Hollywood's role in South Sudan's independence

By Leslie Goffe
BBC News, New York


The Republic of South Sudan will soon be the world's newest nation.

Its independence on Saturday will be celebrated in the United States by Republicans and by Democrats alike, and by Christian conservatives alongside Hollywood liberals.

All have been vocal advocates in the US for an end to war in Sudan that has taken millions of lives and resulted in accusations of genocide.

These advocates include actors Don Cheadle and George Clooney, known to some in the US as "Mr Sudan".

Mr Clooney, convinced by activist friends to use his star power to draw attention to the crisis in Sudan, led a rally in Washington and delivered a speech on Sudan at the United Nations in 2006.

"Everyone feels like this is one issue they can all be on the same side on, and there aren't many of those," Mr Clooney said in an interview.

On the other side, are evangelical Christians determined to stop what they claimed was the persecution and killing of Christians by Muslims from northern Sudan.

Evangelical churches began building hospitals, schools and churches in the mostly animist and Christian south in the 1990s.

Under pressure

In 2004, evangelical groups pressed then-President George W Bush - himself a born-again Christian - to send troops to Sudan.

The president did not go that far but he did impose tough economic sanctions on Sudan and press the Khartoum government to negotiate a peace deal with rebels in the south that was signed in 2005.

image captionGeorge Clooney was in South Sudan for January's independence referendum

But did the lobbying and campaigning by evangelicals and Hollywood celebrities make a difference?

A member of the Bush administration, the former ambassador to Nigeria, John Campbell, thinks so.

"South Sudan captured the public's imagination more than has happened elsewhere in Africa because Christians in Sudan used their grapevine to let Christians in America know that Muslims were persecuting them."

It reminded people, says Mr Campbell, "of the persecution of the Jews in the Soviet Union and elsewhere." Mr Campbell says the role celebrities played was important, too.

"Celebrities made all of this known, in their way, to ordinary people and made it part of the conversation to people who would otherwise not pay much attention to what was happening overseas."

Enoch Awejok, an official at South Sudan's embassy in Washington, also believes the lobbying and campaigning made a difference.

"Without George Clooney and the churches, the CPA [Comprehensive Peace Agreement] would not have occurred," he says.

"And they still have an effective role to play in resolving the outstanding issues in Sudan."

Cool cause

Sudanese expatriates in the United States have campaigned for their country, too.

But New York-based fashion model Mari Malek, born in southern Sudan, founder of the charity Southern Sudan Initiatives, worries that without the involvement of celebrities many Americans would not have been interested in Sudan, at all.

"I just wish people would be more open to learn about things instead of looking at because a celebrity is involved and all of a sudden people want to be involved," says Ms Malek.

"I think people should be more open-minded instead of looking at it as a cool thing."

Sudan became "cool" to Americans looking for a cause to support in 2003 when the film Lost Boys of Sudan was released.

This was a documentary about the remarkable story of the hundreds of Sudanese boys who fled the civil war, walked for weeks to Ethiopia, where their refugee camps were attacked, forcing them to flee to Kenya, before they were finally allowed into the US.

The film helped make the plight of the people of Sudan known and make it a cause many Americans wanted to be involved in.

Ger Duany is one of the Lost Boys of Sudan. An actor who lives now in Harlem, in New York City, Duany was featured in the Hollywood film I Heart Huckabees.

Duany says he made sure to lobby and tell his co-stars on the film - Dustin Hoffman and Mark Wahlberg - what he faced in Sudan.

media captionSouth Sudan is set to gain independence from Sudan on 9 July 2011

"I spoke to a lot of guys and they were very supportive people, Mark Wahlberg mostly, but I think in a way more could have been done. We are not free," says Duany, who plans on being in South Sudan to celebrate its official independence on 9 July.

South Sudan has enjoyed a lot of support in the United States.

But now that it is about to achieve its independence some are concerned that Americans who campaigned and lobbied on its behalf, will find some other "cool" cause to occupy them.

If this does happen, says Ms Malek, then Sudanese expatriates in the US will do whatever they have to to ensure their new country is not forgotten.

"I think that the new generation of South Sudan people who migrated here to the USA are going to keep the momentum going," she says.

"So, with or without the celebrities, I think we are strong enough to keep pushing the momentum."

As for Mr Campbell, the former Bush administration ambassador to Nigeria, he says Americans will be content to turn their attention elsewhere if after 9 July, boundary lines between north and south are respected and there is agreement on how the oil revenue will be divided up.

If, however, says Mr Campbell, "we see the kind of bloodshed we have seen over the past several weeks then I don't think American attention or interest in Sudan and South Sudan will dissipate, at all."

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