Good Guys and Bad Guys in Sudan

LGD note: I recently wrote this essay looking at New York Times reporting in Darfur  for a class on conflict and reporting. I thought it would be interesting to post here. Some of the footnotes I couldn’t include as links, so if for some reason you need a fully annotated version, please comment.

The biggest news story about conflict in Africa in the last five years has undoubtedly been the conflict in Darfur, Sudan, which has often been called genocide. The current violence in Sudan’s western state emerged in 2003 just as peace agreements were finally being made to end the 20-year civil war between Sudan’s north and south.  The conflict propelled a region that had once been regarded as a backwater onto the forefront of the international stage.

As reporting picked up steam in 2004, a story emerged about Darfur that was replayed in various forms: Nomadic Arab tribes, in league with Sudan’s nefarious government, were attempting to exterminate the black Africans of Darfur through a campaign of terror, rape and fire.

But scholars, Darfur experts and some aid groups have questioned the accuracy of this mainstream reporting on Darfur. In the last two years, this has coincided with a waning interest in the Darfur conflict among the American public.

In this essay, I follow the reporting on Darfur through the course of four years and several articles in the United States’ most influential newspaper, The New York Times. Through the evolution of the reporting, I show the ways in which the Times constructed an over-arching narrative about Darfur, why the story was relevant and popular, and why myths came to influence the reporting.

A War of Arabs against Africans

The earliest reports on the violence that began in Darfur in 2003 found reporters groping for a way to tell the story. The uncertainty of the situation is evident in the first article to mention the current Darfur conflict in the Times on January 17, 2004. The mostly well-sourced article quotes refugees in Chad to shed light on what may be occurring in Darfur, relating tales of killings by men on horseback, rapes and escapes in the middle of the night. The reporters admit that their sources for these stories are limited: “It is impossible to travel in Darfur to verify these claims,” they write.

But in support of the refugees’ descriptions of chaos are numerous comments and figures from institutional sources, including the United Nations, the United States Agency for International Development, the International Crisis Group. It also includes comment from Darfur-based rebels and the Sudanese government. The take-away is a well-sourced and believable description of terrible violence that is affecting thousands of people.

What is much less clearly described – but manages to come across as equally certain in the article – is the explanation of why the violence is occurring. The answer implicitly offered is that the war is a racist one of Arabs against Africans.

Oddly, the lede begins with an explanation, but never backs it up with facts. “As Africa’s longest-running civil war comes to a close in one corner of this vast country, a terrifying new theater, fueled by old ethnic divides and old-fashioned greed, opens here in another.” This conflict pits “the country’s Arab-dominated government against Darfur’s black African insurgents,” the article continues later. There is no mention of how this conclusion has been drawn. With little qualification, the Times established a racial over-story to the conflict.

This is troubling for several reasons. First, to name one group “Arab” and the other “African” is extremely confusing. The two are not mutually exclusively terms, as evidenced by more than 76 million Egyptians, and millions of people across the Sahel that claim Arab ancestry despite looking “black”. This distinction is even more odious because it implies that one group is native and the other is foreign. Thus, were it possible to distinguish between a person whose grandparents immigrated to Darfur from the Borno area of Nigeria – which is actually the case for many Darfurians – and an Arab whose family had been in the region for centuries, the former would be implicitly described as a native in the article and the latter, as a nonnative Arab.

In fact, “Arab” and “African” actually seem to be code words for racial categories – Arab and Negro. The hesitancy to use these actual terms is likely a result of the fact that they are left over from a racial science that has rightly fallen into disfavor. The implied racial difference between the two groups in the conflict is reflected in an obsession with skin color which only grows more strong through the years of the Times reporting on Darfur.  A typical passage from a 2007 Times article shows how. “Adam Shogar, a commander of the … non-Arab rebels …, stretched a coal-black arm at Yassine Yousef Abdul Rahman, his copper-skinned, brown-eyed counterpart from an Arab insurgent group, studying him carefully with midnight eyes.”

The race obsession in reporting the Darfur conflict is particularly troubling because it has no basis in objective reality. Anthropologists have shown that claims of Arab ancestry in Sudan are largely political ones with an infinitesimal basis in actual genes from the Arabian peninsula.

This unfounded dichotomy between Arab and African further obscures the causes of the conflict by implying that a racial bond exists between Arab leaders in Khartoum and the Arab tribes of Darfur. “The conflict has pitted Arab nomads and herders against settled black African farmers,” a May 2004 article says, and then points out that the government is “Arab-dominated”.  The problem with this is that histories of the region show that the Arabs of Darfur have little, if anything, in common with the Arabs living on the Nile far to the east. In fact, whereas Nile Arab communities are some of the richest in Sudan, nomadic Arabs like those in Darfur have been poor and the subject of derision.

As the Times reporting progressed through 2004, the description of the war as a racial one of Arabs versus Africans became a shorthand that needed no further explanation. By June 2004, an article about then-Secretary of State Colin Powell’s impending visit to Sudan contained no information about the background for the conflict except its racial element. Sudan is “accused of ethnic cleansing for having supported attacks against black Africans,” the article reads. “The Bush administration has repeatedly accused the Sudanese government of supporting Arab militias, called Janjaweed, of systematically attacking hundreds of villages…”

Only years later did Times reporting reveal that many Arab tribes did not take part in the violence against the “black Africans” and that the rebels had also behaved questionably.   But these facts were worked into articles as a change from the status quo (“Militia Talks Could Reshape Conflict in Darfur” reads one headline) or molded into the enduring meta-frame of a story of racial hatred.

Proximity and Myth Building

Before considering why the Arab-versus-African myth became so prevalent so quickly in The New York Times, it is worthwhile to discuss the peculiar rise of the Darfur conflict as a major news item. The proximity model suggests that only conflicts with a spatial, social, economic or political proximity to U.S. audiences will be thoroughly reported here. African conflicts usually lack an obvious proximity, and so go relatively unreported – the other civil war in Sudan and the civil war in Congo killed far more people than the conflict in Darfur, but never got the kind of consistent coverage that Darfur enjoyed in the Times.

However, there are at least two ways that Darfur – at least in the terms in which it was reported in the news – was proximal to the United States during the time when reporting on the conflict began.

•    The U.S. had just started a war against an “evil” Arab dictator; the “evildoers” in Sudan were also Arabs.
•    The U.S. had recently initiated the global War on Terror, which targeted Islamic extremists; the government of Sudan, which backed the janjawid, has Islamist elements.

The overarching story of Darfur and the region’s hidden proximity to the United States are two variables that we can plug into the literature on myth building to get a better sense of why the Times reported the conflict as a racial one.

Dov Shinar and Gina Stoiciu’s discussion of reportage on the Romanian revolution in 1989 and the first Gulf War may offer some clues as to how a metanarrative on the Darfur conflict emerged almost within the first dew days of the Times’s reporting. Shinar and Stoiciu argue that framing of news events – in the case of Romania, as a courageous, populist uprising against a terrifying, Communist dictator – occurs because of expectations of certain plot elements and ideological dispositions. Thus, in the Romanian example, reporting began with assumptions of “heroism and tragedy”.  “Consumers were shown the gory details and told ‘what they meant’ rather than what they were,” they write.

Similarly, Darfur reporting accurately showed the gory details. A June 2004 article about the changing U.S. policy toward Sudan describes “desperate squatters”, numbering a million or more, who “tell stories of murder, rape and harassment.” This description – and there is no reason to believe that it is inaccurate – is backed up by facts and figures from organizations like the United Nations. It is in explaining what these details mean that the Times falls into the trap that Shinar and Stoiciu describe. Sudanese officials are portrayed as inherently untrustworthy, lying and incoherent. Above this scene of terror looms the specter of “Arab militias.”  The Times thus make clear who the villains and the heroes are in a situation that, based on the observable facts alone, is quite murky.

