Show Hide image

‘‘There may have been no water, but the province was awash with guns’’

Reporting of the conflict in Darfur in the western media reproduces the spurious ethnic categories o

I first went to Sudan in 2003, the year that the insurgency began in the Darfur region of the country. Very quickly, I began to notice something distinctive in the way the western press reported the conflict in the province. I had written a book on the genocide in Rwanda, and academic papers on the conflicts
in eastern Congo and Angola. The global media had treated those events as if they had unfolded in the dark of the night. But not Darfur. Darfur was globalised from the outset and was made the subject of a media blitz.

There was an obvious reason for this. Darfur – unlike Congo, Angola and Rwanda – was the focus of a political campaign in the United States, the Save Darfur movement. But one of the effects of its becoming a domestic issue in the US was a series of distortions of the historical record.

The first concerned just how many people had actually died in Darfur at the height of the conflict in 2003-2004. This is the question that the Government Accountability Office (GAO), an audit agency of the US government, asked in 2006. The GAO got together with the US Academy of Sciences and asked a panel of 12 experts to assess the reliability of six different mortality estimates – from a high of roughly 400,000, from researchers linked to Save Darfur, to a low of between 50,000 and 70,000 by the World Health Organisation. The experts were unanimous that the high-level estimates were the least reliable and the lower figures generally more reliable. A broad consensus identified a WHO-connected research unit in Europe, the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED), as the source of the most reliable estimate: 118,142.

The GAO report was sent to the US state department, which endorsed the findings. It then made its way to Congress and on to the GAO’s website. But the public availability of this in­formation had little effect on media reports of mortality rates in Darfur. Nor did it affect or temper in any way the claims made by Save Darfur, relayed in full-page ads in the New York Times and on subway and bus posters, that more than 400,000 people had died in Darfur, and that “the genocide [was] continuing”.

Then there was the question of how people were dying. The media rarely acknowledged that the number of dead in Darfur was not the same as the number killed. This is because there were at least two main causes of death: drought and desertification, on the one hand, and direct violence, on the other. The WHO attributed between 70 and 80 per cent of the deaths to the effects of drought and desertification, mainly infants and children who had died from diarrhoea and dysentery. Between 20 and 30 per cent was ascribed to direct violence.

Anyone who does research on mass mortality knows that there is not an impermeable wall between violence and disease. How many who died from disease could have been saved in the absence of violence? The CRED report talked of 120,000 “excess deaths”. “We estimate,” it read, “the number of violence-related deaths to be plus/minus 35,000.” The report further said that the “‘excess deaths’ can be attributed to violence, diseases and malnutrition because of the conflict during this period”.

Should all the deaths have been attributed to “the conflict during this period”, then? What about the drought and desertification which had preceded the conflict and would most likely outlast it? There was clearly a large margin of uncertainty, though you would never have guessed it from most media reports.

More recently, western outlets have taken to reporting figures from a 2008 speech by John Holmes, under-secretary for humanitarian affairs at the UN. Holmes gave a global figure of 300,000 civilian dead in Darfur since the insurgency began in 2003, which most media repeat without comment. His speech contained two qualifications, both of which have been largely ignored. First, he said that 200,000 had died in Darfur in 2003-2004 from “combined causes”. This could only be a reference, however oblique, to drought and desertification, besides violence. But where did he get the figure of 200,000, as opposed to the 120,000 from CRED? Second, Holmes said that another 100,000 must have died since, “assuming the same trend”. But why assume “the same trend” when ground-level UN reports suggested the opposite?

Darfur Timeline

1899 English and Egyptian forces agree to joint dominion over Sudan. In the following decades, closed districts are established and travel from north to south is restricted

1953-54 A British census deepens the divide, categorising the Sudanese as “Arab” settlers and “Negro” natives

1956 Sudan shrugs off British colonisation and declares independence

1987-89 Civil war erupts in Darfur as nomads and peasant tribes fight over fertile land

2002 Sudanese government and southern rebels sign ceasefire agreement

2003 Rebels in western Darfur claim neglect by the government and launch attack

2004 UN accuses Sudanese government of extensive human rights violations

2005 Power-sharing administration established in Khartoum but fighting continues

2009 International Criminal Court issues arrest warrant for President Bashir (pictured). War trials get under way

Research by Tara Graham

Reporters such as Julie Flint of the Independent who have spoken to UN ground staff in Darfur have reported on a sharp decline in mortality, to levels lower than 200 a month, from January 2005. In April, the UN Security Council received a report from the secretary general’s envoy to Sudan that deaths from violence in Darfur between January 2008 and April 2009 had averaged fewer than 150 a month; this was a “low-intensity conflict”, therefore, and no longer an emergency.

