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Can Sudan be Saved?

Commentary, December 2004

“The West cannot possibly fix this African catastrophe. In Sudan its roots go back many hundreds of years, and lie at the deepest levels of a racist ethnic psyche.”

The African peoples now being pillaged and destroyed have names like Zaghawa, Fur, and Massalit, and they live in the extensive region of Western Sudan called Darfur. The Arab horsemen of the apocalypse laying waste the land are called janjaweed, and they are acting for familiar reasons: an unswerving sense of racial destiny, a demand for Lebensraum, and a fierce belief that only one form of divine justice shall prevail.

In Darfur itself—a mainly Islamic district, unlike the Sudanese areas running southward toward the Upper Nile where the part-Christian Dinka and Nuer live—religion happens not to be the issue. In Darfur the invaders want water and grazing land. That is why Arab Muslims have been bombing and shooting African Muslims: the Arab nomad with his cattle and horses wants the African farmer’s fields—while raping his wife and burning his house down too. With the Sahara inching southward and the continual degradation of the parched Sahel, and after years of pressure from burning heat and drought, the Arabs are driving the Africans out of the more fertile country and seizing the wells to water their cattle. In the capital city of Khartoum, the government smiles broadly and looks away.

Of course Khartoum denies it is doing any such thing, and President Omar al-Bashir has regularly claimed that everything possible has been done to restrain the murderous bandits. But the slaughter goes on. A recent “Sudan Situation Report” prepared for the United Nations reads as follows:

On 12 October IDPs from Uma Kasara reported that their village was burned down by unidentified gunmen on 2 October, displacing approximately 650 families from their village, and from two adjacent villages of Gendoul and Goz. Three policemen were reported as killed, and property looted. According to the same source, ten people are missing from the village and the rest have moved to the newly established camp in Nyala town, El Sereif.

Yes, approximately 650 families—and four more villages are mentioned later in the same report. Can it be that the word from Khartoum is somehow not getting through to the troops?

The stricken and the doomed

But what is an IDP? One answer might be that it is a way of using the vocabulary of social work to neutralize the horror of what is happening and the fate of the people concerned. An IDP is an Internally Displaced Person—as if we were dealing with someone mildly disoriented and needing help to get home. There is also a collective term issuing from the UN and its agencies that similarly needs glossing. In the aggregate, tens of thousands of IDPs become “conflict-affected populations.” That is no doubt true; but English provides better ways of describing those in Sudan whose villages have been burned, whose crops and animals have been destroyed, whose children have been massacred, and whose men and women have been savaged and slain. Let us call them the stricken and the doomed.

According to the UN, the number of the stricken and the doomed in Sudan runs to about 2.2 million. Harrowing accounts by victims appeared in the October 4 issue of Time, and readers with an appetite for this sort of thing can learn more at various websites. One such site tells about the work of the Atrocities Documentation Team assembled by the U.S. State Department’s bureau of democracy, human rights, and labor in conjunction with the Coalition for International Justice.

This group, which conducted 1,165 interviews with survivors, reports “a consistent pattern of atrocities, suggesting close coordination between governmental forces and Arab militia elements, commonly known as the janjaweed.” The site also provides a brief history of the crisis in Darfur, and along the way explains some of the puzzling acronyms worn by the local resistance movements that, by defending their land and patrimony, have been challenging the ambitions of one Khartoum government after another for 50 years.

On the side of those fighting the janjaweed today there is a double-fisted organization, the Sudan Liberation Army/Movement, with both a military and a political wing. Its 4,000 members, along with a smaller outfit called the Justice and Equality Movement, are the ones carrying the fight to the Sudanese government. As is only to be expected, in the course of many years’ bitter fighting there have been injustices and atrocities committed by the rebels too. This fact is exploited to the full by a government seeking to obfuscate its own responsibility for the present catastrophe.

On July 30, 2004 the UN adopted Security Council Resolution 1556 demanding that the Sudanese government act to disarm the janjaweed militias and  bring their leaders to justice. The demand has been ignored. Nor has Jan Pronk, the man appointed by Kofi Annan to handle these issues, been helpful in stemming the drift of events.


