December 8, 2023

Rob Crilly: The Analysis is the Problem

Rob Crilly is a British journalist I met in Nairobi. He has spent the past five years covering Darfur, and has his first book coming out later this year, entitled Saving Darfur: Everyone’s Favourite African War. He and I disagree on several things (the value of the ICC for instance) and he, like many, has been known to find my earnestness most frustrating: “You don’t seem to understand my role. I am the bloke who stands on the sidelines criticising other people. I don’t actually offer solutions”, he finds cause to remind me. But for all that I enjoy speaking with him and value his opinion.

In this post Crilly is coming from the exact opposite end of things from Tim Nonn’s piece, with his focus firmly on the strategic question of what policies to push for. Posting this forces us head-on into the challenge of even attempting to have this discussion today – namely, there is currently no consensus among those interested in Darfur about what the situation that we are dealing with actually is. Policy prescriptions flow from an analysis of the situation. When there is no consensus on the analysis, it is not surprising there is no consensus on what policies to push for.  The debates going on within the advocacy movement are the same ones going on among those involved in the Obama Administration’s Sudan policy review.

I’m increasingly of the view that above and beyond the undoubted power of “the g-word” to motivate people to join a movement for Darfur, Powell’s genocide determination had another function in the U.S., which was to create something much closer to a consensus on what the situation was than we have today. Mamdani now argues that the genocide determination was purely political. I disagree, but regardless, the point is that it was not viewed as such by the majority of people in the U.S. at the time.

It is partly for the benefits brought by having a consensus on what the situation is, that David Scheffer argues we should stop talking about whether or not a situation is genocide while the crimes are ongoing. If there are what he terms “atrocity crimes”, then that is cause for action. So is this the most sensible way forward?  This series is not the place to re-hash the is it/is it not genocide question on the merits (I can set up a separate series for that later if useful). But I’m interested in whether the Scheffer approach is a way out, or whether fudging over our disagreements on this just means we end of up with policies that no one really believes in?

The Analysis Is The Problem

Rob Crilly (Photo: The Times, U.K.)

Rob Crilly (Photo: The Times, U.K.)

Rob Crilly

There are longer, bigger, more deadly wars in Africa. More than five million people have died in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s conflicts. Somalia has been mired in anarchy ever since the collapse of central government in 1991. Yet Darfur is the one that has captured public imagination and dominated what little coverage there is of Africa’s bloodshed.

The triumph of the Darfur advocacy movement has been to turn what could have been just another war into everyone’s favourite African war, one that matters to politicians and that mobilises thousands of protesters to take to the streets.

Its tragedy has been to waste that public pressure on the wrong solutions.

The Darfur advocates have got a lot of what they wanted. The deployment of a blue-helmeted United Nations peacekeeping force would not have happened without the intervention of George Clooney or huge displays of public support. They have also come out in favour of the International Criminal Court’s decision to issue an arrest warrant for Omar al-Bashir

Both are serious impediments to the search for peace in Darfur.

Criminalising Bashir reduces the prospects that mediation and negotiation will be successful.

And for two years the focus on rehatting the struggling African Union force meant any peace process was forgotten.

All this means the advocates have not failed in their objectives, rather that they have picked the wrong targets.

Their challenge now is to set their sights on measures that will achieve peace rather than regime change.

That means adopting a more realistic analysis of the messy conflict that rumbles on in Darfur, ditching their black and white analysis of an Arab genocide directed at African tribes.

Of course that comes with challenges. Save Darfur’s simplistic analysis has helped generate support and kept Sudan on the news pages.

Is a more complex, nuanced understanding compatible with the mass movement campaign of the previous years? Maybe not.

But the strident cries to Save Darfur by a movement dominated by Evangelical and Jewish groups has polarised the debate, alienated key thinkers and silenced the Arab world.

Time and again Bashir has been able to outmanoeuvre his divided opponents and accuse them of misrepresenting the conflict.

Every time pressure has built to take action it has been dissipated by a regime that knows how the United Nations Security Council works.

Saving Darfur isn’t important enough to mean the US, Britain and France will spend political capital on bringing China and Russia into line every time a vote comes up. We get a shot every now and again. Too often political capital has been spent on the wrong solutions – sending UN peacekeepers, for example – and the political capital and pressure are wasted.

The trick now is to work together to keep pressure on Sudan to get through the crucial next couple of years without plunging further into bloodshed. Next year’s elections and south Sudan’s referendum both hold the key to building a modern Sudan, but they also carry risks of complete meltdown.

