why kristof’s darfur comparison doesn’t quite work

In his latest column, Nick Kristof describes the civilian protection crisis in the Sudanese border state of South Kordofan, which has been immersed in conflict since the failure of the mismanaged, illegitimate popular consultation process last spring. With hundreds of deaths and tens of thousands displaced, South Kordofan’s civilians have sustained the brunt of the conflict’s impact. Perceiving thematic similarities between Khartoum’s South Kordofan counterinsurgency campaign and the Darfur conflict, Kristof uses the Darfur example to package and contextualize the Sudan/SPLM-N violence:

Bombings, ground attacks and sexual violence — part of Sudan’s scorched-earth counterinsurgency strategy — have driven hundreds of thousands of people from their homes in South Kordofan, the Sudanese state where the Nuba Mountains are located. In some ways, the brutality here feels like an echo of what Sudan did in Darfur, only now it is Nubans who are targets.

It’s impossible to confirm Kafi’s full story, but others verified that she had been kidnapped. And many other Nubans recount similar attacks, or describe similar racial epithets. As in Darfur, the Sudanese soldiers often call their darker-skinned victims their “slaves.” Ahmed Haroun, a Sudanese official wanted by the International Criminal Court for committing crimes against humanity in Darfur, is now the governor of South Kordofan, and he seems to be employing similar tactics here.

The Kristof dispatch, issued from South Sudan’s Yida refugee camp, has provoked the usual (incisive) hubbub from the blogosphere. Texas in Africa’s Laura Seay drew the first blow, condemning Kristof for his irresponsible approach to journalistic ethics, cavalier attitude towards humanitarian aid delivery in the Sudanese border state, and simplistic removal of Sudanese agency from the South Kordofan discourse. Seay is particularly compelling on the aid question, echoing my prior point about the moral hazards of humanitarianism in the region:

The problem now is that because of Kristof’s shenanigans, NGO’s in the region are very reluctant to help reporters get the story. Moreover, as it’s pretty clear from Kristof’s column that Samaritan’s Purse is likely helping him, that puts aid workers – especially those working for SP – on the ground in danger, especially if the SAF really is out trying to find Kristof. Rather than being perceived by those on the ground as a neutral humanitarian agency, Samaritan’s Purse is now seen as an ally of South Sudan. That’s an incredibly dangerous situation for those who are trying to carry out neutral humanitarian work.

As a follow-up to the NGO point, Samaritan’s Purse, a Christian charity based in the United States, is the only humanitarian aid organization to have called for the implementation of a no-fly zone over South Kordofan, raising credible concerns about the continued “neutrality” of their aid operations.

Reiterating Seay’s critique, A View from the Cave’s Tom Murphy questions Kristof’s conflict narrative, citing a new Autesserre paper on the unintended consequences of dominant advocacy and policymaking narratives. Murphy rightly condemns the advocacy community for its continued reliance on old, essentialized perceptions of conflict, which undercut a nuanced cognitive framework for policy analysis:

All of these many factors made the situation on the ground in Darfur incredibly complex and challenging.  Small victories were won, but the humanitarian crisis still remains unresolved. By likening Darfur and South Kordofan, Kristof makes the same mistake as he and others made in 2003. It may get more people to pay attention, but it could also lead to a skewed understanding as to what is really happening.

Of course, it’s all well and good to condemn organizational actors for a lack of complexity, but it’s also important to explain how the complexities function, why they’re valuable to consider, and what they mean for policy formation. In Sudan, especially, it’s worth delving into a couple questions: how is the South Kordofan conflict different from Darfur? Or, rather, how is the South Kordofan conflict different from our common narrative of the Darfur conflict? Why does that matter, and what policy/advocacy adjustments are necessary to accommodate the distinct narrative?

