war was supported by US/France/Israel on one side and Libya/Soviet Union on the other. The opposition was mobilised in Darfur which became militarised. Darfur became eastern Congo to Rwanda. He said that while not one drop of water could be found in Darfur, the area was awash with AK47s.

The Save Darfur campaign became a marketing of grief. There was indeed a slaughter and Mamdani said that the responsibility can only be laid at the feet of the political authority. However, the Save the Darfur campaign seemed to be a new mobilisation. It was not a peace movement - it was a war movement using such language as sanctions, no fly zone, boots from Iraq to Sudan, command shift from AU to the UN, etc.

The observations here were really sharp and insightful. Mamdani said that if you look at the peace movements of the 60s, including the anti-apartheid movement, the movements brought students face to face with educators. It taught students context, history - connected the dots! This 'peace movement' brings media celebrities to the fore! The peace movement has gone from colleges to high schools. The entire thing was depoliticised in effect.

Between Afghanistan and Iraq, the 'only show was Save Darfur.' Tariq Ali apparently said that there was no draft for Iraq thereby producing a very blah peace movement. But there was draft for Darfur either and produced an even more blah and weird peace movement. Comparing the Americans' attitude towards Iraq and Darfur, Mamdani said that in the case of Iraq, there was at least some kind of intelligent discussion around Sunnis, Shiias, etc. Darfur on the other hand is a good versus evil platform, a place to feel good. In Iraq were discussed the limits of American intervention. Iraq was discussed by citizens. Darfur is discussed as humans, in moral terms. Further depoliticisation.

What needs to be done

The paradigm that guides human rights and NGOs etc is Nuremburg. A conflict ends and there are winners and losers. In Africa, however, conflicts are ongoing. The model that was followed was South Africa where the past was forgiven - political reform over criminal justice. Every conflict in Africa has hence followed this paradigm. But why not Darfur?

Ze Questions

There was one about the Zionist link to the Save the Darfur campaign. This was funny. Apparently, the movement was an inter-faith one and 'faith packets' were distributed to Jews, Muslims and Christians (Drivers, Informers and Navigators!). There definitely was a 'Zionist' link and Mamdani said a key proof of this was a piece he'd read in the Jerusalem Post. However, he did not want to follow that path and open up that front.

The dweeb question. There's always a dork question somewhere in there (say I who has never bothered to come up with a question of my own). Some kid says that as head of the student union movement in the UK, he'd supported Save Darfur but there was no Zionist link. They were simply saying that the African Union was not up for the job. Mamdani said that the reason the AU was not up for the job was because they never received the support as was promised to them. The US promised $ 50 million and 'not a penny' was received. The Canadians promised helicopters and pilots but only gave civilian pilots. The EU was to provide salaries but because of corruption, they only released salaries to the soldiers on a quarterly basis. Now how can you fight a war without paying your soldiers? The UN could not solve the political issue at the heart of the conflict - only the AU was the organisation to do it but it was actively sidelined and marginalised.

Mamdani was emphatic about regional organisations. Regional players are your peers who will not exceptionalise or demonise the problem but attempt to solve it as they have to live with the consequences. The international community however is fond of criminalising and marginalising the very key players which have to be part of the negotiations and solutions.

Comparing Zimbabwe and Kenya - a highly interesting one - there was higher election fraud in Kenya than in Zimbabwe. More people were killed in the recent election violence in Kenya than in Zimbabwe. However, the West did everything to have the opposition patch up with the government while the opposite was supported in Zimbabwe. The West has put a lot of pressure on South Africa to shut off electricity to Zimbabwe.

Mamdani said the oppositions seemed to be running out of imagination in Africa. They constantly run to Western embassies.

