: The Politics of Naming - Genocide, Civil War, Insurgency
Prof. Mahmood Mamdani
The similarities between
are remarkable. The estimate of the number of civilians killed over the past three years is roughly similar. The killers are mostly paramilitaries, closely linked to the official military, which is said to be their main source of arms. The victims too are by and large identified as members of groups, rather than targeted as individuals. But the violence in the two places is named differently. In
, it is said to be a cycle of insurgency and counter-insurgency; in
, it is called genocide. Why the difference? Who does the naming? Who is being named? What difference does it make?
The most powerful mobilisation in
New York City
is in relation to Darfur, not
. One would expect the reverse, for no other reason than that most New Yorkers are American citizens and so should feel directly responsible for the violence in occupied
is a messy place in the American imagination, a place with messy politics. Americans worry about what their government should do in
. Should it withdraw? What would happen if it did? In contrast, there is nothing messy about
. It is a place without history and without politics; simply a site where perpetrators clearly identifiable as 'Arabs' confront victims clearly identifiable as 'Africans'.
A full-page advertisement has appeared several times a week in the New York Times calling for intervention in
now. It wants the intervening forces to be placed under 'a chain of command allowing necessary and timely military action without approval from distant political or civilian personnel'. That intervention in
should not be subject to 'political or civilian' considerations and that the intervening forces should have the right to shoot - to kill - without permission from distant places: these are said to be 'humanitarian' demands. In the same vein, a
has called for 'force as a first-resort response'. What makes the situation even more puzzling is that some of those who are calling for an end to intervention in Iraq are demanding an intervention in Darfur; as the slogan goes, 'Out of Iraq and into Darfur.'
What would happen if we thought of Darfur as we do of
, as a place with a history and politics - a messy politics of insurgency and counter-insurgency? Why should an intervention in Darfur not turn out to be a trigger that escalates rather than reduces the level of violence as intervention in
has done? Why might it not create the actual possibility of genocide, not just rhetorically but in reality? Morally, there is no doubt about the horrific nature of the violence against civilians in
. The ambiguity lies in the politics of the violence, whose sources include both a state-connected counter-insurgency and an organised insurgency, very much like the violence in
The insurgency and counter-insurgency in
began in 2003. Both were driven by an intermeshing of domestic tensions in the context of a peace-averse international environment defined by the War on Terror. On the one hand, there was a struggle for power within the political class in
, with more marginal interests in the west (following those in the south and in the east) calling for reform at the centre. On the other, there was a community-level split inside
, between nomads and settled farmers, who had earlier forged a way of sharing the use of semi-arid land in the dry season. With the drought that set in towards the late 1970s, co-operation turned into an intense struggle over diminishing resources.
As the insurgency took root among the prospering peasant tribes of
, the government trained and armed the poorer nomads and formed a militia - the Janjawiid - that became the vanguard of the unfolding counter-insurgency. The worst violence came from the Janjawiid, but the insurgent movements were also accused of gross violations. Anyone wanting to end the spiralling violence would have to bring about power-sharing at the state level and resource-sharing at the community level, land being the key resource.
Since its onset, two official verdicts have been delivered on the violence, the first from the
, the second from the UN. The American verdict was unambiguous:
was the site of an ongoing genocide. The chain of events leading to
's proclamation began with 'a genocide alert' from the Management Committee of the
; according to the Jerusalem Post, the alert was 'the first ever of its kind, issued by the US Holocaust Museum'. The House of Representatives followed unanimously on
24 June 2004
. The last to join the chorus was Colin Powell.
The UN Commission on
was created in the aftermath of the American verdict and in response to American pressure. It was more ambiguous. In September 2004, the Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, then the chair of the African Union, visited UN headquarters in
had been the focal point of discussion in the African Union. All concerned were alert to the extreme political sensitivity of the issue. At a press conference at the UN on 23 September Obasanjo was asked to pronounce on the violence in
: was it genocide or not? His response was very clear:
"Before you can say that this is genocide or ethnic cleansing, we will have to have a definite decision and plan and programme of a government to wipe out a particular group of people, then we will be talking about genocide, ethnic cleansing. What we know is not that. What we know is that there was an uprising, rebellion, and the government armed another group of people to stop that rebellion. That's what we know. That does not amount to genocide from our own reckoning. It amounts to of course conflict. It amounts to violence."
Review of Books
8 March 2007