The media have also shown little interest in the historical roots of the conflict. Anyone who has worked in or on Darfur would know that the violence there unfolded in distinct phases, starting with the civil war in 1987-89. Darfuris talk of conflicts prior to 1987 as being mainly localised, arising principally from boundary disputes that were easily resolved at tribunals which agreed compensation for injury.

However, something changed in 1987: the civil war which began that year spread throughout Darfur, and was waged with unparalleled and unprecedented brutality. There were several reasons for this mutation in the nature and scope of the violence. The parcelling up of territory into tribal homelands by the British in the early 20th century into unequal areas of land – which favoured settled tribes and left the camel nomads of northern Darfur without a homeland – was exacerbated by drought and desertification. According to United Nations Education Programme studies, the southern rim of the Sahara expanded nearly 100 kilometres over four decades. The effect of this was to push the northern nomadic tribes southwards in search of better land. The result was an ecological struggle between nomads and peasants over the most productive land. Whoever controlled that land would survive.

The civil war in Chad that began with independence in the 1960s was also a factor. Chad subsequently became a theatre in the Cold War after President Reagan declared Libya a terrorist state in 1981, with the US, France and Israel lining up on one side, Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya and the Soviet Union on the other. With the government in control of N’Djamena, the Chadian capital, the opposition crossed the border into Darfur, from where it mobilised, retrained, rearmed and launched attacks. This meant when the civil war in Darfur began in 1987, there may have been no water, but the province was awash with guns.

For a year, I was a consultant for the Darfur-Darfur Dialogue and Consultation, a unit created by the African Union after the 2004 Abuja ceasefire negotiations. The DDDC carried out some research on the dynamics of the conflict. Its findings showed that the violence had spread over two axes: a north-south axis that pitted nomadic against peasant tribes, and an east-west axis, in the south, that led to two kinds of nomadic tribes – those with homelands and those without – confronting one another.

But Save Darfur, and the media in thrall, focused exclusively on the north-south axis, thus creating a further distortion – that this was a conflict between “Arab” and “African” tribes. In truth, the driving force of the conflict was not ethnic identity, but a search for land in an ecolo­gical crisis. Whoever controlled the land would survive the crisis; the losers would perish.

The racial categorisation of the population of Sudan as “Arab” and “African”, and the historical narrative according to which Arab settlers established mastery over African natives, began in the writing of British colonialists – from Winston Churchill’s journalistic The River War to the administrator-historian Harold MacMichael’s A History of the Arabs in the Sudan. This tradition lives on in the work of Sudanese nationalist historians of the post-independence period, as well as British academics. However, elements of a counter-history can be found in work done by American and British historians and anthropologists on specific locales (the sultanate of the Funj, for instance, or the Baggara of southern Darfur), and also that of Sudanese folklorists, whose focus was the tribal preoccupation with genealogies. What emerges from these alternative sources is that there was no “Arab” invasion of Sudan, and that there is no single history of the Arab presence in Sudan. There is hardly any connection, for instance, between the “Arabs” of riverine Sudan and those of Darfur. Indeed, if the former are associated with privilege and power, the latter are the most wretched of the Darfuri population.

The census carried out by the British colonial power in Sudan in 1953-54 divided the population between “Arab” settlers and “Negro” natives. It had three further categories: tribes, groups of tribes (referring to language groups) and races. Whereas in Rwanda, the basic category of colonial policy had been race, in Sudan – and Darfur – it was tribe. Race did not become an operative classification in Darfur until the civil war of 1987-89. This would later have a significant influence on media reporting of the insurgency and counter-insurgency that began in 2003.

For those trying to think how to resolve any seemingly intractable conflict, there are two paradigms available. The first is the Nuremberg paradigm, underpinned by two main assumptions: first, that justice will follow the emergence of a clear victor in the conflict, and would be administered as a form of victor’s justice; second, that yesterday’s perpetrators and victims should not have to face the challenge of living together in the same country – the survivors should instead acquire a new political identity in a separate state, as was the case with the creation of the state of Israel. There is an alternative, however, based on the recognition that neither of these assumptions holds for most conflicts in Africa. Without a separate state for yesterday’s victims, all must learn to live as survivors.

The attempted transition from apartheid is a good example. How do you convince adversaries that it is in their interest to stop fighting? The answer at the Kempton Park negotiations to end apartheid was clear: you don’t do it by prioritising criminal justice – threatening to take perpetrators to court – because the very people you would take to court are those you will have to rely on to keep the peace.

Kempton Park thus distinguished between political justice and criminal justice, and prioritised political justice for groups over criminal justice for individuals. The decision was taken not to put the leaders of apartheid on trial. The trade-off was a pardon for individual leaders in return for their agreement to a change of rules, a political reform that would give a second chance to the living. This was not victors’ justice, but what one might call survivors’ justice.

The South African experience is not an exception. The civil war in Mozambique, in which the Pretoria-funded Renamo resistance specialised in turning kidnapped children into victim-perpetrators, ended in much the same way. Renamo’s leaders now sit in parliament, not in court or jail. In Southern Sudan, too, criminal justice was set aside in favour of political reform. Why could the same not work in Darfur? Could it be because the area became a global cause célèbre after 11 September 2001?

There is an international dimension to the Darfur crisis, too. Current debates over how to end the conflict in Darfur have focused narrowly on the charges brought by the International Criminal Court against the president of Sudan, on a criminal and legal solution rather a political one. When the ICC judges ruled on the application filed by its prosecutor, throwing out the charge of genocide but not that of crimes against humanity, they were not issuing a verdict on the charges but responding to a different question: if the facts stand as presented, would the accused have a case to answer? The facts are not yet on trial, but they will be if President Omar el-Bashir ever presents himself before the court. In that case, many of the most widely trumpeted claims – of 300,000 dead, of a “continuing” slaughter, and so on – will turn out to be unreliable.

Moreover, it is clear that the question of accountability applies not only to the alleged perpetrators, but also to the putative enforcers of justice. Who is to hold them accountable? In the absence of adequate and effective political accountability, the risk is that the law will be privatised and used to implement a narrow and partial agenda. The UN Security Council, for instance, has the power to refer or defer cases to the ICC. And when the Indian government refused to sign the Rome Convention to join the ICC, its main objection was that the court’s prosecutor was highly unlikely to hold to account the permanent members of the very UN Security Council to which the court itself is formally accountable. Experience in the post-11 September 2001 era suggests that this fear was not groundless.

Global justice is a worthy goal, but it cannot exist without a political system that ensures global accountability. In the absence of accountability, claims made in the name of global justice will, as the philosopher Martin Buber once said of the system of trusteeship put forward by the League of Nations, be little more than cover for the exercise of imperial power.

Mahmood Mamdani is the author of "Saviours and Survivors: Darfur, Politics and the War on Terror", published by Verso (£17.99)

André Carrilho
Show Hide image

"Jeremy knows he can't do the job." What now for Labour and Britain's opposition?

Senior figures from all parties discuss the way forward: a new Labour leader, a new party or something else?

In the week beginning 13 March 2017, the Scottish National Party demanded a second referendum on indepen­dence, the Chancellor tore up his Budget and George Osborne was announced as the next editor of the London Evening Standard. One fact united these seemingly disparate events: the weakness of Her Majesty’s Opposition.

When Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, addressed journalists at Bute House, her Edinburgh residence, she observed that Labour’s collapse entailed an extended period of Conservative rule. Such was the apparent truth of this statement that it went unchallenged.

Twenty minutes before Prime Minister’s Questions on 15 March, the Conservatives announced the abandonment of their planned rise in National Insurance for the self-employed. Their expectation that Jeremy Corbyn would be unable to profit was fulfilled. “Faced with an open goal, Jeremy picked up a tennis racket,” one Labour MP lamented of his leader’s performance. Rather than a threat, the government regards PMQs as an opportunity.

Two days later, Osborne was announced as the next editor of the Standard. “Frankly @George_Osborne will provide more effective opposition to the government than the current Labour Party,” the paper’s co-proprietor Evgeny Lebedev tweeted. His decision to hand the post to a Conservative MP was another mark of Labour’s marginalisation. In more politically competitive times, owners are warier of overt partisanship.

The Tories have a parliamentary majority of just 15 – the smallest of any single-party government since 1974 – but they enjoy a dominance out of all proportion to this figure. Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat former deputy prime minister, told me: “The fundamental pendulum swing of democracy, namely that the people in power are always worried that the other lot are going to hoof them out, has stopped.”

Labour is hardly a stranger to opposition: the party governed for just 20 years of the 20th century. But never in postwar history has it appeared so feeble. By-elections are usually relished by oppositions and feared by governments. But in Copeland in the north-west of England, a seat that had not returned a Conservative since 1931, the Tories triumphed over Labour. In recent polling the governing party has led by as much as 19 points and on one occasion it was leading in every age group, every social class and every region.

