Pageturner: Mahmood Mamdani on Darfur

Say "Darfur" and ugly images leap to mind: the Janjaweed, rape, genocide. But most of us would be hard pressed to explain the violence there, beyond the popular notion that it's ethnic cleansing of Africans by Arabs. Columbia University scholar Mahmood Mamdani's new book, "Saviors and Survivors," explains why this assumption is faulty, and why it's foiling peace efforts.

THE IDEA: The conflict, Mamdani says, is essentially between tribes who have a homeland—and through that, political representation—and tribes who don't. This plays out along several trans-ethnic axes, the most prominent being between nomadic northern (Arab and non-Arab) camel tribes and southern sedentary and semi-nomadic (Arab and non-Arab) tribes.

THE EVIDENCE: When the British colonized Darfur—at the time a polyglot sultanate—they pursued a divide-and-conquer retribalization policy that labeled certain peoples as "native" and others as "immigrant," giving land and political rights to the former while depriving the latter. This produced long-simmering tensions between Darfuri neighbors. Add to that decades of severe drought, which drove nomads south onto other tribes' land, as well as meddling by Cold War powers that militarized Darfur, and by the mid-'80s the region exploded in civil war, which then spiraled out of control.

THE CONCLUSION: Any peace deal struck in Darfur will need to negotiate an overhaul of the old colonial land-rights system, to get at the underlying cause of the violence.