The analysis of proximity offers some clues as to why the Times has projected a story of Romanian-revolution simplicity onto the Darfur conflict. The theme has simply shifted from the Cold War to the even more nebulous War on Terror. It is no coincidence that the Arabs are so easily identified as a homogenous enemy in the context of Darfur – the United States is at war with Iraq, an important Arab country. And while both perpetrators and victims in the Darfur narrative are Muslim, the Arabs appear as biological Muslims and the Africans as incidental Muslims. Thus, the Arabs serve as convenient villains.

But why transfer this story to Darfur, which, practically speaking, has no relation to the United States’ other war efforts? I think that the answer must lie in the psychology of the consumer and in the effects of Noam Chomsky’s media filters. The roles of the profit model and flak are particularly relevant. American society’s energy for a good-versus-evil, clearly moral mission with an Arab Muslim enemy could not find a home in the chaos of post-invasion Iraq. So that story found a home in Darfur, and media consumers devoured it. Flak from groups like the Save Darfur Coalition – and undoubtedly editorial advocacy from within the Times – helped keep the message on track.

Attempts to Rectify the Story

In the last few years, some anthropologists and Darfur experts have become very critical of the Darfur narrative that I have just described. To be fair to the Times, a handful of articles, even in 2004, attempted to acknowledge the complexity of the situation there. “For generations, race itself has not been all that significant in Darfurian society,” wrote Somini Sengupta in an October 4, 2004 article that admitted it was hard to tell the Arabs and Africans apart (but still maintained they were two separate categories).  Another article by the same author, around the same time, admitted that “grievances … had less to do with race than with disputes over land and water rights.”

Still, the nature of these “grievances” was never satisfactorily explained in Times articles. Articles like these were quickly lost in the shuffle of op-eds calling for intervention, and grisly descriptions of Darfur as a locus of evil in the world.

Even when the director of the Save Darfur Coalition, David Rubenstein, had to resign his position in 2007 following charges by aid organizations that his organization’s aggressive media campaign was harming humanitarian efforts, the Times seemed reluctant to examine criticisms of the group. The article on the resignation focused on the organization’s successes, and noted that the Sudanese government was adept at exploiting the tension created by it. Thus, the cast of good guys and bad guys was preserved.

On the whole, Times reporting on Darfur seems to have gotten off on the wrong foot and never really recovered. An obsession with the racial dimension of the conflict and a tendency to simplify along easily digestible moral lines have permeated a great number of the newspaper’s stories. The violence in Darfur has subsided for the time being, and the story has faded from the front page. But if the current political international stalemate surrounding Sudan is any indication, Darfur reporting has done little to deepen our understanding of the country.

16 thoughts on “Good Guys and Bad Guys in Sudan

  1. Thanks for clarifying a suspicion at the back of my mind and bringing it to light, concerning the media approach to Darfur. Now can you help us readers have some insight about a possible resolution and accomplishment of stability there?


  2. The conflict between to races could really highly justify genocide but genocide is somewhat still debated. as long as there is the conflict there, there will still be the mass murders. I found The Emma Academy Project to be building a school there in Leer, Sudan. The school will be education the young minds of the children there.

  3. Race may not be at the root of the Darfur bloodshed nor is it the main reason behind North -South. But the reality is that race and religion have all along being mobilized and used as frame of references to justify war. In Darfur, there are roughly two groups that – the Arabs and the Zarga. Arabs are mostly nomad and are proud of their middle eastern heritage and some claim their ancestry back to Quraish, the cradle of the Arabs. Zaraga on the other hand are the Fur, Zaghawa, Masalid and other minor tribes whose skin colour shades are darker, thus the word Zarga which means dark- back.. These difference in colour share and race are used by the current Islamist government to fuel the on-going war in Darfur.

  4. Yes, race is not at the root of the Darfur conflict. At the root are land conflicts that are relics of the British imposition of ethnically exclusive “Dars” (which means house or abode in Arabic but which the British translated as “homeland”, kind of like in South Africa.)

    Race is not irrelevant, and you’re right that it has been mobilized in the conflict. But to call it a racial conflict obscures the true problem. Every time Americans insist on framing it in those terms, we move Sudan further away from resolution. The Times projects our own American history of racism onto Sudan.

    Just because the “Africans” supposedly have darker skin does not mean that they are racially different. Just as being a lighter-skinned African American has never excused one from being subject to racism in U.S. history, skin color is tangential to the conflict in Darfur. And if you read up on the history of ethnicity in Sudan, you will see that individuals and groups frequently changed identity from Fur to Arab and vice versa depending on whether they were farming or herding. Those lineages traced to the Quraish have huge gaps in them; they are political origin stories like many people tell themselves around the world. (With all due respect to my Sahelian friends who claim descent from the Prophet!)

    Finally, what in the world does Sudan’s Islamist or non-Islamist bent have to do with anything? Just about everyone is Muslim in Darfur, and religion or the moral system proposed by Islamists has never been an issue in the conflict!

  5. bernal2raro, I agree to what you said, however, we humans are really fond of categorizing a lot of things, including ourselves. That is where the term “races” probably came from. If only we hadn’t been so fond of categorizing, there really wouldn’t have been any confusion about races, all people would be seen the same. But of course, the categorization isn’t only the factor, there are other too.
    Mandino P. Cheng
    The Emma Academy Project
    This project will be building a school there in Sudan. To be built in Leer, Sudan, the school will be fostering the children and at the same time nurturing the minds of the young children there. This school will be for the children of Sudan, keeping them away from the effects of war. This school is in honor of Emma McCune, the angel who saved the WarChild. To help build a school, we would need to support this cause.

  6. The point is that the war in Darfur is a counterinsurgency of the Sudanese government against local rebels. Kind of like the U.S. counterinsurgency against Iraqi rebels. We can no more call “race” the cause of the Darfur conflict than we can call it the cause of America’s occupation of Iraq. That’s why I find the amount of energy devoted to Darfur and the simplistic moral story to which we Americans have reduced it duplicitous — we are not examining U.S. action in the rest of the world with the same energy or lack of nuance.

  7. wow, bernal2raro . I applaud your analysis on this. I do see that it is like that what you said about the situation there. Yes, it seem that the rebels are actually the people who are against the government of Sudan. But, is the government of Sudan mainly the Nomadic Arabs that has migrated to Sudan? Please do tell. 🙂 we, would surely learn a lot from you.
    Mandino P. Cheng
    The Emma Academy Project
    This project will be building a school there in Sudan. To be built in Leer, Sudan, the school will be fostering the children and at the same time nurturing the minds of the young children there. This school will be for the children of Sudan, keeping them away from the effects of war. This school is in honor of Emma McCune, the angel who saved the WarChild. To help build a school, we would need to support this cause.

  8. Hey Mandino, not sure I understood your comment, but to answer your question, no, nomadic Arabs are not migrants to Sudan. Also, I think my essay above already talked about the difference between Nile Arabs and nomadic Arab tribes in Darfur. In the colonial era, Europeans came up with some cockamamy theory about how Arabs, Oromo, Tutsi and others in Africa were not really African. But those ideas have been largely discredited.

    Specific to Darfur, a good book that describes the origin of ethnic categories is State and Society in Darfur by R.S. O’Fahey.

    I’m not pinning the blame on the rebels for the 2003-2004 violence. But the issues in Darfur are first and foremost land, politics and the environment — not race.

    I’m against brutal counterinsurgency campaigns conducted by ANY country.

  9. Bernalraro,

    Blaming the bloody conflict in Africa and Darfur specifically on the Whites or on forces external to the country is one of the tactics Al Bashir and many tyrants are using this days to justify their genocidal wars against their own people. You’ve focused on this theme through out your analysis of the Darfur genocide without success. Sudan has been independent for over 52 years and all along there has always been wars because the outlying regions an the center of power in Khartoum. Even confining the underlying causes of the conflict to environment an politics only cannot give clear interpretation of these long drawn wars in Sudan.

