You turn to us for voices you won't hear anywhere else.

Sign up for Democracy Now!'s Daily Digest to get our latest headlines and stories delivered to your inbox every day.

Mahmood Mamdani on Darfur: “The Politics of Naming: Genocide, Civil War, Insurgency”

Media Options

As President Bush orders news sanctions to be placed on the Sudanese government, Columbia professor Mahmood Mamdani discusses how the media and the Save Darfur Coalition has been misrepresenting the situation in Darfur. [includes rush transcript]

Related Story

StoryApr 17, 2024One Year into War, Sudan Wracked by World’s Largest Displacement and Hunger Crises
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to Darfur. President Bush has ordered new sanctions to be placed on the Sudanese government for its role in the violence in Darfur. Last week’s announcement blocks 31 companies tied to the Sudanese government from using the U.S. banking system.

The sanctions were seen as a victory for the Save Darfur Coalition, a U.S. group leading a vocal campaign pressuring the White House to take action. But The New York Times reported Saturday some of Save Darfur’s public efforts have angered aid groups working on the ground in Sudan. The aid groups say Save Darfur’s call for imposing a no-flight zone could lead to a halt in aid flights and put their workers at risk. Aid groups have also criticized Save Darfur for not spending its multi-million-dollar budget on aid to Darfur’s refugees.

Mahmood Mamdani is one of the world’s most prominent Africa scholars. Earlier this year, he wrote a major piece for the London Review of Books called “The Politics of Naming: Genocide, Civil War, Insurgency.” He was born in Uganda and now splits his time between Uganda and New York, where he is a professor at Columbia University. Mahmood Mamdani stopped by our firehouse studio Friday. I began by asking him about the name of his article, “The Politics of Naming.”

MAHMOOD MAMDANI: I think the larger question is the names — genocide, in particular — come into being against a background of the 20th century and mass slaughter of the 20th century, and particularly the Holocaust. And against that background, Lemkin convinced the international community, and particularly states in the international community, have an obligation to intervene when there is genocide. He’s successful in getting the international community to adopt a resolution on this.

Then follows the politics around genocide. And the politics around genocide is, when is the slaughter of civilians a genocide or not? Which particular slaughter is going to be named genocide, and which one is not going to be named genocide? So if you look at the last ten years and take some examples of mass slaughter — for example, the mass slaughter in Iraq, which is — in terms of numbers, at least — no less than what is going on in Sudan; or the mass slaughter in Congo, which, in terms of numbers, is probably ten times what happened, what has been happening in Darfur. But none of these have been named as genocide. Only the slaughter in Darfur has been named as genocide. So there is obviously a politics around this naming, and that’s the politics that I was interested in.

AMY GOODMAN: And what do you think this politics is?

MAHMOOD MAMDANI: Well, I think that what’s happening is that genocide is being instrumentalized by the biggest power on the Earth today, which is the United States. It is being instrumentalized in a way that mass slaughters which implicate its adversaries are being named as genocide and those which implicate its friends or its proxies are not being named as genocide. And that is not what Lemkin had in mind.

AMY GOODMAN: The simplifying of the conflict by the U.S. media, you write extensively about this, who the sides are.

MAHMOOD MAMDANI: Well, I was struck by the fact — because I live nine months in New York and three months in Kampala, and every morning I open The New York Times, and I read about sort of violence against civilians, atrocities against civilians, and there are two places that I read about — one is Iraq, and the other is Darfur — sort of constantly, day after day, and week after week. And I’m struck by the fact that the largest political movement against mass violence on U.S. campuses is on Darfur and not on Iraq. And it puzzles me, because most of these students, almost all of these students, are American citizens, and I had always thought that they should have greater responsibility, they should feel responsibility, for mass violence which is the result of their own government’s policies. And I ask myself, “Why not?” I ask myself, “How do they discuss mass violence in Iraq and options in Iraq?” And they discuss it by asking — agonizing over what would happen if American troops withdrew from Iraq. Would there be more violence? Less violence? But there is no such agonizing over Darfur, because Darfur is a place without history, Darfur is a place without politics. Darfur is simply a dot on the map. It is simply a place, a site, where perpetrator confronts victim. And the perpetrator’s name is Arab, and the victim’s name is African. And it is easy to demonize. It is easy to hold a moral position which is emptied of its political content. This bothered me, and so I wrote about it.

