Attention Deficit Deadlines


Many Australians are deeply concerned about recent events in Sudan. Thousands of people have died in Darfur, many more have been made refugees, and the killing continues. The Sudanese Government sponsors the Janjaweed militia which is responsible for most of the killing. The international community, preoccupied with Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran, seems incapable of acting resolutely to deal with the problem.

But does anyone know why this is happening? Did thousands of Sudanese suddenly decide that they wanted to massacre their neighbours?

Sudanese refugees fleeing Darfur

There is quite a bit of coverage of events in Sudan in the Australian media, but virtually nothing about why they are happening. Apart from an occasional implication that Arab Sudanese are attacking Black Sudanese (and, of course, that’s the sort of thing Arabs do), no one asks why these appalling events are happening.

A friend of mine has been involved in intensive negotiations between the various parties. He says the underlying cause is environmental. The Sahara Desert is gradually moving south, and pushing people with livelihoods built around grazing livestock south with it. This is bringing them into a quickly escalating conflict for resources with established agricultural communities, whose livelihoods are built upon growing crops.

I’m in no position to know how dominant this factor is, but it sounds pretty convincing. Racism is a potent factor all around the world, but it is hardly new. The key to understanding events in Darfur is asking a simple question: What’s changed? Why weren’t these events occurring ten or twenty years ago?

The banal, superficial coverage that typifies the Australian media leaves us in a state of blind ignorance about underlying causes in global conflict. It fosters an impression that other peoples, particularly certain races, are apt to indulge in mass violence for no particular reason. It prevents us from understanding the forces that drive human history, and that will drive future global events.

Why has Colombia been wracked by civil war for decades, with two large guerrilla armies facing a heavily militarised State and Right-wing paramilitaries? The reasons are complex, but include a grossly unequal distribution of wealth and income and deep divisions between Indigenous peasants and White or mestizo elites.

Similar divisions can be found throughout most of Latin America, a legacy of the extreme brutality and rapacity of Spanish colonialism. Unfortunately these underlying factors are rarely mentioned when the media reports the latest massacre in Guatemala or coup attempt in Ecuador.

The conflict in Nepal has received quite a lot of coverage in Australian newspapers. We’ve heard a fair bit about Maoist rebels, but apart from one very recent article in The Australian I’ve seen virtually nothing about who they are and why they’re rebelling. The answers to this question include an entrenched caste system, extreme poverty, widespread illiteracy, and an uncaring elite.

The conflicts in Rwanda, Sri Lanka and Fiji all have their origins in colonialism, and in particular, the tendency for colonial rulers to play divide and rule politics. How often do news reports of these conflicts carry any serious analysis of the underlying causes? On the odd occasion they are mentioned, they are usually passed off as ethnic rivalry or a bland phrase like ‘conflict over land’.

Displaced Darfuris

Human beings may be naturally violent, but we usually don’t start wars without some reason. Appalling excesses of human behaviour tend to occur in societies under extreme stress, not in more tranquil communities. That’s why Pol Pot emerged in Cambodia rather than Norway.

So the next time you’re reading an article about serious conflict in some other part of the world, ask yourself two questions: why is this happening, and why is it happening now? If the article doesn’t provide some answers, you’re entitled to complain.

There are not many places in the Australian media where you’ll find serious reporting of the underlying causes of conflict. Just as the issues in dispute are usually an afterthought in reporting industrial action, the causes of wars, civil wars and revolutions are largely ignored. I’d like to hope that it will improve, but in a country where much of our media is gradually degenerating into clones of Who Weekly, I’m not holding my breath.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.