    Again, I do not see any logic of equating Darfurian people, especially the regular Darfurians now being bombarded by Khartoum as insurgent similar to Sadam’s Iraq, or terrorist in general. In fact, from the perspectives of many Sudanese, Omar Al Bashir represent real image of terrorism, not the Darfurians.

  10. torit1955 , well, bernal2raro said that he’s not pinning the rebels-what the government of Sudan usually call them as the one responsible for the events called terrorism.

    bernal2raro, yeah, you got my point, sorry for the misunderstanding. Well, there was one article that I read that the nomadic arabs are migrant to Sudan, but I don’t know which is which but I also happen to study the history concerning Sudan. Also, yeah, It seems that the conflict arised from land, politics and the environment, and also the constant pressure that the people has to face especially the lack of the education. Also, I see that it is their means of bringing peace, which is highly different from the beliefs that we have now.
    Mandino P. Cheng
    The Emma Academy Project
    I found that this project will be building a school there in Sudan. To be built in Leer, Sudan, the school will be fostering the children and at the same time nurturing the minds of the young children there. This school will be for the children of Sudan, keeping them away from the effects of war. This school is in honor of Emma McCune, the angel who saved the WarChild. To help build a school, we would need to support this cause.
    help build a school, we would need to support this cause.

  11. torit1955, it is certainly not my intent to make excuses for Bashir, whose counterinsurgency campaign against Darfur rebels is deplorable.

    My comparison with the U.S. counterinsurgency in Iraq was NOT supposed to be a compliment to Bashir; if you glanced at the rest of my blog you would quickly see how much I oppose the U.S. occupation of Iraq as well. Bush and Bashir are both bad leaders who have wrought terrible violence in the world. It just makes no sense that many Americans have not devoted the same energy to stopping Bush that they have to Bashir.

    The point is that, to end the terrible suffering of the Darfurian people, there must be a solution to the political problems at the root of the conflict. We must have a practical solution, not one that throws around rhetoric based on analogies with other conflicts.

    Btw, where have I equated the Darfurian people with terrorists or mentioned Saddam’s Iraq?? You are inserting things into my comments that I didn’t say.

    Also, I don’t doubt your claim about how many Sudanese view Bashir; I just don’t see how anything I have said contradicts that.

    My essay on the Times’s reporting is simply supposed to be a thought-provoking analysis of the skewed way that we Americans have come to view a conflict about which most of us know very little. I think we must readjust the way we see the conflict in order to help Sudan find a solution, and I don’t think we should valorize either the rebels or the government.

    Please watch the video clip of Mamdani posted more recently to this blog if you want an elaboration of where I’m coming from — his thinking certainly influenced mine in writing the critique of the Times.

  12. Hi Bernal2Zero,

    Perhaps I have been reading too much into your analysis. Sorry about that. The point is there are divergence in how writers with interests in Sudan’s conflict analyze and understand the on-going conflicts in that country. Mahmoud Mamdani is a renowned academician whose work I respect. The bottom line as far as any analysis is concerned, to be, is how far it is skewed: to support the perpetrators of crime such as what is going on in Darfur, to give a voice to victims.

    I thinks now we are in agreement then.


  13. Hi Torit1855 (I’ll take your stab at my name as a friendly poke 🙂 ), I do appreciate your comments and thank you for sharing them. Sounds like we are not in stark disagreement after all.

  14. Pingback: Classic Kristof on Sudan « The Long Gone Daddy

  15. Pingback: Re: Good guys and bad guys in Darfur « The Long Gone Daddy

  16. Hey Eamon. I found your essay over at ‘Making Sense of Sudan’ and found it one of the better reviews of ‘Saviours and Survivors’. I’ve just posted a review of it as well so thought I would send a shout out to you. Will be interested to read more of your stuff on Africa.

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