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South Sudan: how we all fell for the ‘big lie’

The title paraphrases an article by Daniel Howden published on The Guardian: How Hollywood cloaked South Sudan in celebrity and fell for the ‘big lie’. Since the  crisis in South Sudan started two weeks ago, I’ve read a lot of things on the whys and hows of the situation. And, unsurprisingly, I’ve read a lot of ineptness, misreading, ignorance and snap judgements. And, unfortunately, unlike Howden (could he have used them as a click-bait?!), I don’t think Hollywood stars are the first ones to blame. Maybe it’s time for some people to clean up their own act first.

My goal is not to patronize, but from where I stand, and for at least two decades now, I have been working to select and provide accurate information on Sudan, Darfur and now South Sudan. I have been able to observe all sorts of misreading when it comes to Sudan and South Sudan. I have read a lot on Sudan’s history, its people and the richness of the Sudanese art and culture. My interest for Sudan started when Omar al-Bashir came to power in a bloodless coup in 1989. I had a friend who was Sudanese and his family fled the country because ‘it was a mess‘ and ‘some people wanted to kill us‘… I knew the situation wasn’t ideal, even before al-Bashir’s coup. Since then, not much has changed.

Back to Howden, aka the -former- ‘first western journalist into South Sudan‘ according to The Guardian. He’s an experienced reporter in Africa no doubt, but some of his statements caught my attention; I listed them and added my comment.

First on Hollywood stars and their star power:

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.

I have already posted several times on the topic of celebrity activism. Five years ago, in Tall oaks from little acorns grow, I was mentioning the work of a doctor I knew who dedicated his life working in Africa for 20 years. ‘Kinda confusing an actor known to be ‘the world’s sexiest man’ and a man who ‘used to be the next president of the United States of America’ [Al Gore] are the ones bringing these situations in the spotlight. I am not saying they are not legitimate or that they don’t believe in the cause they defend, they are absolutely right to use their fame the way they do. I am just saying that sometimes the gap between the glamour of the style and the hardness of the substance in the field can be baffling…‘.  That being said, I still think their voice has been useful to inform the public and it would be very condescending to think it’s some sort of a shame it found its way into the building of a state. The shame would be if the decisions were based on this narrative only.


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 problem with complex situation is that sometimes (too often, in my opinion), oversimplification is our worst enemy. In 2008 in Darfur: a World Wide Role Playing Game, I wrote that oversimplification helps to quickly spread a message among the masses and to bring a short-term awareness but avoiding all the parameters, dismissing what might be the core of the problem, removing ‘la substantifique moëlle‘ could doom any effort of grasping to failure. It is obviously what is still happening today on the numerous (and sometimes incomplete) reports I read on the crisis in South Sudan. And this is not the fault of some evangelicals or personal point of view but this misreading comes from erroneous media coverage. I don’t say they are all bogus, far from that, but some reporters should definitely do their work more seriously so we don’t read, here and there, anything and everything.


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”.

Indeed, I was very impressed by the vision and the personality of the late Dr John Garang. Although all was not well in the best of all worlds, many of the underpinning issues South Sudan is facing today started a lot time ago… On March 2012, as we were watching the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations hearing on the crisis in Sudan, I posted: Sudan: divide and rule, the winning strategy and I’m afraid it is a strategy that may have spread beyond Sudan as Kiir and Machar seem to go for al-Bashir’s strategy. I wrote: ‘Whether or not al-Bashir initiates a politics of war, or encourages internecine resentments among the tribes, religions, the rule still applies and he benefits from it. The latest example is the tensions between Umma & opposition parties over regime change in Sudan. For now the opposition seems too weak and fragmented to pose a serious threat to al-Bashir but a strong united opposition and a well developed civil society are the best set for an internal, peaceful change‘. My conclusion stands more than ever: maybe the late John Garang and his vision should not be forgotten and inspire more people. In the North, South, everywhere.


The pursuit of separation at all costs made it harder to admit certain truths such as ethnic divisions and created the need for the “big lie”, as one senior UN official calls it. “The big lie is that there was no ethnic problem in South Sudan. There is a political problem.”