In answer to the Arab/African dimension to the conflict, this was a differentiation created by the British. The immigration of Arabs was a minor affair - the larger one was from West Africa since the 11th century. The royalty claimed descent from Solomon, the Prophet Muhammad. A merchant/royalty class - the merchant class ascribing to Sharia and the royalty class tradition. In the Nile valley, Arab identity was a privilege whereas in Darfur the Arabs were the poorest. The Arabs in Darfur are as local as anyone else.

It was in the 80s that Darfur became racialised where once it had always been tribal. Moreover, the NGOs feed on this dynamic and are part of the problem.

He did agree that land is not enough of an issue to explain the conflict.

As for oil, the Western powers have always controlled Africa's resources. And there are new powers on the rise who come not with guns but trade agreements, building infrastructure. The way things are. But oil doesn't explain the conflict which began as a civil war with local issues.


I completely agree with everything Mamdani said. Conflicts whether in the developing world or in the West's history are political and they have a context and a history. I never believed they were anything else before I came to SOAS and believe the same. I could have never imagined there were economists going around trying to pin down civil wars to greed. I never believed there was a primordial hatred between us Muslims and Hindus - perhaps the usual friction between religions - but whatever it was was the result of either power dynamics - Muslims having ruled India for centuries - or exploited by outsiders. I never believed anything other than that. Why? What for? Do we not have any self respect? Should we do away with our history for the benefit of academics and economists?

Mamdani's tracing of the Save Darfur campaign and the media projection of the conflict was so sharp. I used to think uncomfortably of the Arab/African differentiation - yet another savagery by Muslims against another minority. Was there any truth in it? Was it as bad? Was there really a genocide going on? And the way the AU was paraded as a useless or irrelevant organisation. Why? On the continent, people discussed it as an organisation like any organisation is discussed, with flaws and merits, but not as a joke. And it struck me as funny that while the US could spend the trillions it did in Iraq, why couldn't it lend a few helicopters to the AU?

Mamdani is African so his take on the issues is going to be passionate, sincere and concerned - far more than Clooney or an average moral Westerner. I have been saying this all along the year. I am interested in hearing what Africans have to say about Africa. What Asians have to say about Asia. There is a huge gulf of knowledge and sincerity between Westerners and us. For them development and conflict resolution is a lifestyle, a morality, a replacement of religion. For the academics, it is an inquiry or best, an attempt to re-teach their younger generation which thinks well the very same things their colonial grandfathers did.

I am glad the issue of regional organisations was so strongly addressed by Mamdani. We have to strengthen our political organisations - be it ECOWAS, AU, SADEC, SAARC, ASEAN, etc.


  1. explain the us versus them - why the strong dislike of the 'western'? when you are seeking knowledge in a western space? - Paavani

  2. Universities are places of learning. A few centuries ago, people traveled to Baghdad, Cairo, Samarkand, Timbaktu, etc to gain knowledge. Now they travel to Western Europe.

    The only qualm I had before coming here was the ironic idea that development was now being taught in former centres of Empire but did not guess that the entire angle would be western as well when it actually concerns the Other. I never knew there would be a politics in that.

    Many intellectuals from the Third World have taught in the 'western space.' But again, the university itself is supposed to be a space of learning where you are given the entire picture, not one side.

  3. Hello Farzana, my friend recorded the lecture and I just posted it here:

    Just in case you want to listen to it again.


  4. Hello again!

    Afraid I'm not at SOAS I live in Scotland. My friend Idrees is a PhD at Strathclyde (and is an editor on the PULSE site) and he visited London for the lecture and recorded it.

    I was looking for information on the lecture for my post, found your site and thought you might like the audio.


  5. This reminds me - what Mamdani was saying about how Darfur was framed in the media and his reaction to it. On a similar line, I remember comparing how two stories were developed on BBC - one was the Russian submarine disaster and drought in Africa. The former was followed second by second, minute by minute, in all its splendour, tragedy, heroism, closure, etc. The drought just popped up one day out of the blue - 'there's drought and famine in East or West Africa, can't even remember, and some UN warning about a humanitarian disaster.' It was a freaking blip.