Darfur: A New History of a Long War by Julie Flint and Alex DeWaal

This book represents a pretty comprehensive review of the conflict in Darfur.  While at times I wish there was more ethnographic context, the authors present some extremely useful information about the history and social structures of this highly diverse region of Africa.  The main weakness of the book, in my estimation, is that its comprehensiveness is not synthesized as coherently as it could be.  The discussion of the conflict itself is often not chronological, for example.  This isn’t necessarily be a problem, but information is so densely packed in this book that it can become confusing.  I found myself doing a lot of flipping around trying to figure out what year something was taking place in, or trying to remember—who was that guy again? There were also a number of actors and events mentioned, but not explained.  I found it necessary on numerous occasions to make cross-referencing notations in order to connect some pretty important dots.  Do not read this book without at least four different colors of Scotch tape flags and two different pen colors if you have any intention of retaining more than the gist of the conflict.

There are a couple of minor points to make first. I’m inclined to think of this book as a great source for researchers, particularly those already familiar with the region. For a conflict as complex as the one in Darfur, though, for those not familiar with it, some simplicity— at least to the extent possible— would be immensely helpful.  The index is, sadly, a bit atrocious—if there’s a particular name, place, or topic you want to keep track of, you may be on your own—I had to handwrite additional page numbers, and even add my own entries, in the index.  There were also subjects that should have been in the index (I think) and weren’t.  The search function in Google Books became a relatively good solution for this.

One other criticism would be that despite the authors’ backgrounds in anthropology and their field experience in Darfur, it felt like a certain amount of romanticization of the pastoral lifestyle and other stereotypes about “Africa” pop up here and there. That may be a personal hang-up of mine, and I am aware that in publishing, when it comes to Africa, the editors and publicists will have their say.

But I thought, for example, it seemed over simplistic on page 5 to describe of Dor as a dry place where “keeping a cow, a thirsty animal that needs lots of grass, is little more than a vanity.”  This is seemed to me to be a surprisingly subjective assertion that was not cited or explained further, and as anyone who has studied agrarian or pastoral social systems should know, the importance of livestock can rarely be attributed simply to wealth or economics, to say nothing of vanity.  I could be wrong in this particular case, or perhaps there is an explanation that the authors simply didn’t feel there was space for in the scope of the book to go into. But I would’ve liked to see such an explanation, even in an endnote. While it may have been beyond the scope of the book to explore the ritual, spiritual, and social importance of livestock in Darfur, acknowledgement of this would have been preferable to being silent on the matter and allowing the reinforcement of stereotypes about cattle and camels as purely economic forces in pastoral societies.

If there’s one thing you can, and should, take away from this book, it’s that you cannot over-simplify this conflict by seeing it exclusively through an African-Arab dichotomy.  The book does a superb job of showing that the webs of historical and social experiences that led to war are far more interwoven and diverse than that. Framing it this way (as “Arab” versus “African”) makes more sense with respect to the civil war with the south, but even in that context it fails to address the tensions between pastoral and agrarian groups, and nomadic and semi-sedentary groups, which are just as important and serve as the foundation for much of the northern elite’s racial propaganda, as the authors show.

This book also does a very good job, as far as I can tell, of breaking down the origins of the central government’s racial-religious ideology and demonstrating the regional, international, historical, and colonial forces that influenced it.  Flint and DeWaal demonstrate how the labels of “African” and “Arab” are largely artificial in the context of Darfur and rely to a great degree on other identity factors such as language and (claimed) ancestry—and contextual factors such as time and place, circumstance, lifestyle, stocks of animals, etc.  The Zaghawa, for example, are considered an African group in Western discourses (perhaps because most speak Zaghawa as a first language, perhaps because of regional dynamics), but they herd camels like the Arab groups, and depending on the circumstances—being at a particular local market, for example—may choose to self-identify as Arab.  If they acquire a big enough herd, the change could become permanent.  Much of this was complicated by British attempts to standardize categories that had been flexible, and independence governments’ use of these same identity markers to consolidate power.

