All human history, everyone knows, comes down to sex, violence and oil, so that in the end is the story of Sudan.
But Sudan's story also includes dumb people in Hollywood and Washington who wanted to be in Hollywood movies and how they helped create the world's most failed "failed state" and how this outcome was predictable to smart people. But unfortunately it also involves a horrifying catastrophe that has resulted in the death of many, many people. Here is what you need to know about Sudan.
Sudan is a big country in Africa, below Egypt. It used to be all one country but then some people in Washington and Hollywood, not necessarily in that order, decided it should be two and so South Sudan was created in 2011. What happened is that the U.S. and other people insisted that Sudan allow people who lived in southern Sudan to have a referendum about whether to become a new country and the people of southern Sudan overwhelmingly (by 98.83 percent, according to this story) voted for independence.
That made sense because the government of Sudan treated the southerners badly and there is a lot of oil in the south of Sudan and the government didn't use the oil revenue to help the southerners. So, in theory, by voting for independence and creating the new nation of South Sudan all southerners were going to be rich because their new government would have all that oil money and spend it on education, health care, etc. But this was never going to happen for reasons that will become apparent below.
What did happen is that some governments succeeded in creating South Sudan and some celebrities, like George Clooney and Nicholas Kristof, succeeded in making it the world's emotional petting zoo. And it has also become a cash cow for NGOs and international aid workers.
But the main thing to note here is that South Sudan was basically created because Susan Rice, now the United States National Security Advisor (?), decided that because of what happened in Rwanda, when the U.S. did nothing to prevent one of the worst genocides of recent times, that the U.S. should do more to save the world.
But South Sudan was not a good place to save the world because it is a big mess. Also, the U.S. never really wants to save the world; like every great power it seeks to accrue more power and wealth and acts primarily to protect and expands its interests. It doesn't give a shit about anything else. (See, not necessarily in chronological order, Iran, Guatemala, Vietnam, Nicaragua, Afghanistan, Iraq and on and on and on. The idea that the United States has some sort of special role/mission in the world and is a unique force of good unlike any force of good previously known in human history is so laughable that no one serious could consider it, yet Barack Obama and every other president [and the entire media, from the New York Times to Ron Burgundy] treats it as an accepted fact.)
(I don't really have time to go into this here but I loathe Nicholas Kristof. He's such a jerk and it must be so hard carrying the White Man's Burden, it's so heavy. Here's what he wrote—in his "On the Ground" report—when South Sudan became independent: "A warm welcome to the world's newest country, South Sudan, after a tumultuous independence struggle of more than 50 years that cost more than 3 million lives. South Sudanese deserve the celebration they're enjoying in Juba and around the country." He is such a clueless buffoon he didn't even know he was joking.)
Fast forward a bit. George Clooney, like so many Hollywood stars before him, decided he wanted to save the world too and for whatever reason he decided to save South Sudan. And he also somehow got hooked up with former State Department official John Prendergast, who is apparently handsome and dashing and also rather obviously wanted George Clooney to play him in a movie in which a wonderful dude named John Prendergast creates South Sudan and makes everyone there happy (he and Clooney also came up with the brilliant idea, while lying under the stars in Sudan, of creating spy satellites for the country).
Prendergast is a Hollywood big shot in his own right and has appeared in a movie called "Darfur Now." He is also a winner of the Huffington Post's "Game Changer" award, which means he is so utterly clueless that he thought Clooney would play him in movie that was nonfiction.
So South Sudan gained independence in late-2011 and the world, and George Clooney, et al, cheered (Clooney was, in fact, on site in Juba for the vote). But things immediately turned to shit despite Clooney's presence and the cool satellites because the leaders of South Sudan are a gang of murderous thieves and severely factionalized along tribal and inter-tribal lines. And also because the key thing is they all wanted first rights to steal oil revenues and anything else of value they could get their hands on (that NGOs and international aid workers hadn't gotten to first) so there was very obviously going to be a bloody struggle for power.
I can't prove it was obvious but I can say that it was more or less foretold that there would be be a bloody struggle for power before it happened. Also, I've reported from Sudan once and though it was a long time ago (2005) I met a lot of senior government officials, including at least one alleged war criminal who has also helped the U.S. out from time to time. (His name, as you'll see if you click this link, is Maj. Gen. Salah Abdallah Gosh. He smokes so you know he's bad.) Also, I still read about Sudan a lot and follow events there and periodically interview smart people who are genuine experts on the topic even though this is the first time in awhile that I have written about it.
