Posted by: sean | June 3, 2006

Kuperman and "provoking genocide"

I would like to comment on Alan Kuperman’s polemical piece in the New York Times yesterday (31 May), “Strategic Victimhood in Sudan.” In this particular article, Kuperman tells us that the regime in Khartoum responded to Darfuri rebel insurgency with genocide, and that “[b]ecause of the Save Darfur movement … the rebels believe that the longer they provoke genocidal retaliation, the more the West will pressure,” which has in turn led the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) movement and Nur’s part of the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army (SLM/A) to reject the recent peace treaty signed at Abuja.

Kuperman’s analysis of events is not specific to his take on Sudanese politics; rather it is but further evidence of his larger hypothesis. Generally speaking, the crux of his argument can be found in the first sentence of an article he wrote on the Rwandan genocide, “Provoking genocide: A revised history of the Rwandan Patriotic Front”: “In most cases of mass killing since World War II­­ — unlike the Holocaust — the victim group has triggered its own demise by violently challenging the authority of the state.”

Although he emphasizes that his theory is “not intended to excuse of justify the genocide in any way, but merely to understand more fully its causes,” Kuperman’s argument seems to come dangerously close to blaming the victims. While he would surely protest that he is blaming rebel groups and not the victims of the genocide (a polemical claim in and of itself), this is not at all clear when he says, “the victim group has triggered its own demise.” (To be fair, with the exception of the opening sentence, the article focuses mostly on the RPF, not Tutsis in general.)

But I’ll save the more general moral debate about whether or not a genocidal regime’s culpability can be shared with a rebel group that has purportedly “provoked” genocide for another time. What I would like to focus on here is the specifics of Darfur.

I don’t pretend to be an expert on Sudanese or Darfuri politics, and I agree with Kuperman when he says that the situation in Darfur is complex. However, it seems strange that after stressing that the situation there is not the “simplistic morality tale purveyed by the news media and humanitarian organizations,” he would himself make claims like these:

The region’s blacks, painted as long-suffering victims, actually were the oppressors less than two decades ago — denying Arab nomads access to grazing areas essential to their survival. … [The rebels] took up arms not to stop genocide — which erupted only after they rebelled — but to gain tribal domination.

To paint the situation during the maja al-gatila (the famine that kills) in Darfur in 1984-5 as one in which “blacks … were the oppressors” is terribly simplistic in more than one way. Without lingering on the complexities of ethnicity in Darfur and the difficulty in categorizing Darfuris as either “black” or “Arab,” the facile claim that “blacks” were oppressing “Arabs” seems to overlook the fact that the nearly 100,000 deaths during the famine were largely due to apathy or incompetence on the part of Khartoum. According to Prunier,

Everyone knew that this catastrophe would have been perfectly preventable with a little bit of planning, money and, especially, political will. Everyone knew that the mass deaths [hécatombe] were the result of Khartoum’s negligence. But the consequences happened to be unequally distributed [translation mine].

The drought and famine forced the nomads to prematurely go south in search of grazing areas, which just so happened to be the meager and not-yet-harvested fields of the farmers. Alex de Waal, who has studied the famine in depth, describes the delicate balance that was violently disturbed in 1985 as the “moral geography” of Darfur.

Kuperman’s other claim, that the rebels “picked up arms … to gain tribal dominance,” also seems to be woefully ill-informed. According to Julie Flint and de Waal, the roots of JEM go back to 1993, when the original aim was to reform the National Islamic Front (NIF) from within. Dissidents like Nur compiled evidence illustrating the economic and political marginalization of Darfur into a document they called “The Black Book.” JEM purports to combat Darfur’s status as an outlying periphery dominated by the center of Sudanese economic and political life. Nur explains the situation in Darfur thusly:

There was too much suffering. I travelled 60 kilometers to go to primary school, in Kornoi, when I was 7; 350 kilometers to go to intermediate school, in Geneina; 400 kilometers to go to secondary school, in Fasher; and 1,000 kilometers to go to university, in Khartoum. It was forbidden to speak the Zaghawa language in school. In primary school, the teacher gave us a blue ticket to pass to any boy who spoke Zaghawa. At the end of the day, anyone who had the ticket was whipped. The whole of Kutun province, with a population of more than 551,000, had one general doctor and no specialists. Women walked more than eight hours daily to get less than 60 liters of water. We were excluded from all key posts and had no way of communicating with the international community to ask for help.