That hardly comes as a surprise. A member of the Dutch Labor Party, Pronk was well known in the past for his strong interest in African liberation movements and his support for Cuba; he is even better known today for his role in the Dutch peace mission in the former Yugoslavia that ended with the murder of thousands of citizens of Srebenica—after which he resigned from ministerial office. Now he is the UN’s peacekeeper in Sudan. “Atrocities, very bad things, killings, rape, burning of villages have taken place,” her told a press conference in Khartoum in late September, although he had found nothing that he thought fit to describe as genocide.

In American diplomacy, the “G” word has taken a somewhat different path. The Bush administration was the first to air the charge, which was then seconded by Congress in a unanimous declaration. But the administration subsequently backed off a bit, perhaps to let the UN and the African Union try to sort things out. In any event, to raise the issue of genocide is to ask whether there is a racial component in the violence, as there has been in other longstanding criminal practices in Sudan.

When the janjaweed attack, they do unmistakably hurl racial abuse at their victims, alleging in particular that Africans are born to be slaves: “Slaves, run! Leave the country. You don’t belong; why are you not leaving this area for the Arab cattle to graze?” It is not impossible that similar taunts were heard in Pharaonic times, since slavery seems to have been around in the Nile Valley for thousands of years. In the 1990s, indeed, before the present crisis, Sudan was notorious for its flourishing slave trade. The victims in that case were not Muslims but mostly African Christians.

That this practice should have been allowed to continue unabated into the late 20th century is a story in itself. In thinking about it, and about its relevance to the role played by sympathetic outsiders in the current crisis, it might be helpful to have a brief look backward.

British efforts to stamp out slavery

In the 19th century, a series of notable Englishmen were appointed by the Khedive, the viceroy of the Turkish sultan in Egypt, to stamp out the slave trade in neighboring Sudan. In their various capacities as provincial governors or governors-general, Sir Samuel Baker, General Charles George Gordon, and Sir Reginald Wingate all tried to do so. Yet they did not completely succeed. As late as 1933, Sir James Robertson, then a district commissioner in Kordofan, found something odd in the hollow tree behind his house. It seems that his Sudanese cook, when short of cash, had embarked on “a profitable line of trade beyond his normal duties”:

When on tour with his master he would from time to time acquire a small Nuba or Dinka child whom he brought back with him and hid in this hollow tree until he found a purchaser for him. In the end his illicit trade was brought to light and he paid for it with a long term of imprisonment.

The memoirist goes on to talk amiably about the rather brackish water in the well and other mild vexations, with the story of the child in the tree being smoothly worked into a broader narrative of the kind that members of the British colonial administration often wrote in retirement in leafy Wiltshire. The anecdote is quaint and humorous, and although not moralistic it is in the end quietly edifying: the slave trader goes to jail.

It is the attitude revealed that is most interesting. What we are shown in this glimpse of the administrative mind is a relatively relaxed accommodation of ineradicable Sudanese ways. In 1933, this corresponded to a widely shared English upper-class conception of civilized colonial rule: live and let live, ensure that economic activity is more or less unhindered, and allow as much latitude as you can to existing authorities and existing conduct. More than this, the anecdote also embodies the kind of relativism that is the humane side of aristocratic management: culturally speaking, the lower orders are what they are: trying too hard to change them is a mistake; ultimately the African world is too deeply mysterious to grasp—and noblesse oblige.

A second, contrasting approach to Sudan may be found in the life and personality of General Gordon, who did not return to write his memoirs. (on January 26, 1885, the forces of the Mahdi, the Islamic fanatic of the day, attacked the besieged city of Khartoum, overcame all resistance, and within two hours killed and beheaded Gordon himself.) Unlike the Oxford-educated Robertson, General Gordon took most of his intellectual guidance from the pocket Bible he carried everywhere, and most of his inspiration from God. There was in him an exalted piety, an unrelaxed evangelical fervor, and a sense that not only slavery but evil itself should be extirpated wherever it was found—all of which contributed to his astonishing successes, and also to his doom.

