Mahmood Mamdani: You (and I) got Darfur Wrong

Who can imagine that a Save Darfur coalition vocally including Al Sharpton (“we know when America comes together, we can stop anything in the world”), Mia Farrow, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, Elie Wiesel (“Darfur today is the world’s capital of human suffering”), Nat Hentoff, Bob Geldof, George Clooney, Angelina Jolie, Harold Pinter, Oprah Winfrey, the gold-medal speed skater Joey Cheek, Tony Blair and Dario Fo might be profoundly shallow in its reading of the brutal warfare in Sudan five years ago… and just as wrong-headed in its drum beat for an American intervention?

Mahmood Mamdani: on the "pornography of evil"

Mahmood Mamdani: on the “pornography of evil”

Mahmood Mamdani can. We are talking here about his book Saviors and Survivors and his argument that the Darfur rescue campaign, which became a sacred cause of our civil religion, was not so much the moral alternative to Iraq, the Bush “war on terror,” and Cheney-think as it was a variation and extension of the same toolkit. I begin with a sort of confession that I may be a sample of Mamdani’s problem — having drenched myself in Nicholas Kristof‘s New York Times columns and largely absorbed the common framework that Darfur was about Arabs slaughtering Africans, and that somebody had to something about it.

If you represent my problem, then I think you also represent my solution. If you interviewed Nicholas Kristof, then you participated in shaping to some extent that audience which is the constituency of Save Darfur. I need to get to that audience because I need to turn a sermon into a debate and a discussion. I need to sow some seeds of doubt about what have been presumed to be simply goodwill gestures. I need to convince that audience that there is a politics around this — not simply good intentions and moralism and a fight against evil. I need to tell them that there is no such thing as a trans-historical evil in the world in which we live; that, in fact, all violence without exception has causes, and the causes are historical. And if you want to do something about the violence, we need to do something about the causes. The idea that violence is its own explanation is an idea which will take us nowhere except into a cycle of violence.

Mahmood Mamdani in conversation with Chris Lydon in Boston, April 2, 2009.

What held the Save Darfur campaign together? In his book, Mamdani concludes that inside the hyped numbers and moral spin was a sort of conspiracy of prejudices and neo-imperial impulses to head off the unity and independence 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…

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.

Mahmood Mamdani, Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror., p. 300. Pantheon, 2009.

Mahmoud Mamdani, the Herbert Lehman professor of government at Columbia, is a socio-historical anthropologist of Africa and also of American media and fashions in public wisdom. He is taking apart American attitudes that took hold around Iraq and the so-called “war on terror” and that will surely affect our path to Afghanistan and the Obama team’s reconception of our American place in the world.

I loved this conversation as a short course in how to think like an anthropologist — how to peel back events to find unwritten rules and unseen implications in a social order — Africa’s and ours.

Listen for the ideas here that reach beyond Africa, anger and accustion. The most challenging may be the argument that “survivors’ justice” (“inside” repairs, modeled on South Africa’s “truth and reconciliation” process) comes to seem much more promising than “victors’ justice” (“outside” punishment, as in the Nuremberg Trials, and de-Baathification in Iraq) as means of reforming politics and remaking broken societies.

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  • Thanks for the conversation, it’s interesting to think about how the coverage of Darfur comes from such an ahistorical perspective…not only does the media not consider the complexities of colonial and pre-colonial legacies, but they also disconnect Darfur from contemporary geopolitical formations and colonialisms, like in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan. It seems to me this is a necessary oversight for those who want to continue believing in western ‘modernization’ as the catch all solution for all kinds of political insecurities, because it elides how modern geopolitics, economics etc. are already entangled in the conflicts. It’s like a crime melodrama, the U.S. and G-20 states sort of vigilante superpowers looking through one of those opaque one-way mirrors in police detention rooms, but this time it’s live T.V. and web video…and where once the protagonists would come to a sort of tragic self-realization, they now manically channel surf for a better reality…it would be interesting if instead of returning to this rhetoric of bringing forms of modern law and order to a world that escapes exclusively modern solutions (the coexistence of nomadic and land owning people), we began to explore the ghosts of western modernizations (where it’s forms of containment and ‘solutions’ live on in re-occurring cycles of crisis and excess )…

  • hurley

    One of the best conversations I’ve heard on Open Source, The point made about the collective western popular response to the war in Darfur in contrast to the war in Iraq should be explored. Why weren’t Angelina Jolly, George Clooney and co. trying to levitate the Pentagon?

