‘‘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)