Politics and Activism: the Case of Darfur

Politics and Activism: the Case of Darfur

Written By

Abdul Mohammed

Mahmood Mamdani has, in his usual provocative manner, ignited a relevant and appropriate debate on Darfur in his new book Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror (Pantheon Books, 2009). Until recently, foreign activists had a near-monopoly on publicity and, in doing so, they defined not only the immediate response to Darfur, but also all the issues surrounding Sudan. Political, humanitarian and security issues were all defined in the media by this activist constituency.

All other entities, including the United Nations (UN) and the African Union (AU) which have considerable presence on the ground and therefore have their own sources of information and analysis, have been intimidated into silence. They are often reduced to responding to an agenda set on the other side of the world by organizations with only a fraction of the knowledge. The UN, with its thousands of monitors and its detailed local knowledge and analysis, was overshadowed by hit and run missions by western human rights groups, which often arrived, spent a few days mining the information of UN and AU staff members and Sudanese professionals, and then left to create their own interpretations of the information they had extracted. This externally driven a priori definition of Sudan’s crisis had to be challenged, and Mahmood has succeeded in doing that.

Four key issues are raised in Saviors and Survivors which I find compelling. These are: (1) the depiction of the Arabs as "outsiders" versus the Africans as "indigenous;" (2) the way in which a certain brand of 'activists' have become detached and unaccountable; (3) the under-acknowledged and unappreciated role of Africa and African institutions in responding to the crisis; and (4) the importance of politics in resolving the crisis in Darfur

First, the way the Darfur issue has been discussed in the international community has consolidated the depiction of the Arabs as outsiders versus the Africans as indigenous. The Arabs are depicted as outsiders to Sudan and, within Sudan, as outsiders to specific communities. This depiction has created its own momentum and people in Sudan are now also defining the issues in this manner. In Darfur, the Arabs are now compelled to say, "We are Darfurians." They need to insist that they are part of the solution and not just a problem. While this notion of Arabs as incomers entered the communal discourse well before the war, it has been entrenched due to western coverage.

The redefinition of Arabs as outsiders has serious implications not just in Sudan but across West Africa. As resources dwindle, arms become available and, as competition for power intensifies, the issue of indigenous versus outsider people becomes a driving narrative. This way of framing politics by exclusion has been a destructive force in conflicts elsewhere, such as in Côte d’Ivoire. This danger must be seriously considered and tackled before it locks entire countries into its logic. Mahmood has seen these processes at work in different parts of Africa, most notably in Uganda and Rwanda, and is now drawing our attention to its unfolding in Darfur. We should pay attention to his warning, as it is based on a deep understanding of the operation of these processes.

Second, Mahmood obliges us to focus on the ‘activists’ and specifically the danger of activism becoming an end in itself. Rather than acting in solidarity with the domestic political agenda, activism on Darfur became entranced with its own image and is now spinning on itself. Mahmood, myself and a generation of Africans are all activists, coming from a background of political struggle for liberation and democracy. Activism as practiced today in America, especially when focused on Africa, has a completely different character. We feel dismayed and let down that the label "activist", which we once owned and wore proudly as a badge, has been appropriated by others with such different worldviews.

politicsactivismWestern activists are now empowered with unprecedented resources, not for purposes of the traditional NGO work of advocacy in solidarity with domestic political forces, but advocacy that is focused on overwhelming domestic political actors and on defining a solution to the problem that forces the international players to accede. The activists are very ambitious in this, using the genocide narrative which they have adopted because of its power to compel western governments to intervene. Once they have taken on this narrative, they have no choice but to demand regime change. Individuals within these groups may have a better and more nuanced understanding, but the thrust of their actions, whether they intend it or not, is to consolidate power relations that reduce people in the countries they are concerned with to mere victims, spectators in the politics of their own countries. In the case of Darfur, this approach has really gone beyond accountability and solidarity into destabilization and continuation of conflict. The label "victim" is in serious danger of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, the antithesis of the liberation which we aspired to attain a generation ago.

Mahmood has raised this issue in a forthright and uncompromising manner. What he has succeeded in doing, which no one else has done, is to force the activists to reflect upon the politics of their strategy by demonstrating, in the clearest way possible, that there is another intellectually coherent and legitimate way of seeing the Darfur crisis. The activists had become used to dominating the public discourse on Darfur in the international sphere. After Mahmood’s intervention, they need to raise their intellectual game. It is interesting to observe that they have hardly ever been able to do this, and so they keep recycling the same arguments as though the mere fact of repetition would allow them to win the argument.

Third, Mahmood points to African institutions and their responses to the crisis in Darfur. He emphasizes that, in the case of Darfur, Africans actually took a much more robust stand than they have been credited for achieving. Africans were involved in Darfur first, before anybody else. The African Union responded with the resources that Africa has, which are moral condemnation, political engagement and human resources. African states and the African Union were engaged in negotiating a ceasefire, demanding an end to the atrocities, and sending a mission of ceasefire monitors. The AU observer mission relied on Africans with the financial support from outside, which unfortunately proved to be an unsustainable formula. The AU presence, by all accounts, improved the situation on the ground in 2004 during the worst days of the crisis. The AU mediation achieved the one political breakthrough recognized by all parties, the 2005 Declaration of Principles, and conducted the most intense discussion on the details of power-sharing, wealth-sharing and security arrangements yet undertaken. As the months and years have passed since the end of the Abuja peace talks, this process that was much-maligned by the activists has looked better and better in comparison with what has been possible since.