A Sudanese view

A third view of Sudan slavery and the Sudanese situation can be had from the boy in the tree—not the boy himself, of course, but a distinguished present-day representative of the same Dinka people to whom the boy belonged, and who are now one of the tribes most cruelly oppressed. I have in mind War and Slavery in the Sudan, a 2001 book by Jok Madut Jok, a Sudanese historian at Loyola Marymount University. Writing with pained dignity, muffled grief, and remarkable moral poise, Jok offers a moving testament to the suffering of his people; his book is recommended reading for anyone tempted to rush impetuously into the mélée.

Although he sketches the historical background, Jok’s main subject is the current wave of slavery in Sudan. As I have noted, this began earlier than the recent developments in Darfur; it involved the districts of Equatoria and Bahr el-Ghazal and Upper Nile, bordering a number of countries in central Africa. Starting about 1983 with the renewal of an endemic and essentially racial conflict, the Sudanese government undertook to exploit traditional animosities to fight a war on the cheap:

Cattle-herding Arab tribesmen, known as the Baggara, were recruited as a low-cost counter-insurgency militia and deployed against the southern opposition force…

Soon the Baggara discovered a very effective method of suppressing the rebellion in the south: destroying civilian villages and frightening the population into deserting their homes. But… the Baggara received only meager government assistance. It was more lucrative to capture large numbers of women, children, and any able-bodied men they could subdue, and take them into slavery in their northern provinces of Darfur and Kordofan.

There was nothing new about the terrorist style of assault described by Jok. When the Nile explorer Sir Samuel Baker was in the region in 1862, he “observed that a slave trader would sail to the south from Khartoum in the dry season with armed men and find a convenient village. The slavers would surround the village in the night, then just before dawn fall upon the village, burning the huts and shooting to frighten the people.” Then they rounded up the women and children, looted the village of all cattle, grain, and ivory, and burned and destroyed everything else.

Reinforcing the racial pattern, at least in the south, is religious enmity. Islamic law (shari’a), officially imposed in 1983, expresses the government’s belief that Arabism, the Arabic language, and Islamic culture in general should prevail over the mixture of Christian and animistic beliefs among southern Sudanese. During the half-century preceding Sudan’s independence in 1956, the British had actively opposed any such project, deliberately shielding the non-Islamic cultures of the south. For thus interrupting the march of Islam through Africa they were bitterly resented by northerners. “This is why,” Jok writes, “the policies of assimilation and Arabization in the south have been so vigorous and bloody, turning south Sudan into a graveyard over the years.”

All this is clear enough. But what should be done? Here an understandable ambivalence enters into what Jok has to say. Despite describing scenes of barbaric savagery arguably worse than those witnessed by such 19th-century anti-slavery men as Sir Samuel Baker, General Gordon, and David Livingstone himself, he plainly feels a little uncomfortable about the efforts of the numerous aid agencies that have come to help. Some gestures have been welcome—“Operation Lifeline Sudan has been greatly appreciated”—but there are too many policy disputes, too much distracting argument about possible dependency effects, too many “affluent representatives of a different world who make the gap between the haves and the have-nots only too glaring”. And whose arrogance and insensitivity are hard to bear.

The humanitarian agencies

This portrait would hurt many of the frontline aid workers in the field. They are not naturally arrogant. They want to help. But they must often find themselves completely out of their depth. They do not know the language, they are surrounded by hundreds of dead and dying, by heat and dust and flies and smells. Is it any wonder that they sometimes end up impatiently pushing and shoving and even abusing the miserable victims they have come to save?

More generally, however, and especially in light of the multitude of summer missionaries now spread around the world digging wells and repairing roofs and painting walls, it seems reasonable to ask a different question. Has all this benevolent endeavor helped the peoples it is designed to help, the Africans pre-eminently among them?

