09 July 2011

South Sudan is a Nation; Thank You Local Celebrity

After reading this post, do go read Bec Hamilton's thoughts on the NYT article here
The photograph offers a unique window into what is happening now. American celebrities and religious groups teamed up with policy makers and helped a forlorn underdog region finally achieve what very few separatist movements achieve: independence. On Saturday, after decades of guerrilla struggles and intense international pressure, the Republic of South Sudan will officially split off from the north and become Africa’s 54th country. 

“Once you got someone like George Clooney, for example....” Mr. Walkley trails off with a smile. “George packs power.” 

Sudan has been an obsession for the West for more than 100 years, and it is an interesting question why, of all the world’s war zones and all the blood baths Africa has witnessed — Liberia, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, to name a few — this place has grabbed so much attention.
That is how yesterday's New York Times article, Sudan Movement’s Mission Is Secured: Statehood, by Jeffrey Gettlemen begins. The historic independence of South Sudan is thanks to the efforts of Clooney and other celebrities;  at least that is what the article wants readers to think.
“Would this have taken place without celebrities?” Mr. Walkley, the consul general, asked. “I think the celebrities had a lot to do with it.”
Celebrities, he said, “focus attention on a problem. They do it in a bumper sticker fashion, perhaps,” but “if you get millions of people sending blogs to the president, that will have an impact.”
But in Darfur, Western advocates may have complicated matters, too, some analysts contend, pushing a hard line against the government that has made the rebels there more intransigent and peace negotiations more difficult.
Mr. Clooney, who got malaria the last time he was in Sudan, was not expected for the festivities on Saturday. But religious groups will be represented. The only nongovernment employee in President Obama’s official delegation to Juba besides Mr. Powell is Ken Hackett, president of Catholic Relief Services.
The fourth paragraph does add a little bit of skepticism to the discussion, but is more of a toss away sentence rather than a substantive discussion point. No doubt that awareness and advocacy campaigns made some sort of contribution to the independence of South Sudan, but the story should be about the people of South Sudan who fought for decades for their independence. Or what about the supportive diaspora who lobbied and provided support to their families and neighbors living in the now new nation?
As usual, the story has to be framed by the heroics of outsiders. There is a story here, that of the 20 year effort by the evangelical Christian coalition. But it only gets a few paragraphs of the entire story.
In 2001, Christian groups found a friend in the White House. The administration of George W. Bush pushed southern rebels, who had been fighting for self-determination for decades, and Sudan’s central government to sign a comprehensive peace agreement in 2005, which guaranteed the southerners the right to secede.
An article about how the effort to ensure a Christian South Sudan is interesting and worthy of a lengthy report. However, at the moment of a nation's birth now is the time for the people who have a nation that they can call home is what should be discussed. Many individuals, groups and nations have contributed to the realization of the new state. Everyone should celebrate, but the moment is not about us. It is not about what George Clooney did or did not do. It is not about faith.

It is about independence and a new nation.

Bec Hamilton, a reporter that I respect immensely, offers her thoughts on the piece that is a must read. She concludes saying:
They include several quotes from the man who is now the U.S. ChargĂ© d’Affaires in Juba, Barrie Walkley, including the following:
“Would this have taken place without celebrities?” Mr. Walkley, the consul general, asked. “I think the celebrities had a lot to do with it.”
This is simply not true. Sudanese, first and foremost, in addition to a core group of Americans, and many others globally, worked on this for two decades and got right to the point where Sudan agreed to let southern Sudanese have a self-determination referendum before any American celebrity took up their cause. The same is not true of Darfur of course, but the question before Walkley is what it took to get to this point in South Sudan.

This is not about what good Clooney has or has not done in Sudan. It is about the choice to frame your story around him, when he is not even there, and thereby lay his short shadow over the long story of the liberation movement. And it feels particularly egregious to do so on a day that marks the independence of a people who have fought for generations, and lost two million of their own, to the struggle.
Read her full post here.