South Sudan’s story: Not just for Christmas

A colleague and friend emailed me last month with the latest in a series of questions concerning why he should care about news emerging from Africa.

Once again my Africa ignorance rises to the surface — really struggling to give a toss about this South Sudan business. Should I care? Is it really important?

Yes it was important, I replied. And my basic points were:

  1. 500 dead (at that time) was quite a lot in any conflict. Since then the numbers have grown. But even by the standards of Africa’s numerous conflicts that was a high death toll that should grab attention of all right thinking people
  2. Donors had staked a huge amount in the survival and eventual success of the world newest country. In some ways it was a test bed for governments and their fragile state and state building policies. If South Sudan went belly up, billions of pounds in aid would have been wasted and years of theorising would have unravelled. This was not just about South Sudan but more broadly about how we went about dealing with all failed, failing and emerging states (this piece gives a sense of the way the US is invested in the place)
  3. But I also agreed with his cynicism. The South Sudan cause spawned an extraordinary coalition of advocacy groups – from the American religious right to its anti-slavery left, including Holocaust charities and movie stars – and it was a project on which many young foreign policy wonkabes cut their teeth before moving on to more senior positions (a fascinating analysis of this is here). The lobby had swung into action fast, with op-eds in all the big papers, in a way that wouldn’t happen with other conflicts

I ended my response by saying that the tragedy was that we don’t generally care very much about Africa’s wars. The question shouldn’t be why was South Sudan making so many waves. Instead we should be asking ourselves how it is that we can ignore so much suffering elsewhere on the continent. Despite all the talk of “Africa rising” the sad truth is that our lives in the West are not connected with what happens in Bamako, Bangui or Juba. Stuff happens and it doesn’t affect us. In some ways it doesn’t really matter.

For the past few weeks, South Sudan has at times led TV bulletins and newspaper world sections, and for that we should be thankful.

But having tried to answer my friend’s question, I have one of my own. Now with Christmas and New Year out of the way, with foreign ministers, diplomats and journalists returning from their holidays, and with the global news cycle emerging from its holiday doldrums, will South Sudan be forgotten?

I suspect it has served its role of Christmas story, something to fill bulletins. Now that there is other news it will be forgotten. But I hope that those journalists that have worked so hard to tell the world what has been happening in Juba and beyond continue to be given the column inches and airtime they need to ensure that pressure is kept on the warring parties and that peace – of some kind – can be found.

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