Category Archives: Darfur

Voices from Darfur (thesis abstract)

by Anders Hastrup

Voices from Darfur. Reclaiming Sudanese History

This is a summary of my PhD thesis, “Voices from Darfur. Reclaiming Sudanese History” that I have just handed in. It has taken up most of my time and explains my long absence from this blog. However, I shall be back more frequently now with updates and different pieces. Looking forward to contribute more extensively again.

This thesis focuses on how refugees from Darfur living in camps in Eastern Chad voice their experiences and produce narratives of the conflict in the Sudanese province. The work is based primarily on fieldwork and interviews conducted in 12 UNHCR-administered camps in early 2009. By listening to the voices from Darfur, the overall analytical ambition of the thesis is to explore the refugees’ modes of explanation and production of history as emerging in the circumscribed present of the camps. However restricting, the refugee camps are considered sites of production, where perceptions of the Darfur conflict, its root causes, its key players, and its possible future resolution are discussed by the very people who are at once at the centre of the crisis and utterly disempowered. The aim of the thesis is to show that the refugees’ accounts of the Darfur conflict and their attempts to reclaim their history provide an essential element in understanding wider historical developments in Sudan and the relation between the peripheries and the state.

The work fuses anthropological and historical approaches and suggests that a particular method of deep listening can be employed to explore the refugees’ modes of explanation and production of history. Among other themes, the thesis examines how Arabs are remembered by the refugees, and how the current war in Darfur must be understood as a culmination of earlier patterns of conflict in the province. A central point is that the Arab janjaweed militias were not just armed as a counterinsurgency measure against rebellious uprising in Darfur, but that the rebellion against the Khartoum government emerged as a response to patterns of militia atrocities that were already widespread. Furthermore, the thesis explores what the refugees consider to be necessary prerequisites for a return to Darfur. A central point here is that the refugees seem to have ambivalent expectations with regard to what measures can ensure a return to the areas they fled. Bodies of the international community are curiously thought of a means of nation building and of recreating a local Darfurian system of land distribution.

By analyzing the processes by which refugees try to reclaim Sudanese history, the thesis is a contribution to the study of war in the state of Sudan, arguing that the very multiplicity of voices is crucial for understanding the predicaments of the country; a clearer picture of Sudanese national history must be grounded in polyphony itself, whereby the very notion of a national history is drawn into question.

Thank you, Qaddafi, for the Janjaweed!

An African view of the 40th anniversary of the Libyan “revolution”

by Anders Hastrup.

This past month have seen a lot of commentaries and analyses of the 40th anniversary of the Qaddafi regime in Libya, in the wake of the extravagant celebrations in Tripoli on September 1st. Various newspapers, magazines and online journals have focused on the changing role of Libya in world politics seen from the West and the Middle East. Focus has been directed at the aftermath of the Lockerbie bombing and the change of Libya’s role in sponsoring terrorism along with speculations about the end of sanctions, oil concessions and the country’s tourist potential.

Middle East commentators, such as Fred Halliday have focused on how the Qaddafi regime was seen from the Arab World and emerged inspired by Nasserism to meddle in the many different conflicts throughout the Arab world. Fred Halliday’s article is an impressive firsthand account of the direct and indirect destructive influences of the Libyan “kleptocracy” throughout the Middle East in the past 40 years and is highly recommended.

In this piece I want to move away from the Arab Middle East and shed light on the destructive influence that Qaddafi has had on the African continent, especially in the Chad-Sudan border region, the region of Darfur, where the Libyan President holds significant responsibility for creating the janjaweed militias, responsible for the mayhem and destruction of Darfur.

An analysis of Qaddafi’s role in Africa is even more pertinent since Libya gained presidency of the African Union this year. Qaddafi has always been ambitious on behalf of his country and its role in the world. After trying out a series of political experiments and half baked alliances with radical groups of almost all dispositions in the Arab World, Qaddafi has looked to some of his African neighbours as a laboratory for his dangerous ideas. Nowhere have the effects of his megalomania been more destructive than in Sudan’s Darfur region.

In order to fully comprehend Libya’s role in Darfur, one must analyse the special triangular relationship between Libya, Chad and Sudan and the way the region of Darfur has been the stage where the regional ambitions of all the three countries have been played out, often in a very violent manner.

Qaddafi and the Chadian Arabs

The Chadian Arabs have for a long time formed the core of the opposition to successive Chadian presidents. Put simply, there is a dichotomy between the North and South in Chad that in some ways resembles the historical North-South divide of Sudan. In Chad, however, the roles are reversed: A poor marginalised Arab North revolt against the Christian South who has monopolized political power in the hands of a narrow elite.

As early as 1966, the Chadian opposition group National Liberation Front for Chad, FROLINAT, was formed in Nyala, capital of South Darfur State in Sudan, starting a long tradition of the use of Darfur as base for disgruntled Chadian Muslims and Arabs. The political mobilisation of the Arab tribes of Chad in the initial FROLINAT and subsequent Chadian rebel movements can to a large degree help explain the origin of the janjaweed militia, whose gang raping, horse-riding murderers hold the responsibility for the displacement of more than 3 million people and the disintegration of an area the size of France into impunity and chaos.

