December 16, 2019

Reactions to Darfuristan (I)

This response in from journalist Rob Crilly – who has just finished writing his own book on Darfur – regarding the Darfuristan piece in Rolling Stone.

Guest post by Rob Crilly

This has been a difficult year for the Darfur advocacy movement – an odd mishmash of evangelical Christians, Jews, black liberals and human rights groups that grew into a global force capable of mobilising millions of people in support of suffering Darfuris. This year they got what they wanted but then realised it would do nothing to help ease Darfur’s conflict. In fact, quite the opposite.

In March, three judges at the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for President Omar al-Bashir, based on seven counts of alleged war crimes in Darfur.

The result? Bashir is no closer to appearing in court and the humanitarian crisis in Darfur has deepened following Khartoum’s decision to expel 13 aid organisations by way of response to the indictment.

At year’s end, the advocacy groups are wondering where they go next. Can advocacy really make a difference?

The question is the wrong one, as Ben Wallace-Wells essay “Darfuristan” goes some way towards pointing out. He charts the different courses by which the international community has tried to end the crisis in Darfur. He points out that humanitarian aid has kept people alive but now acts as a pull factor, keeping displaced people in camps where there are schools, wells and handouts of food.

Then there is the diplomatic path to peace, which has stalled repeatedly since a failed peace deal signed in Abuja succeeded only in turning Darfur into a complex pattern of rival fiefdoms ruled over by rebel commanders and militia leaders.

Peacekeepers, with no peace to keep, have found themselves unable to protect themselves, much less the displaced and vulnerable.

And the path to international justice has so far turned out to be a dead end.

In short, Darfur is a mess. Not the same sort of mess that it was six years ago when the Janjaweed rode the land with impunity, but a different sort of mess, the sort of mess you might expect as a war moved into its final act, morphing into a low-level rumble of a conflict.

Our attempts at ending the war have led only to a quagmire, runs Wallace-Wells’ argument.

So what was the point in all the campaigning?

In fact, the advocates have much to celebrate.

In many ways, Darfur represents a gold standard for future campaigns. A faraway war in an obscure land captured the public’s imagination and forced politicians to act in a way unthinkable in Congo, Somalia or Africa’s festering wars. That was the success of the Darfur saviours.

Their failure was to focus on the wrong solutions, to paint the conflict as a simple war between good guys and bad guys that could be ended with a thin, light-blue helmeted line of peacekeepers or by arresting the arch-villain in Khartoum.

Wallace-Wells does an excellent job of reporting the complex stalemate he finds – a scene where Scott Gration’s “cookies” and “gold stars” have a role to play.

But rewind the clock six years and the picture would have been similarly difficult to define. It was a complex, messy set of rivalries and tensions that occasionally shifted into focus as a war of rebels against government and Janjaweed.

Wallace-Wells is happy to call it a genocide but I’m not so sure.

The lesson now for the campaign groups – not just on Darfur but for other conflicts too – is how to mobilise support without oversimplifying the message; how to win headlines without jeopardising the chances of finding peace.

Picking sides is not the way to do it. Engaging all parties and making sure that everyone has a stake in peace is the only way, no matter how unpalatable that may be.

In Darfur that means remembering that many Arabs are victims of the conflict too, even the Janjaweed who have watched their traditional ways of life disappear and now have to rely on their guns for income.

That is a difficult step to take.


  1. Guy Gabriel says:

    Hey Rob

    Might have a quick look at this: “In many ways, Darfur represents a gold standard for future campaigns.”

    As you acknowledge, I think you can look at this two ways, depending on your deontological or consequentialist bent.

    If you take the deontological approach, you feel that the moral imperatives of the advocates were served by the whole Save Darfur experience, and nothing on the ground in Darfur itself will convince them they were wrong overall. Conceptually, there is nothing wrong with advocating peace, security and justice, and I don’t think they will see their hand in today’s Darfur particularly clearly, or substantively change their opinions or methods because Darfur is still rumbling on. That, after all, is the fault of the politicians and diplomats.

    However, if you take the consequentialist approach, Save Darfur gets the wooden spoon. What has happened as a result of all the efforts? Darfur is now “low-level” intensity, with a huge chunk of the population in camps unable to return to their homes and livelihoods, and the peace process is viewed more with dutiful optimism than with the confidence to produce results. The Qatar-led process represents a strain of negotiations and stakeholders, and is not complete or comprehensive. There is plenty of ground to be covered and carrots to be dangled before peace is realised. Finally, the ICC process looks as far as ever from achieving anything as we approach the year’s anniversary since indictment, which crucially, did not include genocide among the charges.

    One of the problems in communicating Darfur, as you say, has been the simplicity. For future campaigns will such simplicity be used again? Probably. The media is very receptive to easily communicated concepts: the more complicated a story is presented as, the less likely it will be viewed as news.

    However, the main weakness as I see it has been that the narrative created by Save Darfur et al was sustained as too great a remove from Darfur itself and Darfuris themselves, and thus the crucial nuances and shifting multiplicity of power centres and balance of power that is normal in any conflict hardly get a look in. The narrative has been too resistant to change.

    One final thought: will there be future campaigns like this one? Save Darfur sprung up on a de facto basis. Lines of communication are now well established, and a lot of know-how and advocacy expertise has been instituted, so there is the potential looking for a spark.

    However, I wonder what sort of a conflict that ticks enough ‘simplicity’ boxes, could capture the imagination in the same way again, one about which our Lord Coppers of today will say:

    “We think it is a very promising little war. A microcosm, as you might say, of world drama. We propose to give it fullest publicity.”

    We are even more compassion fatigued than before, and the silent majority saw no results last time they were asked to get off the fence.

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