Evidence vs Dogma in Darfur

After six years of violence, the war in Darfur is over, according to a man who should know. General Martin Luther Agwai was handed mission impossible two years ago – setting up the joint UN and AU peacekeeping job. In an interview with the BBC, as he prepares to step down as force commander, General Agwai said the conflict was very different to earlier phases of heavy fighting…

"Banditry, localised issues, people trying to resolve issues over water and land at a local level. But real war as such, I think we are over that," he said.

Anyone who has visited Darfur in the past couple of years has come to the same conclusion. Yet the Save Darfur lobby has predictably – accidentally or deliberately – misunderstood what General Agwai has said. Over at Enough, John Norris, who likes to accuse anyone who differs from his views as being a Khartoum sympathiser, deliberately misses the point…

What Agwai and others conveniently fail to mention: the three million Darfuris stuck in refugee and displaced camps unable to return to their homes because of insecurity and violence. Having driven three million people from their homes, President Bashir and his janjaweed allies do not need to engage in daily military clashes anymore because they have achieved their objectives.

This is not what General Agwai was saying. The man who has spent the past two years trying to protect the camps and keeping a lid on banditry, was actually saying Darfur was still mired in a humanitarian emergency, but that the insecurity was no longer the sort of genocide or military conflict that people like Norris like to imagine.

Over at The Promise of Engagement, Bec Hamilton, who has at least now been to Darfur, inadvertently misses the point.

Firstly, it’s hard to distinguish ‘the war is over’ from ‘the war is in temporary respite because of rains/fractured rebels/focus on the elections’.  Secondly, even to the extent this is a permanent change, it’s still somewhat irrelevant from the perspective of the IDPs. The real issue is how insecurity (as a result of the war) has squeezed the humanitarian space.

I would disagree with little of that. But Bec charmingly then blows it…

Bottom line: I wouldn’t say Gen. Agwai’s comments are “wrong” but rather very much beside the point.

Regular readers of this blog won’t need me to say this again, but anyway, here goes. The whole problem with the international effort to save Darfur has been this sort of misguided analysis. How you understand the conflict in Darfur is central to devising the right solutions. To continue to believe that this is a genocide or a war means we will continue to focus on no-fly zones, peacekeepers and arresting President Bashir. This continues to be the mainstream view of the campaigners – as shown in the support offered to these options by Biden, Clinton and Obama in last year’s US presidential campaign.

The reality of course is very different. The crisis in Sudan’s western region is humanitarian, needing humanitarian not military solutions. As General Agwai’s analysis makes clear, banditry, water and local issues need to be tackled if Darfur is to find security. He has not missed the point. This is the point Bec.

Commentators who harp on about genocide and war in the face of evidence to the contrary are increasingly looking like sad, out-of-touch polemicists with a grudge. Rather than using the evidence to shape their analysis and their solutions, they are using their agenda to dictate the possible range of solutions. To dismiss General Agwai’s comments out of hand is clear evidence that they are not interested in understanding what is happening on the ground. People like Norris will only stop when they have brought down the government in Khartoum – whatever the implications for regional security.

Peace can only be achieved if the lobbyists drop their dogmatic stance. But some of the campaigners seem less interested in peace than pursuing an anti-Muslim agenda. That’s why we haven’t managed to save Darfur yet.



  1. I believe that this was the wrong thing to say at the wrong time.
    You talk about ‘agenda’, what is Agwai’s agenda? he has just come off the back of tour of duty in which most commentators, donors and government say has been a failure. He is pushing back, using the changing dynamics in Darfur as a smoke screen to the real failure of UNAMID and the issues now facing darfur – the shrinking humanitarian environment.
    “As Darfur Fighting Diminishes, U.N. Officials Focus on the South of Sudan” this NYTIMES headline is exactly why Agwai’s statements are damaging – regardless of whether they are correct or not.

  2. General Agwai is a man who was sent in to do an impossible job and had to watch his men being killed in the cause of trying to keep a peace that never had any signatories. He did that job with courage and resilience. He has spent years in a place that most commentators have never set foot in. I think he probably knows what he is talking about.

  3. “People like Norris will only stop when they have brought down the government in Khartoum…”
    Actually, I suspect that people like Norris will stop whenever major donors like Pam Omidyar stop funding organizations that use that type of irresponsible language. That is, I don’t think Norris wants the GOS brought down, specifically. Rather, I think he simply wants whatever ENOUGH’s donors want. If his funders ever decide that they want to move away from using rhetoric that describes the war/genocide as ongoing, I think we’ll see Norris change his tune all of a sudden.

  4. Hey Rob
    My response is up at: http://bechamilton.com/?p=1226
    To summarize:
    I agree you need the right analysis to get to the right solutions. I also agree, that “banditry, water and local issues need to be tackled if Darfur is to find security,” as should be clear from the comments in my original post. However you are actually arguing that the crisis is solely humanitarian (which is what your post reads like, but I’m not sure it’s what you really meant?) then that would be a clear point of disagreement between us, because I think the crisis is also very much political.
    In addition to humanitarian solutions, what Darfur needs more than anything else is a truly inclusive peace agreement (that includes the Arab groups as independent actors, rather than assuming – incorrectly – that their interests will be taken into account by the government). Humanitarian solutions are a very important stop-gap measure, but a sustainable peace in Darfur will not be achieved just by addressing the humanitarian ‘symptoms’ – underlying causes must be addressed as well.
    When I said the General Agwai’s comments on ‘the war is over’ were beside the point, I was not saying that Darfur needs a military solution – in fact I was saying the exact opposite. War or not war (I maintain my point about the difficulty in distinguishing a respite in hostilities from the end of them) there are very real issues on the ground to be resolved, and focusing on the “war” dimension (which has not been “the” issue in Darfur for quite some time now) shifts necessary focus from these key issues.

  5. P.S. I’d be interested for you to articulate for us the basis of your claim that Darfur activists are driven by an anti-Muslim agenda. I know you know those on all sides of the Darfur crisis are Muslim. Is your rationale for this claim based on something about the Darfur situation, or are you deriving the claim from the comparative dearth of activism on Palestine?
    At an individual level I have yet to meet a Darfur activist who is “anti-Muslim” (to be so would also be “anti-Darfuri”), but again would be interested to hear if your experiences are different.

  6. And I believe you know what you are talking about also. You’ve been to the camps like I have, so your point and his are well taken. Yes, we need to bring relevant solutions to the problem by knowing it as well as we can.
    I’m so frustrated by the folks making money off of this crisis for as long as they can, be they Christian or humanitarian. This is not a time to build our houses on the Riviera on the backs of suffering people anymore. Help them restart their lives, help them get back and start again! And don’t help them restart the conflict or recruit child soldiers.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Exit mobile version