One typical listing on the web, the World Guide to Humanitarian and Development Volunteering, advertises “over 180 projects worldwide, from two weeks to two years or more, how to spend either a holiday-with-a-difference or a longer period—for students, professionals, retirees, and those with and without work experience, plus information on finding thousands more opportunities on the Internet.” It asks for doctors, accountants, agronomists, surveyors, and teachers ready for work in Africa and elsewhere.

On one sidebar there is even an item about “Singles in Sudan”. The most poignant feature on the page, which could easily go unnoticed, shows a young African girl, aged about twelve and colourfully attired in local costume, embracing an aid worker of indeterminate sex. The African girl looks sideways and down and seems either puzzled or embarrassed or both. The aid worker looks upward to the heavens with the expression of a desperately seeking loner who has at last found love.

Some of these humanitarian workers describe themselves, or have been described by others, as secular missionaries. But Christian missionaries had a defined and terminable assignment. They converted the Fijians or Samoans, suggested helpful alternatives to eating taro and making war, put women into clothes, got everyone singing hymns—and then went home. But contrast, no matter what happens to their exotic charges, big and aggressively redistributive charities like Oxfam have no intention whatsoever of going home. Their purpose is to share Western wealth with whoever seems a worthy recipient, and their zealous staffs will go on doing this as long as anyone in the West is wealthy and anyone elsewhere present an outstretched hand.

The higher mendicancy and its expectations

Others are more inclined to see the humanitarian NGOs as a kind of mendicant order in which the monastic virtues of poverty, chastity, and humility have been reinvented in forms more compatible with the vast sums they control, the living opportunities they offer, and the personal aggrandizement available within their bureaucracies. There are 8,770 employees in the World Food Program, over 600 in Rome alone. About 70 different organizations are active in three distinct regions of Darfur (north, south, and west), including Action Contre la Faim, the German Red Cross, Oxfam, Doctors Without Borders, Care International, the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development, and so on. A complete list can be found in the UN document “Darfur Humanitarian Profile No. 6.”

The first thing to be said about the new medicant orders is that the stricken and the doomed could not do without them. It is upon the activities of such organizations that the survival of millions in Sudan and elsewhere depends, and they are a vital part of the contemporary philanthropic scene. But this must not blind us to the peculiar ideology their leaders promote. As one rises up the hierarchical ladder that leads from the hard-pressed frontline troops to the people in the directorial chairs at the top—from the dust of deserts to the air-conditioned bureaucracy where men like the Dutchman Jan Pronk have made their careers—serious contradictions emerge.

At one UN website we are teasingly invited to “Tell a friend about Global Policy Forum.” And indeed—why not? At the GPF site we find page after page revealing the conflict between the wealth the Global Policv Forum seeks to appropriate, channel, and disburse, and the hostility of the professional disbursers toward those who produce that wealth. We find, in short, a commitment to the project of global redistribution—combined with the unexamined assumption that showers of cash will continue for as long as the mendicant orders require.

Thus, there is a page telling us how to resist and regulate globalization. It asserts that free-trade agreements like NAFTA “make trade ‘free’ for northern exports, without prohibiting the rich countries’ protectionist measures”; that multinational corporations menace health and labor standards everywhere; that the World Trade Organization has been rightly criticized for its “opaque, undemocratic operating procedures and neo-liberal ideology” (using “neo-liberal” as a pejorative synonym for “free-market”); and that the “neo-liberal reforms of the IMF” only “exacerbate poverty”. Last but not least, the Forum promotes the golden prospect of global taxation, in order “to fund the UN, its agencies, and other programs for worldwide human security and development.”

In fact, these pages leave the abiding impression that their authors could hardly run a corner deli. Yet that does not prevent them issuing a stream of global economic edicts, political fatwas, and social anathemas.

Nor is that the end of contradictions. Is it possible that humanitarian projects in Africa are being painstakingly devised for a world that does not really exist? Might it be the case that some projects cannot be carried out, because the improvements contemplated can no longer be made? That they are intended for beneficiaries whose lives have already been largely destroyed by violence and mayhem? And that, for reasons of institutional inertia, such projects—on which hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent—keep rolling along even though their goals are absurd?

Impossible projects

A page welcoming us to the executive board of the World Food Program shows an enormous oval conference table in an even more enormous room, and helpfully gives access to all the available executive-board documents dating back to 1996. For our purposes, we may concentrate on agenda items four and eight of the Third Regular Session for 2004. The first of these bears the title “Expanded School Feeding and Health Program: New Partnerships in Uganda.” Describing a five-year program that is to cost $332 million “in its first phase”, the item begins with a seemingly unexceptionable claim: “The central development challenge confronting African countries today is the reduction of poverty, particularly among the rural poor.”

Now, as economists like the late P.T. Bauer have shown, it is a striking fact that most of the African countries now receiving aid for “poverty” once had self-supporting farmers who grew crops successfully and fed their families and often had a surplus for sale. What has changed? Is poverty “the central development challenge,” or is it rather the complete collapse of the security needed for a peasant farmer to get on with his life, grow his crops, and feed and educate his children?

If the latter is the case, then a principal cause of poverty is the violence and killing that make productive farming difficult, and that will certainly make educational routines nearly impossible. Might it then be true that the causes of poverty and of educational backwardness cannot be dealt with by aid at all—that both of them depend on first solving the unending civil disorders of the region?

The $332 million, we are told, will be managed by the Ugandan “Ministry of Education and Sport working with sectoral support from line ministries,” and funds are to be specially directed to “conflict-affected areas.” In these areas, the Ugandan ministry declares, “the number of both primary and secondary beneficiaries will expand during implementation of the program,” these beneficiaries being “schoolchildren in day schools, teachers, and cooks.”

The Lord’s Resistance Army

The significance of this becomes clear when we get to the second text, agenda item eight: “Targeted Food Assistance for Relief and Recovery of Refugees, Displaced Persons, and Vulnerable Groups in Uganda.” The budget for this three-year project has undergone no fewer than four revisions upward since its initial approval in 2002, and now stands at $249,266,641. But it turns out that in precisely those “conflict-affected areas” where schoolchildren, teachers, and cooks are supposedly going about their educational tasks, there has been a violent insurgency by an Afro-Christian cult called the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).

“In February 2004,” we read, “over 200 people were massacred by LRA rebels in a single attack… Major humanitarian corridors… remain extremely insecure; many camps are inaccessible without military escort.” As for the children, “40,000 seek overnight shelter in churches, hospital compounds, and NGO night shelters… for fear of being abducted.”

Thanks to the Lord’s Resistance Army, it emerges, most of the stricken and the doomed in northern Uganda, exactly as in Sudan in West Darfur, are forced “to remain in camps; they have limited access to their fields and few possibilities of obtaining food and income”. And the LRS continues to attack those camps, “burning, looting, raping and killing, and abducting children. They have disrupted travel by ambushing vehicles on most of the main roads… Social and cultural structures are breaking down: men are leaving their families, there are frequent teenage pregnancies, vulnerable groups lack care, and HIV/AIDS incidence and risks are increasing.”

With the best will in the world, it is difficult to see how the allocated school funds can be used as planned. Is it out of order to ask what happens to those hundreds of millions when they cannot be spent?

The UN commission

After a flurry of interest and visits to Khartoum by important persons, and calls for Western military intervention in Sudan, Washington, at least, seems to have grown cool to the idea of forceful action. Although the State Department is exerting what it calls “calibrated pressure” on Khartoum, the calibration has seemed much too fine to have any effect. In the meantime, Kofi Annan has appointed an international commission, consisting of a panel of international jurists, “to determine whether acts of genocide have occurred in the Darfur region of Sudan.”

The panel appears to have at least one member of judicial distinction, Antonio Cassese, president of the international criminal tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. It also includes four rather less distinguished members, including one from Ghana whose judicial utterances are seemingly not on record and another, Dumisa Ntsebeza of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, who has waxed indignant about “the self-styled policeperson of the world, the U.S.” and has invidiously compared American policy on reparations to Jewish victims of Nazism with the American position on reparation claims for black slavery.

