Africa's inferno

In the Darfur region of Sudan, civilians are raped and killed, not for land or goods, but because of

A humanitarian disaster is unfolding right now in the Darfur region of Sudan, and it could be prevented. More than 300,000 people, most of them ethnically African, have been killed in the past two years. Some 3.3 million have been forced to flee into camps as a campaign of terror by Janjaweed militias and the army of the government of Sudan clears large areas of the region. The campaign is co-ordinated and systematic. NGOs that hope to give limited help are themselves subject to intimidation. The latest reports suggest that up to 40 per cent of those designated ethnically African cannot be protected.

Rebels fighting the government have also attacked camps and killed civilians. There is, however, an utter disparity in power and violence perpetrated, between the rebel groups and the government/Janjaweed forces. Moreover, the government deploys an overtly Arab-supremacist ideology, chillingly expressed in Janjaweed chants of "Kill the blacks, kill the slaves", and evidence exists of written orders from the government "to change the demography of Darfur and empty it of African tribes".

An important element of this campaign of intimidation, depopulation and murder has been the use of sexual violence. Last month, Amnesty International reported on a "dramatic increase in the numbers of rapes" in Darfur. Amnesty, Unicef, the Aegis Trust and other groups that take a range of views on the conflict all agree that sexual violence is central and systemic to this conflict.

There are few cases of straightforward genocide in which a dominant state sets out to annihilate an ethnic group because of who they are (rather than what they do or think). The Nazis arguably did so against the Jews; Rwanda's Hutu génocidaires did so against the Tutsis. But there are many more cases in which mass killing escalates out of intra-state conflicts that spill over into other states. There are two things that set these kinds of cases apart from "ordinary" civil wars. The first is the killing of significant numbers of civilians because of identities projected on to them. The second is that these projected identities determine who lives and who dies. The killing becomes the purpose of the project: civilians are killed not for a piece of land or other resources, but because of who they are. This kind of killing creates a cycle in which victims then kill for reasons equally meaningless strategically or economically. Such repri sals lead people to question the use of the word genocide.

As in Rwanda, there has been an unconstructive debate about the appropriateness of the term in Darfur. We seem to be frightened of seeing genocide as something distinctive; the debate becomes a word game - is this conflict genocide or is it not? Rather than becoming trapped in semantics, however, we ought to focus on how state-sponsored mass murder acquires a dynamic of its own.

Darfur, and Sudan more generally, was for 200 years a victim of both Egyptian and British imperialism. Then, for generations, the region was neglected by the central government of Sudan. The Sudan Political Service, which governed the area during colonial rule by the British, treated Darfur as a little piece of "authentic" Africa in which it could play king. This institutional condescension created a template of indifference with which post-independence governments in Darfur have continued to operate. In the hands of the post-colonial ruling elite, this template was given an Arab-supremacist inflection that then became an ideology of mass murder. The 1984-85 famine showed the world the extent of central government indifference to the fate of Darfur.

During Sudan's long civil war, the Darfur region was further isolated. When the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed in January 2005, a quick Darfur Peace Agreement was also put in place, but it did nothing to meet the needs and demands of the people of Darfur.

How can the "international community" respond to crimes against humanity that are products of post-colonial politics and ideologies but also rooted in imperial legacies? First, we should admit that we are not an international community but a set of competing interest groups. In a unipolar world governed by the United States, it has been in the interests of some groups to pretend that intervention to prevent crimes against humanity or genocide is impossible.

But this is simply not true: China and other states have protected the Khartoum government while the US has been powerless to act. The reality is that Washington could do nothing to stop any state acting unilaterally to stop this kill ing, and would actually welcome anyone doing so.

Mesmerised by US history and by post-invasion Iraq, the international human-rights industry has also been slow to state what is now obvious. This is not an American problem. This is not a British problem. This is not even an EU problem. None of them could take the lead in solving it. This is an African, Arab and Asian problem. The solution is not invasion, or occupation, or regime change. The solution is in the hands of China and the African, Arab and other Asian states that surround, trade with and finance Sudan.

No-fly zone

What could these states or groups of states do? Khartoum has been persuaded to accept the deployment of a limited hybrid force. The first part of a UN force, comprising 43 military staff officers and 24 policemen, arrived in Sudan on 28 December: this deployment must now be built upon in various ways. First, the initial deployment of UN troops in Darfur should be hugely speeded up and extended. Second, a UN resolution should authorise the imposition of a no-fly zone over western Darfur to protect the camps of internally displaced people.

The government in Khartoum should accept both of these actions by acknowledging that it is no longer in control of the situation and that it requires help to protect aid supplies. But it should be made clear that both interventions will be non-consensual if necessary. President Omar el-Bashir's government has taken a series of gambles on the indifference of the world to the fate of Darfur's people, and he will continue to do so. At the same time he cannily presents Sudan as an Islamic state that is the victim of imperialist intervention in search of oil. It isn't, and the imperial power chasing oil hardest in Sudan at this moment is communist China.

There is a simple enough response to this charade. The deployment should be made up from Asian, African and Arab states and the regional organisations representing these states should make it clear that the government of Sudan will be completely isolated unless it moves to control the Janjaweed. Equal pressure must be put on states and groups currently supporting the rebels, especially Chad. The role of the west and nations that trade with Sudan - for example, Japan, China and Malaysia - is to bring economic pressure to bear on the Sudanese government and to offer economic incentives.

It is clear what needs to be done to bring peace to Darfur. But will it happen? A humanitarian disaster is unfolding before our eyes and cannot be prevented. A hybrid force may gradually be deployed over the next eight or nine months, by which time many thousands will have died and the government and rebels alike will have become radicalised by each other's actions. The fighting will continue to spill into neighbouring states. The civil war in Sudan between north and south may start again. But the long-term consequences of Darfur will go far beyond these terrible possibilities. They will be profound for the system of international relations in the post-Iraq-war world and they will seriously challenge European ideas of the universalism of human rights. This universalism holds that there are some things that all human beings should enjoy and some things no human being should endure.

Western imperialism can be blamed for many things, but there is no imperialist explanation for why African, Asian and Arab states do not act over Darfur. They face no logistical obstacle to establishing a no-fly zone. The problem is one of will, not agency or capability.

What ought to unite us against genocide is that, in the end, there is no conceivable geopolitical gain to be had from working with genocidal regimes. The path they have embarked upon has no strategic dimension and it will, in time, self-destruct. These are allies you do not wish to have, neighbours you cannot trust, crimes you cannot live with.

Brian Brivati teaches genocide studies at Kingston University. Additional research by Philip Spencer

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood