By Alex de Waal
Americaâ€™s Darfur campaign sometimes goes beyond parody. The last few weeks have shown this to the full, beginning with the fantastical â€œSudan Nowâ€ campaign, culminating in the proposal to fast the Eid. It beggars belief.
Having spent the last few months in Sudan, especially Darfur, it is increasingly evident that â€œSave Darfurâ€â€”here meaning not just the Save Darfur Coalition but the wider movementâ€”is out of touch. What they describe and prescribe has little or no relation to what is happening and what should be done. 3 recent â€œSave Darfurâ€ activities highlight this.
First is their campaign to push Obama to â€œkeep the promiseâ€ and the ridiculous advertisements. They might do well to recall John Maynard Keynesâ€™s well-known riposte to someone who accused him of inconsistency: â€œWhen the facts change, I change my mind? What do you do sir?â€ The facts have changed, the campaign hasnâ€™t. A few months ago I asked, â€œCan Sudan activism transform itself for the Obama era?â€ So far, the record is dispiriting.
Thereâ€™s an episode in Joseph Hellerâ€™s Catch 22 where the principal character, Yossarian, is tending to a badly wounded young airman, Snowden. He goes about stemming a leg wound in the airmanâ€™s leg, while the boy mutely nods, until Yossarian realizes that he is meaning that thereâ€™s another wound tooâ€”a piece of shrapnel has got inside Snowdenâ€™s flak jacket and torn open his side. Yossarian has been busy bandaging the wrong wound while the poor boy is dying. Itâ€™s the defining trauma of the book. And itâ€™s the defining error of the â€œkeep the promiseâ€ campaignâ€”money misspent on a campaign that is only hampering General Scott Gration the task he has correctly identified, which is finding a workable political settlement for Sudan as a whole. The efforts by â€œSave Darfurâ€ to try to link its clamour on Darfur with the national issue stretches credibility.
Next was a revealing quote from John Prendergast in response to the remark by Gen. Agwai, outgoing UNAMID Force Commander, that the war in Darfur was essentially over. He could not dispute Gen. Agwaiâ€™s facts nor his integrity. Prendergastâ€™s criticism was that this was â€œsomething that takes the wind out of the sails of international action.â€
This was perhaps more illuminating than Prendergast intended: his campaign is not about domestic solutions but international (read: U.S.) action. Thatâ€™s Save Darfurâ€™s second big error: if there is to be a solution, it will come from inside Sudan, and must be political, addressed at the structural political challenges of Sudan. A campaign focused on a genocide that isnâ€™t happening, for the U.S. to step up its pressure to stop killing that has already ended, is just making Save Darfur look poorly-informed, and America look silly.
Intermittently, â€œSave Darfurâ€ has tried to rebrand itself as a peace movementâ€”but its origins as an intervention campaign make it virtually impossible to make the transformation. Peace cannot be forced or dictated. If â€œSave Darfurâ€ is interested in peace, the best it can do in the cause of peace is to fall silent.
Thirdâ€“and simply stunningâ€“is the choice of date for a fast for Darfur: 21 September. Muslims have been fasting since the beginning of Ramadhan and Eid will fall on 20 and 21 September. As soon as I mentioned the date to my wife, who is a Muslim, she laughed out loud. Not just her: every Muslim, Sudanese or otherwise, I have mentioned this to (trying my best to keep a straight face) has guffawed in amazement. Just as Darfurians are breaking their fast, Save Darfurâ€™s campaigners will be starting theirs. The choice of day is astonishingly ignorant of, and insensitive to the Muslim world.
Save Darfurâ€ may be a multi-faith initiative, but Muslims hardly count. â€œSave Darfurâ€ isnâ€™t about Sudan, or indeed Darfur, at allâ€“itâ€™s about an imagined empathy and generating a domestic American political agenda. Shame on you, Prendergast and your fellow â€œactivistsâ€, shame, shame, shame.