AMY GOODMAN: Columbia University professor Mahmood Mamdani. We’ll be back with him in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: We return to our conversation with Columbia University professor Mahmood Mamdani, one of the world’s most prominent Africa scholars, speaking about Darfur in relation to other conflicts around the world.

MAHMOOD MAMDANI: Well, let’s begin with the numbers of the dead, OK? The only group in a position to estimate how many people have died in Darfur is UNICEF, because UNICEF is the only one that did a comprehensive survey in 2005 in Darfur. Everybody else only knows the piece of ground on which they work and will then extrapolate from it, like any other NGO, like Oxfam or Medecins Sans Frontieres or World Food Program. The WFP estimate was 200,000. Out of these 200,000, the WPF report tells you that roughly about 20 percent died of actually being killed, of violence, and 80 percent died mainly from starvation and from diseases. And normally in our understanding of genocide, we put both those together and look at them as a result of the violence, because the violence prevents the medicine going in, etc., except in the case of Darfur, it’s not a single-cause situation.

Darfur is also the place which has been hit hard by global warming. The U.N. commission which sat on global warming very recently spoke of Darfur as the first major crisis of global warming. In other words, from the late 1970s you have had a significant desertification, and you’ve been having in the north of Darfur basically a situation where people’s simply entire livelihoods are destroyed, and which has been one of the elements, because it has driven the nomadic population in the north down into the south. So how many people are dying from desertification? How many people are dying from the violence that has been unleashed through this civil war in Darfur?

Second element in this is that there’s a civil war going on in Darfur. There are two rebel movements, and both rebel movements were born in the aftermath of the peace in the south. And those who were unwilling to accept the peace in the south, who thought the peace in the south should have included a resolution for all of Sudan, particularly for Darfur and not simply for the south, they were the inspiration behind the two movements that developed. One movement, the Sudan Liberation Army, was a movement strongly connected with the SPLA in the south, especially with those sections of the SPLA who were not happy with the partial nature of the settlement in the south.

And the other movement —


MAHMOOD MAMDANI: The SPLA, sorry, is the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, which had organized and led the guerrilla war in the south for several decades under John Garang.

The second movement was the Justice and Equality Movement. The Justice and Equality Movement, unlike the SLA, which is a secular movement, Justice and Equality is an Islamist movement. And it was a break-off from the regime in the Sudan. It was a break-off between two sections of the regime, the military and the civilian section, and particularly the section led by the chief ideologue, Hassan al-Turabi, who split from the military wing and was the inspiration behind the formation of the Justice and Equality Movement. So you have, in a way, a very strong Islamist rebel movement and you have a strong secular rebel movement, and these two began their operations in 2003.

The government’s response — and I saw the ambassador’s response there, which was as disingenuous as Bush’s response, in a sense, because he’s claiming that it’s just a civil war inside, the government has nothing to do with it. It’s not true. The government’s response was to pick a proxy and arm it. And the government was, in a way, smart enough to pick those who were the worst victims of the desertification and the drought. It picked the poorest of the nomads from the north whose livelihoods had been entirely destroyed and who had simply no survival strategy at hand and gave them weapons. And these guys went down south, and their object was not to kill the peasants in the south, but to drive them off their land.

