Did “Save Darfur” Lose Darfur?

I have long been a fan of Mahmood Mamdani. His new book Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror is very critical of the Western approach to Darfur. In brief, he accuses advocacy campaigns like Save Darfur of making the achievement of peace in Darfur more difficult by portraying the conflict simplistically between “bad Arabs” and “good Africans,” and by advocating foreign military intervention. I’ll repeat just a few points from Mamdani that stuck in my mind, but I encourage you strongly to pick up the book.

  • The Save Darfur campaign repeatedly ignored and distorted the facts on the ground.
  • Darfur is an insurgency and an extremely vicious counter-insurgency, but there was never the intent to eliminate any specific group and so the word “genocide” is inappropriate. But the word “genocide” gave the West and the UN a free hand to intervene.
  • The prospect of foreign military intervention encouraged the rebels to hold out rather than agreeing to a peace deal, while hardening and attracting additional support for the position of the government to “defend national sovereignty.”
  • There were also terrible atrocities on the “good African” side.
  • The “good African” side includes one key player, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), that is an opposition Islamist movement that was previously on the “bad Arab” side in the North-South civil war between “bad Arabs” and “good Africans.”
  • There was a sharp decrease in violence after 2005 just as the Save Darfur campaign picked up steam.
  • The ICC is not credible to much of the non-Western world as a judge of war crimes since the US itself does not subject itself to the ICC, and since the ICC seems to selectively prosecute US enemies and turn a blind eye to war crimes by US allies.
  • The Western pressure based on distorted facts has set back attempts within Sudan and within Africa to reach a peace settlement in Darfur, which is the only way the tragedy will end.

None of this is to deny the enormous human tragedy in Darfur. But Mamdani’s analysis makes one wonder: is it possible that ill-informed outsiders with the threat of military power on their side can make things worse rather than better?