I have increasingly grown sceptical of international humanitarian intervention. Although largely driven by moral reasons, it has often inflicted more harm than good on its intended beneficiaries. It is with this view that I went for a public lecture by Prof. Mahmood Mamdani at Makerere University on Wednesday August 26.
I had thought Mamdani would make a case for the ‘Save Darfur’ movement. Instead, he articulated a new vision of how the discourse on human rights has been vulgarised. He was critical of humanitarian intervention in Darfur as well. For the first time I listened to someone who was breathing fresh intellectual air into the stale debates on humanitarianism.
Discussing Mamdani’s paper was my old friend Dismas Nkunda who works for an international coalition to ‘save’ the people of Darfur. Nkunda spoke with passion and flair. Yet most of his arguments were naive and simplistic. At one point he even insinuated that Mamdani was paid by the regime in Khartoum to argue the views he did.
It has become commonplace for a host of organisations to insert themselves into other people’s wars. By bringing medicines, food, tents, etc, humanitarian organisations create incentives for the affected people to run from combat zones to vegetate in refugee camps. Once in camps, such escapees are treated as victims ‘to be helped’.
This is disempowering. Wars are about people ‘ their homes, property and livelihoods. Soldiers fight well when they are defending people. Civilians are critical to war because they do not only offer a strong moral imperative for soldiers to fight, they offer food, sanctuary, recruits and information to warring parties. By herding them into camps, humanitarian bodies turn would-have-been active political actors into passive spectators in events that are shaping their destiny.
During the war in Luwero in the early 1980s, the UNLA conducted largely inept and brutal counter-insurgency operations leading to many civilian deaths. As luck would have it, the international humanitarian community did not show up. Therefore, civilians had no camps to run to; so they joined the NRA rebels en masse. This altered the balance of power in favour of the NRA leading to the fall of Obote.
This changed dramatically when the rebellion shifted from Luwero to the northern region. The Yoweri Museveni administration treated the entire ethnic group ‘ the Acholi ‘ as the enemy. The rebels were only seen as the armed faction of a hostile tribe. To separate combatant enemies from non-combatant ones, the NRA herded the Acholi into internally displaced people’s camps and left them to their fate.
Humanitarian organisations came and made life in camps tolerable and thereby inadvertently sustained an inhumane government policy. Yet left alone, the Acholi like the people of Luwero, would have joined the struggle. By siding with one of the parties to the conflict, they would have forced a more decisive and durable resolution of the war.
In other words, civilians unaided by international humanitarian organisations become active participants in political struggles that are aimed at shaping their future. Intervention may achieve short term humanitarian objectives but often at the price of undermining popular participation and the creation of a more durable outcome.
Behind the calls for international humanitarian intervention in Africa is the unspoken belief that Africans are not capable of solving their own problems. This view has gained a lot of currency; it is now openly articulated by Paul Collier. Yet the example of Luwero above shows that once you have the right incentives, affected civilians do not see themselves as victims of the conflict but as active participants in its resolution.
Take the example of commentary on the Tutsi genocide in Rwanda in 1994. Journalists, academics and politicians talk of intervention in form of American or European troops coming in to ‘save’ the people of Rwanda. No one talks about the presence of an effective local force ‘ the RPF ‘ and how it could have been given material and technical support to end the carnage much more quickly.
It is possible that many Tutsi died not just in spite of but rather because of the presence of international peacekeepers. UNAMIR created a false sense of security in a population that, left alone, would have escaped the combat zone. Deluded that they would be protected by the UN, endangered Tutsi civilians stayed put as the genocide storms gathered. When the genocide started, it was too late to escape.
The treatment of Africans as children in need of babysitting by a generous international community today comes in many shapes and forms ‘ as foreign financial aid to our governments, as peacekeeping troops to save us from ourselves, as humanitarian assistance to shelter, feed and treat us etc. Sadly, it has a large cadre of Africa elites cheering it along and Nkunda sounded this drum quite loudly.
In his 1999 thought-provoking article Give War a Chance in Foreign Affairs, Edward Luttwak argued that left alone a conflict is able to ‘run its course’ and end when one group is strong enough to win decisively or when both groups are sufficiently exhausted and therefore willing to accommodate one another. ‘War brings peace only after a culminating phase of violence,’ Luttwak wrote adding, ‘Hopes of military success must fade for accommodation to become more attractive than further combat.’
Because internationally backed ceasefires in Sudan suspend combat only momentarily, they are prolonging hostilities indefinitely. Since no side is threatened with defeat, none has any incentive to negotiate a lasting peace. Consequently, every group in Darfur is exploiting the ceasefire to rearm. War would lead to a lot of short term suffering. But allowed to run its course, it has potential to lead to either a decisive military victory by one side or mutual exhaution. Either way, it would set the stage for post conflict reconstruction as happened in Uganda, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Rwanda.
I am confident that left alone, the people of Darfur – young and old – would act. Without humanitarian organisations distorting the incentives, many would join the conflict. Whichever side they choose, they would not be playing victim but would become active participatants in shaping their future.Â It is obvious that if this happened , it would produce a more durable resolution to the current conflict and create a better Sudan.