The government’s response was also to pick a second group, and that second group are the nomads from Chad who have come into Darfur. And to understand that, one has to look at the third dimension of the conflict, which is that over the last 25, 30 years there has been a civil war going on in Chad. Chad, during the Cold War, was a bone of contention, first and foremost between the U.S. and France, and both had their allies in the region. France allied with Libya. The U.S. allied with the military dictatorship in Sudan, with the Numeri dictatorship in Sudan. And every oppositional movement in Chad had a base in Darfur, and they armed themselves, organized themselves in Darfur. So Darfur was awash with weapons for two decades, OK. And those who ran away from the civil war in Chad came into Darfur. So the other wing of those who were armed, whether by the government or whether by this weaponry which was awash, were the Chad refugees in Darfur. So what we call the Janjaweed are two groups. They are the Chad refugees in Darfur, and they are the poorest of the northern camel — the pastoralists divide into two: the camel pastoralists and the cattle pastoralists. And the camel pastoralists, because the camel is the only game which will survive in the worst conditions where even cattle will not survive, they are the poorest of the poor. So these are what are called the Janjaweed.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to play a clip for you from John Prendergast. He is the senior adviser for the International Crisis Group, leader of the Save Darfur Coalition, has argued that genocide is occurring in Darfur, that the Sudanese government is trying to mask what’s really happening.

JOHN PRENDERGAST: This policy of divide and conquer, which has been in place since the early part of this decade, had as its objective the creation of anarchy in Darfur. So when people take a snapshot today and see Darfur and go, “My god, all these groups are fighting against each other. It seems like it’s chaos,” it’s precisely what the government intended.

AMY GOODMAN: Your response.

MAHMOOD MAMDANI: We need to keep in mind, and John Prendergast needs to keep in mind, that the history of state-sponsored terrorism in that part of Africa begins with the U.S. providing a political umbrella to South Africa to create a state-sponsored terrorist movement in Mozambique: RENAMO. And it is after a full decade of that impunity that others learn the experience, and Charles Taylor begins it in Liberia, and the Sudanese government begins it in the south. But this is the second thing, which builds on this history of political violence.

The third thing is that when the rebel movements begin in 2003 in Darfur, the Khartoum government responds in the same way, which is it looks at the scene, and it picks the weakest, the most vulnerable, the ones that they can bring under their wing, it arms them and says, “Go for it,” and they go for the land.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Mamdani, you quote the saying, “Out of Iraq, into Darfur.” What about intervention?

MAHMOOD MAMDANI: Well, look, the question in Darfur is really, how do we stop the fighting, because if we want to stop the killing of civilians, we have to stop the fighting. We have — and the only way to stop the fighting is a political resolution. In 2005, African Union troops came into Darfur. I interviewed the Ghanaian general who was deputy to Dallaire in Rwanda and who is the chief of the U.N. nucleus force in Darfur. And he said to me that the African Union troops were spectacularly successful in 2005. The killing came down dramatically.

And then, he said, two things happened. Both happened around the question of finances, because African countries can provide troops but they don’t have finances to provide salaries or logistics. So the first shift was around salaries. The salaries of African troops were being paid by the European Union, which paid them from an emergency fund, and it shifted the payment to quarterly payments, so they would make payment every three months, and they would only make the next three-month payment if the paperwork was done properly, if there was accountability. So, as I speak now, African Union troops have not been paid for four months, because the EU says there hasn’t been proper accountability.

Second is about logistics. The troops have to work with planes, and the planes provided are not military planes. They are planes flown by civilian pilots. And civilian pilots have the right to refuse to fly in areas which they consider dangerous. Now, of course, all these areas are dangerous. So you’re operating with logistics that you don’t control. Civilian pilots will not. The Ghanaian general said to me — I asked him, I said, “Why do you think these changes happened?” He said, “I don’t know. But the only thing I can think is that the reason would only be political.” I had the same response when I heard President Bush’s speech.

AMY GOODMAN: Meaning to make the African Union troops ineffective.

MAHMOOD MAMDANI: Ineffective, exactly, because —

AMY GOODMAN: Incapacitate them.

