Popular advocacy and a simple narrative – how we took the wrong lessons from Darfur

Brendan Bromwich’s new paper reviews both the role of natural resources in Darfuri political contest and the instrumentalisation of climate-conflict narratives in the international discourse on war in Darfur.

Ban Ki Moon’s notorious 2007 Washington Post op-eds on Darfur are the standard launch pad for those arguing the important point that climate change does not, in itself, cause conflict.  The articles are rightly criticised because they portray a crass environmental determinism that diverts attention from the real perpetrators of the horrific violence in Darfur. The government’s hand in the atrocities of 2003 to 2005 is clear, so Ban’s “climate culprit” theory of conflict in Darfur appears at first reading to be the most egregious cover up.

But does this now orthodox rebuttal of Ban do justice to the complexity of conflict in Darfur?  Or does the contentious question of a government-backed genocide in Darfur carry so much weight as to skew analysis of the role of natural resources in conflict from the start?  Other less polarised entry points for the analysis could lead to a more nuanced analysis.  It seems, in fact, that the popular polarisation of the debate around Ban Ki Moon has masked the complexity of conflict within Darfur and made a poor start to understanding the significance of natural resources and conflict.

Take, for example, the accusations of genocide in relation to war within Darfur, in the late 1980s – the years immediately preceding the current regime’s rise to power. Starting an analysis of Darfur with a review of local peace agreements from that time through to the present would create a very different picture of the conflict, when compared with the debate between Ban Ki Moon and the Save Darfur Coalition in the US press. Darfur can’t be reduced to either of these discourses alone.

Or consider the links between regional politics, drought relief and conflict. President Nimeiri’s failure to respond to drought in the 1980s led to his downfall.  In the subsequent years conditions arose in which, Ghaddafi sent convoys from Libya to Darfur that carried both grain for famine relief and arms for the militia in the Arab-Fur war.

Or what of the blind eye turned by the international community to the height of the violence in Darfur in 2003-2004?  Different aspects of the conflict are foregrounded or backgrounded in different arena of political discourse over Darfur.  That’s no surprise, but its only by unpicking this political bias can we reach a reasonable understanding of the role of natural resources in the Darfur conflict.  On that basis the popular discourse around Ban Ki Moon’s Op-Eds is a bad place to start.

My new paper discusses how the orthodox reading of Darfur’s conflict-climate debate follows the popular reduction of the conflict promulgated by the Save Darfur Coalition, to one of government agency alone, by stripping the events of 2003-2005 from their historical and geographical context. In this framing of the conflict, the government backed tribal militia to wreak havoc in Darfur, and so government culpability is clear. However, the war was not executed by backing Darfuri militia that were somehow disinterested in the preceding 16 years of war within Darfur.  The government intervention is better understood as a manipulation of the politics, culture and violence of this war within Darfur over a long period. This reading doesn’t let the government off the hook for their crimes, but it does suggest government agency is not the only issue that needs to be considered. Ban’s second op-ed concludes with an appeal to engage with the complexity of the conflict for all that “it makes our work more challenging and difficult”. Well said!


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