The advocates have to recognise that their narrow focus on Darfur misses the fact that Darfur is only one part of Sudan’s bigger malaise: the country is an empire barely held together by a centre that is weaker than many people realise.

Darfur will be solved by addressing the institutional weaknesses of the country, not by short-term military interventions.

The advocates don’t need to change their game. They simply need to up their game, and make sure their analysis matches reality – rather than their prejudices.


  1. Tim Nonn says:

    If there is going to be a new phase in which activism on Darfur is integrated with an effective policy toward Sudan under Pres. Obama and other leaders, how can activists take a step in this direction? As previous posts have stated, everyone seems all over the map on policy. I found this to be the case ever since we started organizing the movement. How could it change? In other words, how can activism and policy merge to unite the movement and make it a more effective force for peace in Sudan? We need to get beyond the polarizing debate in which one side says the Darfur activists have it all wrong and the other side says people who negotiate with Pres. Bashir are all wrong. I really appreciate that Rebecca has laid out a framework to give this an opportunity to emerge. Maybe we plant some sides toward a resolution of this impasse. Ultimately, our goal must be reconciliation because the Sudanese must find a way to live together. This is why I think nonviolent resistance is a good course for the movement. It’s goal is an end to violence and reconciliation in society. Standing up to war and genocide means that we need to confront our governments when they lack an effective policy to violence. I was speaking with Suliman Giddo yesterday and he said that one way to support nonviolence is to build schools and give scholarships to students who are tempted to join the rebels in Darfur. Also, a lacok of education, which means a lack of a future for Darfur, is a form of institutionalized violence. So nonviolence is not a passivity in the face of evil and war. It’s a creative, compassionate response that brings about change in individuals and society. I agree with you that, as activists, we must get more serious about understanding the situation in Sudan and not rely on caricatures and dichotomies that mask the complexity of the society. Reconciliation must be based on real understanding. I have seen through your perspective that part of the problem of the movement is this polarization. Thanks for your thoughtful piece.

  2. Tim,
    I’m glad you take my point about polarisation but I have to say I’m not convinced that civil disobedience is the answer. The Save Darfur movement’s failure has not been a failure to generate pressure, public awareness or political will. It is astonishing that Darfur rated a mention in last year’s presidential debates at all, and that Obama has appointed a special (albeit inept) envoy to Sudan. Most African wars generate little interest. Policy makers can safely ignore them. Darfur has been turned into a foreign war that matters by efforts like yours.

    Will generating more heat – through civil disobedience – help? The story of Darfur is littered with failed initiatives and bad ideas seized upon by political leaders who need a solution, any solution, that helps them keep their domestic constituency happy. No fly zones and plan Bs have been mooted by politicians desperate to be seen to act. We have deployed a hybrid UN-African peacekeeping, even though anyone who knows anything about Darfur will tell you it has no chance of imposing peace.

    Civil disobedience is not going to help the search for sensible solutions. More likely it will lead to more of these ill-thought, knee-jerk responses by politicians keen to jump on the bandwangon.

  3. Tim Nonn says:

    You may be right. I’m not an expert on Sudan or public policy. I’m just approaching the genocide as any other person who feels moved by the suffering we’ve seen in Darfur. But the main thing I’m trying to say is that activists have to make a fundamental shift from thinking in a passive way about forcing policymakers to change direction through political pressure. I don’t think it’s possible to force governments who use violence to achieve power and wealth to change. They will use violence for those purposes until the end of time. But we can change. We can reject violence as a means for social change. I’m not asking activists to adopt nonviolence resistance only as a strategy but as a way of life. How can an anti-genocide movement advocate the use of violence to stop this extreme form violence? We have to change as individuals first. That’s why after reading your article several times, my eyes were opened to the truth that we, as activists, are contributing to the problem by polarizing the discussion. Violence can happen in words and thoughts and frames of mind. The worst violence of the last 100 years was based on ideologies that said it was okay to wipe out millions of people to achieve a utopian dream. So I’m asking people to help midwife the anti-genocide movement to a new stage of development in which nonviolent resistance becomes a positive, active process of change in ourselves and our communities. Maybe if we change, it will help to transform the impasse and open up a new future.


  1. […] some comments I made in a previous post, David Scheffer, law professor and director of the Center for International Human Rights at […]

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