MAHMOOD MAMDANI: — the contention has been over who has political control over the troops in Darfur. OK. The African Union troops are under the political control of African Union. And there is a concerted attempt being made to shift the political control of any intervention force inside Darfur from inside Africa to outside Africa. The second thing is that the African Union is convinced that they cannot go in and fight. They can only go in with the agreement of both sides, so they can only intervene consensually. And that is crucial and important, because if they go in with the two sides not agreeing, the fighting will simply increase and the slaughter of civilians will increase.

President Bush’s speech yesterday — the response of the U.N., the U.N. secretary-general, was, “Look, we’re just arriving at an agreement. We’ve been working for the last four, five months, and the Sudan government is agreeing.” The South African response was the same. Why sanctions now when we are about to arrive at an agreement? Any sane thinking person would think that, intended or unintended, the consequence of these imposition of sanctions is to torpedo that process on the ground. And that process is the political process which is absolutely vital to stopping the fighting.

AMY GOODMAN: You mentioned Congo. What about the comparison of the conflicts and the attention given to each?

MAHMOOD MAMDANI: Well, no two comparisons are exactly alike, of course. We know that. But to the extent that numbers are being highlighted, the numbers are huge in Congo. The Congo estimates are four million-plus over several years. The Darfur estimates go from 200,000 to 400,000. So why no concern about Congo? Congo involves, again, multiple causes, like Darfur. It’s a huge place. But in Kivu province, where I have been, the conflict has been very Darfur-like, in the sense that you’ve had proxies being fed from the outside, the Hema and the Lendu. You have the recruitment of child soldiers. You have two states in the region arming these proxies: Uganda and Rwanda. But both states are allies of the US in the region, so there’s nothing said about it.

The most recent example is Somalia. We can see that the civilian suffering is going up dramatically in Somalia since the intervention, Ethiopian intervention force. And we know that the Ethiopian intervention force had at least the blessings of the U.S., if not more than that — I’m not privy to the information. And nothing is being said about it. So one arrives back at the question: What is the politics around it? And I’m struck by the innocence of those who are part of the Save Darfur — of the foot soldiers in the Save Darfur Coalition, not the leadership, simply because this is not discussed.

Let me tell you, when I went to Sudan in Khartoum, I had interviews with the U.N. humanitarian officer, the political officer, etc., and I asked them, I said, “What assistance does the Save Darfur Coalition give?” He said, “Nothing.” I said, “Nothing?” He said, “No.” And I would like to know. The Save Darfur Coalition raises an enormous amount of money in this country. Where does that money go? Does it go to other organizations which are operative in Sudan, or does it go simply to fund the advertising campaign?

AMY GOODMAN: To make people aware of what’s going on in Darfur.

MAHMOOD MAMDANI: To make people aware of what is going on, but people who then, out of awareness, give money not to fuel a commercial campaign, but expecting that this money will go to do something about the pain and suffering of those who are the victims in Darfur, so how much of that money is going to actually — how much of it translates into food or medicine or shelter? And how much of it is being recycled?

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think the U.N. process, if allowed to carry forward, would be the answer right now?

MAHMOOD MAMDANI: Well, the answer has to be a political process. The African Union, if its hands are not tied — if this money was translated into salaries and logistics for the African Union force, it would untie those hands. If the governments who claim to be speaking and acting for the people of Darfur, if they actually directed the money they intend to spend on intervention to paying salaries for the African Union forces, to providing the logistics without these constraints, the problem would be much closer to solving.

AMY GOODMAN: Columbia University professor Mahmood Mamdani. His article, “The Politics of Naming: Genocide, Civil War, Insurgency,” appeared in the London Review of Books. He’s the author of many books, including Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

Up Next

One Year into War, Sudan Wracked by World’s Largest Displacement and Hunger Crises

Non-commercial news needs your support

We rely on contributions from our viewers and listeners to do our work.
Please do your part today.
Make a donation