Posted by: sean | May 15, 2009

Making sense of Mamdani

wwwrandomhousecom3Alex de Waal’s excellent site, Making Sense of Darfur, has been taking  a close look at Mamdani’s new book on Darfur. There is a lot of commentary on the book, but the best reviews, to my mind, are those by O’Fahey, de Waal, Hamilton and Daly.

These reviews bring up problems with Mamdani’s book, such as factual innacuracies and fundamental misunderstandings of Sudan. Of the funniest errors that I noticed while reading the book was the laughable assertion, made twice, that the Sultanate of Dar Fur was a member of the League of Nations. The book is full of such mistakes, but for those who have done little reading on Sudan, his disorganized account of Sudan in general and Darfur in particular might pass as an erudite account of the conflict’s history. One might forgive Mamdani’s readers for assuming that he knows a lot about Sudan since he spends pages attacking Save Darfur activists for not knowing anything about the country. So it takes actual scholars of Sudan and Darfur, like Daly and O’Fahey, to show the non-specialist how wrong Mamdani has it on so many accounts.

Mamdani was invited to rebut the criticisms of his book, and he has decided to do so in three posts, the first two of which have already been posted (one and two). In the first of these posts, he has this to say about the League of Nations claim: “I reproduced [the claim] from a Communist Party publication.” At the end of the day, no one is perfect, and mistakes are always made. As someone who has edited several books, I know that there are almost always a couple of embarrassing errors that manage to remain undetected all the way to the printers. But many of Mamadani’s mistakes can only be chalked up to bad or lazy scholarship. The League of Nations claim is a perfect example. Upon reading the surprising claim in a communist pamphlet, any researcher worth her salt would verify it, a task that is easily done, since we’re talking about a worldwide international body. But Mamdani doesn’t bother; instead he repeats the claim twice.

For someone who is so adamant and vicious in his criticism of Save Darfur (he has this to say about high school students at Save Darfur events: “It is no exaggeration to say that the high school kids became Save Darfur’s version of child soldiers in African conflicts”) and its lack of knowledge about Sudan, Mamdani is ironically uninformed. At the end of the day, I was glad to see a few Sudan experts pick Mamdani’s book apart, but if it weren’t for his prestigious perch at Columbia, I don’t even think this book would be worth the effort, because at the end of the day, he is more of a polemicist than a scholar. See, for example, the last paragraph of his book:

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. … The Save Darfur lobby demands, above all else, justice, the right of the international community — really the big powers in the Security Council — to punish “failed” or “rogue” states, even if it be at the cost of more bloodshed and a diminished possibility of reconciliation.  More than anything else, “the responsibility to protect” is a right to punish without being held accountable — a clarion call for the recolonization of “failed” states in Africa. In its present form, the call for justice is really a slogan that masks a big power agenda to recolonize Africa.

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Responses

  1. I find that this last paragraph is excellent. What is wrong with it ?

  2. Thanks for visiting, littlehorn.

    My problem with the last paragraph is its sophomoric lack of any nuance whatsoever, which is exactly what he’s accusing the Save Darfur crowd of. It’s polemic at the expense of thoughtfulness, which is what one might expect from an activist, but not from a scholar, which is what Mamdani bills himself as.

  3. Nice hatchetjob. I am absolutely certain that the fellow who has written it has not read Mamdani’s book. It is not uncommon for hackademics to read a review or two and pretend that they have read the book. In this case it is all too obvious. Notice that he even reproduces the exact same quote from Alex de Waal’s review (with the ellipses in the same place). He takes an irrelevant error, one which has no bearing on the thesis of the book, and combines that with his subjective view of the tone rather than content of Mamdani’s utterances to justify his puerile tantrum.

    For those who have not read the book, I couldn’t recommend it highly enough. Mamdani is a towering intellect and his book is brimming with political, historical and anthropological insights. You can watch him demolish John Prendergast in this debate at Colombia.

