What does one immediately associate with Sudan? Darfur, allegations of genocide, a president indicted by the international criminal court and a mistreated south seceding from the north of the country. And now, George Clooney.
As Clooney and his cohorts were arrested for their protest outside the Sudanese embassy in Washington DC on Friday, the preoccupation seemed to be not with the suffering of the Nuba mountain people (the cause Clooney was advocating for), but with celebrity activism. Stars are hoist by their own petard, in that they bring their star factor, but little gravitas, and it is excruciating listening to Clooney's beauty pageant contestant responses to what is actually going on in Sudan. But he's an actor, not a political expert or an academic. He wants to save lives. But how much impact does the US have on the Sudanese government? Very little at best. International involvement that is all stick and no carrot can be counterproductive.
But let's be fair to Clooney, and look beyond the snide comments and the jokes. It is admirable that he is willing to dedicate his time, health and resources to an issue he feels strongly about. I don't doubt that he is earnest. But it has rubbed Sudanese – the most important interlocutors – up the wrong way. The eye-rolling offence that most Sudanese took at this latest incident doesn't mean that they are necessarily fans of the government in Khartoum, but that they have a deep-seated suspicion of US selective moral outrage.
As a Sudanese, I am concerned not because I would like foreigners to stay out of internal affairs, but because the view Clooney is presenting to the world is not an accurate one. This is not out of any deliberate manipulation on his part, but Clooney's campaign is rooted in a political culture that does not care for nuance.
It all really goes deeper than the criticism aimed at his Enough Project, the Save Darfur campaign, or the "genocide paparazzi" satellite monitoring scheme – all of which are symptomatic of an overarching failure in US foreign policy, which promotes a black-and-white understanding of some situations, often underscored by moral superiority. After all, "Arabs are genocidally massacring blacks in the Nuba mountains" is far sexier and easier to digest than "the people of the Nuba mountains sided with the Southern People's Liberation Movement during Sudan's decades-long civil war between north and south, and after the secession of the south last year, a disgruntled SPLM candidate for governor lost what he believed were rigged elections and then took arms against the government in Khartoum in co-operation with the residual Nuba SPLM cadre, whose grievances had still not been addressed".
Clooney stated that the situation in the Nuba mountains was a "man-made tragedy by the government in Khartoum to get these people to leave". It is nothing of the sort. Khartoum is responding to a rebellion in the region (where the SPLM's agitating role is problematic to say the least) with little strategy and mass clumsy bombings, rolling makeshift oil drums full of explosives out of planes. It is apathetic to civilian deaths and not concerned with wiping out inhabitants of the Nuba mountains. This does not make the situation any less desperate, but it is an event that cannot be addressed in isolation from the conditions and provocations that precipitated it.
Sudan Change Now, a Sudanese opposition movement, published a letter to Clooney today stating :
"Portraying the regional conflicts in the country as a simplified war of Arabs and Africans concerns us. It does not fully capture the historical and political aspects of the conflict considering that the Sudanese government is a dictatorship and does not reflect the sentiments of the majority of the people. The regional conflicts in Sudan are not simple and are highly political with a strong basis on economic gains such as oil and other resources."
Rob Crilly of the Telegraph is correct when he writes: "The problem is that his campaign stems from the same misguided analysis that brought us Kony 2012. It is an analysis that reduces Africa to simple notions of good versus evil, and suggests that outsiders hold the key to finding solutions". Sudan is a country where a plethora of issues – such as tribal grazing rights, water availability, diversity of ethnicities and border demarcations – contribute to conflict. The situation is inflamed by decades of entrenched centralisation on the part of successive governments in Khartoum that have alienated the peripheries. Rebellion flares up in and is doused regularly, with fundamental grievances never addressed.
The current government in Sudan is not a benign one, and it might appear churlish not to support an out-and-out condemnation of its actions. But identifying the true nature of the problem enables us to come up with the right solutions. I would urge Clooney to team up with and extend resources to partners in Sudan who can influence the situation internally. It is his best chance of fulfilling his wish of ending up on the "right side of history".