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Book Reviews

Darfur: The Ambiguous Genocide

by Gérard Prunier

Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2005
212 pages, US$27.00 (hardcover)

Reviewed by Andrea Charron

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Book coverAuthor of The Rwandan Crisis: History of a Genocide, Gérard Prunier’s latest book on the crisis in Darfur provides a more sophisticated context in which to “understand” the political violence in Sudan. Prunier avoids a simplistic, binary “Arab versus African” conclusion. Indeed, he stresses the need for a separate ethnographic study of Darfur as a region. Furthermore, he wisely counsels readers against seeking a coherence of facts: teleology, the doctrine of design and purpose in the material world, he says, is a “pitfall to be avoided.”

In less than 200 pages, Prunier provides a competent sketch of the history of Darfur, and the current crisis within the politics of Sudan and the region. Although Prunier’s style of writing is fluid, the number of facts presented means that, inevitably, readers are forced to re-orient themselves, using either the glossary of Arabic terms, the map, or a list of abbreviations.

Prunier’s account of the current crisis in Darfur is conduced by four important factors: 1) Khartoum’s role and its militia; 2) the Sahelian famine of 1985 and general economic disparity in particular parts of the country; 3) the interference by outside actors and states, especially Colonel Muammar Abu Minyar al-Qadhafi of Libya, and President Idriss Deby of Chad; and 4) the continuous relegation and marginalization of Darfur in Sudanese history and politics by successive Sudanese governments and by bordering state governments.

For all that is good about the book, it is not the final word on the crisis. Indeed, some authorities, most notably Alex de Waal, African scholar and program director of the Social Sciences Research Council in New York, lament the gaps in Prunier’s research.

For example, key actors like Ahmat Acyl Aghbash, who, according to de Waal, is the legacy behind the Janjawiid militia, have been omitted from Prunier’s account. Another perceived oversight is a lack of discussion on the “Arab supremacist ideology, which holds that the lineal descents of the Prophet Mohammed and his Qoreish tribe (to which Ahmat Acyl belongs)”1 are entitled to rule Muslim lands. Such thinking was Ahmat Acyl’s “gift” to Sudan and an important factor, according to de Waal, in explaining Darfur’s landslide into war. There is some mention of the general instability in the region, attributed mostly to Qadhafi’s interference. However, the allegiances between different factions within Chad and Sudan, and the pressure of instability in neighbouring Uganda, the Central African Republic, the Congo, Ethiopia, and Eritrea, is not discussed in great detail.2

De Waal is also critical of Prunier’s rebel history account, which he assesses as perfunctory and undocumented. Prunier asserts that the Darfurian rebel “alliance,” which joined the largely non-Arab Sudanese Liberation Army (SLA) with the Islamist Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), emerged as a direct result of a Memorandum of Understanding between Johan Garang, the leader of the SLA, and Hassan al-Turabi, the sheikh of the fragmented Sudanese Islamists movement, later jailed by his one-time ally, current Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. However, according to de Waal, this is the most unlikely of explanations. This difference of opinion between two highly acclaimed academics is proof of the complexity of the crisis, and an excellent reminder of the importance of consulting multiple sources.

The title, “The Ambiguous Genocide,” also deserves comment. Prunier notes the American government’s decision to use the term “genocide” in reference to Darfur, if only for domestic reasons, while criticizing the “disingenuousness” of the International Commission of Inquiry into Darfur3 established by the UN Security Council. Such note and censure may be misplaced. In fact, the ICID’s report chronicled the same abuses reported by the American government, but concluded the attacks on villages were the product of counter-insurgency warfare, and not a planned extermination of a people.4 The ICID concluded that the killing in Darfur amounted to war crimes,5 and recommended that the Security Council refer the situation to the International Criminal Court immediately. The United States, until recently, was resistant to such a suggestion. Given Prunier’s reluctant recognition of the US State Department for its use of the term genocide, there is a disconnect of logic in calling the book “The Ambiguous Genocide.” That may well be the case from the point of view of the international community, but I am not sure it is at all “ambiguous” to Prunier.

Still, there is much to recommend this book. The idea that the international community has been paralyzed into complacency over Darfur because of its overwhelming desire to ensure the success of the Naivasha peace agreements, ending nearly 50 years of war between North and South Sudan, is an important commentary deserving careful consideration. Other opinions can also be considered, such as Hugo Slim’s “Dithering over Darfur: a Preliminary Review of the International Response” International Affairs (October 2004); NATO unclassified assessments of the African Mission in Sudan (AMIS); Nelson Kasfir’s “Sudan’s Darfur: Is it Genocide?” Current History (May 2005); Alex de Waal’s Famine that Kills: Darfur, Sudan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005); Security Council Resolutions, Presidents’ reports, Security Council Update Reports, and International Crisis Group updates. However, a better understanding of the crisis in Darfur is not necessarily guaranteed.

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Andrea Charron is a PhD candidate in the War Studies program at the Royal Military College of Canada.


  1. Alex de Waal, “Review of Gerard Prunier, Darfur: The Ambiguous Genocide, Hurst and Co.”, in Times Literary Supplement (8 August 2005).
  2. Especially for aid workers and future military personnel to the region, there is scant information on the terrain, geography, disease patterns, and, most importantly, the wet and dry seasons in Prunier’s account. There is also relatively little information on the oil fields in Sudan.
  3. Report of the International Commission of Inquiry on Darfur to the United Nations Security Council. Pursuant to Security Council Resolution 1564. 25 January 2005 (Geneva, Switzerland), at <http://www.icc-cpi.int/library/ cases/Report_to_UN_on_Darfur.pdf>
  4. Ibid., p. 4.
  5. Ibid.