Of Humanitarians and African Conflicts

One of the lasting effects of the genocide in Rwanda is that all African conflicts are always compared to Rwanda. The metric always seems to be whether or not they will be as bad as Rwanda if intervention does not occur. Rwanda has become a sign of guilt, a reminder that we as humanity did nothing to stop one of the more atrocious and rapid killings of peoples in an African country. Of course this ignores that the Democratic Republic of Congo has been embroiled in some variation of the same conflict for as almost as long as I’ve been alive (and I’m somewhat old enough to remember images of the late Mandela walking free from Robben Island holding Winnie Madikizela’s hand).

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Not Our Watch: Tim Freccia

When the atrocities in Darfur first made international headlines several politicians and advocacy groups were quick to categorise it as a conflict pitting Christians against Muslims. There was a sense of déjà vu; a clearly identifiable group (Muslims/Arabs) was killing another discernable group (Christians/black African). Samantha Power,  (herself an advocate of intervention) would subsequently start working on raising awareness with a rising star in intervention advocacy circles- John Prendergast. Soon, celebrities like George Clooney (Sudan), Ben Affleck (DRC) and Don Cheadle (Genocide and the environment) had pet projects in African countries. Africa as a whole, and Sudan specifically, has provided the opportunity for foreigners to “find themselves” what scholars refer to as individuation.  As eloquently expressed by Alex Perry’s wonderful piece for Newsweek a few weeks ago, no place has suffered more from individuation than South Sudan.

 

As the conflict in South Sudan has raged on over the past several months one thing has become clear, president Kiir and his erstwhile deputy Dr. Machar appear to be in no hurry to solve the crisis. Despite numerous peace meetings, renewed hostilities seem to appear each day with both sides blaming each other.  What is frustrating is that the same voices that were keen on pushing for South Sudan’s independence appear content with issuing statements lamenting the humanitarian crisis.

You may ask, “shouldn’t the onus to stop the conflict be on the government of South Sudan?” Yes it should, however this question assumes that South Sudan had a proper functioning government to begin with. It assumes that the state apparatus was such that accountability and transparency were built-in from the get-go. The truth is that none of these things existed prior to this crisis and they certainly do not exist now. All the humanitarian help that was poured into South Sudan once it became a country never seemed particularly interested in this. Neither was president Kiir’s government ever held accountable.

The guilt of having not done anything to stop Rwanda in 1994 meant that a lot of humanitarians were willing to turn a blind eye to massive levels of corruption and lawlessness. They went as far as setting up a $526 Billion fund for infrastructure project (in a country with plenty of oil). Moreover, the impact of the Clooney-Prendergast type of intervention has meant that even South Sudanese government officials are willing to forgo their responsibility to protect if it means continued humanitarian intervention. No one epitomises this more clearly than South Sudan’s former ambassador to the US (on trial for treason) remarking, “George Clooney must get more engaged now to help shape the future of this country.”

And that is the complicated and incongruous nature of the relationship between humanitarians and conflicts in Africa.

Wahutu Siguru is the 2013 & Spring 2015 Badzin Fellow in Holocaust and Genocide Studies and PhD candidate in the Sociology department at the University of Minnesota. Siguru’s research interests are in the Sociology of Media, Genocide, Mass Violence and Atrocities (specifically on issues of representation of conflicts in Africa such as Darfur and Rwanda), Collective Memory, and perhaps somewhat tangentially Democracy and Development in Africa. 

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