The role played by Libya is crucial in understanding the origin of the janjaweed phenomenon in the region. In 1969, Muammar Qaddafi took power in the country and promoted a series of grand schemes, not only for Libya, but for the entire continent. Initially inspired by the Arab socialism of Egyptian President Gamal Abd al Nasser, Qaddafi became a radical Arab nationalist and sought to export his radical ideas on the African continent. This meant creating a new sense of Arab/Muslim identity among many Bedouins of the Sahel region who received both ideological and military training for the creation of an Arab homeland, the “Arab Belt” across the region. The Christian government of Chad quickly became the focus for Qaddafi’s struggle for “Arab supremacy”. This struggle was one of Qaddafi’s many experiments, where ideologies are utilized as ad hoc creations for colonising and obtaining the raw political control over given areas. He armed the nomadic Arab tribes with weapons and a dangerous ideology of Arab supremacy in this ethnically diverse region. His short-sighted goal was the instability of the Chadian regime. Qaddafi wanted Chad. The long- term effect was a continuing culture of impunity for the region’s Arabs, now armed with modern weapons against the villages of the African populations of Darfur and Eastern Chad.

A look to the margins

In many ways, the origins of the janjaweed can be traced to the meeting of the Arab Chadian opposition, armed by Qaddafi, with the North Darfur Abbala Arabs: The Arab Chadian opposition had arms and moved across the border to their camel herding neighbours, themselves poor landless Arabs of Darfur who were desperately seeking recognition and triggered by a new found ideology where they were the master race.

Roughly speaking, the same dangerous alliance of weapons and an ideology of racial supremacy merged in Sudan’s Darfur region. The area of Darfur and Eastern Chad has historically been the same, the same tribes, Arab and African, live on both sides of the border. Like Qaddafi used the marginalised Arabs of Chad to create a loyal “Arab Belt”, the Khartoum government used the landless Arabs of North Darfur to crack down on the emergent violent opposition. The results of this meeting between these groups can be found in the fierce and ruthless militias unleashing an unprecedented mayhem in Darfur in the first years of the new Millennium.

The most important reason for the janjaweed phenomenon is sheer poverty, marginalisation and the lack of fixed land and land rights. In Darfur, the camel herding Abbala Arabs did not have their own dar, meaning abode or homeland. They shared this lack of spatial recognition with many of the tribes of the Arab tribes of Eastern Chad.

Both Khartoum and Tripoli under the rule of Colonel Qaddafi have skilfully looked to the marginalised Arabs of the triangular region of Libya, Sudan and Chad for the creation of an often short lived loyal belt for the control of the region. The present conflict in Darfur must be seen through these regional dynamics and the inverted roles of the marginalised and the marginalising. The North Darfur and Chadian Arabs, have thus gone from servants to masters through a skilful manipulation by Colonel Qaddafi and Omar al Bashir.

The 40th anniversary of Qaddafi’s “revolution” is the anniversary of one of the most controversial, extravagant and eccentric regimes of the past generations. The flamboyant character of Muammar Qaddafi has taken Arab political kitsch to a new level. The Green Book and subsequent ideological mutations of the Tripoli regime have been the laughing stock of many analysts who have mocked the weirdness and melodramatic character of the increasingly clown-like figure of the Libyan President.

However, Muammar Qaddafi might laugh last. Not many people have made any point of commenting on his current Presidency of the African Union and the fact that he, through this, remains incredibly influential on the African continent and not just a lone, howling mad wolf. He has, undoubtedly helped many Africans who have worked in the booming oil businesses of Libya, and many of my Darfurian friends still travel to Libya there and sustain large families in Sudan by their Libyan salaries. However, the indirect economic assistance to numerous Darfurians must be viewed against Colonel Qaddafi’s  most dubious legacy in the region: he played a major role in sowing the seeds for the murderous janjaweed militias in Darfur. His Presidency of the African Union, its peacekeeping forces form the core of the international deployment in Darfur, is a scandal.

The “genocide” in Darfur. Are former colonial powers really to blame?

A review of Mahmoud Mamdani’s “Saviors and Survivors. Darfur, Politics and the War on Terror ”. Part 1

by Anders Hastrup.

A new book by Mahmoud Mamdani has sparked great controversy among scholars and activists working on Darfur. The title is “Saviors and Survivors. Darfur, Politics and the War on Terror”. This is the first in a series of reviews of the book, where I discuss the main points of the work.

