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“Save Darfur”: the ultimate absolution?

August 27, 2009

By now I’m sure you’ve all heard of Harvard scholar Mahmood Mamdani’s new book, Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror, which criticizes the immensely popular “Save Darfur” campaign that has spread throughout North America, taking billboards, bus-sides and campuses by storm. It appears that I had been living in a whole until recently, blissfully unaware of  any sort of controversy about this campaign. While not actively involved in any Save Darfurism throughout my university career, I knew of many fellow students who were vehement that the U.S., Canada and Europe must “do something” about the atrocities occurring in the southern part of Sudan. What this something was was never fully expressed–send money and aid, send in troops, hold tribunals; all were offered as possible interventions to the conflict. I never gave most of these discussions a second thought, as I was mostly just relieved and happy to hear my fellow classmates have a discussion about African politics.

But in speaking to some Sudanese friends in Cape Town recently, I realised that such discussions were not necessarily about Africa, but rather just about how American and Canadian citizens felt about their country’s role in the Africa. In essence, these friends argue, the campaign is a way for Americans and Canadians to feel better about themselves, and specifically to absolve themselves of their involvement in other nasty conflicts worldwide. Most egregiously, the campaign allows for a complex problem to be reduced to rhetoric about the “poor Africans” who “need” outside intervention in order to save themselves. It’s the White Man’s Burden all over again, and smacks of missionary-style imperialism.

My first reaction to such criticism was to bite back. I was sure that, however ignorant or ill-advised my classmate Save Darfurers were, they were not purposefully or blatantly imperialist or patronising, and that their concern was genuine. But over the last few weeks I’ve thought about their perhaps somewhat unfounded attacks with more clarity, and despite the fact that I continue to think that many people involved in this campaign within North America do so with the best of intentions, the campaign itself–and specifically Western government’s reactions to the campaign–is certainly over-simplified and perhaps, if it does only perpetuate notions of African tribalism and the need for outside intervention to save the “dark continent,” then it needs to be seriously re-thought, and perhaps even withdrawn.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. canworldjon permalink*
    August 31, 2009 11:11 pm

    Within every popular movement, you’re going to a panoply of differing motives, aims, intentions, including those who have no motive or goal or intention, they’re just tagging along. But that doesn’t change the fact that the overarching goals of the movement itself is doing good. I just can’t see anything wrong with bringing more public attention — in the West or East — to what has been going on in Darfur. Thousands have been murdered and brutalized. The war may (generally speaking) be over, but the peace is delicate; often it’s when the international community look the other way that the violence and bloodshed begins anew.

    I have not read Mamdani’s book, but this implied puritanism — you must have pure thoughts and motives or a movement is hypocritical and harmful — sounds to me like those run-of-the-mill po-mo critique of politics you’d find back in third level college courses. But this guy teaches at Harvard? Nice.

  2. marakardasnelson permalink*
    August 29, 2009 6:22 pm

    Apologies for that geographical mishap; thanks for pointing it out. Sometimes I just can’t keep my west from my south, east, and north. 🙂

  3. corsullivan permalink*
    August 29, 2009 1:58 pm

    I think the biggest problem here is oversimplification. Canadians are awfully prone to looking for an innocent victim and a nasty perpetrator in every conflict, which often amounts to siding with whoever is getting the worst of the fighting at any particular time. A closer look usually shows that the victimisation is mutual, or at least that there are two legitimate sides to the story.

    In the case of Darfur, it’s important to remember that it was rebel groups rather than government forces that actually started the fighting. The government and the janjaweed militias may have responded brutally, by Western standards, but the actual course of events doesn’t quite fit the alarmist talk of genocide that many of the “Save Darfurers” (great term, by the way) have been spreading.

    One small bone to pick, however: Darfur is not “in the southern part of Sudan”, but rather in the west. The tensions in the south are a completely different kettle of fish.

  4. marakardasnelson permalink*
    August 28, 2009 2:10 pm

    I do think that Mamdani is saying–not just hinting–that foreign forces in Darfur could lead to political and economic usurpation, especially given the well-known large amount of oil and other resources on Sudan’s soil. And I don’t think he’s alone in this assumption. Many of my Sudanese friends joke that Darfur could be the next Iraq, and half-seriously predict that Western forces could land any day.

    With regards to whether or not the war is “over”–the Globe and Mail article that you cited has a quote which says that the war is over “for now.” There are still some rebel groups, and the conflict has calmed and then been reinvigorated at many times throughout the past several years. I think it’s too soon to say with any certainty what the “final” status of Darfur is these days.

  5. nmboudin permalink
    August 28, 2009 12:55 pm

    The people I have observed who are involved in the humanist mobilization around Darfur are not seeking a convenient absolution.

    It is true that there are many atrocities around the world. There are many worthy causes. This one caught the imagination of North Americans because it was one that they thought could have been stopped, given attitudes that had been shaped by recent history.

    Communications from the campaign were in the spirit of proactivity, and are couched in the lessons of Rwanda, a preventable genocide that took place in the lifetime of even the youngest Darfur campaigners. People felt good about themselves because they were mobilizing to prevent a genocide, in a way that reached across racial lines – reminiscent of the civil rights movement of the sixties.

    Clement Apaak, the Ghanaian founder of Canadian Students for Darfur (CSD) is motivated by a desire to promote a norm of stability and prosperity in the countries of the African continent, and the chance to have those countries seen as partners, not by an abstract concept of racially inherited burden or the need to be a missionary.

    Mamdani claims that the perception of the Darfurian conflict is that of a simple case of tribalism, a “tragedy, stripped of politics and context. There were simply “African” victims and “Arab” perpetrators motivated by race-intoxicated hatred.”

    The CSD campaign, as I recall, was vigilant about addressing the history of the conflict, from its beginnings in the Sudanese civil war, and the uprising in Darfur that presented a challenge to Khartoum’s authority.

    By recalling that “The cataloging of brutalities – real ones, not exaggerated – was essential preparation for seizing chunks of real estate” by the British, I wonder if Mamdani is trying to hint that Western forces that are preparing to do the same. Would that make Darfur campaigners, driven by the need for self-affirmation, the patsies of these forces?

    As recently as yesterday, I read that the war in Darfur has ended and that the African Union is now able to do the peacekeeping mission it had been assigned, so it is unlikely now as ever that Canada, the US or Britain will put their overextended forces in the region. (

  6. Rob Taylor permalink
    August 28, 2009 8:07 am

    The capacity for leftist intellectual sniping and infighting is really unbelievable sometimes. Excuse me while I scream into a pillow.

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