Of course, what the panel decides is largely academic. What matters is what America and the West decide. On my own reading of the evidence, influenced both by contemporary documents and by War and Slavery in Sudan, there can be no question that genocide or something very like it is taking place. The question is what the West can conceivably do about cultural patterns that provide no way of reconciling differences or resolving disputes, that in country after country across the sub-Saharan region repeatedly escalate into massacres and pogroms, and that in Sudan are driven by a regime determined to dominate, subject, convert, and if necessary murder its opponents.

To send in the troops of the African Union, as some have suggested, is not just temporising—it’s a joke. A recent Rwandan unit found itself without most of the supporting equipment it required, and might just as well have been on guard duty back in Kigali. A few years ago, a Nigerian force, in a fit of pique, shot about 100 or of its hosts.

Military intervention

If piecemeal action were possible—biting off a western chunk of this vast territory and making a refuge with a defensible perimeter—perhaps it might be considered. But taking responsibility for a million or two million people and positioning an army to defend them might have awful collateral consequences, like the vengeful murder in reprisal of defenceless millions still under the control of a ruthless government. Is it worth taking the risk?

Also to be borne in mind is what happens in the longer term to people who become wards of occupying powers. Humanitarian organizations will undoubtedly see it as their duty to help such men and women leave Sudan for other countries. If I were a Sudanese, I would most certainly try to escape, and I would do everything I could to enter either Europe or the U.S. Indeed, I believe this is the natural, right, and proper thing for any Sudanese who cares about his life and his family to try to do. But how many refugees can, or should—or would—either Europe or America take in? There is an implicit custodial contract for the safekeeping of the stricken and the doomed, and this is something any occupying power would need to think about not just sympathetically but long and hard.

As for armed intervention by Western forces, the spirit quakes. It might be useful to visualize Sudan not as a quagmire but as a La Brea tar pit the size of Lake Superior, infinitely hospitable to bones, with endless uncontrollable frontiers alongside Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic, Chad, Libya, Egypt, Eritrea, not to mention a useful stretch of the Red Sea coast directly opposite Mecca.

An Italian who spent 30 years in the south wrote in his journals in 1877 that “it must be borne in mind that the Egyptian Sudan is vast in extent and, if the government of a region wanted to keep watch on all the roads, an army of 100,000 troops would not be enough.” Strategists might also consider the fate of Colonel Hicks and his 10,000 men, sent off to destroy the Mahdi in 1883 and slaughtered almost to the last man in an ambush. A modern army differs in many ways from a body of reluctantly dragooned Egyptian troops in 1883, but the picture is worth contemplating.

Humanitarian realism

In thinking about humanitarian action, two ethical touchstones are relevant: pity, which was Rousseau’s criterion in the 18th century, and the argument by Hugo Grotius a century earlier that force is justified to stop the maltreatment by a state of its own nationals when that conduct is so brutal and large-scale as to shock the conscience of the community of nations.

Tragically, however, despite what Jok Madut Jok tells us about the ruin of his people, and despite what we read in the newspapers every day, it must be seriously questioned whether an ideal and transcendental concept of justice can be allowed to determine the issue. What must be equally weighed in the end is what foreign soldiers can practically do, and foreign states can reasonably pay for.

The West, including especially Europe, has been deeply implicated in the modern disorders of the Muslim Middle East. By contrast, the West did not cause this African catastrophe; the West is not responsible for it; and it is most unlikely that the West can fix it. In Sudan its roots are both domestic and endemic, go back hundreds of years, and lie at the deepest levels of a pathologically racist ethnic psyche.

In the meantime, despite the dubious policy choices and the even more dubious pronouncements of the elites who guide them, the front-line workers of the humanitarian agencies must of course be helped to do all in their immediate power for the stricken and the doomed—relieve distress, minister to the sick, displaced, and dying, and save those it is possible to save.

Posted in Africana.