A review of Mahmoud Mamdani’s “Saviors and Survivors. Darfur, Politics and the War on Terror ”. Part 1
by Anders Hastrup.
A new book by Mahmoud Mamdani has sparked great controversy among scholars and activists working on Darfur. The title is “Saviors and Survivors. Darfur, Politics and the War on Terror”. This is the first in a series of reviews of the book, where I discuss the main points of the work.
Many reviewers of the book have reacted strongly to the claims of Mamdani’s work, which is understandable since the book aggressively criticizes central figures in the Save Darfur Movement and the journalists whose reporting from the war zone helped kick start the campaign. The attack on the Save Darfur “lobby” and the role of Darfur in the “War on Terror” have caught the attention of many reviewers who eagerly debate these claims. The high pitched, near hysterical, tone of Mamdani’s attacks have provoked equally high pitched replies. This is a shame because two thirds of the book deals. This is a shame since the book is more than just a critique of the Save Darfur Movement. Two-thirds of the book deal with the history of Darfur itself, from the colonial legacy to the role of the region in the Cold War and the Islamist/securalist divide of the rebel movements
The openly provocative statements are at times refreshing and at other times historically inaccurate and illogical. The overall attack on the Save Darfur Movement, and indeed on most of the activist movements and engaged journalists is really controversial and not entirely fair. I shall return to these debates in later reviews. In the historical chapters we find an interesting analysis of the way in which the colonial power of Great Britain rewrote the history of Sudan, and particularly Sudanese Arabs, in a “native” and “settler” paradigm. This particular division has persisted and, claims Mamdani, is the root cause of the perception of the present war in an “Arab” – “African” dichotomy:
“The Save Darfur lobby in the United States has turned the tragedy of the people of Darfur into a knife with which to slice Africa by demonizing one group of Africans, African Arabs. For undergirding the claim that a genocide has occurred in Darfur is another, born of a colonial historiography, that Arabs in Sudan- and elsewhere on the African continent- are settlers who came in from the outside and whose rights must be subordinate to those of indigenous natives.” (p. 300)
This is interesting but not entirely true. Claims like these are typical of the “blame the colonial powers and their artificial division of peoples and places for all the evil that the post-colonial African continent has witnessed” paradigm that shines through much of his book.
Throughout the historical part of the work, Mamdani uses a great deal of sources from well known authorities on the history of Sudan and Darfur, and couples this with a wider historical understanding of both colonial and Cold War legacies. There are factual mistakes throughout the work (the rebel leader Abdul Wahid al Nur is referred to as “Abd el Nur”, for instance, which is annoying). It is, however, spite the flaws, an interesting account, and as a researcher on Darfur I welcome new angles to debate the origins of one of the greatest humanitarian catastrophes in the new Millenium.
I have lived and worked in Darfur for about a year and I continue to do research into the patterns and origins of the conflict. I have been interested in looking at explanations of the root causes of the conflict that go beyond the seemingly inherent “historical” opposition between “Arabs” and “Africans” in Darfur and Sudan as a whole. I have looked at landowning issues and the marginalisation of Darfur’s Arab tribes as a result of their lack of fixed territory and I have seen, and continue to see, these issues as key to an understanding of the conflict.
However, when I was in Chad for two months this spring interviewing the refugees who have fled from the horrors of the infamous janjaweed militia in Darfur, I was forced to rethink many of my earlier approaches to the conflict. Listening to people I realised that they themselves clearly saw this as a war of “Arabs” vs. “Africans”. If this is how the war is experienced, then this is their truth, and the truth is local, something Mamdani does not take into account in his conspiracy theories of the hegemonic world order behind the Save Darfur campaign.
In countless interviews people would talk of how the Arab militias told them that the country should be “cleared of all blacks” and that “you are slaves and must leave” while burning, raping and killing their way through Darfur. Mamdani has taken very little time to hear how victims of the conflict themselves have put events into language. For the Darfurian population in the refugee camps of Eastern Chad, the perpetrators are indeed the “Arabs” set out to kill “blacks”. You cannot write off the local experience of blatant racist violence happening here and now as a continuation of a false dichotomy that has its origins in colonial historiography. It is an oversimplification and an exaggeration of the impact of colonial divisions on contemporary realities in Darfur. It is also an arrogant lack of respect for local knowledge and experience of the war on the ground by the people who have suffered through it.
In the two months I interviewed Darfurian refugees in Eastern Chad this spring I heard the same tale over and over again: “The Arabs came, killed my family, raped my wife, burned down my house and forced me to flee saying that the land should be cleared of all blacks”. If I were to follow Mamdani’s line of thought my reply would be: “No, you are not victims of the Arabs. The janjaweed are themselves victims of British colonial historiography that have falsely introduced a “native” vs. “settler” paradigm, which you can clearly find in MacMichael’s “A History of the Arabs in Sudan” from 1922”.
I don’t see the connection between the colonial historiographic legacy and the modern day engagement in the current war from the various interest groups. I don’t think that journalists reporting from the frontline were aware of this particular divide and the “origins” of it when they wrote their articles, telling the world of the extermination of villages by the militias. What I think they responded to was the sheer magnitude of the humanitarian catastrophe that unfolded in the course of a very short time, which they witnessed. I believe the reporting on the war as a war between “Arabs” and “Africans”, that has continued to inform the media coverage of the conflict, is a result of investigative journalism, where reporters took time to listen to the voices of millions of displaced who fled the janjaweed terror.
All the high pitched cliché ridden colonial critique aside, the book is still a refreshing comment and for my own part been it is a great source of inspiration to continue to do research on the impact of colonial legacy on developments in Darfur, if nothing else then to find out where Mamdani is wrong.