Please stop ‘birthing’ South Sudan

This is a partial response to Richard Dowden’s essay in African Arguments, 22.1.2014, which I will address further below.

I am bored to tears with the “birth” metaphor for South Sudan.  I can’t be the only one.  South Sudan became independent in 2011, prompting a wave of newspaper articles and comment about ‘the birth’.  It was ‘the birth of’ ‘a new republic,’ ‘a new nation‘, and ‘a new country‘ – pick your preferred political unit.

Two years of independence celebrations later, and yes, it was becoming extremely wearing.  As well as the standard “Christian black South and Arab Islamic North” summary of Sudan-South Sudan politics of old, it seemed that it was now necessary to preface everything about South Sudan with a birth or baby analogy.  South Sudan had had a ‘difficult birth,’ and reviews of ‘birthday celebrations’ – like I catalogued, maybe slightly sarcastically, here and here – were opportunities for people to choose their side, pro- or con-independence.

I don’t want to begrudge South Sudanese people their independence birthday celebrations – and the day is celebrated like a birthday, starting at midnight on the day.  But by 2013, talking of South Sudan’s ‘birth’ in Juba was a common cop-out for political commentators – as in, “our country is only two years old, it is new born, what can we do.”  This – as many locals pointed out – was a frustrating mischaracterisation of a national leadership and institutionalised elite that had been in power with generalised impunity and massive international support since 2005; a longer gestational period than most two year olds.

But now, in the wake of the crisis in December 2013, I am desperate for a moratorium on the ‘birth’ analogy.

Now, we have ‘midwives,’ in the form of the US, and sometimes the UK and Norway.  These medical attendants ushered the country into the world, cord of aid dependency wrapped around its neck, etc. etc.  We have ‘stillbirth’, we have ‘premature’ birth, surely we have now demonstrated the limits of the sustained metaphor.  But no: Richard Dowden then gave us the ‘caesarean’ birth, by American surgeons.  Part of me wanted to applaud.

According to Dowden, the US ‘forced’ the government of Khartoum to ‘transition to independence’ under the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005, becoming not midwives, but fully-fledged “pro-lifer” surgeons, pushing Bashir into carrying the fetus of South Sudan to term.  Or something.

Dowden’s semi-history summary contains so many half-facts and squirmingly inaccurate asides (“Machar lost and fled to Khartoum where he was given a position in the government. Did that ruin his standing in the eyes of his own people? Not at all.” What?!) that I won’t begin to take it apart.  His ending – that fifty years of independence in Africa has taught South Sudan’s government ‘nothing’ – chimes nicely, however, with the recent use of the birth metaphor and these international midwives and surgeons: South Sudan, the newborn country, was not birthed by its passive people in the referendum vote, and its leaders (with their many manifest failings) are intellectually ‘premature’ as a government.  The only thing to do, obviously, is for the surgeons and midwives to start adoption procedures, and instigate an UNMISS conservatorship, while South Sudanese leaders wrangle for parenting rights in the courts.

I am calling for the death of this metaphor – not because it initially irritated me; not because it provided excuses for Southern leaders in the post-independence period; and not because it’s part of the standard poor journalistic repertoire on South Sudan that editors need to be challenged on.  However, as I have argued elsewhere, these portrayals are dangerous and political.  They encourage lazy analysis and often involve the removal of agency and intelligent, critical thought from the people they discuss.

Surely we’re better than this – and surely, as a professional historian, Dowden is better than this?


(And a p.s. to Dowden, on just one point of fact.  My own thesis is on Southerners in northern Sudan, and I would have a far easier time of research if, as you say, Southerners’ experience of the north was through ‘slave caravans’, there was a lack of southern representation in Khartoum, and the only exchange between northerners and southerners in the city was through kasha demolitions.  Much easier to write.)


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5 responses to “Please stop ‘birthing’ South Sudan

  1. Imogen Thurbon

    I totally agree with your frustration and feel so many of these analyses are insulting to the Sudanese by denying they have any free agency of their own. Too often, it seems analysts resort to slick, attention-grabbing turns of phrase which, although they might succeed in drawing readers in to explore sth they might otherwise have passed over, often serve only to oversimplify and belittle the Sudanese. What I found really unsettling about Dowden’s article was in one line, he manages to rob Southern Sudanese and their state of any legitimacy – reducing them to naive pawns of American fundamentalists and their sway in Congress. It is really far more about the writer’s perceptions of US and its flawed foreign policies than it is about Southern Sudanese. (I hasten to add I am absolutely NO fan of US fundamentalists! )

    • Absolutely agreed – and there’s also the fact that calling a government ‘prematurely’ independent, and saying that African leaders have ‘learnt nothing’ from 50 years of independence, is painfully colonial…?

  2. Agree 100%. I was surprised by the dismissive tone of Dowden’s piece – it didn’t even have the ostensibly objective/academic face of those articles calling for placing South Sudan under a “trusteeship” of the UN or USA. The South Sudanese hit back pretty hard against those ( and I’m sure Dowden’s article has hit a similar nerve. Let it never be said that international aid or diplomacy can’t be just as “colonially” minded as anyone else.

  3. Framing South Sudan as the international community’s “experiment” both highlights our continuing neocolonialism in aid-donor clothes, and erases the millions of people in northern and southern Sudan for whom the “experiment” is their political investment and everyday life.

    • Right! It makes me think of the old American country western song Harper Valley PTA, where the woman bites back at all the hypocritical/patronizing criticisms of her being “unfit” to be a mother. Also makes me think of Bill Hicks on smoking: “I’ll smoke, I’ll cough, I’ll get the tumors, I’ll die, deal? Thank you America,” except in this case it’s they’ll fight, they’ll make deals, they’ll suffer when those deals break down.” I think they know what the stakes are, and I think that’s why they get so frustrated when the international response is “Just sign a deal on oil. Just form a government. Just agree with Khartoum. Just pass this law.” *steps off of soapbox*

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