I came across this book review on the Darfur situation, and found myself nodding in agreement. As I discussed in a past post on the issue of African developmental aid, the wider economic and social issues are often brushed aside to support a more black and white, moralistic, and easily digestible piece of compressed sound bite for public consumption.
In the interview, author Mahmood Mamdani criticized the Save Darfur organization for turning the Darfur conflict into an ahistorical act of atrocities, with no attempt at explaining what lead to those events. His book argued against those who substitute moral certainty for knowledge, and who feel virtuous even when acting on the basis of total ignorance.” The reality is much more complex than the tragic genocide it was made out to be.
Last year, I attended an university event which featured the former UN special envoy to Sudan Jan Pronk. During an evening of dialogue, he commented on a range of issues including Darfur, Sudan and the surrounding region. Given his unique experience and perspective, Pronk was able to shed some light on the situation that paralleled what Mamdani described during his interview. Below are my notes from that night over a year ago.
Mr. Pronk introduced the current situation by running through a rough chronology of events. Sudan was the first African nation to claim independence in 1956, but the Arabic north and the predominantly Christian south could not extricate themselves from a civil war that started in 1955. Sudan emerged on the international scene after 9/11, when its potential ties to Islamic terrorists became a source of concern similar to that posed by Somalia. The discovery of oil wealth in the country also garnered international interests. After almost half a century of fighting, the two warring sides came close to a successful negotiation and agreed to a ceasefire in 2004. On a completely separate front, Darfur – a province in the west, erupted violently in 2003.
Mr. Pronk clarified the common misconception and stated that the reasons behind the Darfur conflict were not religious, but a combination of the following. Politically and economically, the region was marginalized in favour of Khartoum and the areas surrounding the river Nile. Resources and spending were divested, thus developments were slow or nonexistent. Additionally, local leadership was replaced with appointees from Khartoum, resulting in further grievances. Culturally, the region hadn’t forgotten its existence as an independent state prior to the British rule, and this pride in its history bred ethnic and tribal tensions. More catastrophically, Darfur had experienced fast population growth. Environmental degradation in the form of desertification reduced the area of pastoral lands available for human consumption and cattle grazing. The outcomes of climate change exerted even greater pressure on the psyche of the people, culminating in the conflict that we see today.
Mr. Pronk also spoke about the challenges and shortcomings of the international community in its dealings with the region. Firstly, the relentless civil war between the government in the north and rebels in the south was the focus during the early part of the decade. Darfur had yet to become an issue that the international community was willing to raise, for fear of overwhelming the Khartoum government and jeopardizing the ongoing peace negotiations. Secondly, the African Union force dispatched to Darfur in 2004 to monitor the situation was bound to fail because they lacked size, resources and the mandate to protect. Not receiving sufficient support from the international organizations that sent them was “demoralizing” for the troops, and Mr. Pronk called these inadequacies a pervasive problem in troop deployment.
The audience raised some interesting questions, and a number of them were met with surprising responses. When questioned on the failure of UN to label the killings in Darfur as genocide, Pronk commented that the label itself was irrelevant and purely legalistic, but action was needed before violence escalated to the level where the situation was assessed as “not genocide, but just as bad as genocide”. On the issue of humanitarian aids and whether the international community has done enough, Pronk answered that humanitarian works have no political consequences, and only involvement on a geo-political level will have any impact. In his opinion, humanitarian aids in fact prolong the duration of negotiations and allow the fighting to continue longer than is necessary. He stressed that involvement on a political level is the only way to mediate a conflict.
When asked what can be done in the Netherlands to assist the Darfur situation, Pronk praised the grassroot movements in the US that have been effective in both raising awareness and exerting economic pressures on the Sudanese government. One particularly successful campaign led to the signing of the Sudan Divestment Law by the US president, in which American companies have been asked to remove all their investments with corporations involved in Sudan. Mr. Pronk expressed optimism that a difference can be made by civil actions, and that Dutch youth can play such a role.
picture source: mkdieb