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Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror

by Mahmood Mamdani

Pub Date: March 17th, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-307-37723-4
Publisher: Pantheon

How do we know that genocide is taking place in Darfur? “Because we are told it is,” writes Mamdani (Government/Columbia Univ.; Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror, 2004, etc.), who argues that it is not.

While serving as George W. Bush’s secretary of state, Colin Powell declined to characterize the unfolding events in Darfur as genocidal, saying, “why would we call it genocide when the genocide definition has to meet certain legal tests?” But Powell, pressured by others in the government, eventually claimed that genocide was indeed being committed, abetted by the government of Sudan—the first time, Mamdani writes, that one government had ever accused another of the act. Mamdani examines those legal tests, concluding that, whereas events in Rwanda and the Congo in the last two decades fall into the category of genocide, those in Darfur do not. That is not to say that Westerners should not act to relieve the civilian suffering that has resulted from Sudan’s brutal counterinsurgency campaign. It is just, Mamdani argues, that there is a difference between knowledge and moral certainty, and “the lesson of Darfur is a warning to those who act first and understand later.” The author limns a tightly constructed history of central Africa that places Darfur in the context not only of regional tensions among the neighboring states of Chad and Sudan and of ethnic tensions among Arabs and black Africans, but also of the larger Cold War and the interplay of client states serving the superpowers—and, later, the superpower of Washington on one hand and the regional power of Libya on the other. His argument that Darfur is the inevitable result of proxy war is well taken, but his evident contempt for the Western intervention effort—in which Darfurians “are not citizens in a sovereign political process as much as wards in an open-ended international rescue operation”—takes an unhelpfully contrarian tone given that, after all, actual lives are at stake.

Eminently debatable, but a necessary contribution to the literature surrounding both humanitarian aid and African geopolitics.