As the Second World War drew to a close, Winston Churchill remarked, “History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.” Even though historians read Churchill’s magnum opus on the war with a highly critical eye, observing his selectiveness and slant, his narrative of the decade from 1935-45 still dominates the popular imagination.

Many politicians have tried to emulate Churchill. Few have succeeded as well as he. Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in her recent book Hard Choices, (NY, Simon and Schuster), is one. It is a long and pedestrian book that is widely seen as a reference for her expected presidential bid—an exercise in showing that she was an energetic and effective Secretary of State.

I want to dwell on one episode in her book that takes up just two pages (383-5), in which she misrepresents her role in August 2012 in helping to end the crisis between South Sudan and Sudan. She writes:

“So in August I flew to Juba, the new capital of South Sudan, to try to broker a deal. It had taken years of patient diplomacy to end the civil war and midwife the birth of a new nation, and we couldn’t let that achievement fall apart now. What’s more, with intense efforts under way to convince energy-hungry nations to reduce the consumption of Iranian oil and shift to new suppliers, we could ill afford to see Sudanese oil go off the market.

“But the new President of South Sudan, Salva Kiir, wouldn’t budge. I listened to him explain all the reasons why South Sudan couldn’t compromise with the North on an oil deal. Behind all the arguments about pricing and refining was a simple human reality: these battle-scarred freedom fighters couldn’t bring themselves to move beyond the horrors of the past, even if it meant starving their new nation of the resources it needed to thrive. When the President paused, I decided to try a different tack. I took out a copy of an op-ed that had run in the New York Times just a few days before and slid it across the table. ‘Before we go any further, I would appreciate you reading this,’ I told him. President Kiir was curious; this was unusual behavior in a high-level diplomatic meeting. As he began to read, his eyes widened. Pointing to the byline, he said, ‘He was a soldier with me.’ ‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘but now he’s a man of peace. And he remembers that you fought together for freedom and dignity, not for oil.’…”

And so, in her account, she convinced Salva Kiir to sign.

It didn’t happen like that. The real story is that there were intense negotiations between Sudan and South Sudan, convened by the African Union High-Level Implementation Panel, on the basis of a communiqué by the AU Peace and Security Council and a subsequent United Nations Security Council resolution (2046), which gave a deadline of May 2, 2012, for the key issues between the two countries to be resolved. On August 2, as the deadline approached, South Sudan’s chief negotiator, Pagan Amum, found himself in a corner. The agreement on the table, every detail of which had been relentlessly discussed over the previous months, was almost identical to one he had contemptuously rejected six and a half months earlier (in fact, slightly less favorable), but Pagan was convinced that he had no option but to agree.

Pagan’s problem was losing face. He had overruled his president in January and insisted that the shut-down go ahead, and he now needed to find a way of backing down without causing further humiliation.

As it happened, Clinton had a brief stopover in Juba that same day, as part of a wider Africa trip. The U.S. policy was to support the AUHIP and for South Sudan to make the concessions necessary for a deal, and she had been briefed accordingly. She had a good record of acting firmly on her Special Envoy’s advice—notably, she had intervened in June 2011 to assuage Sudanese fears about the UN Interim Security Force for Abyei (UNISFA), assuring them that its mandate would be that precisely that agreed by the negotiating teams in Addis Ababa, and would not be rewritten by the UN Security Council. She did the same in August 2012, but it was a sideshow.

President Thabo Mbeki, chair of the AUHIP, was well aware of the pressure that Pagan was under. He advised Pagan, “blame me and give the U.S. the credit.”

So Clinton is not telling the full story. We can speculate why: the simplest explanation is that this is book for the American electorate and she wanted to tell a simpler story, with a nice human touch, rather than something more complicated and substantial.

There’s also a lesson for Africa: if Africans do not write their own histories, others will do it on their behalf. Generations of African schoolchildren will grow up believing that America was responsible for South Sudanese independence and other such myths.

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One Response to Hillary Clinton’s History Lesson for Africa

  1. Alex, your anecdote is a good counter to Clinton’s, but you are a bit naughty in calling it ‘the real story’. There’s a pool of unanswered questions between and around the two testimonies. As far as I know, no half-way serious history has yet been written of the agreement. You could probably do it if you had the time, but perhaps an African will get there first.

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