  4. You’re absolutely certain, are you? Would you like to give me a pop quiz, habibi?

    Although I wish I hadn’t wasted my time, I’m afraid that I read every single page and most of the notes in Mamdani’s silly book. As it happens, I’ve also read his sub-par book on Rwanda, and his bland one on Muslims and the war on terror, because as it also happens, my specialty in grad school was Central Africa, especially Rwanda.

    Otherwise, I think you’re referring to this review, but I’m not sure. You’ll notice that the block quote Alex uses at the end is from the same page as mine, but we’ve cited different parts. At the end of the day, though, this page will definitely be the most cited page of Mamdani’s book, because it is ridiculous, and any editor worth a damn (or scholar, for that matter) would never have let something so sophomoric go to print.

    So the US wants to “recolonize Africa”? Well setting aside the fact that the US never had any colonies in Africa in the first place (Liberia is a strange case), this claim is outlandish hyperbole that reads more like the slogan of an activist than the research of a scholar.

    Mamdani faults Save Darfur for its lack of nuance (a charge that I actually sympathize with), but instead of showing nuance, he gives us a ham fisted attempt to cram a country he clearly knows little about into his prêt-à-porter theory of the “war on terror.”

  5. So I was right then, you haven’t read the book. When you rely on a quote from a review it is inevitable that you make yourself sound like an arse. Had you read the book you would also know that according to Mamdani the US government position and that of the advocacy groups is not been the same. Had you read the book you also wouldn’t be confused over the use of the word ‘recolonize’, but it appears you aren’t just a charlatan, you are also illiterate. Otherwise you would not have missed the words ‘big power agenda’ before it.

    As for the pop quiz, why not. Answer the following three questions if you want to convince your audience that you have actually read the book:

    1. What is the Black Book? (Don’t waste your time searching the index, you won’t find it there)

    2. Who are the Zaghawa, which rebel group were they allied with, and who were their allies preceding and after that?

    3. What were the three specific policies the British used to retribalize Darfur?

    P.s. I presume you wanted your audience to take you seriously because you can say prêt-à-porter?

  6. As for the readers of this blog, I encourage you to compare the following two quotes, including the ellipses. The fellow above claims that they are different. Do you see any difference?

    For Africa, a lot is at stake in Darfur. Foremost are two objectives, starting with the unity of Africa: 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… At stake also is the independence of Africa. The Save Darfur lobby demands, above all else, justice, the right of the international community—really the big powers in the Security Council—to punish ‘failed’ or ‘rogue’ states, even if it be at the cost of more bloodshed and a diminished possibility of reconciliation. More than anything else, ‘the responsibility to protect’ is a right to punish but without being held accountable—a clarion call for the recolonization of ‘failed’ states in Africa. In its present form, the call for justice is really a slogan that masks a big power agenda to recolonize Africa.

    And here is from Alex de Waal’s review:

    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. … The Save Darfur lobby demands, above all else, justice, the right of the international community — really the big powers in the Security Council — to punish “failed” or “rogue” states, even if it be at the cost of more bloodshed and a diminished possibility of reconciliation. More than anything else, “the responsibility to protect” is a right to punish without being held accountable — a clarion call for the recolonization of “failed” states in Africa. In its present form, the call for justice is really a slogan that masks a big power agenda to recolonize Africa.

    I am pretty sure the guy hasn’t read any of Mamdani’s previous books either.

  7. I’ve been busy grading papers and just saw your responses, which show that you’re incapable of reading, or at least of understanding what you read, which I imagine might pose some serious problems for a grad student, even at Strathclyde. But I’ll humor you all the same.

    Your pop quiz shows a couple of things, one that you’ve got a penchant for literalness, and two that you don’t know much about Sudan.

    1. You can read here what I said about the black book, back in 2006.

    2. You talk of the Zaghawa as if they were a cohesive unit, when in fact, they make up important parts of different groups in the various regional conflicts. The Zaghawa Bideyat are simultaneously the power center in Deby’s regime in N’Djamena and active in the resistance to that regime. The Zaghawa Kobe make up a significant part of JEM, and are themselves split along clan lines between Abu Garba and Khalil Ibrahim, whereas Minnawi has represented the Zaghawa split in the SLA that used to be allied with Nur but is now aligned with Khartoum. The rebel politics are so splintered and complicated that it’s hard to even keep up with them on a day-to-day basis, and impossible to simplify whom “a tribe” supports, as if they were a monolith. Your question betrays an astounding oversimplification.

    3. Again, this assumes that the British “retribalized” Darfur, which I think is a gross oversimplification, as per usual for Mamdani. But for the sake of your question, Mamdani talks about reintroducing native rule, distinguishing tribes racially and as indigenous or settlers and based on these distinctions and the old hakura system, divvying up land, giving diyar to the latter but not the former. More simplistically, which is what I imagine you want to hear, he also talks naively about the British using censuses, history and law to shape Darfur, as if these were unique to any sort of regime, much less colonial ones.

    As for the quote, I’m not sure if you’re being obtuse on purpose or not. It’s the final summation of Mamdani’s argument, and like I said before, is likely to be quoted widely by anyone talking about his book, both because it’s so ridiculous and because of its place as his last word as it were on the subject.

    You like Mamdani’s book, because it tells you what you’d like to hear, nevermind the fact that Sudan isn’t his field and as such he makes loads of errors when talking about it. And this just makes you look like an ideological dilettante.

    I hope you bring a little more rigor in thought and carefulness in reading to your studies than you’ve shown here. And on that note, I’m back to grading papers, because I’ve wasted enough time procrastinating by even responding to your comments.

  8. Busy grading papers, eh?

    You can read here what I said about the black book, back in 2006.

    You mean what Alex de Waal said? So you have a history of pilfering.

    You talk of the Zaghawa as if they were a cohesive unit, when in fact, they make up important parts of different groups in the various regional conflicts. The Zaghawa Bideyat are simultaneously the power center in Deby’s regime in N’Djamena and active in the resistance to that regime.

    They may not be a cohesive unit, but is there a feature that is common to most? As regards the latter part of the statement, are you being intentionally vague or are you really not aware that Deby is himself a Bidayat Zaghawa?

    The rebel politics are so splintered and complicated that it’s hard to even keep up with them on a day-to-day basis, and impossible to simplify whom “a tribe” supports, as if they were a monolith. Your question betrays an astounding oversimplification.

    And that is why you thought military intervention was the best solution?

    Again, this assumes that the British “retribalized” Darfur, which I think is a gross oversimplification, as per usual for Mamdani.

    Yep, what is reams of documentation against the opinion of a pipsqueak English instructor who can read reviews.

    But for the sake of your question, Mamdani talks about reintroducing native rule, distinguishing tribes racially and as indigenous or settlers and based on these distinctions and the old hakura system, divvying up land, giving diyar to the latter but not the former. More simplistically, which is what I imagine you want to hear, he also talks naively about the British using censuses, history and law to shape Darfur, as if these were unique to any sort of regime, much less colonial ones.

    I wasn’t talking about your interpretation of (or the interpretation of whichever reviewer you are echoing this time) what Mamdani says. I asked about the three specific means through which the Brits went about the process of retribalization, a process incidentally not unfamiliar to any denizen of a former British colony. Looks like the reviewer only mentioned two. Had you read the book you certainly wouldn’t have missed the third — history — to which the whole second section of the book is devoted.

    A man who filches quotes from reviews and cites Samantha Power with approval – without any sense of irony – is no doubt well qualified to talk about rigour and ‘carefulness in reading’. A man who speaks approvingly of Eric Reeves however is only deserving of sympathy – and you have mine.

  9. Wow! You obviously can’t read (or maybe can’t count), and don’t understand what research is — which is why, I imagine, you’re toiling away at a third-rate school in Glasgow.

    The internet is littered with unlettered imbeciles like yourself, so please do us both a favor and, unless you have anything of substance to say, go embarrass yourself on someone else’s blog, or better yet, your own.

  10. Research is stealing other people’s work without attribution? I’ll enlighten fellow toilers at my ‘third-rate school in Glasgow’. I presume your rating is relative to the prestige of your own institution, which indeed is high, as was revealed to me by one of its graduates: ‘AUB is number one in the world, and number two in Asia’.


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