Corbyn’s MPs fear that were he to lead Labour into a general election, the attack dossier assembled by the Conservatives would push support as low as 20 per cent.

When David Miliband recently said that Labour was “further from power than at any stage in my lifetime”, he was being far too generous. After the forthcoming boundary changes, it could be left with as few as 150 seats: its worst performance since 1935.

The party’s plight was both predictable and predicted – the inevitable consequence of electing a leader who, by his own admission, lacked the requisite skills. “Now we made to make sure I don’t win,” Corbyn told supporters after he made the ballot in 2015. The lifelong backbencher stood with the intention of leading debate, not leading the party.

Neil Kinnock, Labour’s leader from 1983 to 1992, told me: “From the outset, I said that Jeremy [Corbyn] just can’t do the job . . . Now I think he knows that. He’s been a member of parliament for 34 years and will have a sense of self-examination. Both he and the people who work around him know that he just can’t do the job.”

Morale in the leader’s office has seldom been lower. “They’ve got the yips,” a Lab­our aide told me. Shortly after the Tories’ Budget U-turn, Corbyn’s director of strategy and communications, Seumas Milne, asked journalists whether there would be an early general election. He produced no evidence of any hope that Labour could win it.

Yet Corbyn’s leadership alone does not explain the crisis. In the early 1980s, when Labour was similarly enfeebled (but still strong in Scotland, unlike today), the creation of the Social Democratic Party provided hope. But the mere 23 seats won by the SDP-Liberal Alliance in 1983 (on 25.4 per cent of the vote, against Labour’s 209 seats from 27.6 per cent) acts as a permanent warning to those tempted to split.

With only nine MPs, the Liberal Democrats are too weak to function as an alternative opposition, despite their accelerating recovery. The third-largest party in the House of Commons – the SNP – is an exclusively Scottish force. The hegemony of the Nats, which cost Labour 40 seats in Scotland in 2015, has encouraged forecasts of perpetual Tory rule. “I don’t think there’s any way the Labour Party in this day and age can beat the Conservatives south of the border,” Clegg said.

To many eyes, the UK is being transformed into two one-party states: an SNP-led Scotland and a Conservative-led England. “The right-wing press have coalesced around Brexit and have transformed themselves from competitors into, in effect, a political cabal, which has such a paralysing effect on the political debate,” Clegg said. “You have a consistent and homogeneous drumbeat from the Telegraph, the Express, the Mail, the Sun, and so on.”

In this new era, the greatest influence on the government is being exercised from within the Conservative Party. “Where’s the aggravation? Where’s the heat coming from? Eighty hardline Brexiteers,” Anna Soubry, the pro-European former Conservative minister, told me. “They’re a party within a party and they are calling the shots. So where else is [May’s] heat? Fifteen Conservatives – people like me and the rest of them now. So who’s winning out there?”

Soubry added: “The right wing of the party flex their muscle against the only lead Remainer in the cabinet, Philip Hammond, for no other reason than to see him off. And that’s what they’ll do. They’ll pick them off one by one. These people are ruthless, this is their life’s work, and nobody and nothing is going to get in their way.”

Theresa May’s decision to pursue a “hard Brexit” – withdrawal from the EU single market and the customs union – is partly a policy choice; there is probably no other means by which the UK can secure significant control over European immigration. But the Prime Minister’s course is also a political choice. She recognised that the Conservatives’ formidable pro-Leave faction, whose trust she had to earn, as a Remainer, would accept nothing less.

***

The UK is entering the most complex negotiations it has undertaken since the end of the Second World War with the weakest opposition in living memory. Though some Tories relish an era of prolonged one-party rule, others are troubled by the democratic implications. Neil Carmichael MP, the chair of the Conservative Group for Europe, cited Disraeli’s warning: “No government can be long secure without a formidable opposition.” It was in Margaret Thatcher’s and Tony Blair’s pomp that calamitous decisions such as the poll tax and the invasion of Iraq were made. Governments that do not fear defeat frequently become their own worst enemy and, in turn, the public’s. The UK, with its unwritten constitution, its unelected upper chamber and its majoritarian voting system, is permanently vulnerable to elective dictatorships.

As they gasp at Labour’s self-destruction, politicians are assailed by Lenin’s question: “What is to be done?” Despite the baleful precedent of the SDP, some advocate a new split. In favour of following this path, they cite an increasingly promiscuous electorate, a pool of willing donors and “the 48 per cent” who voted Remain. Emmanuel Macron – the favourite to be elected president of France in May, who founded his own political movement, En Marche! – is another inspiration.