First, let’s start by laying out points of commonality: Sudan’s modern history of violent conflict, particularly in the aftermath of the Bashir regime’s 1989 coup, has resulted from the persistent marginalization of ethnicized political communities from the central state. The Sudanese state has failed to distribute the spoils of economic progress, political patronage, and social hierarchy, inheriting the practice of provincial marginalization from its colonial predecessors. Accordingly, marginalization, underdevelopment, and political exclusivity have served as a key catch-phrases for opposition groups throughout Sudan, beginning with the eastern Sudanese Beja Congress (founded in 1958). Indeed, the Justice and Equality Movement’s 2000 “Black Book,” a key text in the primary-source literature on the Darfur conflict, is filled with statistical and qualitative references to the exclusion of Darfuris from Khartoum’s center.

From a national perspective, the South Kordofan conflict bears striking similarities. Marginalization, non-inclusive politics, and ethnicized mobilization are common themes in Abdel Aziz al-Hilu’s SPLM-N insurgency. As Sudan expert Julie Flint has tirelessly reiterated throughout the South Kordofan crisis, past Nuba insurgencies, rather than their Darfuri counterparts, may be the more effective historical comparison: in terms of military operations, political terrain, and insurgency objectives, the SPLM-N’s current activities mirror the 1991-5 Nuba Mountains insurgency, as does Khartoum’s response. The strategic dynamics of counterinsurgency warfare, however, have shifted drastically. Whereas the Nuba insurgency occurred as an ugly sub-conflict of the broader North/South civil war, the SPLM-N’s current insurgency has higher political stakes for Khartoum. Between the prospect of widespread military defections, looming financial collapse, and an increasingly powerful, multi-ethnic rebel alliance, the insurgency’s sustainability is a key factor in the NCP regime’s internal stability. But, judging from the SPLM-N’s statements, as well as the operational dynamics of the conflict, the Nuba insurgents are interested in political transformation, rather than state capture; this differs substantially from the late Khalil Ibrahim’s JEM insurgency, which, in 2008, tried to take the proverbial party to Khartoum.

That’s the national overlay. On a localized level, the conflict dynamics are, of course, much more complicated than Kristof’s tactical analysis would suggest. By this point, the disaggregated Darfur narrative is well-known: the apex of the Sudan advocacy movement (the April 2006 rally, by most judgments) coincided with the complication of political violence in Darfur. Janjaweed militias, accurately described as the political vessels of mass atrocity, began to splinter. By 2008/2009, the majority of civilian deaths stemmed from violence between Arab militias, rather than between the Darfuri insurgencies and the Sudanese armed/proxy forces. In South Kordofan, localized conflict dynamics present a similarly complicated picture, this time with a positive twist: while most of the fighting has occurred in the province’s northeastern population centers, previously antagonistic Nuba, Misseriya, and Dagu leaders have resolved localized conflicts through community-based peacebuilding processes, allowing credible mechanisms for conflict resolution.

Needless to say, Kristof mentioned very few of these details in his column, which focused on the short-term humanitarian components of the South Kordofan crisis. Unfortunately, it’s too easy to read Kristof’s column and say, “well, jeez, the guy has 800 words and wants to call people to action–what else is he supposed to do?” (call me on the straw man, if you’d like, but I’d say it’s an appropriate characterization). Here’s my answer: this. For those uninterested in clicking through, the hyperlink sends you to a June 2011 Guardian article by Julie Flint, which contextualizes the civilian protection crisis within the national, regional, and local political dynamics I described above. Okay, she clocks in at 998 words, but she cites applicable historical Nuba insurgency models, contextualizes the humanitarian crisis, and, Le Gasp, quotes conflict actors, rather than victims. As Flint observed in a November Sudan brief, the humanitarian lens with which we have perceived the South Kordofan crisis has significantly impeded our ability to find a political solution to a political crisis. Until we can transcend our cognitive moral crutch, both human rights advocates and policymakers will make little progress towards ensuring sustainable civilian protection, conflict resolution, and political transformation in Sudan.

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