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saving south sudan doc

The Dark Continent

This is the second chapter of Robert Young Pelton and Tim Freccia's sprawling 35,000-plus word epic exploration of the crisis in South Sudan. We will release a new chapter daily, but you can skip ahead

All photos by Tim Freccia

Do not believe almost anything you read or hear about Africa, especially concerning the continent’s cultural sensitivity, ethnic peculiarities, or borders. The source of this information usually has an agenda, is an outright bigot or moron, or has some misguided notion of how African salvation might eventually occur at some wholly imagined point in the future. Forget everything and just be honest: Greater Africa is a country, or is at least treated as one by most of the world, no matter how politically incorrect it may be to plainly state such a thing. It’s a market and a marketing hook; it’s a carefully analyzed genre of the fashion, music, and travel industries; and above all else, it is and always has been a singular obsession of the West. It’s the place somebody is always trying to save.


Technically, on a map, Africa is 54 seething nations chock-full of white, black, brown, and yellow people of every religion and persuasion, all communicating in real time via internet-wired coffee shops, mystical auras, largely indecipherable tribal bickering, machetes, and bullets. It’s also complex, vast, and rapidly changing. But if we’re really honest, at the end of the day, to many of us it’s just “Africa.”

Those carefully etched border lines found on modern-day maps of the vast continent have nothing to do with the ancient tribes and civilizations that continue to rule over it. Rather, they are territorial remnants of foreigners’ greed, good intentions, and brutal wars. Yet to complete our journey, we will need to talk to people who will put stamps in our passports, ignore diplomatic blessings, and speak to every manner of rebel and activist about Africa’s ephemeral borders and abiding cultural separations. This is particularly relevant given that our ultimate destination—South Sudan—lies within the newest lines on the map, and our mission is to find the secret hideout of ousted vice president Riek Machar and get his version of the truth. Skittish pilots aside, daunting doesn’t even begin to define the task at hand.

Ever since Ptolemy pondered the source of the Nile, ever since explorers went looking for the mythical kingdom of Prester John, Africa has attracted the mystical, the hysterical, the greedy, the well intentioned, and certainly the brutal. Until the early 1970s, most print maps still had white areas marked with phrases like “Not Enough Data” to demarcate large swaths of land where satellite or aerial photos couldn’t penetrate the clouds. Yet these areas have been inhabited since the dawn of Homo sapiens, never mind the emergence of the various hairy, upright beasts from which we descended. How did the reputed birthplace of mankind become so dark and hopeless in such a relatively short span of time?


The European search for the source of the Nile in the mid 19th century triggered a hysteria equal to the madness of the Space Race in the 1960s. Who would be first to discover the source of the Nile? What glory awaited the brave souls who challenged the primordial recesses of Africa? Despite the sense of the unknown, the pith-helmeted explorers sent forth by the Royal Geographical Society simply followed well-worn Arab slave routes. When more plucky opportunists finally located in Burundi the tiny stream that fed the ancient Nile, they seemed terribly excited. The locals didn’t care. They wanted to know what was in it for them. Discovering Africa seemed an odd obsession to the people who lived there.

When British explorers arrived at the vast swamps of the Sudd marshes in what is now South Sudan, they were stopped by massive floating islands of vegetation. Although the whites were convinced that the landscape before them was impassable, the local Nuer tribesmen just shrugged and kept paddling past them. To outsiders, Africa was—and still is, in many ways—all impenetrable swamp, desert, and forest. To the tribes who had lived off the land for millennia, it was just home.

A soldier and a baby at Riek Machar’s base near Akobo, South Sudan

Africa has only ever been a mystery to outsiders, not the approximately 7,400 known tribes who populated the continent for centuries. Granted, some of these tribes were completely wiped out; others, such as those living in what is now South Sudan, eked out a hand-to-mouth pastoral existence. The persistent but constantly rotating cast of corrupt leaders and regimes has, of course, only exacerbated Africa’s problems. Take, for example, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, the president of Central Africa’s Equatorial Guinea, who is known for pondering his nation’s future from inside the lush fuselage of his private Boeing 737 jet. Once a backwater known as Fernando Pó, Equatorial Guinea is now, per capita, the richest nation in Africa, according to the IMF and World Bank. This is largely due to its abundance of previously untapped oil reserves.


In 2005, before the oil money was in full flow, I spent some time with President Obiang. We discussed Equatorial Guinea’s newfound wealth. He told me that one of his chief concerns was how he could preserve the cultural identity of the nation’s relatively meager population of 722,000 as the revenues from 1.1 billion barrels of proven oil reserves came rolling in. He told me that he considered the sort of wealth accrued from oil discovery to be a curse, because he knew it would “destroy” his country. This existential dilemma didn’t stop the deeply concerned president and his family from holding on to a few billion for themselves (just for safekeeping, of course). The point Obiang was making is that Africa is rich. Africa is populous. Africa is the place where most of the world’s untapped natural resources and fertile land lie waiting to be exploited. And ultimately it will be Africans who will reap the benefits.