An aside: As to the leaders of what is now still called Sudan, obviously to the north of South Sudan, they are not very nice either. For example, they harbored Osama bin Laden for awhile—though to be fair he wasn't as bad then as he was later but he was still bad—and the current president is wanted for alleged war crimes and there is of course Darfur, which is more complicated then it sounds, but that's another story. Also, the current president is pretty special because he's the only sitting head of state to be wanted for war crimes and there are so many other good candidates, like Dick Cheney or Barack Obama. Maybe that's a joke and maybe it's not.
Also, the people in Sudan are mostly Arabs, which in this story makes them White. The people in South Sudan are mostly, or maybe entirely, Black. Interpret this information as you see fit. Also, some of the southerners are believers in Jesus Christ, which explains why some crazy Americans believed that the formation of South Sudan was good and heralded the Apocalypse, which they believe is a good thing. Also, no one really knows how many Christians there are in South Sudan and how many are infidels, not even Wikipedia. And also George W. Bush is partly to blame for all this too.
A disclosure: I was once on good terms with various Sudanese officials, including the head of their intelligence service who handled bin Laden when the latter lived in Sudan, but also in fairness he also helped render Carlos the Jackal to France from Sudan, where he lived for awhile and ate croissants every morning at the Meridien Hotel. But that is also another story. (But basically I was the Sudanese government's vehicle to send a message to the U.S. government. In journalism, as in life in general, you take your allies where you can find them. And as typically happens with me, I was a flawed vehicle and the message was received but Sudan didn't become a better friend to the U.S. government, which is what it wanted.)
Anyway, back to the main story. The other reason things turned to shit is that South Sudan was never going to be a viable country. Once you took away the North-South tension, there was inevitably going to be a lot of South-South tension because of the stuff I wrote about a few paragraphs back about the South Sudanese leadership being a gang of thieves, etc.
Here are the main characters. Some of them are now dead but it doesn't really matter. I guess I should mention that many powerful people in the broad story of South Sudan are Dinkas from Bor. Other powerful people in this broad story are Dinkas from Bahr el Ghazal. Others are Nuer, another powerful tribe.
The current president, Salva Kiir, has led the country since independence so that makes him George Washington but he's even worse. Another person worth mentioning is John Garang. I should note here that he died in a helicopter crash in 2005 and that made things worse but they were already bad and this was six years before South Sudan existed and this still matters.
Garang's widow, Rebecca Nyandeng De Mabior, was recently fired by Salva Kiir as his advisor on gender issues and human rights. That's not a joke. Obviously some Western consultant got paid ~$100 million for coming up with titles for government officials in the newly-created nation.
Then there's Riek Machar. Let's just say he's an especially opportunistic thug and thief (and possibly still alive). Then there's his widow Emma McCune, who died a long time ago but still sort of matters. She was a well-to-do British aid worker in Sudan when she fell in love with Machar and married the guerilla leader. Then she died in a car crash. She's basically Lady Macbeth in a red miniskirt. I wish I had come up with that but it was Garang who dubbed her that. (There is a book about her, it's very depressing.)
I guess I should tell you more about Clooney's role in Sudan too but you can read about it in in this semi-interesting but mostly bad Newsweek story. In the end Clooney is pompous and handsome but he's not the worst person in this tale, that's probably Kristof with his On the Ground blog. Anyway here's an excerpt from that story, in which George Clooney is basically more valuable than an entire country.
If we had to have celebrities, it seemed to me that Clooney was absolutely the best kind. It was March 2012 and Clooney was on his seventh trip to Sudan in as many years. In that time his activism had cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars. I could only imagine the angry conversations he must have endured with worried studio heads and agents in Hollywood when he announced he was off to war in Africa. Now one of the biggest stars of his generation was about to fly to a spot about as far from a hospital as it was possible to be on Earth, and then drive away up a lethal dirt road.
And the only other thing you really need to know is that an internal feud very quietly emerged among the leaders of South Sudan at just about the very moment that Kristof finished his column about how wonderful independence would be. This feud fully erupted later and it's still going on now and a lot of people die every day as a result. See for example, this recent bit of news. (And this is good news by South Sudan standards because no one died in that story, as far as I can tell.)
Moral of the story: South Sudan is now one of the worst places in the world to live, thanks to George Clooney and the American government and a few other people. And the whole thing is very sad, but it's especially sad for the people of South Sudan.
[Photos via Getty/Image by Jim Cooke]