Sunday, February 18, 2007

Racism and the uses of 'genocide'.

The UN warns of a Rwanda-style genocide in Chad. The claim comes from Matthew Conway, a UNHCR worker, who happens to be a regular writer on this topic for the almost defunct Labour-left paper, The Tribune. But let me sample the BBC's report:

Eastern Chad and Darfur have a similar ethnic make-up, with nomadic Arab groups and black African farmers both seeking access to land and scarce water points.

Our reporter [Orla Guerlin] says the violence in Chad follows the same pattern as in Darfur - mostly Arabs on camels and horseback attacking non-Arab villages.

Without an international protection force, there is no-one to stop the Janjaweed, she says.

A similar report from Stephanie Hancock for Reuters says:

Bandala is one of dozens of villages that have been attacked in a wave of inter-ethnic violence pitting Arabs and black Africans that has displaced 120,000 civilians in eastern Chad. At least 70 of the villages attacked have also been torched.

This terminology, as I pointed out elsewhere is pernicious twaddle. As far as Darfur is concerned: "Both groups are African, both are black, both are Muslims and both are Darfurians." As Alex De Waal pointed out, depicting the conflict in this way was also tactically useful for the Khartoum government: "While insisting that the conflict is tribal and local, it turns the moral loading of the term 'Arab' to its advantage, by appealing to fellow members of the Arab League that Darfur represents another attempt by the west (and in particular the U.S.) to demonize the Arab world." Far more importantly, this focus on marauding Arab militias, racialises a multifaceted struggle that is political and economic in origins.

For instance, what could be happening in Chad aside from the Janjawid militias alleged by Idriss Deby to be supported in their attacks by Khartmoum? Well, there are two rebellions going on, one against the Chad government, and the other against the government of the Central African Republic: both staes were former French colonies, and both regimes are currently supported by French troops. (Remember this when Jacques Chirac begs Sudan to accept an 'international force' in Western Darfur). While the claims the rebels make against the regimes they oppose are often legitimate, they are not necessarily any more charming themselves. General Francois Bozize is a dictator, and Idriss Deby is corrupt (and has a bloody history), but in both cases, their armed opponents represent rival power factions. In Chad, the opposition parties boycotted the recent election when Deby decided to amend the constitution to allow himself to stand for a third time, and attempted a coup some weeks before the latest election which saw Deby confirmed as leader.

Then of course, there is oil. I said, oil. That's right, oil. The Chad-Cameroon pipeline deal, financed and supported by the World Bank with Exxon and Chevron the main partners, has been central to the insurrection in Chad. The oil ought to enrich Chadians, who are among the poorest people in the world, but two factors are thus far stopping this. On the one hand, Deby reneged on an agreement to use 80% of the revenues for development programmes, so that he could pour money into his own pockets and purchase arms. On the other hand, the agreement itself is horrendous, preventing both Chad and Cameroon governments from passing social and environmental regulatory laws should they impede upon the profits of the key operators in the project, namely the oil companies. Deby's opponents have attempted to capitalise on his corruption, accusing him of stealing Chad's money. They might, in this fashion, succeed in winning over some popular support.

As in Darfur, the conflicts in Chad and the CAR do not resolve into simple ethnic boundaries: rebels in Chad and the CAR are both Arab and non-Arab, Muslim and non-Muslim. In the case of the Chadian rebels, they include ethnic Mimi and Wadai. They are both attacking Arabs and non-Arabs. By the same token, much of Deby's support has come from Chadian Arab groups, with whom he launched his successful coup against the Habre government. Chad's rebels have happily accepted an alliance with Khartoum's militias who themselves are trained and penetrated by Sudanese government paramilitaries. In the same way, Sudanese rebel groups have accepted help from Chad, who have allowed them to operate in the east of the country. The recent agreement by the governments of the CAR, Chad and Sudan to stop supporting rebel movements in one another's territories can be taken as a collective admission of guilt on that front. As Amnesty International suggests: "Both the Sudan and Chad governments are taking advantage of conflict between different ethnic Chadian communities over access to land, water, livestock and other resources by arming them and using them to attack targeted civilian groups."

The suggestion of an impending Rwandan-style genocide is at this moment a colossal overstatement. As it stands, the three governments have reached agreement (this was negotiated by France) and the rebels in Chad have signed a peace deal with their government. They have accepted a 'beefed up' African Union presence. It is unlikely that this will automatically dissipate the violence if it does so at all, but the indication that genocide is imminent is nonetheless curious. No one but Matthew Conway has made the claim (even though it has been widely attributed to "the UN"), and there is no clear basis for such a comparison: Rwanda's genocide did unfold in the context of a civil war in which Western powers backed different sides, but it was a premeditated, conscious act of annihilation which was prepared for with noxious propaganda and carried out with ruthless efficiency in the space of a hundred days. What is happening in Chad is an attempt by disgruntled elements to sieze power by the most ruthless means possible, and this is interlocking with military rivalries between it and the Sudanese government. If there is a slaughter remotely comparable in scale and intensity, it is the killing of up to four million people in the DRC by various forces including those despatched by Rwanda's Paul Kagame, but why insist on similitude? And why the media insistence on this simplistic racist narrative of 'Arabs' attacking 'Africans'?

In a continent that is being torn apart by Western armies and mercenaries, client dictatorships, and feuds between rival power centres, all over the immense material resources of oil, platinum, cobalt, coltan, diamonds etc, why is it necessary to distill conflict into some cultural essence, as a pathological abberation rather than an outgrowth of the system? How will they explain the violence in the Nigerian oil delta, I wonder? There, oppositional militias are emerging against Olusẹgun Ọbasanjọ's Shell-backed dictatorial control over the region. Mysteriously, the President received almost 100% of the votes in the delta region at the last election - and now some of the gangs that he used to suppress the political opposition, steal ballot boxes and rig the election, are moving against him because he did not honour his promises to them. Meanwhile, much of the opposition to the regime is coming from Muslims in the north of the country: will this be depicted as a Bin Ladenist incursion, in the same way that we are now being told that the Islamic Courts movement in Somalia is an Al Qaeda conspiracy? Is this ultimately what the 'Clash of Civilisations' thesis is for?