Obama, Clinton and the need for a new look on the Darfur ‘genocide’

by Anders Hastrup.

The crisis in Darfur has captured public imagination in the US and thus the rest of the Western world in a manner unprecedented for a conflict on the African continent. Not since the anti-apartheid campaigns in the 1980s have students on US campuses been so passionately concerned about the plight of civilian Africans. Never before have the US public and various lobby groups from all sides of the political spectrum and different religious organizations been speaking with such a united voice about ending what former Secretary of State Colin Powell called a “genocide” in 2004. In their respective presidential campaigns both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have openly criticised the Bush administration for not putting any action behind the declaration and ending the genocide in Darfur. Before the new US administration takes over and we can expect a tougher line on the Sudanese government responsible for atrocities in Darfur, should Obama put force behind his words, it is of great importance that everyone engaged with the Darfur in the US read this piece and try to revise the root causes of the current tragedy and use these reflections to create a more balanced response. In this piece I wish to highlight some of the problems in labelling Darfur a “genocide” and separating the history of this tragedy from the history of the rest of Sudan.

Before moving on with some of the shortcomings of seeing Darfur as an unprecedented catastrophe in both the history of Sudan and Africa, let me say that I thoroughly appreciate the efforts of individuals, students, journalists, celebrities, community organisations, religious and political figures in the US who have put an incredible amount of energy in speaking out for the plight of the suffering civilians of Darfur. I myself have lived in Sudan for more than 2 years and have spent more than 1 one year working with the many internally displaced persons in the huge camps in Darfur. I have witnessed a humanitarian situation that has only deteriorated, families fleeing their homes for the second and third time all telling their stories of husbands slain in front of their wives, sexual violence and burnt down villages. I have met women gang-raped so violently they were unable to walk months after it took place, I have seen infants on the brink of starvation who I know can no longer possibly be alive as humanitarian access has been hindered by the deliberate attacks on NGO and UN vehicles all through Darfur.

I do not wish to downplay the need for action and upgraded international engagement, yet in my view a continued uncritical use of the term “genocide” where “Arabs” kill “Africans” to describe the horrors in Darfur is not only historically wrong, it may potentially be counterproductive and reproduce the current patterns of conflict, where civilians pay the highest price. Here is why:

•    The Sudanese government armed loyal Arab militias, the janjaweed, to carry out a scorched earth campaign as a counter insurgency strategy crushing an armed rebellion against the Khartoum government in 2003-2004. This led to the displacement of more than 2 million people, mostly non- Arab Africans throughout Darfur. However, many senior janjaweed commanders did not feel they where adequately rewarded by the Sudanese government wherefore they turned against Khartoum. In some cases these Arab rebels formed new alliances with the rebels they had set out to crush. Across ethnic boundaries they came together in unified resistance to Khartoum.
•    Since the failed Darfur Peace Agreement in 2006, where only one of the rebel-fractions signed a deal with Khartoum a new front has opened between the two major African tribes in Darfur, the SLA/M, who signed the deal, and SLA/AW who didn’t. The SLA/M has carried out campaigns against civilians allegedly supporting SLA/AW in a very brutal manner. So brutal, in fact, that the SLA/M soldiers have been nicknamed “janjaweed 2”, their use of scorched earth campaigns and sexual violence a repetition of the horrors initially imposed on themselves and their fellow Africans by the horse-mounted Arab militiamen.
•    The reasons for joining the janjaweed militias were, and are primarily economic. It is not the first time the Sudanese government arms Arab militias and make them do the dirty job. In the eighties they were known as murahaliin and were instrumental in securing the border South of Darfur against the rebel group SPLA. They also carried out massacres against the civilian African population of the Dinka tribe in the South Darfur/South Sudan borderland. These militias who undertake such atrocities are not a master-race of Arabs from Khartoum but traditionally the poorest and most desperate of Darfur’s population. Unfortunately, NGOs have failed to grasp this socio-economic dimension as a major root cause of the conflict. Very few food aid or development programs have integrated the Arabs, whose livelihood opportunities are as destroyed as those of the “Africans”. Because of the “genocide” term and the continuing use of the “Arab” vs. “African” dichotomy by western media and lobby groups, giving food aid to Arabs is not politically correct. Many Arabs are thus marginalised by both the Sudanese government and the international agencies in the most expensive relief operation in the world. The pull towards human rights abusing militias thus remains compelling should the Arab tribes continue to feel this double marginalisation.

I have previously written a thesis on the history of displacement in Sudan using my year working in the biggest camp for the displaced in Darfur where these points are put in an elaborate historical perspective. A summary of my fieldwork and a discussion of the coexistence between an international vocabulary of human rights and universal justice and the local experiences of the displaced of Darfur can be found in the article “Violating Darfur. The Emergent truth of Categories in my own and Sune Haugbolle’s “The Politics of Violence, Truth and Reconciliation in the Arab Middle East”.

Let me conclude these remarks by reiterating my gratefulness to all individuals far away from Darfur and most notably in the US, where a tougher Darfur policy can be expected from the Obama administration, for their compassion with the Darfurians and their earnest desire to end the current catastrophe. Perhaps because I have been there so long and seen the situation change and words and meanings shift that I am uncomfortable uncritically applying the term “genocide”.

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