Saturday, December 20, 2008

Darfur: Is It About "Arabs" Killing "Black Africans"? Or Is This View Racist?

Everyone is sickened by the tragedy in Darfur. But who is responsible, really? Is it a case of racist Arabs slaughtering black Africans? Or is there more to it?

In this incisive article, Carina Ray asks the question, Are "Arabs" killing "Black Africans" in Darfur? The usual take on this needs a closer look. Her view is that the commonly held view on Darfur is "racialized" and the situation is more complex. Much more complex. And its solutions will not be reached if we don't deal with the reality on the ground.

African newspapers have followed the war in Darfur closely over the last several years. Yet, much of the reportage casts the violence as a race war perpetrated by “Arabs” against “Black Africans”. This racialised language clouds, rather than clarifies, the complicated nature of this deadly conflict, in which a brutal government counterinsurgency strategy has mobilised Arabised African nomads in its fight against a just armed uprising by Darfur’s settled population.

After a survey of over 1500 articles on the subject in African newspapers - not to mention Western newspapers! - these were her remarks:

As I surveyed the articles, I was struck by the fact that most African newspapers posited race as the primary causal factor of the obscene violence in Darfur. The war was regularly described in oversimplified racialised terms that reveal an anti-Arab bias and construct Darfur’s so-called Arabs as foreigners. Indeed the complex identity politics involved in the conflict have been largely reduced to a narrative of “good versus evil” or “African versus Arab”. Strikingly, the racial labels that have been used to demarcate the fault lines in this conflict are often the same as those used by the Western media.

Of course, the "Western media" has its own agenda, promoting the Global War on Terror, which is well served by demonizing Arabs. But in fact, the issues on the ground are more complex, and it is always better to deal with issues with facts and practical steps, taking the balance of power(s) into the equation, than to go full-force into ideological rants, as the West has done, and maybe Africa in some way has followed suit.

Given the absence of any other explanatory tools for understanding the multiple sources of the violence, and most especially the central government’s longstanding practices of marginalisation, underdevelopment, repression and neglect of its “peripheries”, the reader is left to conclude that what is occurring in Darfur is a race war perpetrated by “Arabs” against “black Africans”. Racial antipathy is therefore posited as the reason why groups that historically lived, traded, intermarried, and interacted with one another, for the most part, in a synergistic fashion, are now in the midst of a deadly war in which the obscene imbalance of power between a well-armed brutal government and its ruthless militias on the one hand, and the Darfurian rebels on the other, has led to the unconscionable deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent Darfurian civilians and the displacement of millions more.

She doesn't try to minimize the conflict, only the "racism" factor in it, going so far as to suggest that the media created the impression that the cause of this conflict is merely racism, while it is more complex. As she says,

there still emerged the sense that many perceive the conflict in Darfur as being primarily motivated by anti-African racism, on the part of “Arabs”. But who are these so-called Arabs? Are they not also Africans? Ironically, this false dichotomy, which implicitly relies on the old trope of a geographically-cum-racially divided North and Sub-Saharan Africa, is being used to describe a conflict in the African country that perhaps best defies, indeed obliterates, the idea of two distinct Africas.

Or in other words,
The idea that Sudan’s “Arabs” are not “Africans” and that its “Africans” are not also, in many cases, “Arab” is what is in need of being rewritten.

Although there is racism, certainly, involved, on the part of those who identify as "Arab" in Sudan, blaming the conflict on this alone doesn't help.

Accordingly, instead of being held responsible for empowering and financing the Janjawid to do its bidding in Darfur, the government is simply accused of not doing enough to reign in the renegade Janjawid. Indicative of this is the fact that the government’s use of its own officially recognised troops and military equipment in perpetrating the violence is rarely mentioned. In short, the de facto reliance on “Arab versus Black African” as the basis for understanding the fault lines of the conflict is reflective of the profoundly reductive nature of much of the reportage on Darfur and what amounts to an almost willful denial of the historical relationships and overlaps between Darfur’s so-called Arabs and Africans.

And the "racist" issue is confusing, too.
Indeed, “Arab” and “African” are falsely constructed as mutually exclusive categories – once someone is labelled “Arab” he/she ceases to be African and vice versa. Based on this formulation there is, moreover, almost no recognition of “Arab” indigenity; rather those who are defined as “Arab” are conceptually relegated to being permanent outsiders and usurpers of the land, while those labelled “African” are conceptually defined by a static and timeless rendering of history in which their ties to the land are primordial rather than shaped by patterns of migration, state-building, and ecological change. One need only look at photos of the so-called Arab Janjawid and the so-called Black African rebels to see how these categories cloud rather than clarify our understanding of how identity factors into the war in Darfur. The deceptive power of these labels is simultaneously made possible by the fallacy of race and the steadfastness with which people invest in racial categories as explanatory tools.

She does recognize the part played by racism with the Sudanses government.

Yet, we must also acknowledge the very real role that local actors have played in the internal racialisation of this conflict. The Al Bashir government in Khartoum has both invoked and evoked Arab supremacy in its efforts to garner regional support and to mobilise the Janjawid to carry out its dirty war. Members of the Janjawid, despite their African ancestry, have willingly bought into this ideology as a means of securing their own interests in a time of increased competition over diminishing resources.

So too has the Africanisation of Darfurian identities among the rebel movements and their citizenry emerged as a powerful means of coalition building within Sudan, especially among the SPLM/A and its broad base of supporters. It has also been an effective strategy for eliciting support within Africa and from the international community in the context of the current conflict. Beyond this, however, we must ask about the wider political agendas that are being promoted through the constant deployment of such problematic and obfuscating categories as the primary lens through which the violence is explained.

This eye-opening article might help others to work to reach a nore practical solution than war. And start by laying the blame on the real perpetrators of this genocide: the Sudanese government.


Government Deception said...

well thanks for the nice blog thinkbridge. But messages seldom get across.

Omyma said...

thanks, and we'll keep working on it.