The time period when the African Union Mission in Sudan (AMIS) deployed was the very same time that the activists were raising the bar on Darfur. Their argument was that the crisis could only be addressed by an international force, preferably NATO, though they were ready to settle for the UN. The debate the activists unleashed then actually came at the expense of the African presence. Instead of arguing for upgrading AMIS or changing the mission into another multilateral institution, the objective of the campaign became proving that the Africans were incapable and were failing with their intervention. They hammered this point so much that it degenerated into claiming the complicity of Africans with what they called genocide. In spite of the attack against them, the Africans persevered and helped negotiate a hybrid arrangement of a joint UN-AU force (UNAMID).

Serious damage was done by the activists against the African peacekeeping capacity, which is now deemed to be quite ineffective. The agenda of building an African peacekeeping force with a structure and doctrine appropriate to the particularities of African conflicts was a vibrant issue just a few years ago, but has now been set back, if not killed completely. Within Darfur, the activists’ messages were so inflammatory that the Internally Displaced Person (IDP) communities saw the African element of UNAMID as an impediment to their aspirations. The kind of grumbling about institutional shortcomings that is the staple of any field mission or operational NGO was inflated into a universal verdict of condemnation. This attitude is spilling over into the UN as well, so that UN-AU relations are unnecessarily complicated, making it difficult for the African peacekeepers and staff within UNAMID to do their jobs efficiently.

In spite of all this, the Africans continue to be helpful in Darfur and continue to exercise influence. Africa continues to provide peacekeepers for Darfur and is taking the lead in political and peace initiatives.

Mahmood’s last point argues the primacy of politics. Instead of seeing the politics of Darfur through the simplified lens of good and evil, Mahmood sees the humanitarian crisis and human rights violations through the lens of politics. In doing so, he is speaking the same language as his most politically astute Sudanese critics, who fully recognize that the labels "genocide" and "criminal" are tools in the political lexicon and not the anchor for analysis. Internationally, the entire narrative of "Darfur" has been framed within a depoliticized "evil." Mahmood’s book provokes us to think politically about the happenings in Darfur and the legacy of marginalization from which Darfurians are suffering; that can only be redressed by political reform. By political reform Mahmood refers to changing the way politics has been conducted, which requires a political struggle and redefinition of the issues, and to creating a new dispensation for the whole of Sudan. Mahmood clearly articulates that the issue of justice does not exist in the abstract. Justice exists within a political order and, unless the political framework allows it, justice cannot be done. He argues that it is only when the configuration of the political space is changed that justice will be served.

This is exactly what we have been hearing from the Darfurian people. In every consultation we have held as Darfur-Darfur Dialogue and Consultation, whenever we have asked the question about justice, the answer has not come back in terms of privileging trials and punitive accountability, but in terms of dealing with inequities in development and political representation, overcoming marginalization and restoring livelihoods, and establishing the rule of law and the presence of the state and its services. Only in that context and in that order do Darfurians speak about punitive accountability.

Following from this is the important conclusion that changing the political dispensation can only be done by the Sudanese. Any authentic and legitimate political reform is primarily the product of the struggle of the Sudanese people. Therefore the slogan of "Save Darfur" becomes meaningless because its emphasis is put on external factors. It reduces the people of Darfur and Sudan to spectators rather than agents of change. Unfortunately, this slogan, because of its intensity and the resources behind it, was able to penetrate certain circles within the Darfurian and Sudanese elite, distorting their ability to focus internally, and encouraging them to put their priority on external salvation. We hear this too, especially among the most frustrated constituencies in Darfur, the IDPs. What is especially tragic is that this externally-oriented militancy has strengthened very reactionary forces in Sudan who want to perpetuate the marginalization of Darfur. It has given them the mantle of nationalism.

Saviors and Survivors has succeeded in creating a significant shift, which is prompting a dialogue on American activism in Darfur and its relationship to the politics of Sudan. Mahmood has succeeded in halting the monopoly of the Save Darfur monologue. To date, the response of Save Darfur and other groups to his critique has not been substantive but has been disappointingly thin. These groups have remained stuck on trying to prove that Darfur is "ongoing genocide." This response shows that the activists have built their arguments on slogans and their horizons do not extend beyond their own world. While Mahmood has challenged that, the activists still stick to the politics of victimhood, and refuse to go beyond first principles. In this political retrogression, I wonder if we should still use that honorable word "activists" to describe them.

Abdul Mohammed is a peace activist based in East Africa. He works on a wide range of development issues including refugee resettlement, relief and emergency, and food security programs.

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Ajayi Olutayo

Ajayi Olutayo

11. October, 2012 |

People like you are needed on this continent to take us to where we should be. Keep it up man!

Marcus Edibogi Akor

Marcus Edibogi Akor

11. October, 2012 |

Thanks for this powerful article. I am very glad I read it. Keep up your great work and remain Blessed Law!

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