Related to this, the authors—though not always with ideal narrative clarity—provide a good understanding of the kingdoms, ethnicities, families, and clans in Darfur; and their political and social orientations.  What is missing that would be nice to see is an organizational chart of which clans belong to which broader groups, and which ethnicities, as well as a geographical map of where they generally live in the region.  While it’s true that these kinds of categories are problematic because of things like inter-marriage, migration, and flexible identities– not to mention they are historically and socially constructed in the first place– a rough idea, even with the caveat that it’s rough, would be better than leaving it an enigma in the mind of the reader.

Flint and DeWaal also do a good job of explaining the nature of race in Sudan, which is very different from the way we in the West understand it.  They demonstrate how the ruling Arab elite in Khartoum was able to pit Darfurian groups that identify as “Arab” against those that identify as “African,” even though all Darfurians have been subject to the inequitable policies of the central government.  The book describes the historical plight of Arab groups like the northern Rizeigat, whose grievances are overwhelmingly ignored in Western conversations about Darfur—even though it is those grievances that made them such willing proxies for the very government that has ensured their oppression. (This has been changing: Since 2006, some Darfuri Arab groups, including so-called janjaweed forces, began to go insurgent.  Some have even aligned themselves with SLA and JEM rebels. For more on the Arab mutiny in Darfur, see Julie Flint’s report for the Small Arms Survey, Beyond ‘Janjaweed’, available for download here.)

The authors’ criticism of Western activists’ involvement in the peace process is well argued (and makes many of the same points as Prunier). What Flint and DeWaal bring to the story is a demonstration of how aggressive Western activist pressure can undermine efforts to achieve the very outcomes they are demanding. Peace processes are long, tiresome, frustrating procedures.  The peace agreement in Mozambique, between the government and the rebel movement opposed to it, took two years to hammer out; the Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the government of Sudan and the SPLA of Southern Sudan took 12 years (if you count the IGAD process that began in 1993). By 2006 there were three Darfuri rebel movements, all in negotiations with the government. In this peace process, there was no effort on the part of the government or anyone else to include representatives of Darfuri Arabs. A peace agreement was pushed through under enormous international pressure, mostly from the United States, in a matter of a few months.  This meant that there was no real peace process, and in the end two of the three rebel groups refused to sign the peace agreement by the deadline set by the US.

The authors argue that because the United States was under so much political pressure from activist groups like the Save Darfur Coalition to “do something,” the peace process itself wasn’t the priority and an unrealistically tight deadline was set for the parties to come to an agreement (See also Mamdani’s book on Darfur here).  This also politicized the presence of the African Union peacekeeping force in Sudan (AMIS), because they were authorized to facilitate the terms of the agreement and provide support only to the parties to the agreement.  This meant that AMIS was no longer seen as an impartial force by the non-signatories, but rather as a political and military adversary– and so the mission became subject to violent attacks.

The bottom line: I love this book. It is a fantastic resource. I would not recommend reading this book, however, unless you are prepared to take good notes. It is a bit confusing at times and could be organized a little better, but it is rich in really high quality information and analyses and draws on a wide range of sources, including interviews and personal accounts. I continue to consult it and use it in my own research because it’s so dense with facts and people and events and excellent illustrious examples.  What I really wish it included was some deeper ethnographic analysis—they mention things like bloodwealth and don’t explain what it is or how it works and what it means to the people that practice it.  It is not just about economically compensating the family of someone you have killed.  Again, probably beyond the scope of the book, but endnotes on these kinds of things that refer readers to further reading would have been great.

[This review was originally published on 3 October 2010 and then edited for clarity, style, and changes of opinion on 14 May 2014]

About Carol Jean Gallo

PhD student at Cambridge. Interested in local context and global affairs and the crossroads and misinterpretations between them.
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