Commentary

Demystifying South Sudan

AidLeap published a great piece highlighting the attitudes and opinions of South Sudanese people facing an increasingly ominous looking crisis ostensibly about a tussle for power between former Vice President Minister Riek Machar and current President Salva Kiir.

Of course, the conflict also has an ethnic element to it as well as being linked to the ongoing problems the world’s youngest state has had with Sudan, from which it split in 2011. The spectre of the International Criminal Court also looms over the politics of the whole region, with both Sudanese President Omar Al Bashir and Machar himself operating under the threat of prosecution. And, as ever, the neighbouring East African states all have their roles to play – this is a region where pretty much all conflict crosses borders, either by design or by accident.

In short, it’s an extremely complicated and confused series of events leading to tragic consequences.

The most important story is how the people of South Sudan are coping , as AidLeap correctly identified. The report that their post mentions is fascinating, offering glimpses of conflict from the inside. Sure, the ethnic elements to the conflict are obvious but more is revealed. The conflation of the military and the political spheres; the use of political violence as an intimidation tactic leading into the 2015 elections; that the political will of key leaders actively combats democracy to enforce personal power. The responses of these 1200 respondents are nuanced and clear eyed, painting a picture of a crisis that can and does mean a lot of different, sometimes contradictory things*.

Sadly, this is rarely the story that we (as consumers of Western media) get presented. The news agenda tends to have focused, with depressing inevitability, on a) how this will Westerners in the country and b) the well worn clichés of African tribal conflict.

Clearly, these are major issues that I do not wish to denigrate. But there is an enormous amount of context missing from the majority of reports about this conflict. Why is that? Sure, a 2 minute broadcast update on a particular offensive doesn’t give a reporter or news organisation a lot of space to discuss the background in much detail. But long, in depth newspaper copy should be dealing with all these issues.

Even relatively good examples – like this New York Times article – deal with (some) of the other issues related to the conflict but uncomfortably package the whole crisis as to how it relates to US geopolitical interests, rather than, I don’t know, the actual problems that South Sudanese people are going through. Take a look at this quote from the piece. I don’t know about you, but including this quote instead of, say, an opinion from a South Sudanese person smacks of a disturbing lack of interest in real reporting:

“We can’t allow the carnage to go on; we can’t allow the capital to be overrun,” said Tom McDonald, who worked on Sudan issues as the American ambassador to Zimbabwe during the administration of Bill Clinton. “We have too much to lose; we’ve put too much into this.”

No wonder people get annoyed with Western reporting on these kinds of issues. (For the record, there are seven quotes in this piece, none from South Sudanese people, none from East African people).

Even worse, as highlighted by this recent Al Jazeera article, foreign reporting within African countries is largely sourced from Western media organisations. This sort of thing isn’t just making people in Europe or the USA take on skewed views of conflicts like the one in South Sudan, its messing with readers in neighbouring states. Hopefully, more people will turn away from shoddy coverage like this and turn to the blogosphere for real nuance.

Good sources

Three cheers for AidLeap!

Paan Luel Wel, a South Sudanese reporter whose blog gathers news focused on the country.

For Twitter users, I recommend James Copnall, a BBC South Sudan reporter.

___

* Interesting as the report was, it was lacking a lot of detail about respondents and, crucially, direct quotes. Perhaps the authors at the Community Empowerment for Progress Organisation has a more detailed version which I have not seen? Let me know if you find anything.

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