During a congressional hearing on the crisis in South Sudan on Wednesday, a lawmaker suggested that a majority of South Sudanese fighters were using “spears” against one another, a comment that underscores ingrained stereotypes about Africa and its citizens.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee heard testimony on Wednesday from the Obama administration on the civil strife in the world’s newest country. The fighting, which launched one month ago Wednesday, has caused the displacement of nearly half a million South Sudanese and killed as many as 10,000 according to one estimate. During his time questioning Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) took the conversation in a direction that raised specters of jungle tribes and other associated stereotypes.
“Who’s providing all the guns to these people?” Rohrabacher asked. “If they were militia and all they had were spears or something like that, we probably wouldn’t be too concerned, but they obviously are well-armed.” Thomas-Greenfield answered him evenly, informing him that the rebels under former vice president Riek Machar were likely taking weapons from the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), as there have been defections from their ranks, and from territory taken from the government.
The California Republican’s comment evokes the notion of all denizens of all African countries as being so underdeveloped as to be wielding rudimentary weapons instead of the modern-day guns that you would see in a more civilized country. It also showcases an extreme ignorance of both the situation in South Sudan as well as an ingrained sense of “otherness” that Westerners can often have towards African countries. As for the former, the country did just end a civil war that lead to its independence. This fighting with Sudan — which led to nearly two million deaths over the span of five decades — didn’t exactly take place with spears as the only weapons.
“The combatants in South Sudan have little trouble getting modern weapons,” Mark Quarterman, research director at the Enough Project, told ThinkProgress, calling the region “awash in weapons” after the fight for independence. “In addition, rebel groups across central Africa are plugged in to sophisticated (and not so sophisticated) smuggling markets.” Given that South Sudan also exists within the twenty-first century, Rohrabacher should not be surprised at all that the South Sudanese rebels aren’t consigned to working with the same tools used hundreds of years ago. What might be perhaps more surprising to Rohrabacher is that the rebels’ leader has “earned a doctorate in Britain and prefer[s] Western suits.”