By Bill Fletcher, Jr.
The escalating crisis in the South Sudan, a country only constituted in 2011, has brought with it growing concerns that a nation-state formed with such hope may now be on the verge of civil war. The crisis involves a factional struggle between the president (Salva Kiir) and the dismissed vice president (Riek Machar).
Tensions have been simmering for quite some time. These factional battles have also been interlaced with ethnic tensions between the Dinka and Nuer peoples.
The South Sudanese factional battle has taken many people by surprise. After all, for years the mainstream U.S. media presented the conflict in the Sudan as being between the “Christian” and “Black” South vs. the “Muslim” and not-so-Black North. And certainly when the Darfur crisis unfolded (in the western Sudan), a variation on this theme emerged, so much so that one could end up concluding that the northern Sudan was made up of non-African aliens. There was little hint in the U.S. media that the situation in the Sudan was far more complicated than two solid blocs confronting one another.
It is worth remembering that the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement, which led the struggle of the people of the South Sudan, had not set out to create an independent country. Rather, under the leadership of the late John Garang, they aimed to fuse the movement against the regional oppression of the South with the larger movement for democracy in the entirety of the Sudan. When Garang was killed in a helicopter accident, a shift took place in the leadership of the SPLM which, along with the continued aggression against the people of southern Sudan from the Khartoum regime, contributed to the ultimate decision to split off.
There was an additional contributing factor, both to the split but also to our perceptions. There were forces in the USA, specifically right-wing religious groups, that set out to portray the battle in the Sudan as a modern version of the Crusades. They did this for a variety of larger political reasons frequently tied to Islamophobia.
In either case, the presentations that they made to the U.S. government as well as to the people of the USA would never have led any of us to have understood that (a) there was a larger battle for democracy underway in the Sudan, and (b) there were significant ethnic conflicts within what is today known as South Sudan. Frankly, it was easier to believe the situation in the Sudan to be a simple North/South regional and religious clash rather than recognizing that this on-going conflict had multiple layers.
We now watch the situation in the South Sudan potentially unravel. The world community is calling upon both sides to pull back from the brink. We, as African Americans, should add our voices to such calls. But we should also do a bit more in the future to ensure that we are not hoodwinked by simple answers to very complex questions.
After all, as we have demonstrated time and again, when African Americans pay attention to foreign policy, be it the Vietnam War or South African apartheid, our stand can affect the actions of the U.S. And, just perhaps, had we taken an alternative approach to the Sudan, events might be unfolding in a different manner.
Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a senior scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies and the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum.