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Confronting the Dark Side of Democracy

Darfur's ethnic cleansing reflects a global issue.

September 05, 2004|Michael Mann

Janjaweed militiamen, accompanied by three carloads of soldiers, recently killed 111 people in one day in three villages near Bareh in western Sudan.

In one of them, Terchana, "they took the cattle and burned all the village," said 42-year-old Adam, a local farmer. "They took some food for their horses and burned the rest. Helicopters came when we were burying the bodies, right after the attack. They were flying low. We could see the pilot. He killed an old woman and a horse. The janjaweed were wearing uniforms."

He said the villagers were used to Arab nomads occasionally stealing cattle, but "nomads never came with cars and helicopters. This is the government. We had a self-defense unit, but when we saw the cars we said 'this is the government' and we ran. The government doesn't like black people."

The conflict raging in the province of Darfur in western Sudan consists of many such incidents. Thousands have been killed, hundreds of thousands made homeless. The threat of United Nations sanctions hasn't stopped the violence; the appearance of aid workers hasn't ameliorated the tragedy. The roots of this ethnic cleansing lie in a conflict over land between Arab nomads and African farmers. As the Sudanese government became more Islamist in the 1980s, it sided with the region's Arabs, provoking African resistance. Short of military resources, the government armed Arab nomads to do its fighting. These janjaweed ("brigand") militias only worsened the conflict.

In February 2003, an African Sudan Liberation Army emerged and formed self-defense groups. As Adam indicates, such a group is no match for the janjaweed and government soldiers. Many think such ethnic cleansing is an affliction of primitive peoples, part of an African "disease," and they blame evil men in the Sudanese government. But this is misleading. Ethnic cleansing is modern, not primitive, not confined to Africa and not the simple product of good versus evil.

Think of another conflict over land between peoples with different economies, one much better armed and willing to pay desperados to kill and burn. It was right here in America, and in California. President Thomas Jefferson said the "barbarities" of the native Americans "justified extermination." Looking back, President Theodore Roosevelt said "extermination was as ultimately beneficial as it was inevitable." The first three California governors publicly urged extermination, and the first California legislatures authorized settler militias to hunt down Indians, paying them $1.1 million in 1850 and 1851 alone. Gen. Phil Sheridan notoriously summed up local feeling: "The only good Indians I ever saw were dead." Ethnic cleansing is our history too.

Two fundamental issues are involved in Darfur. One is the economic conflict over land between the two groups, an echo of past colonial encounters between settlers and indigenous peoples. Now, it's a matter of scarce water and a changing ecosystem. In Sudan, the Sahara Desert is creeping south, pushing Arabs with it and into collisions with African farmers. Global warming can only produce more such "resource wars" around the world.

The second issue is political. It is what I call the dark side of democracy because it arises as a perversion of the ideal of rule by the people. The Greeks had two words for "the people," demos and ethnos. We retain them in words like "democracy" and "ethnicity." Unfortunately, demos and ethnos become confused if one ethnic group claims to be the "true" people of a country. "Democracy" may be perverted into rule by that ethnic group. There have been countless slogans like "Poland for the Poles," "Serbia for the Serbs" or "Hutu democracy." These are national liberation movements, but they often also discriminate against minorities. The worst-case scenarios result in ethnic cleansing, a perennial hazard of the age of democracy.

In Sudan, Islamists captured the state and sought to make it represent the "true soul," Islamic and Arabic, of the people. This provoked Christians and animists, who form the majority in the south of the country. A terrible civil war, now 20 years old, ensued. In western Darfur, civil war came more slowly -- its Arabs and Africans are both Muslim. Conflict emerged, however, over language differences and the African version of Islam, more relaxed than Islamists can stomach. Now, cultural as well as economic issues fuel the clash over which "people" should control the state.

So Darfur's sufferings are not those of primitive peoples, nor are they Africa's problems alone. They are the world's problems. The Sudanese regime is not simply evil. It has pursued misguided policies; it is increasingly complicit in atrocities and then lies about it. But it is in the company of many governments, including the United States.

We must go beyond our customary rhetorical denunciations and Band-Aid relief efforts to tackle the underlying economic, environmental and cultural issues. We must help the Sudanese government reverse course, for we lack the power to force it to do so. Unless we act decisively, but with understanding, there will be many more Darfurs.

UCLA sociologist Michael Mann is the author of "The Dark Side of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing," published this month by Cambridge University Press.

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