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Reflections on Darfur:  Ghosts of British Colonial Past and the “Inevitable” Violence

Reflections on Darfur: Ghosts of British Colonial Past and the “Inevitable” Violence

In 2003 – towards the end of February –a couple hundred self-proclaimed guerrillas by the name of Darfur Liberation Front (DLF) seized the town of Golo, capital of Jebel Marra Provice in the state of West Darfur. The attack  destabilized an already-unhinged country suffocated by an extreme four-decades-long drought, still struggling to recover from what seems like a never-ceasing internal conflict, a “localized civil war” which was ignited in 1987.  Many regarded the situation in Darfur as a ticking time-bomb; while what occurred certainly was a tragedy, the rebellion of 2003 provoked atrocities that were not surprising, given the magnitude of instability that did not uniquely characterize Darfur, but also its neighboring countries, most notably Chad and Rwanda. The DLF attacked police stations, military convoys, and army outposts, even prior to the 2003 Golo attack. The Sudanese government’s reaction was one of brutal counterinsurgency. A little over a year after, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which was closely monitoring the violence occurring in Darfur, issued a “genocide alert”. Darfur thus “exploded into the global media” when the United States congress passed a resolution declaring that the government of Sudan had committed genocide in Darfur, a decision that reassured some but baffled others. (Mamdani. 2013)

To adequately comprehend the severity of the situation in Darfur, its subsequent coverage by western media outlets, and the reasons behind the United States’ decision to call it a genocide, it is imperative to be aware of the fundamental causes of the ongoing conflict in this area. Darfur is a province situated in the westernmost of Sudan and is roughly the size of France. Mahmoud Mamdani writes that the historical memory of the Darfuris is “anchored in the sultanate of darfur” which was created in 1650 and remained an independent power until its colonization by the Turkiyya for a decade toward the end of the 19th century, and then by Britain in the early 20th, when it was incorporated into the anglo-egyptian colony of Sudan. (Mamdani.2013) For the past two decades, Sudan has been engulfed in a civil conflict. While some scholars argue that the Sudanese civil war is predominantly fueled by issues of the possession of land and resultant desertification of the long-lasting drought (Prunier.2007), others dismiss this as a gross oversimplification of the situation in Darfur (Van der Hoeven, Agnes van, et al.2006 & Lemarchand in Mieirhenrich. 2014) that overlooks the colonial legacy of disproportionately dividing lands between tribes and institutionalizing a regime of inequality (Mamdani.2013).

This essay will provide an overview of the divergence in approaches to the “Darfur question” by scholars and will attempt to tackle the issue of “what constitutes genocides” in the context of the 2003 rebellion of Darfur. Relying heavily on Mamdani’s work in Saviors and Survivors and Define and Rule, it will emphasize the role that British colonialism played in establishing and accentuating tribal difference and the strategic employment of the “G-word” by the United States for political purposes. It will also depend on works by a myriad of other scholars to establish a definition of Genocide and the philosophies behind mass killings.

According to Prunier (2007) the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) performed a vicious attack on the Sudanese government air base in April of 2003. Reportedly, more than 75 government troops were killed while “the rebels lost only nine men and escaped with ammunition, vehicles and weapons”. Consequently, the Sudanese government retaliated by recruiting the Janjaweed from ethnic Arabic-speaking tribes, “whose land and property had already been destroyed due to the drought and the localized conflict to fight against rebels in the Darfur region”. While Mamadani argues that it was when the Sudanese government got involved that the rest of the world began to notice “the plight of Darfuris”, Prunier states that the situation in Darfur did not garner attention until the UN Human Rights Coordinator for Sudan, Mukesh Kapila, declared that Darfur was “the world’s greatest humanitarian crisis ... the only difference between Rwanda and Darfur is now the numbers involved.” Reports from Amnesty International indicate that an estimate of “2.3 million people were displaced and 285,000 died from starvation, diseases, and killings in Darfur” between 2003 and 2006.

The United Nations investigative analyses of the conflict in Darfur found the Khartoum regime and Janjaweed militia responsible for “serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law amounting to crimes under international law”. In particular, the UN reports indicate that the Government forces and militias conducted “indiscriminate attacks, including killing of civilians, torture, enforced disappearances, destruction of villages, rape and other forms of sexual violence, pillaging and forced displacement, throughout Darfur”. Reportedly, the majority of the victims of these attacks have originated from “Fur, Zaghawa, Massalit, Jebel, Aranga and other so-called ‘African’ tribes.”

Both Mamdani and Prunier seem to find an agreement in that violence and destruction were further aggravated by the political and economic ambitions of people in power. Prunier argues that the alienation of the Darfuris was the direct result of the “conscious political manipulation of ethnic animosities by outside players […] the power mongers’ political agenda has been to reserve the economic resources for select ethnic groups and tempt the rest with false promises of economic gain.” What Prunier neglects in his analysis of the Darfur situation is what Mamdani deems to be the root cause of this party-political discrimination based on supposedly ethnic differences. In Define and Rule, Mamadani provides a historical and political analysis of the development of British colonial governance in 20th century Sudan. He explains that direct and indirect rules were not two consecutive phases of British colonial government in Africa and that the two continued in tandem: “the civilizing mission (assimilation) existed alongside the management of difference (pluralism),” even though more significance was allocated to indirect rule: “the colonial state created a system of state-enforced internal discrimination—for which it claimed the mantle of tradition— thereby effectively fragmenting the colonized majority into so many administratively driven political minorities. In Africa, this political minority was called the tribe” (Mamdani.45)

By institutionalizing group life, Mamdani argues that British colonialists sought to politically differentiate between the “indigenous” and the “foreign” within the colonized group, as to avoid emphasis on the distinction between the colonizers and the colonized and distorting intricate histories of migrations, and thus “the state portrayed the native as the product of geography rather than history.” Mamdani continues to argue that albeit these tribes having conspicuous similarities in cultural practices and language, they were nonetheless governed under separate or “customary laws” which were administered by native authorities, which entailed that power was not centralized and single, but was always plural. With tribes, “cultural difference was reinforced, exaggerated, and built up into different legal systems, each enforced by a separate administrative and political authority […] The colonial legal project—civil and customary—was an integral part of the colonial political project”

Subsequently, colonial customary law privileged some tribes over the others, as “nativism came with privileges.” Furthermore, he believes that it is suitable to identify the system of native administration and indirect rule as a system that established an institutional approach to tribal discrimination, justifying it as an inevitable consequence of the plurality of cultural identities thereby rendering cultural identity into a political one, and meticulously framing it within the context of a tribe. Consequently, this institutionalized regime of inequality led to a monoethnic governance of a multiethnic society, and it was only “a matter of time before an explosive confrontation” (Mamdani. 52) erupted between those defined as natives who possessed key rights such as access to land and participation in local governance and those who were not.

In a series of lectures published to better inform the international community about the situation in Darfur, author Mohamed Salih contributes with a chapter entitled Africa’s Governance Deficit, Genocide, and Ethnocide, through which he dismisses two central myths he believes have been perpetuated by the Khartoum government. The first dictates that economic instability due to the desertification is the root cause of the Darfur conflict. The second entails that the Darfuri rebels were the initiators of the war. Salih argues that the Sudanese government “armed the Arab militias (Janjaweed) as early as the mid-1980’s, and the present Government formed by the National Islamic Front incorporated the Janjaweed into the paramilitary Popular Defence Forces.” Perhaps the biggest myth of all is the phrase “Arab militia”. Its systematic use, as Salih argues, simplifies the complex ethnic composition of the population of Darfur in terms of Arabs and Africans. He writes: “some of the Janjaweed belong to ethnic groups that are originally African but through acculturation have acquired an Arab identity or the Arab language […] It is also erroneous to claim that there is a war of all-against-all based on racial grounds among Darfur ethnic groups claiming an Arab ancestry or African Muslim ethnic identity.”

The Arabs versus Zurga debate, many scholars argue, is a direct result of the “CNN effect”. Mamdani wrote Saviors and Survivors as “a warning to those who would act first and understand later”; in it he states that western coverage of the Darfur conflict completely stripped it from any context in its reliance on “evidence of their eyes,” avoiding discussions of context: reporting from Africa is a low-risk job: not only are mistakes expected and tolerated, but often they are not even noticed. When it comes to mainstream media there are no Africa specialists.” The superficial coverage of Darfur, which did not take into consideration in-depth analyses served only to misrepresent and perpetuate misleading information which greatly facilitated the use of the word genocide to describe the conflict in Darfur. (Mamdani.2013)

On the subject of strategic mass killing, Benajmin Valentino writes that mass killing should be regarded as “instrumental policy implemented to achieve important political and military objectives with respect to other groups.” This was particularly appropriate in the case of the Janjaweed who sought to further their political agendas to subsequently secure more wealth on the expense of sidelined indigenous African groups (Van der Hoeven, Agnes van, et al. 2006). Valentino also elaborates on the use of mass killing as a “calculated military response” against “undisciplined, frustrated, or racist troops,” rendering it an appealing counter-guerilla strategy, a fitting description for the Khartoum regime’s violations. The latter, however, was not the only party employing mass killing for its favor. In the wake of the 2003 rebellion in Darfur, South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission launched an investigation into possible genocidal activities in Darfur and concluded that the government was guilty of “crimes against humanity” due to its use of “systematic” yet “indiscriminate” violence directed against civilians, which was also deemed disproportionate to any threat posed by the SLA or JEM rebels. The investigative report also accused the rebels of committing “crimes of war”. (Mamdani.2013) Interestingly, both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, instead of using the term genocide, have opted for “ethnic cleansing” as a more appropriate term. (Lemarchand in Mieirhenrich. 2013) Similarly, a 2005 investigative report produced by the United Nation’s International Commission of Inquiry on Darfur failed to identify evidence of “genocidal intent” in the government’s actions against the rebels:

the crucial element of genocidal intent appears to be missing, at least as far as the central Government authorities are concerned. Generally speaking the policy of attacking, killing and forcibly displacing members of some tribes does not evince a specific intent to annihilate, in whole or in part, a group distinguished on racial, ethnic, national or religious grounds. Rather, it would seem that those who planned and organized attacks on villages pursued the intent to drive the victims from their homes, primarily for purposes of counter-insurgency warfare. (United Nations Report on Darfur, 2005)

UN legal experts’ failure to prove the existence of genocidal activities in Darfur in 2005 was severely criticized as a declaration of “complete oblivion” and an intended move to evade from any responsibility to put an end to the atrocities. (Van der Hoeven, Agnes van, et al.2006) In 2004, Olusegun Obasanjo, then the chair of the African Union, was questioned on whether the conflict in Darfur amounts to genocide. He responded saying that: “before you can say that this is genocide or ethnic cleansing, we will have to have a definite decision and plan and program of a government to wipe out a particular group of people, then we will be talking about genocide, ethnic cleansing […] there was an uprising, rebellion, and the government armed another group of people to stop that rebellion […] That does not amount to genocide from our own reckoning. It amounts to of course conflict. It amounts to violence.”

Scholars of genocide studies contend that genocide is a contingent event, one that can be enabled or facilitated by previous experiences of genocide and requires a past experience of a massacre. (Midlarsky in Meierhenrich. 2014) Accordingly, extensive parallels between Rwanda and Darfur have been highlighted in recent literature, attempting to draw public attention to the “inability to learn any lesson from the Rwandan carnage.” While Mamdani maintains that unlike Rwanda, the conflict in Darfur does not constitute a genocide; rather, “it is where genocide has become ideological,” others believe that “the ghosts of Rwanda are stirring ominously in Darfur. Differences in geography, history, and genocidal means do less and less to obscure the ghastly similarities between international failure in 1994 and the world’s current willingness to allow ethnically-targeted human destruction to proceed essentially unchecked” The instrumentalization of the term genocide, in particular, its use as a tool for the mobilization of public opinion, (Lemarchand in Meierhenrich. 2014) is seen by some as an important step towards recognizing and acting against mass killing forces. It is nonetheless important to note that killing is not what defines genocide. Mamdani explains that when Darfur is named a site of genocide, “people recognize something they have already seen elsewhere and what they know is enough to call for action.” The fundamental problem with that lies in that it allows for uninformed action to be considered as not only an adequate strategy but as legitimate and morally-acceptable, rendering the intervention a self-serving act that might, in fact, do more harm than good. In the case of Rwanda, retrospective debates about the United States role in preventing the Hutu-Tutsi violence prove to be futile as they are based on idealistic assessments of the US military’s capacities. In 2013, Kuperman stated that a realistic US military intervention launched as soon as President Clinton could have determined that genocide was being attempted in Rwanda would not have averted the genocide.

The persistence of the Rwanda analogy highlights, yet again, the key issue of western coverage of Africa: cultural reductionism. The latter is reinforced by the misleading conception that the conflict in Dafur is a war between Arabs and indigenous Africans. The situation in Darfur is much more nuanced as it exceeds a simple Arab versus African dyad. The institutional marginalization and continuous suppression of indigenous African tribes resulted in the emergence of the main rebel movements in Darfur, the Sudan Liberation Army and the Justice and Equality Movement, which waged an armed struggled against a suppressive regime. One cannot help but wonder about the motives behind United States and other key players’ push for a military solution when the root issue at hand is clearly political and requires political restructuring. The United States approach to interventions in which politics and military become intertwined, might be indicative of its failures in the War on Terror. Mamdani raises an interesting point in questioning the international community’s blindness to the SLA and JEM’s combined role in advancing the violence: “Why were they pretending that there was only one side that needed containing – the government- in what was both a civil war and an ongoing cycle of insurgency and counterinsurgency?” Weather the conflict in Darfur constitutes a genocide or not, what is vital to note here is that the United States and EU key players must make an effort to carefully contextualize African nations (and the global south in general) prior to launching interventions with irreversible consequences.

Works Cited:

Ardenne-van der Hoeven, Agnes van, et al. Explaining Darfur : Four Lectures on the Ongoing Genocide. Amsterdam University Press, 2006.  

International Commission of Inquiry on Darfur, Report of the International Commission of Inquiry on Darfur to the United Nations Secretary General (Geneva: United Nations, 2005):126–27.

Kuperman, Alan “The Rwandan Genocide and the Limits of Humanitarian Intervention .” Genocide: a Reader, edited by Jens Mieirhenrich Oxford University Press, 2014, pp. 436–438.

Lemarchand, Rene. “Unsimplifying Darfur .” Genocide: a Reader, by Jens Meierhenrich, Oxford University Press, 2014, pp. 150–153.

Mamdani, Mahmood. Define and Rule: Native as Political Identity. Wits University Press, 2013.

Mamdani, Mahmood. Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror. Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR), 2013.

Midlarsky, Manus. “The Killing Trap .” Genocide: a Reader, edited by Jens Meierhenrich, Oxford University Press, 2014, pp. 166–167

Prunier, Gerard. Darfur: the Ambiguous Genocide. Cornell University Press, 2008.

Reeves, Eric. “Sudan Research, Analysis, and Advocacy.” Sudan Research, Analysis, and Advocacy, 28 Apr. 2018, sudanreeves.org/.

Valentino, Benajmin A. “The Strategic Logic of Mass Killing .” Genocide: a Reader, edited by Jens Meierhenrich, Oxford University Press, 2014, pp. 163–165.


Additional Sources:

Mamdani, Mahmoud “When Victims Become Killers .” Genocide: a Reader, edited by Jens Meierhenrich Oxford University Press, 2014, pp. 147–150.

Reeves, Eric. A Long Day's Dying: Critial Moments in the Darfur Genocide. Edited by Michael Brassard, The Key Publishing House, 2007.

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