According to estimates by the UN, over the next 100 years Africa’s total population will quadruple. At the same time, the continent’s share of the world economy is expected to double. The GDP of African nations is now growing by more than 4 percent a year. Because most, if not all, major land-based resource discoveries will take place on a continent roughly three times the size of the United States, the possibilities are truly endless.

So the stereotype that Africa is “poor,” “backward,” and “scary” should be challenged. The origin of this misperception is complex. Is it because the inequality of wealth distribution across the continent makes Occupy Wall Street seem like a piece of performance art, or because we affluent Westerners want it to be that way so we can save it? Is it because of the white guilt demonstrated by the thousands of infomercials, charities, and celebrity representatives who telegraph Africa’s poverty, disease, violence, and illiteracy into our collective conscious?


Africa has always been rich. Before colonial times, Africans, Arabs, and Europeans simply took what they wanted. Slaving was a convenient way to make a maximum profit in a minimum area, a system so efficient it was imported wholesale to fuel the success of the New World.

In the aftermath of World War II, Africa was handed back to those the Allies believed to be its rightful owners. If it wasn’t then, it’s now completely unsurprising when these strongmen were revealed to be pawns of the former colonialists. The reoccurring theme of the 70s and 80s was, if an African ruler couldn’t be bought, then he could be overthrown or killed.

Russia stirred things up through the end of the Cold War, igniting dozens of coups, countercoups, civil conflicts, and bush wars. The CIA reciprocated, arming counterrevolutionaries and dictators. These were dirty wars that led to even dirtier wars that blossomed into full-on ethnic cleansing and wholesale slaughter. Those wars and lack of stability triggered everything from poaching and land destruction to disease and starvation. By the early 80s, Africa had shot from mere poverty straight into the apocalypse.

A group of defected SPLA soldiers in Akobo

Most of this went unseen by the general public until a slightly out-of-sync Irish musician rekindled the world’s obsession with Africa. By the early 80s, singer-songwriter and future musical activist Bob Geldof had a string of lackluster albums and a growing sense of frustration about what to do with his life. In October 1984, he and millions of other people watched a BBC documentary by Michael Buerk on starvation in Korem, Ethiopia, in the wake of conflict that had decimated the country.


Moved like many others by the film’s images of suffering, Geldof didn’t really want to focus on the causes of the famine: meddling by Russia, social engineering, decades of war, corruption, the collapse of infrastructure, and the cyclical environmental disasters that bring about famine. He saw hungry people and wanted to feed them. He just needed people to care. And so he would write a song.

In 1984 Geldof and Scotsman James “Midge” Ure co-wrote and produced “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” With fluffy lyrics like “There’s a world outside your window / And it’s a world of dread and fear,” and “The Christmas bells that ring there / Are the clanging chimes of doom,” this ditty sung by 80s boy bands and pop singers could not be accused of being deep or instructive about the woes of Africa. But the catchy refrain of “Feed the world” seemed to hit the right chord. The video and lyrics were free from any images of the actual Africans or famine areas the song intended to help.

The song, featuring a chorus of Boy George, Bananarama, Sting, Simon Le Bon, Bono, and George Michael, became the second-biggest-selling record in UK history. It went on to sell 4 million copies and generated about $8 million dollars.

Inspired by Geldof’s success, manager Ken Kragen wanted to replicate the concept of a pop song generating funds for famine victims. He decided he would organize a star-studded mega-choral tribute to the world’s woes following the 1985 Grammy Awards. This resulted in “We Are the World,” written by Michael Jackson with Lionel Richie and produced by Quincy Jones. The proceeds from the sale of the single went to a charity called the USA for Africa Foundation. That hit song and other events were credited with eventually raising a stunning $100 million. As Bob Dylan warbled, “We are saving our own lives / We make a better day / Just you and me,” listeners never noticed the song didn’t even mention famine or Africa.


On July 13, 1985, an inspired Geldof and Ure put on a 16-hour charity concert called Live Aid with the goal of raising lots of money for famine relief in Ethiopia and what is modern-day Eritrea. A reported 175,000 attended one of two venues in New York and London, and 1.5 billion people tuned in to a dual-venue live broadcast on television. The concert initially raised $245 million in relief funds.

By any measure, the idea of a pop song raising awareness for a disaster was a glowing success all around—proof that pop culture and young people could inspire change. It could be argued that Live Aid had less of an impact on Ethiopia in particular than on Africa in general, in the sense that it suddenly became cool to want to help it—though what help or it means is still not clear. The logo of Live Aid was a guitar in the shape of Africa with a tiny generic photo of a starving black kid down in the corner.

