Friday, September 15, 2006

Sudan and lurid morality tales for young imperialists.

I remember being presented with a book of adventure tales for boys as a Christmas present back in 1985, a hardback volume filled with spirited stories about Indians and Arabs and African tribes and Orientals and such. The general theme was civilisational encounters with aboriginality. It was awful, awful stuff, and I can't tell you how pissed off I was, because I actually preferred reading about the Harvester creatures and their adventures on the farm. Still, if you've imbibed this stuff, you do tend to recognise it when you see it.

The current crusading about Sudan reminds me of the old saying from the pan-African movement: nothing about us, without us. That it is also a slogan of the disability rights movement is somehow appropriate, since oppressed or marginalised groups tend to suffer from a great deal of imperious generosity by philanthropists and charitable overseers who think of them as children. The slogan was raised by the Ghanian activist Kofi Maluwi Klu during the Make Poverty History farce in which a cluster of northern NGOs and mainly white and entirely Western popstars took it upon themselves to Save Africa. Africa's saviours are in abundant supply: Bob Geldof, Bill Gates, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Bono, the Bush administration... We have already discussed the G8 scams in previous posts, and I only mention it because the fact that the conscious mass murder of Africans is part of Western policy is pertinent to the discussion.

There is a sizable industry growing up around the issue of Darfur and what has been described - with some controversy - as "genocide" taking place in the region. Yoshie Furuhashie has written a couple of articles about the Save Darfur movement for MRZine. There is a minor blog-current related to this, and in the United States there is an advertising campaign in which readers are invited to discover whether their Congressman or Senator has supported the calls for military intervention into Darfur. It is a cause celebre and a focus of considerable attention for American liberals. Leading Democrat politicians have shed a very public tear or two about it. Reebok have co-sponsored a video game about it. George Clooney and John Bolton have produced a united front to call for international intervention I'm afraid I can't believe that Bolton overflows with the milk of human kindness.

Soon, readers, you may get to hear that the UN Security Council has authorised a multinational force to enter the Sudan's Westernmost region and "stabilise" it. Reports that the government in Khartoum defies the will of the international community may follow. And then, saturation reportage, harrowing images (the African Union apparently has a library of photographs depicting the horrendous results of the violence), "mounting pressure", and perhaps even a bombing sortie or two. You may take your sides, for or against, but you would be doing extremely well to divine from the news organisations what is going on. Recently, the Washington Post told readers that the civil war may take off again, as Khartoum prepares to bomb those groups that opposed a peace deal in May and are re-arming: specifically, the Justice and Equality Movement (I have to name them because the WaPo did not). But the what, who, why and when remains obscured behind the ubiquitous portrait of Arab savages roaming around on horseback killing Africans. For Hitchens, as you might have guessed, it is as simple as "Sudanese Islamists" engaged in "racist murder". Hitchens quotes our friend Hari as saying, with typical bombast: "At last, some good news from Darfur: the genocide in western Sudan is nearly over. There's only one problem—it's drawing to an end only because there are no black people left to cleanse or kill." This was not true last year when the words were written and it isn't true today. Darfur has a population of 6 million, of whom 2 million are displaced. It had been estimated that up to 300,000 people had been killed following the peak of violence in 2004. We now have a new report which places the figure between 170,000 and 255,000. There will be no mania for nitpicking about these figures as there was about the Lancet report. That there are plenty left to kill or "cleanse" is tacitly acknowledged in an article by Hari from earlier this year in which he discusses how the peace deal would not stop the "genocide". I think Nick Cohen has said a word or two along similar lines. It is never entirely clear from the reports why these obscure militias are doing this, except that "Islamists" are involved - you occasionally get an idea that Khartoum has instructed the Janjaweed militias to act because of some rebellion, but the role of revolutionary forces in Sudan is rarely explained. You can barely move for ossified verbiage advising us that this is Rwanda in slow motion, and reminding us that the world stood by and did nothing during the Nazi holocaust, and the Armenian genocide, and the Cambodian genocide... "the world", whoever it is, would seem to do quite a bit of standing by and doing nothing, wracked as it always is by disabling doubt.

I want to deal with this issue of genocide before moving on to the current situation in Sudan. The reason that the claim of genocide is controversial in some quarters is that it is a mens rea crime, in which the intent to destroy a whole or part of a given population is central. The UN could not affirm intent, and so were left to conclude that it was mass murder by a different name. Here is the definition of the UN:

[G]enocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical [sic], racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;

(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group (Article 2).


