Scholar’s Take on Darfur

This article is more than 10 years old.

Ugandan-born Mahmood Mamdani is a professor of political science and anthropology at Columbia University and in his new book "Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics and the War on Terror" he argues that the situation in Darfur is not a genocide and that the advocacy of the group 'Save Darfur' has generated outrage in the U.S. without providing historical context or accurate information. He says Darfur has distracted us from other more deadly conflicts — like the war in Iraq.

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We requested a statement from the Save Darfur coalition, here is their response to Mamdani's critique:

Professor Mamdani's arguments seek to drown the dangerous complexities of the genocide in Darfur in academic nuance. In fact, his book attacks the victims for distrusting a genocidal regime in Khartoum and seeking external assistance. In Mamdani's view of African politics, victims have a greater responsibility than their perpetrators to uphold the sovereignty of their states. As such, Mamdani completely rejects the legitimacy of organizations like the Save Darfur Coalition - whose mission is to amplify the voice of the victims in order to mobilize the international community to pursue a comprehensive strategy of policies to resolve the conflict.

Our organization avoids conflating the perpetrators of violence with specific ethnic groups in Darfur. Instead, we have highlighted first the responsibility of the Sudanese government that has armed these militias of mostly dispossessed tribes in Darfur. Furthermore, as part of our comprehensive approach to Darfur and Sudan, we believe and have advocated that reconciliation methods between Darfuri tribes should be included in any peace agreement.

Mamdani ignores the facts and instead continues to preach the same disjointed conspiracy theories that claim the Darfur movement is a front for supporters of U.S. policies in Iraq and the War on Terror. The reality, if Mamdani deigned actually to research and report it, is that individuals and groups involved in the Darfur movement, whether in the U.S. or abroad, would represent every conceivable position on those policies. While we are flattered by Mamdani's claims about the impact of Darfur advocacy in American politics, he overlooks the fact that, by any measure, vastly more attention has been paid to Iraq in the past six years than to Sudan and that the current President of the United States ran and won in part on the promise that he would end U.S. involvement in Iraq. It is really quite difficult to argue empirically that Darfur advocacy has affected the debate over the war in Iraq.

Our organization highlights the continued threat to Darfuri civilians on our website and in our materials. Darfuris and Sudanese play a central role in shaping this content and the scope of our campaigns. For two years, we organized a nation-wide speaking tour for Darfuris to tell their own stories on college campuses, community centers and houses of worship. Likewise, Darfuris have recently taken a leading role in developing our campaign to highlight violence against women in Darfur. Furthermore, we combine these stories from victims with specific and detailed policy recommendations that take into account the historical and political context of the multiples crises in Sudan.

In contrast, you will find in Mamdani's book no acknowledgment of the role that Darfuris and Sudanese play in our organization and the broader movement. At best, this reflects a serious lack of research into the full scope of our activities; more likely, it reflects his need for theoretical purposes to undermine the voice of the victims. Mamdani does not care about the pleas of help from IDP camps - which he demeans as naïve in his book - or the reports of Sudanese human rights defenders who regularly document to Save Darfur and others continued abuses in Darfur and Sudan. (Interestingly, the acknowledgments in the book do not appear to mention a single Darfuri.) Likewise, he seeks to delegitimize the efforts of Sudanese and Darfuris who have fled Sudan due to threats to their lives and who work to raise awareness about the atrocities committed against their families.

Save Darfur is proud of its work with college and high school students. We have worked with STAND (A Student Anti-genocide Organization) and its college-based chapters across the country since the beginning to inform and educate students about the genocide in Darfur. Tens of thousands of students have organized educational forums on campus and participated in direct advocacy activities that engage their fellow students on this important foreign policy issue. We also organized a Dollars for Darfur campaign in high schools that encouraged these students to hold similar events, as well as raise money for advocacy and relief (in fact, half of the money collected went to humanitarian organizations working on the ground in Darfur).

Unfortunately, Mamdani promotes a false image of Save Darfur in order to support his claims about the geopolitics of humanitarian intervention in Africa. First, Mamdani often expresses surprise that Save Darfur does not provide humanitarian relief, when he knows perfectly well that the organization’s mission – like the missions of many similarly-focused advocacy organizations – is not to provide direct relief to the victims of the Darfur genocide. Its role instead is to urge the U.S. government and international community to provide the necessary funds for these critical services to Darfuris and pursue policies that will achieve long-term peace, protection and justice for these victims of mass violence.

This program aired on June 3, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.

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