The New York Times and other media report that South Sudan president Salva Kiir and ex-vice president Riek Machar, and their respective forces, have signed a cease-fire in Addis Ababa. The civil war, which started in December 2013, has left thousands dead and estimates are that at least a half a million South Sudanese have been displaced in what under the best of circumstances is one of the poorest countries in the world.
Any cease-fire must be welcomed. However, thus far there is little indication that the political, economic, and social problems that underpinned the fighting are being addressed. The cease-fire has the appearance of a deal between two warlords responding to outside pressure to stop the killing.
On so many grounds the fighting in South Sudan has been a disaster. But, one is the negative impact it likely will have on how some (or many) Americans regard Africa. Africa is usually far from American concerns, except in specialist circles. With the arguable exception of Liberia, the United States has never had a colonial relationship with the continent, and the trade and investment relationship is small. Popular U.S. involvement has generally been related to security issues, such as when there were African proxies for East and West during the Cold War, or the current jihadis in the Sahel, or natural or man-made humanitarian disasters.
South Sudan’s struggles were different. The Khartoum regime’s repression of the Christian and animist south struck a chord among Americans who had previously paid little attention to Africa. The “lost boys” of Sudan–orphaned by Khartoum’s brutality–were a cause taken up by parishes and congregations across the United States and encouraged by Hollywood figures such as George Clooney and human rights activists. South Sudan’s achievement of independence in 2012 was popularly welcomed in the United States, though with little appreciation of the obstacles still to be overcome. Now, South Sudan’s promise, its dream, has been besmirched. My concern is that at least some Americans who engaged with Africa for the first time over the South Sudan crisis will turn away from the continent. That would be bad for the United States and bad for Africa.