This post originally appeared on the Development in Action blog.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s brilliant 2007 novel Half of a Yellow Sun details the plight of the brief, doomed breakaway of Biafra from Nigeria in the late 1960s. It follows the interweaving narratives of three main characters, all of whom have a personal stake in the success of the Biafran secession and so stay until the exhausted end of the war with Nigeria they couldn’t hope to win. It is a beautiful read. Well paced and populated with characters whose personal emotions give you access to the hope felt by those first (and last) Biafrans and their stubborn refusal to accept the destruction of their secessionist dream in a brutal war.
This was a war in which more than a million people died, mainly from starvation, as the world watched – it was the war that saw the birth of modern humanitarian aid and Médecins Sans Frontières. It was a war in which old colonial interests were writ large, as the UK and France took up opposite sides, continuing to meddle with the affairs of the region the best part of a decade after it had been declared independent. Amongst the historical, regional, political and religious divides that fuelled this conflict, the machinations of the new world powers, the USA and the Soviet Union, recognising another chance to recruit more allies to their ideological Cold War, fought by proxies all over the world.
Biafra was dominated by the largely Christian Igbo people whereas the Nigerian military government of the time was dominated by the Muslim Hausa people. The split separated two groups with historical ethnic, cultural and religious differences – ones that had caused friction for many years. So why not let them go? As Kainene, an important supporting character in the novel, puts it,
‘It’s the oil,’ she said. ‘They can’t let us go easily with all that oil.’
Thousands of miles across the continent, forty years on and again it is oil that underpins the story of a young country’s secession from a larger nation, established by colonial rule and dominated by one ethno-religious group. South Sudan became an independent state, almost exactly six months ago, on July 9th 2011. The split from the government in Khartoum was a historic and popular step, symbolically splitting the South from a state that had seen two civil wars and millions of deaths in the previous sixty years. In the official referendum in January 2011, around 98% of voters voted in favour of independence.
The Western media headlines might have been grabbed by the drought further west in Somalia and Kenya, but that didn’t mean that international organisations, large companies and governments from around the world didn’t keep their eyes firmly on South Sudan.
Now that they have their independence they have a few other assets that the global community would like to access. Most important of those is oil – the rising price of which is driving protestors to the streets in Nigeria as I write, just as it helped to spark Uganda’s ‘Walk to Work’ protests throughout 2011.
With the desire for investment and profit that inevitably surrounds such an under-developed oil-rich area comes enormous tensions, not least from the International Criminal Court indicted government of Sudan which has repeatedly been accused of meddling with the petroleum resources it no longer owns, most recently using foreign companies to sidetrack crude from the South to refineries in the north.
On top of the clamouring for oil comes human suffering. The UN has warned of an impending humanitarian crisis in the world’s youngest country. Ongoing conflicts with rebel groups, an influx of Sudanese and Ethiopian refugees escaping neighbouring conflict zones, and the general lack of infrastructure and stability have made the last six months something of a baptism of fire. It has left hundreds of thousands of people in an extremely vulnerable situation, cut off from vital food supplies being delivered by humanitarian organisations. As with Biafra, it seems that South Sudan will face a crisis almost immediately after independence.
Regionally, there are several East African states, that make up the Southern border of this new country, with vested interests in keeping it intact. The links between Yoweri Museveni’s NRM government of Uganda and the South Sudanese government are particularly well established because of the high profit potential of trade links between the neighbours and their mutual animosity with Khartoum.
An unspoken part of what makes so many Western countries interested in the future of the country is the looming spectre of growing Chinese investment, just as it continues to grow over much of the rest of the continent. Europe and the USA are increasingly seeing African investment as a way to stabilise their own weakened markets, but they are aware that Asia – and China in particular – have gotten there first, particularly in terms of infrastructure links.
The state of Biafra lasted just under three years before it was torn apart by economic and geopolitical interests from parties both home and abroad. Let us hope that South Sudan does not continue to remind us of a place that became perhaps the most notable humanitarian disaster of its time. We would do well to listen to what Adichie reminds us of in the postscript of her devastatingly harrowing novel,
May we always remember.