The business about intent is a tough argument, and some might see it as ridiculous quibbling if you say "yeah, but they didn't mean to". In the same way, when demographics studies look at war zones or authoritarian regimes, they tend not to be impressed by governmental claims that it was an accident especially if the policies that caused mass deaths resulted from state-ideological structures. Even if it wasn't planned, if it was a predictable result of policy, the state bears responsibility. I don't know what the UN knows that I don't, and frankly I don't like mens rea as a defense, but I will suggest that if US congressmen insist upon the g-word with the hope that its normative force will legitimise any intervention of theirs, then it is at their own expense since we can equally say that UN sanctions on Iraq were genocidal, as were repeated interventions in Latin America and Indochina, as was the neoliberal shock therapy on Russia in the early 1990s, as has been the enforced neoliberal orthodoxy and contrived debt scams that kill 19,000 African children every single day. The ongoing cataclysm in Iraq has certainly killed a couple of hundred thousand by now. If we follow the congressmen, and infer either 'intent' or responsibility based on the origins of the policies in state-ideological structures, then all of these are examples of genocide, and the list can be expanded. Capitalist genocide is something to think about, you know. (Michael Steingberg has a thought-provoking article about this here).

Anyway, the issues in Sudan as they presently stand are roughly as follows: since the British were forced to quit the Sudan, (which meant Egypt also vacated), the country has been ruled by a narrow elite clustered around the Nile Valley that the British installed, and that has hardly changed through successive governments of various shades and during a prolonged civil war, until the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA) won substantial concessions in January 2005 peace accords, before the death of SPLA leader Dr Garang. The south was promised autonomy, elections and a substantial share of oil revenues. If those accords were adhered to, that would solve the problem in the south. In Darfur, the same exclusionary and repressive policies of the elite led to an uprising since 2003 that was only partially settled in May 2006 by peace accords signed with the SPLA, but not with the Islamist opposition group, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), who stated that the deal didn't fundamentally alter the structure of power. Since then, there has been some dissent within the SPLA over the acceptance of the deal and there are reports of some fratricidal violence. The largest branch of the SPLA under Minni Minnawi that has signed the deal has been cooperating in government fighting against the JEM. There are reports as well that some of the other militias affiliated to the neoliberal regime, some of whom appear to subscribe to a bizarre Arab supremacism that is also ingrained in the elite, are continuing to carry out attacks. The current peace deal is not perfect and is susceptible to collapse. Yet, as Alex De Waal - no friend of the Khartoum government - has argued, there are a number of alternatives: 1) letting the peace deal work; 2) undermining the peace deal and ensuring a return to a brutal and cruel civil war that will kill hundreds of thousands more; 3) undermining the peace deal, returning to war, then sending in an imperial force of at least 200,000 to fight against an enemy that will certainly multiply and therefore demand even larger armed commitments over an indefinite period of time. The latter option is favoured by the current breed of humanitarian interventionist, and it happens to be the least humanitarian option available.

Now, if Bolton is coming out advocating some kind of international intervention, it is presumably because the US has decided that making the peace deal work is not such a good idea for them. Indeed, stabilising the situation as it currently stands leaves Chinese capitalism the biggest recipient of Sudanese oil barrels. The new scramble for Africa has been on for some time, and Sudan is pivotal. Nigeria, of course, is the boss in African oil production, but there's a completely loyal neoliberal despot running that country so that isn't going to be the way in for the US. Doubtless, if the US does go in, or organise a 'coalition' or a Nato force to do its work, many of the humanitarians will cheer, despite the likely consequences. Yet, if they were realy concerned for the victims rather than servicing their amour propre, they would surely organise an international solidarity movement with the JEM. I should like to see it: the spectacle of liberal warmongers giving money to an Islamist movement to fund a war against a neoliberal regime that has cooperated with the 'war on terror' would be too delicious to miss. I would personally give a donation. Instead they choose to call for a force led by a genocidal state to intervene in ways that are certain to intensify the misery. I'd like to say it was their lack of a class analysis that led to such absurdities, and in the case of some well-meaning souls it really is that. But that purblindness itself is not innocent: underlying it is an implicit or explicit identification with Western states and a patronising attitude to those they hope to save. It is the same fairy tale every time, in fact: the American superman saves helpless victims, bare-forked creatures, figures of desolate ruin and so on, not active agents who may have incongruent, even liberatory, agendas and who may resist tutelary arrangements.