JEM’s five-point manifesto calls for a national solution to the Sudan’s problems. It calls for a unified country, justice and equality rather than political repression, “radical and comprehensive constitutional reform,” basic services for all Sudanese and human development in all the regions of Sudan.

The SLM/A, on the other hand, has its roots in Darfuri irregular militias that were created in the 1980s and continued throughout the 1990s when conflict was already rife in the region. In 1999 already, over 100,000 Masalit had fled to Chad.

The fact of the matter is that the events leading up to the genocide in Darfur are many and varied, involving the famine, the political situation in Chad, Libyan involvement and sometimes de facto ruling of Darfur, Islamic movements (both domestic and imported from Tripoli or Cairo) and a politics of systematic neglect of the periphery by the center in Khartoum. To say that the rebels provoked genocide by vying for tribal domination is either disingenuous or uninformed.

This is not to say that the Darfuri rebel movements are saints; we know that they are not. But that’s not the point. Whether the rebel movements have “provoked” Khartoum is neither here nor there in the long run. The rebels, despite their claims to represent all of Darfur, are not the ethnic groups as a whole, just as the RPF is not synonymous with the Tutsis in Rwanda.

De Waal sums up the situation quite succinctly in his piece in the London Review of Books, “Counter-insurgency on the cheap“:

The atrocities carried out by the Janjawiid are aimed at speakers of Fur, Tunjur, Masalit and Zaghawa. They are systematic and sustained; the effect, if not the aim, is grossly disproportionate to the military threat of the rebellion. The mass rape and branding of victims speaks of the deliberate destruction of a community. In Darfur, cutting down fruit trees or destroying irrigation ditches is a way of eradicating farmers’ claims to the land and ruining livelihoods. But this is not the genocidal campaign of a government at the height of its ideological hubris, as the 1992 jihad against the Nuba was, or coldly determined to secure natural resources, as when it sought to clear the oilfields of southern Sudan of their troublesome inhabitants. This is the routine cruelty of a security cabal, its humanity withered by years in power: it is genocide by force of habit.

And this brings me to Kuperman’s advice not to intervene: …we should let Sudan’s army handle any recalcitrant rebels, on condition that it eschew war crimes.” It’s hard to believe that such a naïve statement could be penned by anyone who has read much about the regime in Khartoum. We’re talking about “routine cruelty” and “genocide by force of habit.” What Kuperman doesn’t see is that the Sudanese regime is “handling” the rebels in the same way it dealt with the South and the Nuba Mountains.

To lay the blame for such acts at the feet of the rebels (rather than at the feet of the regime committing genocide), or even worse, the “victim group,” is morally irresponsible. The Fur and Zaghawa and other “black” tribes in Darfur are no more responsible for the organized campaign to destroy them than the Armenians were for their forced march into the sands of Syria.

If Alan Kuperman is content to take Khartoum at its word and trust that it will “eschew” the “war crimes” that it denies committing in the first place, allowing the regime to “handle” the rebels and “defend its sovereignty” in the meantime, I, for one, am not.

Kuperman advises the United States to announce a policy of non-intervention. This is confusing to me, because after all, isn’t that the policy that Samantha Powers describes so well in her book, “A Problem from Hell”? Isn’t that the policy that has been silently announced throughout the twentieth century to Armenians, Rwandans, Iraqi Kurds, Cambodians and now the Sudanese?



  1. […] There’s another complication with such pressure on Bashir, which is the possibility that Darfuri groups may decide that they would be better off waiting until elections in 2011 when the south is likely to vote for secession and North-South hostilities are likely to reignite. Then Khartoum, which has traditionally used Darfuri proxies to put down rebels in the South, will find that it needs Darfur a lot more. This will put Darfuris in a much stronger negotiating position, since they can always threaten to join the impending civil war on the side of the South, which might entice groups in the Nuba and Kordofan to rise up against the central government. Things fall apart; the center cannot hold. […]

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