How Hollywood cloaked South Sudan in celebrity and fell for the ‘big lie’
By Daniel Howden, (The Guardian)
When violence erupted two weeks ago in the world’s youngest country, one of the first voices to speak out, before the US president or the head of the United Nations, was that of the Hollywood actor George Clooney. There was nothing particularly objectionable about his counsel, which in any case was more likely authored by the American activist John Prendergast, with whom he shared a byline. It spoke of the need for a robust UN response and, even as tens of thousands of civilians fled ethnically motivated death squads, of the “opportunities” present in South Sudan.
This is a country, not yet two and a half years old, whose birth has been soaked in celebrity like no other. As well as Clooney, Matt Dillon and Don Cheadle have been occasional visitors who have tried to use their star power to place the international public firmly in the corner of this plucky upstart nation.
Unsurprisingly, the actors were highly effective at communicating a narrative about the new country that borrowed from a simple script. The south had fought a bloody two-decade battle for its independence against an Islamic and chauvinist north led by an indicted war criminal. The cost of that war, regularly touted as two million lives, meant that the south would need huge development support to lift it from the impoverished floor of every quality of life index published.
The great threat in this narrative was the vile regime in Khartoum, the capital of rump Sudan, which would seek to undermine its southern breakaway, or march back to war to reclaim some of its lost oilfields.
It was a seductive story that could be well told by handsome movie stars against the lavish backdrop supplied by South Sudan’s superheated swamps and deserts and often beautiful people. But the narrative – part truth, part wilful misunderstanding – was deeply flawed. This would have mattered less if it had only informed public opinion, but instead it found its way into the building of a state.
Sudan, the former British colony that became Africa’s largest state, has been in a condition of slow-burning internal conflict almost since independence in the 1950s. The second instalment of civil war was ended by the comprehensive peace agreement signed in 2005. The deal provided for a cooling-off period of six years before a loosely geographically defined south would be given the chance to vote on secession from the north.
The war had been brought to life in the US by broadcast evangelicals such as Billy Graham, who cast it as a heroic battle by Christian and African underdogs against a more powerful Muslim and Arab foe. The fact that religious and geographical lines were never remotely this clear and clean-cut was routinely ignored. The Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), under the leadership of the charismatic John Garang, was not fighting for an independent south but a democratic “new Sudan”. Its forces were drawn from areas far beyond what are now the borders of South Sudan. And its battles were, for the most part, not against the national army, the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) but against rival militia groups, often drawn from the same great southern tribes, such as the Dinka and Nuer, that the SPLA leadership came from.