If some people wanted to turn a blind eye, their fault then. But everyone who knows Sudan and South Sudan history knew about ethnic divisions. But I agree reporters should have insisted more on that point. Nick Kristof even acknowledged it in a tweet he sent today:

Better late than never, one would say.


As it was believed that there were no entrenched ethnic issues to overcome, the mandate for Unmiss – when it was drafted by the UN security council – framed the challenges for the new country as purely developmental.

Well, they were at least ‘uninformed’ and that was confirmed during a Press Conference on the situation in South Sudan on December 26, 2013 when Evelyn Leopold, contributor to the Huffington Post, asked Hilde F. Johnson, Special Representative of the Secretary General and Head of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS): ‘Did you see this coming?‘, Hilde Johnson made what I would call a ‘candid’ answer: ‘No, we did not see this coming. However, what we did know were the internal challenges and tensions within the SPLM‘. So they didn’t see it coming but at least they knew something: there were internal challenges and tensions within the SPLM…


The complete dysfunction of South Sudan’s government since independence in 2011 was largely ignored. When the president, Salva Kiir, accused his own government of looting $4bn in state assets and foreign aid money, little was said. When Kiir, who is from the south’s biggest ethnic group, the Dinka, began to entrench its power at the expense of other communities, creating what people called a Dinkocracy, the UN said nothing.

Largely ignored, again who is to blame? Leaders? Reporters? Public opinion? Even when you know the topic, it is hard to find reliable sources, and  Aguil Lual Blunt (@AguilB) won’t disagree. I see it everyday when reading the emails sent to the MagkaSama Project, asking if such news is true or not (most common question: ‘Is it a genocide?‘). We shouldn’t have to answer these questions, everyone should have access to the information and not get lost among the (sometimes contradictory) news to filter and explain.


As both sides mobilised their supporters along ethnic lines and prepared for a renewed conflict, the UN and diplomats continued to refer to the increasingly autocratic president as “steadfast”.

Honestly, and without prejudice, the crisis is resulting from the rivalry between both Kiir and Machar, as Machar was set to challenge Kiir in a 2015 presidential election. The situation has been getting tense for several months now (even more since Kiir dismissed Machar from office in July), but if leaders were willing to place the interests of their people (South Sudanese) above all other in the first place, despite all the difficulties, the rapidly deteriorating security and humanitarian crisis could have been avoided.


When fighting finally broke out on 15 December and elements of the presidential guard went house to house in the fledgling capital, Juba, murdering Nuer civilians, the talk was still of a political not an ethnic conflict. When Nuer youths who mobilise under the banner of the civil-war-era White Army overran a UN outpost, killing two peacekeepers and murdering Dinka officials, it was blamed by some on media inciting tit-for-tat attacks. Jok Madut Jok, an academic and former culture minister, who had been one of the most passionate exponents of South Sudan, was among many intellectuals who railed against international reporting of the ethnic slaughter as irresponsible and lacking in context.

When leaders fail to uphold their duty to unite, and instead add fuel to the flame by exacerbating the deep-rooted tensions between tribes (Dinka and Nuers here, Murle years ago…), they literally play with fire. In other words, they deliberately play with the lives of civilians only willing to live peacefully in a new country which could have a bright future. Some observers have rightfully raised the spectre of civil war but it is not too late (yet)  to stop the developing conflict before it could head toward a broader conflict.


After years of denial from the international community, the only way out of a repeat of past wars will be another round of payoffs to military commanders and a reluctant return to square one on the state-building board, accompanied by an admission of past failures.

There is no doubt the tension has been brewing for some time, and the South Sudanese I talked to told me they are more determined than ever to change things. On the independence of South Sudan, I wrote: South Sudan: Render unto southern Sudanese that which is theirs. Rome wasn’t built in a day, so won’t South Sudan. After years and decades of wars and conflicts, they deserve better than any kind of patronizing. They can be assured of my unfailing, constant support as my interest won’t go away when the news cycle will be over.

I will keep working with the team at the MagkaSama Project to provide the most complete information on South Sudan. Among the great sources available on Twitter, start with Lesley Anne Warner (research fellow at the US-based National Defense University and African security analyst) and her post: South Sudanese Tweeps to follow on #SouthSudanCrisis.

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