A week after the EU referendum, the Liberal Democrat leader, Tim Farron, was taken by surprise when a close ally of George Osborne approached him and suggested the creation of a new centrist party called “the Democrats” (the then chancellor had already pitched the idea to Labour MPs). “I’m all ears and I’m very positive about working with people in other parties,” Farron told me. But he said that the “most effective thing” he could do was to rebuild the Liberal Democrats.

When we spoke, Nick Clegg emphasised that “you’ve got to start with the ideas” but, strikingly, he did not dismiss the possibility of a new party. “You can have all sorts of endless, as I say, political parlour game discussions about whether you have different constellations or otherwise.”

Anna Soubry was still more positive about a new party, arguing: “If it could somehow be the voice of a moderate, sensible, forward-thinking, visionary middle way, with open minds – actually things which I’ve believed in all my life – better get on with it.”

However, Labour MPs have no desire to accept that the left’s supremacy is irreversible. But neither do they wish to challenge Corbyn. An MP distilled the new approach: “There is a strategy to give Jeremy [Corbyn] enough rope to hang himself. So it has not been about popping up in the media and criticising him in the way that colleagues did a year or so ago.” By giving him the space to fail on his own terms, rather than triggering another leadership contest, MPs hope that members will ultimately accept a change of direction.

Corbyn’s opponents acknowledge the risks of this approach.

“People are incredibly mindful of the fact that our brand is toxifying,” one told me. “As each day goes by, our plight worsens. Our position in the polls gets worse and the road back gets longer.”

Shadow cabinet ministers believe that Corbyn’s allies will never permit his departure until there is a viable successor. An increasingly influential figure is Karie Murphy, the director of the leader’s office and the partner of Unite’s general secretary, Len McCluskey. “She’s holding Jeremy in place,” I was told.

Leadership candidates require nominations from 15 per cent of Labour MPs and MEPs, a threshold that the left aims to reduce to just 5 per cent through the “McDonnell amendment” (named after the shadow chancellor, who failed to make ballot when he stood in 2007 and 2010).

Should the rule change pass at this year’s party conference – an unlikely result – the next leadership contest could feature as many as 19 candidates. Labour has no shortage of aspirant leaders: Yvette Cooper, Dan Jarvis, Clive Lewis, Lisa Nandy, Keir Starmer, Emily Thornberry, Chuka Umunna. (Rebecca Long-Bailey, the shadow business secretary and Corbynite choice, is said to believe she is “not ready” for the job.)

All are clear-sighted enough to recognise that Labour’s problems would not end with Corbyn’s departure (nor did they begin with his election as leader). The party must restore its economic credibility, recover in Scotland, or perform far better in England, and bridge the divide between liberal Remainers and conservative Leavers.

Lisa Nandy, one of those who has thought most deeply about Labour’s predicament, told me: “I do think that, for many people, not being able to have time with their families and feel secure about where the next wage packet is coming from, and hope that life is going to get better for their kids, is really pressing as a political priority now. They will vote for the political party that offers real solutions to those things.

“That’s why power is such an important unifying agenda for the Labour Party – not just through redistribution of wealth, which I think we all agree about, but actually the redistribution of power as well: giving people the tools that they need to exert control over the things that matter in their own lives,” she says.

But some Labour MPs suggest even more drastic remedial action is required. “In order to convince the public that you’ve moved on, you have to have a Clause Four-type moment,” one member told me. “Which would probably involve kicking John McDonnell out of the Labour Party or something like that.

“You have a purge. Ken Livingstone gone, maybe even Jeremy [Corbyn] gone. That’s the only way that you can persuade the public that you’re not like that.”

Political commentators often mistake cyclical developments for structural changes. After Labour’s 1992 election defeat it was sometimes said that the party would never govern again. It went on to win three successive terms for the first time in its history. In March 2005 Geoffrey Wheatcroft published his book The Strange Death of Tory England. Less than nine months later, the Conservatives elected David Cameron as leader and returned to winning ways. As the US political journalist Sean Trende has archly observed, if even the Democrats recovered “rather quickly from losing the Civil War” few defeats are unsurvivable.

From despair may spring opportunity. “It is amazing how this Brexit-Trump phase has really mobilised interest in politics,” Nick Clegg said. “It’s galvanised a lot of people . . . That will lead somewhere. If in a democracy there is a lot of energy about, it will find an outlet.”

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition