Saviors and Survivors

Book by Mahmood Mamdani; Random House, 2009, 416 pp.

After a 2003 uprising by rebels was met with a brutal counter-insurgency campaign, the Darfur region of Sudan became emblematic of human misery and oppression in the 21st century. The central government in Khartoum used bribes to enlist a small sector of the Darfuri population to form militias to fight the rebels and attack the populations from which they came. Of all the conflicts that have wracked the globe since the turn of the millennium, Darfur has received an unrivaled level of sustained attention and humanitarian concern from the media and politicians in the West, particularly in the U.S.


Mahmood Mamdani challenges this state of affairs, pointing out that the numbers of dead cannot explain the publicity that other crises, just as lethal or more so, have not received. Mamdani's book Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror on the Western reaction to Darfur has brought attention to the political manipulation of the mass killings in Darfur.


Originally from Uganda, Mamdani is a respected Africanist at Columbia University and author of the bestselling post-9/11 account of U.S. foreign policy crimes and hypocrisies, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim. As he observes in Saviors and Survivors, the number of people killed as a result of the chronologically parallel conflict in Iraq is far higher than in Darfur, and furthermore, "the proportion of violent deaths in relation to the total excess mortality is also far higher in Iraq than in Darfur: 38 percent to nearly 92 percent in Iraq, but 20 to 30 percent in Darfur. So why do we call the killing in Darfur genocide but not that in Iraq? Is it because…victims and perpetrators belong to different races in Darfur but not in Iraq? That is what many assume, but the facts do not bear this out."


Iraq is hardly the only place in which the epic humanitarian tragedy has been minimized or ignored. As Mamdani recounts, in the mid-1990s Angola bore witness to slaughter on a similar scale of lethal destruction, with some 300,000 people dead. The entire bloody episode never entered Western consciousness and is invisible to history.


Or, to look at a more recent example, how is one to explain the relative silence that prevailed over the truly massive death toll in the Democratic Republic of the Congo? Mamdani asks rhetorically, "Could the reason be that in the case of Congo, Hema and Lendu militias—many of them no more than child soldiers—were trained by America's allies in the region, Rwanda and Uganda? Is that why the violence in Darfur—but not the violence in Kivu—is called genocide?…. [I]mpunity is conferred as a reward upon those who join the War on Terror?"


To take but one final example, the Acholi people in northern Uganda have faced mass internment since 1996. Although the rebel group known as the Lord's Resistance Army has earned a degree of infamy, the harsh policies of the Ugandan government towards the Acholi have doubly victimized them under a wall of international silence. The absolute number of displaced persons in Northern Uganda is comparable to that of Darfur, despite occurring in a region that is far smaller, both geographically and in total population size. Mamdani acidly observes that, "It is difficult to think of these three instances of mass internment and violence—Iraq, Darfur, and Acholiland—without noticing that only one is the subject of a debate as to whether or not it involves genocide, leading to a call for an internationally directed humanitarian intervention."


As Mamdani aptly notes, "We have the astonishing spectacle of the United States, which has authored the violence in Iraq, branding an adversary state, Sudan, which has authored the violence in Darfur, as the perpetrator of genocide. Even more astonishing, we have a citizens' movement in America calling for a humanitarian intervention in Darfur while keeping mum about the violence in Iraq. And yet…the figures for the total number of excess dead are far higher for Iraq than for Darfur."


The dynamic is not new. Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky documented 30 years ago that Western propaganda, in effect, classifies mass atrocities as useful or useless for public relations—what they termed either "benign" and "constructive" or "nefarious" bloodbaths. The violence of Pol Pot in Cambodia was nefarious and worthy of vigorous denunciation, while the simultaneous U.S.-backed massacres in East Timor were benign, useful to Washington's interests, and therefore to be ignored by the press. The identity of the perpetrator is the critical factor—when enemies of Washington are the villains, the violence is given wide attention, and death tolls are reported honestly or even exaggerated.


And indeed, in Darfur, casualties have often been exaggerated. Even more telling, intensity of press coverage of Darfur bore little relation to the severity of the catastrophe. The upsurge in international attention occurred as violence began to drop dramatically after 2004.


