Review of Darfur: A 21st Century Genocide by Gérard Prunier

The Darfur crisis grabbed international headlines in 2004, and was unusual in that at the grassroots level, there were people on both the right and the left who were agitating for intervention to “stop the genocide.” Tragically, there is one respect in which Darfur is not an unusual African crisis: The international community, lacking political will, has done little more than look on with folded hands while hundreds of thousands die. Western countries bemoan the situation, but pass the buck to the U.N., while at the same time refusing to provide the U.N. with the resources it needs to intervene effectively.

What is happening in Darfur and why? Is it a genocide, and if so, why has the international community done so little to stop it? The answers to these questions are frustratingly complex, and anyone relying solely on the mainstream press for information will inevitably have received an incomplete and contradictory picture of the situation. Moreover, when the Asian tsunami hit in December 2004, Darfur lost its front-page status and never regained it. Therefore books such as Prunier’s are invaluable for anyone who wants to make a serious effort to understand what has happened and is continuing to happen in Darfur, and what can be done about it.

Prunier’s book (which, confusingly, changed subtitles from The Ambiguous Genocide to A 21st Century Genocide between the second and third editions) is not easy to read and could have profited from better editing. Acronyms, Arabic words, terms for various ethnic groups, and names of important people and geographic locations pepper every page, and although a glossary is provided, it is incomplete. Nevertheless, the book contains a wealth of illuminating information that is difficult to extract from other sources, and that gives the reader an excellent understanding of the Darfur conflict.

The Darfur conflict is inextricably intertwined with the word genocide. After reading Prunier’s book, you will realize that this word has been both a blessing and a curse to the people of Darfur. It has been a blessing, because arguably it is only because Darfur was characterized (at least by some, including Colin Powell) as a genocide that it received as much international attention as it did. The notion that the Darfur conflict consisted of racist Arabs trying to wipe out innocent black African civilians was something that the Western mind could latch onto. Without the genocidal label, Darfur would most likely have been relegated to the large junk-heap of incomprehensible African wars that nobody really cares about.

But the genocidal label has also been a curse, because it suggests that Darfur is exactly analogous to the Holocaust, whereas the reality is that the Darfur conflict simply does not fit into the same pigeonhole. Prunier argues, correctly in my opinion, that the root cause of the Darfur conflict is the desire of the government in Khartoum to exert control over the country without having to provide any economic resources to regions like Darfur. While there certainly are racial and religious tensions at play, the people of Darfur are heterogeneous, and historically there has been no clear distinction between “blacks” and “Arabs.” Trouble in Darfur can be blamed at least as much on Gaddafi, who (with the complicity of the government of Sudan) has frequently and cavalierly used Darfur as a base for military operations against Chad, as on tensions between local tribes. The proximate cause of the huge escalation in the conflict in 2003 was an armed attack on the town of Golu on 26 February, perpetrated by the SLA (Sudan Liberation Army, a Darfur rebel group). Alarmed by what seemed to be a new level of military organization on the part of the rebels, the government of Sudan resorted to what Alex de Waal has termed “counter-insurgency on the cheap”: they enlisted the notorious Janjaweed to suppress the rebels. The Janjaweed, with their own Arab supremacist agenda, were only too happy to cooperate with the government of Sudan to wreak terror in Darfur. Thus began the “genocide.”

The complexity of the situation meant that one could argue indefinitely over whether the conflict was really a “genocide.” This semantic debate had the unfortunate effect of diverting attention from the more important question of what needed to be done. In the end, the international community categorized the situation as a “humanitarian catastrophe.” But although Darfur certainly was a humanitarian catastrophe, calling it that had the effect of giving the public the impression that humanitarian aid rather than military intervention was the primary need. But purely humanitarian aid was obviously inadequate, because the physical security of aid workers and the people they were trying to aid was constantly at risk.

Complicating the conflict still further was the proliferation of different rebel groups, each with different aims and interests. Sometimes the rebel groups clashed with each other. Naturally, negotiating a ceasefire has been nearly impossible under such chaotic conditions.

The final chapter of the book gives an update as of 2008. Casualty figures have decreased since the peak of hostilities, but the fundamental problems remain unresolved. Prunier offers no easy solutions, and neither do I. The first step, however, is to become educated about the facts and to see past the stereotypical labels. Only then can progress be made towards a realistic solution. To this end, Prunier’s book is an excellent starting point.

Posted July 2009

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