Many reviewers of the book have reacted strongly to the claims of Mamdani’s work, which is understandable since the book aggressively criticizes central figures in the Save Darfur Movement and the journalists whose reporting from the war zone helped kick start the campaign. The attack on the Save Darfur “lobby” and the role of Darfur in the “War on Terror” have caught the attention of many reviewers who eagerly debate these claims. The high pitched, near hysterical, tone of Mamdani’s attacks have provoked equally high pitched replies. This is a shame because two thirds of the book deals. This is a shame since the book is more than just a critique of the Save Darfur Movement. Two-thirds of the book deal with the history of Darfur itself, from the colonial legacy to the role of the region in the Cold War and the Islamist/securalist divide of the rebel movements

The openly provocative statements are at times refreshing and at other times historically inaccurate and illogical. The overall attack on the Save Darfur Movement, and indeed on most of the activist movements and engaged journalists is really controversial and not entirely fair. I shall return to these debates in later reviews. In the historical chapters we find an interesting analysis of the way in which the colonial power of Great Britain rewrote the history of Sudan, and particularly Sudanese Arabs, in a “native” and “settler” paradigm. This particular division has persisted and, claims Mamdani, is the root cause of the perception of the present war in an “Arab” – “African” dichotomy:

“The Save Darfur lobby in the United States has turned the tragedy of the people of Darfur into a knife with which to slice Africa by demonizing one group of Africans, African Arabs. For undergirding the claim that a genocide has occurred in Darfur is another, born of a colonial historiography, that Arabs in Sudan- and elsewhere on the African continent- are settlers who came in from the outside and whose rights must be subordinate to those of indigenous natives.” (p. 300)

This is interesting but not entirely true. Claims like these are typical of the “blame the colonial powers and their artificial division of peoples and places for all the evil that the post-colonial African continent has witnessed” paradigm that shines through much of his book.

Throughout the historical part of the work, Mamdani uses a great deal of sources from well known authorities on the history of Sudan and Darfur, and couples this with a wider historical understanding of both colonial and Cold War legacies. There are factual mistakes throughout the work (the rebel leader Abdul Wahid al Nur is referred to as “Abd el Nur”, for instance, which is annoying). It is, however, spite the flaws, an interesting account, and as a researcher on Darfur I welcome new angles to debate the origins of one of the greatest humanitarian catastrophes in the new Millenium.

I have lived and worked in Darfur for about a year and I continue to do research into the patterns and origins of the conflict. I have been interested in looking at explanations of the root causes of the conflict that go beyond the seemingly inherent “historical” opposition between “Arabs” and “Africans” in Darfur and Sudan as a whole. I have looked at landowning issues and the marginalisation of Darfur’s Arab tribes as a result of their lack of fixed territory and I have seen, and continue to see, these issues as key to an understanding of the conflict.

However, when I was in Chad for two months this spring interviewing the refugees who have fled from the horrors of the infamous janjaweed militia in Darfur, I was forced to rethink many of my earlier approaches to the conflict. Listening to people I realised that they themselves clearly saw this as a war of “Arabs” vs. “Africans”. If this is how the war is experienced, then this is their truth, and the truth is local, something Mamdani does not take into account in his conspiracy theories of the hegemonic world order behind the Save Darfur campaign.

In countless interviews people would talk of how the Arab militias told them that the country should be “cleared of all blacks” and that “you are slaves and must leave” while burning, raping and killing their way through Darfur. Mamdani has taken very little time to hear how victims of the conflict themselves have put events into language. For the Darfurian population in the refugee camps of Eastern Chad, the perpetrators are indeed the “Arabs” set out to kill “blacks”. You cannot write off the local experience of blatant racist violence happening here and now as a continuation of a false dichotomy that has its origins in colonial historiography. It is an oversimplification and an exaggeration of the impact of colonial divisions on contemporary realities in Darfur. It is also an arrogant lack of respect for local knowledge and experience of the war on the ground by the people who have suffered through it.

In the two months I interviewed Darfurian refugees in Eastern Chad this spring I heard the same tale over and over again: “The Arabs came, killed my family, raped my wife, burned down my house and forced me to flee saying that the land should be cleared of all blacks”. If I were to follow Mamdani’s line of thought my reply would be: “No, you are not victims of the Arabs. The janjaweed are themselves victims of British colonial historiography that have falsely introduced a “native” vs. “settler” paradigm, which you can clearly find in MacMichael’s “A History of the Arabs in Sudan” from 1922”.

I don’t see the connection between the colonial historiographic legacy and the modern day engagement in the current war from the various interest groups. I don’t think that journalists reporting from the frontline were aware of this particular divide and the “origins” of it when they wrote their articles, telling the world of the extermination of villages by the militias. What I think they responded to was the sheer magnitude of the humanitarian catastrophe that unfolded in the course of a very short time, which they witnessed. I believe the reporting on the war as a war between “Arabs” and “Africans”, that has continued to inform the media coverage of the conflict, is a result of investigative journalism, where reporters took time to listen to the voices of millions of displaced who fled the janjaweed terror.

All the high pitched cliché ridden colonial critique aside, the book is still a refreshing comment and for my own part been it is  a great source of inspiration to continue to do research on the impact of colonial legacy on developments in Darfur, if nothing else then to find out where Mamdani is wrong.