Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Did Europe made Africans genocidal?

The Darfur conflict has now been around long enough for a second wave of books on the subject to begin appearing with — one hopes — more nuanced, theoretically informed analysis than earlier books, which were largely descriptive. Most prominent in this second wave, so far, has been Mahmood Mamdani's Saviors and Survivors, published earlier this year, and reviewed quite positively in the New York Times back in March.

Unfortunately, Mamdani's book is longer on ideologically motivated claims than it is on analysis. The NYT review already hinted at this weakness, noting that "Mamdani’s constant refrain is that the virtuous indignation he thinks he detects in those who shout loudest about Darfur is no substitute for greater understanding" [emphasis mine].

An excellent — and scathing — review of Mamdani's book by Richard Just which appeared in The New Republic in September makes clear that Mamdani's own virtuous indignation is no less ill-informed than that of the humanitarian actors he attacks. An earlier review by Nicholas Kristof, in the New York Review of Books, was similarly critical. Both reviews are well worth reading.

One important weakness of the book which emerges only partially from either of these reviews concerns Mamdani's argument that genocide would not have happened but for racial policies implemented by the colonial rulers: Britain, in the case of Sudan; Belgium, in the case of Rwanda. Mamdani reiterates this point in his response to Kristof's review (a response which nitpicks, but does almost nothing to rebut the overall content of Kristof's critique).

The argument itself is hardly controversial, and it is not unreasonable for Mamdani to call attention to often-overlooked historical roots of present-day problems. What is problematic is the implicit hint that the slaughter in Darfur is somehow Britain's fault (and the genocide in Rwanda Belgium's fault). This fatally confuses necessary and sufficient conditions. Genocide (or mass slaughter) is always a policy choice.

The fact that it is a policy choice that would not have been on the radar screen of the Sudanese government but for colonial legacies left by the British does not make it any less of a reprehensible choice, or the result less of a crime against humanity. To argue otherwise — to claim that somehow the Sudanese government is not to blame for its policies — is a worse example of neocolonial attitude than anything Mamdani can indict the Save Darfur movement for. It suggests that Africans (the Sudanese in this case) have no independent agency: they cannot come up with policies on their own, but instead simply continue to reproduce the policy ideas left to them by the British decades ago.

1 comment:

  1. Why does Mamdani angers so many people so easily? is it because he says lets look at history and that history is very painful to come to terms with? Or is it because he refuses to be dragged into the easy classification of "good" and "evil" that has become the fodder for the Western media and activists?

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