However, if Darfur is hardly unique as a "nefarious bloodbath," what is distinctive is the level of activism that arose around the issue. By far the largest group is an umbrella organization called the Save Darfur Coalition (SDC). Mamdani explains how the Coalition arose out of a meeting between representatives of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the American Jewish World Service in 2004. Save Darfur advocacy was and is activism of the establishment, rather than against the establishment. The fact is graphically illustrated by the organization's multi-million-dollar advertising budget. As Mamdani reveals, the president of the Coalition's ad agency even served as the organization's interim executive director.


While enlisting numerous Hollywood stars to publicize the situation, who sometimes make ridiculous statements, SDC provides virtually no political context or analysis of the violence. What they do provide is "a full-blown pornography of violence…meant to drive a wedge between your political and moral senses, to numb the former and appeal to the latter."


Mamdani may credit them with too much success when he implies that Darfur has been the focus of more popular activism than the invasion and occupation of Iraq. In fact, the reality is not quite so grim. Iraq garnered larger numbers of protesters at national demonstrations. Instead, what is striking is the generous attention from the press corps and the open doors from politicians that have greeted Darfur activism. The impression that more people are protesting Darfur than Washington's foreign aggression may be illusory—but it is a tribute to the power of the corporate media to inflate or disempower protest.


The Save Darfur movement, argues Mamdani, was able to co-opt students who might otherwise have become antiwar activists. To the extent that this is true, it is indeed a remarkable success of the governing elite. All the more so because, it can be argued, Save Darfur essentially prepares the American population for further war in the name of humanitarianism. Thus, Mamdani concludes that the Darfur movement is "the humanitarian face of the War on Terror." On an abstract level, this is certainly true. The propaganda creation known as the War on Terror was designed to sell the invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq and new domestic policies that enhanced the repressive capabilities of the government. One of the central themes of the War on Terror was an implicit demonization of Arabs to instill fear. As such, the Darfur violence did provide a useful narrative of yet another repressive, evil "Arab" regime.


Arab is placed in quotes because, as Mamdani discusses at length, Sudanese who identify as Arab are apt to be mistaken for African by Americans. Race in Sudan, as elsewhere, is constructed rather than biological. Those who identify as Arab may have no genealogical linkages to Middle Eastern Arabs at all. Rather, Arab and African identities were salient political signifiers that arose amid the tensions of the 1970s and 1980s.


Despite the recent historical tensions between "Africans" and "Arabs," only a small number of Darfur's Arab communities are associated in any way with the so-called Janjaweed—the government-allied militias. It is remarkable how little readers of the commercial Western media learn of the vilified Arabs of Darfur. Even a voracious and scrupulous reader would be hard pressed to discover, for example, that before the present conflict began, Arabs in Darfur, particularly the landless camel owning nomads in the North, were even more oppressed than Africans. "If Darfur was marginal in Sudan, the Arabs of Darfur were marginal in Darfur. In other words, the Arabs of Darfur were doubly marginalized."


A sizeable chunk of the mid-section of the book relates, in considerable detail, themes from the last few centuries of Sudanese history: from migration patterns to race to the colonial legacy. Many readers may feel that this section is longer than necessary and a distraction from the central arguments. However, Mamdani's illustration of the destructive effects of the British colonial legacy adds important historical context to the current strife. The book also has some factual errors, perhaps more than should be expected, but most do not pertain to his key points, which merit consideration from activists of all stripes. Mamdani's work, published by a major publishing house, has garnered notice in the major media, and his message has permitted a certain space to criticize the Save Darfur movement. As such, it is a very welcome and important book that, unfortunately, is still urgently relevant.


More than seven years after the violence erupted in Darfur, the prospects for peace and justice in Sudan remain remote, even with the recent vote for an independent southern Sudan. The insight of an omda (a municipal mayor) from an African-identifying tribe who was driven from his land, whom Mamdani quotes, provides hope that the conflict may one day be resolved through reconciliation and perhaps even a unified struggle against a common enemy: "Our problem is not with the Arabs, it is with the government. The government destroyed our area. Even if Arabs did take part, they are just poor people like us. The government is behind it."


Steve Fake is coauthor, with Kevin Funk, of Scramble for Africa: Darfur—Intervention and the USA (Black Rose Books, 2008). He can be contacted at