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Politics? That’s None of My Business. Lessons from Darfur

August 8, 2012

Any humanitarian actor purports to achieving one specific goal: ensure the survival of civilians in situations of conflict. It does so by addressing the symptoms of the conflict: displacement of people and increased incidence of morbidity and mortality. The root causes of the conflict go beyond its mandate because the causes have to do with the politics of the country. And politics is none of its business. In his landmark study “The Anti-Politics Machine” James Ferguson unmasked the contradiction intrinsic in an approach which seeks to ignite a very political process – i.e. social change – without getting involved in the political setting. Many development programs are doomed from the start because they are blind to the political determinants which create the status quo. These programs might fail to achieve what they purport to achieve yet they have real, tangible consequences. These side effects, Ferguson argues, are as important as the failures. From this standpoint, to ask what development, or humanitarian, interventions do rather than what they fail to do is a fundamental question. The concepts of the anti-politics machine and of tangible side effects offer the lens to examine the civil war which unfolded in Darfur in the last three decades, as narrated in the book “Saviors and Survivors” by Mahmud Mamdani. Similarly, they shed light on the modus operandi of and the role of the humanitarian industry.

Anti-Politics Machine: in 2003 the civil war in Darfur entered a new phase and violence flared up again. The African Union was tasked in 2004 with the roll-out of a contingent which could ensure the protection of civilians in the areas of conflict. The African Union Mission in Sudan (AMIS) was created with that goal in mind. Its mandate however was not purely humanitarian: it had at its core both the protection of civilians and the promotion of an inclusive political solution, as president Thabo Mbeki stated. The interest of civilians was best served if the parties in the conflict were to reach a political agreement. Restoring peace – a political goal itself – was an instrument to ensure the protection of civilians – a humanitarian goal. As Mamdani explains, AMIS’s main achievement was a political one: it negotiated a Declaration of Principle which served as a basis for a ceasefire agreed upon by the government and the two rebel movements. The success was however short lived as the rebels movements split three months later and the ceasefire unraveled. Understaffed and underequipped, AMIS was unable to fulfill the impossible task of policing a region the size of France. For the Security Council AMIS had run its course: the Joint African Union/UN Hybrid operations in Darfur (UNAMID) was created and put in charge. The change signaled according to Mamdani a shift in the mandate of the operation.

If AMIS tried to pursue its humanitarian and political goals at the same time, UNAMID’s focus was skewed on the former objective while sidelining the latter. An inclusive political process was not is main business. This shift in focus was signaled by the Security Council Resolution 1769 which established UNAMID and called for the respect of an immediate ceasefire and for the signature of the Darfur Peace Agreement by all parties involved. It did so at the very same time that both agreements had run its course and were not respected by any of the warring parties anymore. In other words it emphasized the respect of a political accord which had unraveled without setting a new deadline for the achievement of a new political agreement. Instead, it encouraged to focus on developmental initiatives such as the return of IDPs to their villages which could bring added dividend to peace. Development was made into a substitute of an absent political negotiations to bring about peace. As the wording of Resolution 1769 hint, UNAMID was bound to fail to lead a process towards a political solution; it did so because “it whisked political realities out of sight”. But what was the effect of such act of de-politicization?

The Importance of “Side Effects”. The “side effects” of the de-politicization of the crisis in Darfur were multifold. First, if the solution was not political the peace was left to be enforced and imposed by an external military intervention. From this standpoint, belligerent parties did not have an equal responsibility to depose weapons and work out a political deal: some belligerent (rebels) were the victims while the other the perpetrators (government and its counterinsurgency proxy militias). The undeclared goal of UNAMID became, according to the thesis in Saviors and Survivors, to weaken the latter and to allow the former to gain the upper hand. Peace was made into the outcome of more violence.

Second, it reinforced a simplistic idea of the conflict in Darfur as a confrontation between the foreigner Arabs who encroached upon the native Africans. By so doing it obscured the fundamental issue at stake: land. The conflict in Darfur was in fact a confrontation between tribes which were assigned a native homeland (dar) by the British colonial power and those tribes which were darless, without dar. The former have access to land and resources, the latter do not. A drought and a process of desertification pit those two tribes against each other thus igniting the conflict in Darfur in the 80s in the form of a localized civil war. This history of the conflict was repealed ( for example the report of the UN Commission in Darfur in 2005 neither highlighted the land question nor it unpacked the genealogy of the land system). An important side effect was thus to whisk the historical backdrop of the conflict out of sight.

Third, and related to the anti-history effect, the de-politicization of the crisis concealed the key factor which turned confrontation between tribes into deadly violent clashes: weapons. A dispute over land and access to resource in the region escalated because Darfur was inserted in the logic of the Cold War which played out in the neighboring Chad. Darfur in the 80s was awash with weapons: they were provided by colonel Qaddafi on one side and Reagan’s US and France on the other which armed their proxy armies to gain control in Chad. The Chadian conflict spilled into Darfur where rebel groups sought refuge to plan their counterattack and refugees were trained to support the US-France backed Chadian president. As Mamdani puts it, “though short of water, Darfur was awash in guns”.  The effect of the anti-history machine was to present the Darfur conflict as a local one and to mask the regional dynamics which fueled it in the first place.

The war in Darfur was an intertribal conflict over land which escalated into a rebellion in 2000s. The government set out to crush down this rebellion. With the arrival of the UN these facts were brushed away and a political agreement between warring parties was written off. In so doing, UNAMID failed to offer a political template for a long-lasting ceasefire. This failure had however very important side effects. Paradoxically, if the political realities were whisked out of sight this failure played a very political instrumental role. First, it manufactured a wedge within the belligerents, who were split into victims and perpetrators: the first were to be defended and the second to be disarmed and judged for the crimes committed. Second, it de-historicized the events in the region. It concealed that the fundamental issue at stake was access to land and that these cleavage was created during the colonial time by the very same powers who now contributed to the UNAMID contingent. Third, it brushed away the fact that the lethal means to wage the bitter conflict in the region were provided in the first place by the some of the peacemakers of today. The war in other words was turned into a war without history and context.

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