African story time

George Clooney and John Prendergast's simple story about African conflict breeds ineffective solutions.

Image credit Matt Brown via The Enough Project.

The actor George Clooney and the human rights activist John Prendergast are determined to make us believe their story: the cause of civil war and violence in South Sudan is greed. Repeatedly, for at least a decade, the actor and the activist have argued that the young country – independent in 2011 only to slide into civil war in 2013 – faces horrific violence because it has greedy leaders who will do anything to get wealthy off oil and build big houses, with no care for the state, the people, or the future.

They told this story again last week in Foreign Affairs. Their simple story goes like this: political elite in South Sudan fight over the wealth-producing resources in the country, particularly oil. It is these “spoils that drive conflict” and lead elites to repress the masses. In other words, people like money and will do really bad things to get it.

The timing seems to be the media launch of The Sentry, a multinational NGO that Clooney and Prendergast co-founded. On its website, the organization describes itself as “… a team of policy analysts, regional experts, and financial forensic investigators that follows the money in order to create consequences for those funding and profiting from genocide or other mass atrocities in Africa, and to build leverage for peace.” The Sentry is basically The Enough Project and Not On Our Watch — two other Clooney-Prendergast projects — by another name. The focus this time is broader and is on South Sudan, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, and the Central African Republic.

The Clooney-Prendergast simple story, to paraphrase the Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole, breeds simple solutions. Clooney and Prendergast claim that targeted sanctions can work to “stop corrupt officials from using horrific violence for power.”

What’s wrong with this story?

First, Clooney and Prendergast, despite years of activism regarding atrocities in South Sudan (and, previously, during the Sudanese Civil War), have yet to address the complexity of the conflict. Listening to experts would help.

Leading scholar of Sudan and South Sudan, Alex de Waal, has noted that there is fantastic research on South Sudan, and on the region as a whole. Tapping into this wealth of information would produce better policies – and thus, hopefully, policy outcomes – than what has come over the past several decades.

Historically, it’s difficult to separate the story of conflict in South Sudan from the decades-long civil war in Sudan, which eventually lead to the secession of the south. Examination of this conflict demonstrates that the forces at play aren’t limited to the country, the region, or the discovery of oil wealth. The story is much more complicated.

The Ugandan political scientist Mahmood Mamdani and others have detailed multiple aspects of conflict in the two Sudans, connecting them to colonial practices, Cold War proxy wars between the US and the USSR in neighboring countries and the resultant militarization and militia-ization of ethnic groupsclimate change and competition over land and water resources, and salient political debates around citizenship and belonging. Others have noted the roles of party politics and weak state structures.

Second, in ignoring the complexity of the situation, simplistic solutions are proposed. In a 2016 report on corruption and war crimes in South Sudan, conducted by The Sentry, they argue that specific, targeted sanctions could work to reduce violence.

Professor Rita Abrahamsen, an international affairs scholar at the University of Ottawa, lamented their simplistic narrative, fearing that it would “reduce complex political issues to nice morality tales, but will also lead to emotional politics and irresponsible short-term activism and interventions.”

Clooney and Prendergast sweep aside the effects of messy, long-term U.S. activism and political intervention in the Sudans, including their own. In fact, the United States has tried for a variety of sanctions before, only to be stymied by the complex networks of actors who have vested interest in South Sudan, including China.

Third, the Clooney-Prendergast story is, ostensibly, not just about South Sudan, but about “Africa.” Indeed, the title of the latest piece does not mention South Sudan, but instead is “The key to making peace in Africa.” This framing is problematic.

Simplistic comparisons between South Sudan and other countries rich in resources ignore local causes of conflict. For example, Clooney and Prendergast compare South Sudan to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, rendering invisible long-term local disputes unrelated to mineral wealth. To put it differently, we wouldn’t conflate the politics of Idaho with those of New York. We shouldn’t do this in the case of two very different countries. Specificity matters.

As noted above, however, the Clooney-Prendergast story goes beyond comparison with other countries by making the South Sudan civil war emblematic of all African conflicts. In doing so, tired and stale narratives of corrupt African leaders who are amoral and greedy are reproduced, and the West is rendered the moral savior.

Such stories may make great Hollywood blockbusters (leaving Black Panther aside for flipping the narrative), but they only exacerbate misconceptions about the continent. Africanist political science (and African Studies, more largely), has challenged and contested these stereotypes. Again Clooney and Prendergast could learn from these initiatives.

Clooney and Prendergast have been telling their story of greed-driven conflict in South Sudan and neighboring states for years, and with celebrity status are hailed as heroes who are trying to do good. But their stories are incomplete: they sweep aside history and global connections, render African leaders amoral and African people helpless, and re-assert Western initiatives as the only viable solutions.

Other stories are out there – after decades of mis-steps in the Sudans, driven by simplistic narratives, it would do us well to listen to them.

Further Reading

‘The media and war-mongering’

Journalist Maggie Fick is covering South Sudan’s self-determination referendum for the AP. She’s only one of hundreds of other reporters who have set up camp, for what The New York Times correspondent Jeffrey Gettleman described …