None of this meant anyone learned about the context of the 400,000 Ethiopians who had starved to death against a backdrop of a decades-long civil war and socialist policies that made farming nearly impossible in most areas. It was humanitarian aid used as a weapon of war. And that wouldn’t make for good TV.

Where the money went or whose pocket it might end up in once it got to Africa was not completely clear, and in the ensuing years many well-meaning charities throughout the continent have been accused of unwittingly handing over donations to a chain of organizations that have helped fund bloody uprisings, ethnic cleansing, and corrupt regimes.


A mother and child in a civilian camp outside Machar’s base in Akobo, South Sudan

Few questioned anything until 2005’s Live 8 series of international simulcast concerts, when Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly—of all people—made a stink while questioning Bono about the potential for funds he was raising to end up in the hands of warlords and corrupt officials. The U2 frontman gave a bumbling interview that was preceded by a similarly barbed piece in the Guardian. Later, in 2010, the BBC—which had aired the very report that inspired Geldof to dream up Band Aid, Live Aid, and so on—alleged that a significant amount of the charitable donations generated by these ventures was used to buy arms and kill people. Geldof lost it in a very public way and made some frenzied attempts to discredit the BBC’s reporting. Saving Africa had its problems if you looked too deeply.

Regardless, based on the math, even if Live Aid had raised $10 billion, it never stood a chance of saving the continent. According to the Wall Street Journal, at least $1 trillion of development-related aid has been transferred from rich countries to Africa over the last 60 years, but it hasn’t seemed to have much of an impact either.

A hallmark of Western naïveté was the media’s treatment of the recent death of Nelson Mandela, held up as an icon of peace and positive change for the continent. The typical summary of his rise from jailed terrorist to gray-haired president of post-Apartheid South Africa and, finally, to a myth on par with Gandhi usually leaves out a few facts. For example, that Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the anti-Apartheid “freedom fighters” under Mandela’s command until his arrest in 1962, were known for wrapping gasoline-filled tires around the chests of their opponents and burning them to death. As late as 1985, Mandela’s wife, Winnie, caused a lot of harm to the anti-Apartheid movement by stating, “With our matches and our necklaces we will liberate this country.” But people usually don’t talk about stuff like that when they mention Nelson Mandela.

When Mandela stepped down after his first term in elected office, it was held up as proof that Africa can fix Africa, but not much other explanation was offered. That’s when the heavy hitters really came in. Who needs Bob Geldof or the Who when you have Clinton, Gates, and Buffett suddenly eager to show that Africa can function just like America—with only a little bit more development. They focused on the basics: clean water, malaria nets, solar power, education… you name it. Flip on a news channel, and there was a billionaire or celebrity telling you how to fix it.

Overnight, it seemed, America suddenly knew that there were good diamonds and “blood diamonds.” Then, while hardly anyone could be expected to remember the alphabet soup of all the various groups involved in the operations, we knew that our smartphones required the use of certain minerals found in Congo that were excavated in horrible conditions, sometimes by children. Maybe someday we will be able to buy a responsible smartphone like a pair of cloth shoes that feeds a kid in Uganda, or fair-trade coffee beans that put a few extra cents in some farmer’s pocket. Maybe that will fix everything.

As the new century dawned, 9/11 and Iraq erased any focus on Africa. Islamic terrorism, IEDs, and the Taliban all shifted America and Europe’s attention to fixing the Middle East and South Asia. Africa was—well, Africa. The Dark Continent. Opaque. Unexplored. Unknown.

Then, in early March 2012, young people surfing the internet started watching an amateur film. It seemed homemade, with a man talking to his young son about bad people in Africa. The Kony 2012 movie was created by a small group of religious young filmmakers in San Diego who had formerly appeared on The 700 Club talking about Uganda and showing videos about children who had been kidnapped. This particular film gave a brief history of the despicable deeds of the Lord’s Resistance Army leader, Joseph Kony, who up until then was virtually unknown to the general public. He was also old news in Africa—Kony had fled Uganda six years earlier. The point of the film was to make him “famous” so he would be caught. It was also one of the largest events in the history of the internet, and today it seems that almost everyone between the ages of 12 and 35 knows that there was a very bad man in Africa stealing children and turning them into soldiers. Kony is still at large, and no one quite knows what happened to him. But they do know that the maker of the video was filmed screaming naked at passing cars shortly after his film came out. Briefly, Westerners’ focus shifted from the unfixable violence in the Middle East to something simpler and nobler: Find a bad man in the jungles of Africa, and everything will be fine.

By the time of Mandela’s death and celebrity-packed funeral in December 2013, it seemed once again that Africa could be saved.

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