  • Media coverage of Darfur has been a way to avoid talking about Africa. Or about the problems associated with the national era. After all, as Benedict Anderson made clear, journalism goes hand-in-hand with nationalism, making it ill-suited for dealing with post-national issues.

    Thank you for giving voice to some frequent concerns shared by most African intellectuals and africanists. We may disagree on the specifics but many of us have to deal with the same incomprehension about Africa, in Euro-America. This is a case for discussing a number of misconceptions about such a diverse continent. Here, Curt Keim’s Mistaking Africa might be useful.

    Interesting that Chris should refer so frequently to anthropology, even though Mamdani didn’t take the bait. In this case, anthropology as a discipline may not serve as the best conversation starter but it seems clear that the epistemological basis of ethnography (if not the methodological apparatus behind ethnographic field research) can serve to provide the necessary insight.

    Chris, thank you for beginning the conversation.

  • sargent6

    Thank you for a great show. This helped cut through so much jargon and simple bumper sticker thinking. The history and in this case geography (with the desert expanding) determine so much of what is happening today, it’s a shame other news outlets can’t spend the time explaining it. And Mr Mamdani’s a terrific speaker.

    But please lose the gratuitous swipe at Bush. I didn’t vote for him, and think he’s one of our worst presidents, but there’s little evidence that he “stole the election”. And whether he did or not, the comment made me question Mamdani’s ability to analyze data.

  • zeke

    Totally agree with hurley. This was a show that both informed me on a subject I have had trouble getting my arms around and also provided a great example of how to analyze an issue in a responsible way. It is essential to challenge assumptions. My money quote: “There is no such thing as a transhistorical evil in the world in which we live. All violence, without exception, has causes and the causes are historical.”

    The assertion that “the problems are internal and the solutions external” as a “secularized 19th century approach” is wonderful.

    “If violence, no matter how relentless, is always issue driven, then you realize internal and external faces for both problem and solution.”

    A powerful frame for looking at a variety of problems around the world and, I suspect, one that Obama brings intuitively to the table. In any case, profoundly different from the toxicity of the past eight years.

  • Like Darfur, history repeats itself in Libya.

    Libya is a war by foreign oil companies to grab the largest oil and water reserves in Africa and stop the funding of African self determination. 
    Libyan oil profits didn’t go to private corporations, like most countries, but instead funded huge public projects which enriched all of Africa: 

    (1) African satellite (saving all of Africa huge fees for European satellite); 

    (2) The Great Man-Made River (African water self-sufficiency where Libya-Eygpt-Sudan would  surpass Israel as regional agriculture giant and be the breadbasket of Africa); 

    (3) African Development Bank (replacing World Bank; with pro-African development loans);

(4) the gold dinar (a single African currency made from gold that would replace the American dollar due to its basis in gold, a true sharing of the wealth” that would shift the economic balance of the world. Arab and Africa nations would use a currency based on African gold that would free the world from rule by American dollar/Wall Street and British Pound/London’s banking elite). 

    (5) African Union (African wide legislative body seeking to end AFRICOM, U.S. military bases in almost every African country, and end foreign-funded attacks on sovereign African countries seeking to use their own natural resources for their own, local development).

    This attack on Libya was a huge attack on Africa and everyone (from America to Somalia) seeking to curb rapacious U.S.-EU global corporations from plundering the world.

    The National Transition Council are much less democratic than Gadhafi. Gadhafi turned Libyans from among the poorest in Africa to the very richest in Africa thanks to nationalizing the oil, building the greatest water system the world has ever seen, and implementing free education, healthcare, housing and jobs. Libya under Gadhafi had greater freedoms for Christians, Jews and women that almost any other Muslim country, and less scapegoating against oppressed minority’s like LGBTI folks and Sufis. 

That is why it took massive NATO boots on the ground and billions of U.S. dollars worth of military might to overthrow Gadhafi and the majority of the Libyan people. 

    The imperialist group of NATO-EU-U.S. has taken over Libya– and in doing so a lot of the basis for African self determination. The “rebels” look like no other countries rebels, they are young men with shiny uniforms playing with guns–not regular Libyan people. Not the women and children that are core for any real rebellion.

    Libyan people, many American do not support this re-colonialization of Africa and your precious, sovereign resources. Our U.S. media lies about our daily struggles against our own societal elite (Wall Street, corporations, banks; their use of police to stop peaceful protest).  We carry you in our hearts in our protests ( &  Your capture by our rulers takes our best hope away for a better world, and we are devastated.