Posted by: sean | March 29, 2007

Prunier responds to Mamdani

I’ve been wanting to respond to Mamdani’s piece on Darfur in the London Review for a while now, but wanted to do a more thorough job than time has allowed lately. In any case, I share the opinion of a scholar of Sudan whom I spoke to about it: it’s contrarian garbage.

I was disappointed to see only a single response to the article in the following issue, but I guess other people also had more pressing concerns than refuting Mamdani’s ill informed opinions on Sudan. So I was happy to see today that Gérard Prunier had responded in a letter to the editor:

Mahmood Mamdani begins his piece on ‘The Politics of Naming’ (LRB, 8 March) with a parallel between ‘state-connected counter-insurgencies in Iraq and Darfur’. But the counter-insurgency in Iraq is organised by a foreign power and is the result of foreign occupation while the counter-insurgency in Darfur is organised by the national government and has no foreign cause. Whatever one thinks of US policy in Iraq, it has no genocidal component. In Darfur the ‘counter-insurgency’ is ethnic cleansing at the least and borders on genocide. Professor Mamdani quotes President Obasanjo of Nigeria to defend the idea that the violence in Darfur is not of a genocidal nature since we do not have proof of a ‘plan’. But we do not have proof of a plan in either the Armenian or the Rwandan genocides.

Professor Mamdani is right about the international community’s lack of interest in the war in the Congo, the most murderous conflict since the Second World War, but he insists on the Hema-Lendu conflict in the Ituri region as if it were the only violent conflict in the country and talks of ‘the two sides’, apparently projecting a kind of Tutsi-Hutu framework on the Ituri, whose victims represent, to the best of my knowledge, about 2 per cent of the total number of fatalities in the Congo in the period. He describes the ‘Hema and Lendu militias’ as ‘trained by the US allies in the region, Uganda and Rwanda’, but these militias were never properly trained by anybody, which is one reason they were so wild and murderous. Finally, the Hema and Lendu have nothing to do with the Tutsi and the Hutu. The Lendu are a Sudanic tribe loosely related to the Alur while the Bantu Hema are a sub-group of the Ugandan Banyoro. To see these tribes as ‘US proxies’ is untenable. It was the Ugandans (not the Rwandans and even less the Americans) who used them, though they were not responsible either for their antagonisms or for their political strategies. Mamdani trivialises Darfur by saying that violence in Central Africa is recurring and banal, that Darfur is nothing special, and that in any case the factor responsible above all others for these various evils is US imperialism.

It is also the case that Mamdani does not understand the complex dialectics of Arab identity in the Sudan. First, he draws a parallel between the processes of ‘Arabisation’ in Sudan and ‘Amharisation’ in Ethiopia or ‘Swahilisation’ in East Africa. But these processes are indigenous whereas ‘Arabisation’ in the Sudan has always been the result of a process of cultural diffusion from the vastly broader ‘database’ of international Arabism, which has introduced a monstrous paradox: in the Sudan the agents of Arabisation are themselves despised as ‘niggers’ (the Arabic word used is abd, ‘slave’) by the very people whose approval they court and in whose name they kill. This has nothing to do with either Amharisation or Swahilisation. Another consequence is the plurality of types of ‘Arab’ in the Sudan (what Alex de Waal has called ‘differential Arabism’) and the fact that the western Arabs (mostly Baggara, to make it simple) are not respected by the riverine tribes who rule the country. Mamdani is completely confused when he writes that ‘the victims of the ethnic cleansing (mostly the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa tribes) speak Arabic like their killers.’ I suspect that he does not know the word rottana (‘gibberish’) which the ‘true’ Arabs use to speak disparagingly of the languages of these tribes. When you speak some kind of rottana you are not an Arab. That’s the whole point. But Mamdani is so intent on trying to prove that Darfur doesn’t represent a case either of genocide or of ethnic cleansing but simply a civil war a bit more brutal than the others, that he bends the facts to suit his theory. Or perhaps he does not know the facts.

Professor Mamdani would like us to see Darfur in its historical context. If he himself were to do that, he would recognise the possibility that genocide is the logical conclusion of what has been happening over the last thirty years.

Mamdani’s underlying point is that the US should stop telling other people what to do because the US carries the burden of responsibility for the situation in Iraq and in the forgotten Congo war. America did indeed play a role in Kagame’s murderous policies even if it did not initiate them. But Iraq has nothing to do with Darfur. Which is why the slogan ‘out of Iraq and into Darfur’ is not a contradiction. Yet given the extreme incompetence of America’s foreign policy creators and handlers, they would be likely to mess up even a morally worthy and politically feasible operation.

Gérard Prunier
Addis Ababa


  1. […] term: just because that’s the common nomenclature doesn’t make it unoffensive, as Muslims in Darfur or even Sudanese Arabs in the Levant might tell you. After all, “nigger” was the most […]

  2. […] Politics, and the War on Terror. Anyone who knows me knows that I have very little patience for the oeuvre of Mamdani, so I knew that I was going to hate this book, but I had no idea how bad it was actually going to […]

  3. […] […]

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