My Interview with the Columbia Professor Who Says There is No Genocide in Darfur -- It's an Environmental Crisis

Jun 14, 2009 | Updated May 25, 2011

"The Save Darfur movement claims to have learned from Rwanda," writes Mahmood Mamdani in his new book, Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror. "But what is the lesson of Rwanda? For many of those mobilized to save Darfur, the lesson is to rescue before it is too late, to act before seeking to understand." His book, he writes, is an argument "against those who substitute moral certainty for knowledge, and who feel virtuous even when acting on the basis of total ignorance." Thus begins the most drastic rewrite of a foreign policy issue which, here in the United States, has brought together left and right, secular and religious, and which many hope will attract still greater government attention during the Obama era. If it does, Mamdani's book could serve as an indispensable counterweight to the prevailing wisdom about Darfur and Sudan that could help bring about a workable peace agreement. Such is his aim, though he is likely to be accused of much worse.

In Saviors and Survivors, Mamdani frames his argument with a pair of comparisons. First, he briefly examines death rates in Iraq and Darfur: violent deaths in Iraq during the U.S. invasion and occupation far surpass death rates in Darfur during its ongoing conflict. While Mamdani doesn't deny atrocities in Darfur, he seeks to contextualize them against those of other regions. In that vein, Saviors and Survivors closes with an extended look at Mamdani's native Uganda, where a costly conflict between the Lord's Resistance Army and the Uganda government has claimed many thousands of lives, and was cited by Oxfam in 2006 as having three times as high a death rate as Iraq's. But why aren't these other trouble spots given the same dire attention, the same rejoinder that we all must do something, as with Darfur? Is it because of the role played by race in Darfur? Is it the word genocide? "But how do we know it is a genocide?" writes Mamdani. "Because we are told it is." In my interview with Mamdani, I sought to clarify how someone could go against such a broadly held consensus that Darfur meets the legal definition of genocide perfectly.

The body of Saviors and Survivors is made up of a long meditation on the history of Sudan, including its period as a land of sultanates, its emergence as a British colonial possession, and its having been armed to the teeth during the Cold War. Named the homeland, or dar, of the Fur people, the region is made up of sedentary and nomadic tribes who have long formed a patchwork of groups inhabiting land traditionally open for shared use.

The people of Darfur have long treated "racial" identities as fairly fluid, writes Mamdani, welcoming intermarriage as a means of transferring between groups. But the designation of "Arab" versus "African" was given a particularly virulent, and unprecedented, authority under a land system set up by the colonial British; land previously shared was now assigned a more rigid "native" group who oversaw its use, and non-native groups who had to pay tribute. What compounded this were two further conditions that turned the region into a powder keg. First, a decades-long drought turned fertile lands in the north of Darfur into desert (in a process known as desertification), which made land use and land rights much more contentious. Then U.S. President Ronald Reagan armed rebel groups from Chad, in his attempt to "contain" Libya during the Cold War. This meant that, along with the Soviets and Libya, on one side, and Israel and France on the other, President Reagan helped arm a region on the verge of erupting over a series of growing administrative and territorial disputes.

What resulted was a civil war, says Mamdani; the first phase, in the late 1980s, began with savvy opponents who accused each other of atrocities in a somewhat sophisticated PR war. Phase two began with a 2003 insurgency that was met with a fierce response from the government. An ongoing massacre? Massacres occurred early in the conflict, admits Mamdani. But starting in 2005, death rates sank drastically. Save Darfur had no interest in this decline in direct killings, having staked their campaign on the story of ongoing genocide. Arabs hoping to wipe out Africans? Not really. Rather, a land war amidst the throes of desertification. The first genocide of the 20th century, or one of the world's most deadly land disputes following extreme incidents of global climate change? That's the real question, according to Mamdani—whether this is an ecological disaster amidst a land divided on paper by colonial rulers, and militarized by the Cold War, rather than a crisis directly about race. In fact, Mamdani argues, the language of genocide further exacerbates the conflict, and keeps key groups out of peace talks by demonizing them, as happened during peace talks in Abuja in 2005.

I spoke with Professor Mamdani in his office at Columbia University in New York City. Named by Foreign Policy magazine as one of the top 100 public intellectuals, he wore a blazer, a bright red polo shirt with a Nehru collar, round-rimmed glasses and a five-o'clock shadow; his eyes showed a tired face—from the end of a semester and the middle of a book tour. On his right hand, he wore a silver ring fit with turquoise. A handsome man born in Uganda to parents with roots in India, he spoke quietly, breaking his sentences with long pauses. Sitting atop his coffee table amidst a slew of other books and journals was The Crisis of Islamic Civilization, by Ali Allawi (who made a similar charge against the U.S. acting before understanding, in The Occupation of Iraq).

It is this very framework that initially divided the left over Darfur and Iraq alike. Does human rights intervention trump anti-imperialism, or national sovereignty? Is intervention itself a kind of human rights abuse? If you look at the history of how victims become perpetrators, as Mamdani does in other books like When Victims Become Killers, you begin to understand a pattern that is clear: nothing substitutes for actually listening to the grievances of all sides involved in a conflict; nothing is more indispensable than history and understanding, especially understanding of the cast off debates about colonialism and the Cold War. Which is why Mamdani favors reconciliation, South Africa-style, over prosecution, ICC-style. The solution must come from within Africa, he insists. He is likely to be accused of minimizing the deaths or veering off-script from the consensus—which is ironically the kind of charge Bush supporters would have made against dissenters in the buildup to the Iraq war. If Save Darfur shuns him, they risk proving his assertion that the Save Darfur Coalition is a moral (as opposed to political) offshoot of the war on terror. In addition to teaching in the anthropology department at Columbia, Mamdani served for a year as consultant for the Darfur-Darfur Dialogue and Consultation (DDDC) of the African Union. He is married to the filmmaker Mira Nair; they live in New York and Uganda and have a son, Zohran.

Read the interview here.