Chilling Effect in Uganda?


Many of you have probably been following the ongoing issues between sections of the independent media and the government in Uganda (here is a terrific overview if not). Essentially, the government claims it has been searching for a letter/the source for that letter detailing an alleged succession plan for the son of the current president, Yoweri Museveni. This letter was published just before the closures began.

On social media today my Ugandan friends have been sharing the following letter, supposedly from Nation Media Group to Museveni.

(NOTE: It has not, at the time of writing, been verified as the real deal but is being fairly widely considered such See below for update)

The tone of this letter is pretty unsettling. If this truly represents the position of Nation then it seems as though we can expect to see some more conciliatory behaviour from them – it sounds to me like they’ve decided that opposing the regime isn’t worth the hassle (not to mention the loss of revenue). This could be the chilling effect breezing into town.

It’s worth noting that my casual chats with journalist friends in the country have indicated that many think the media house searches were not what it seemed – could the source of the Muhoozi letter be that valuable, post publication? The police searches were ordered stopped by Ugandan courts yet they carried on. The rumours floating around are vague: they were looking for something else. Whether any such details will emerge in the coming weeks remains to be seen but the feeling remains that it would seem like a strange series of actions on Museveni’s part simply to recover a letter which is, by now, common knowledge.

UPDATE (UTC 14.08, 06.06.13)

The Monitor have just released an article called ‘What we agreed with the Government‘.

A hopeful/deluded extract, depending on how cynical you are:

f)    At no time during the consultations did we make any concessions or sign any agreements. We reiterated our willingness to uphold the highest standards of journalism as per our policy.

g)  We did not promise not to cover any issues as demanded by the Government representatives. We consistently reiterated at the meetings that our editorial guidelines are very specific that any matters that touch on the public interest will be covered fully, fearlessly and independently subject to the values of truth, fair comment, attribution and factual accuracy.

It looks like the letter going around social media was authentic:

In deference to the person of the President and to reaffirm our commitment to uphold our editorial policy, the NMG Board did write to President Museveni reaffirming this position and regretting that the government had found it necessary to shut down our businesses because of what it considered to be unprofessionalism on the part of our journalists. And, to his credit, all President Museveni said was critical for moving forward was a need to reaffirm the principles of fair journalism, and he specifically agreed that there should be no sacred cows.

Two Criticisms of Human Rights Organisations


Written for Generation C Magazine

I have seen a couple of very different criticisms of Western human rights organisations online recently. First, I read this article by The Independent Editor-in-Chief (and, full disclosure, my former boss). Here is a telling extract [HT @DAWNSDigest]:

Two governments in contemporary Africa have been very successful at an autonomous state building and economic reconstruction project – Rwanda under Paul Kagame and Ethiopia under the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. They have equally been victims of a near-jihad by the human rights police claiming to represent the real interests of their citizens.  Two other countries have been unable to engineer an autonomous project of state and economic reconstruction.  They have instead remained under management by the United Nations – Liberia and Sierra Leone. These are the darlings of the human rights community.

Why are Africa’s most successful governments at state and economic reconstruction vilified while those managed by donors are praised and presented as model examples? The answer is that their leaders take orders from London, Paris and Washington DC. Perhaps I am overstating the case. However, there is reason to believe that some elements in Western society would like to create an Africa that in their own image. Anything that is not a reproduction of Western society is not only seen as abnormal but also a danger to be fought and annihilated.

Notwithstanding the criticism levelled at Mwenda for his seemingly one-eyed defence of the Kagame regime, there are some points in this article that deserve attention. It is an oft-repeated argument that human rights is a distraction, rather than a focus, for developing countries. Here, Mwenda goes further than that, arguing that ‘single issue’ rights groups actively fight against the sovereignty of African governments by launching ‘jihad’ against leaders like Kagame because of relatively small abuses – one general, one opposition politician is arrested while 10 million others receive the benefits of this otherwise enlightened regime. Furthermore, the attacks on a country’s leader damages its image, reducing tourism, trade and ultimately, the lives of the majority who would benefit from such economic advance. Worse, these rights defenders aren’t elected. Worse still, they’re foreigners working in Paris,Washington and London.

Single-issue seems to be the operative term. I am going to breeze past the obvious inaccuracies – Rwandans have very much suffered for speaking out against Kagame, not just ‘Westerners’. Let’s get on to Mwenda’s essentially economic outlook, he is very much a believer in the power of free-markets and their use in Africa. He argues, eloquently and not unjustly, for African institutions to replace the international organisations that dominate the landscape:

…when you visit Africa today, our public policies are designed by the IMF and World Bank, the hungry are fed by World Food Program, the ill are treated by Red Cross and Doctors without Borders, refugees are cared for by UNHCR, those in conflict are “protected” by UN peacekeepers, our Malaria is fought by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, our story is told by The New York Times, our poverty is fought by Jeffrey Sachs and Bono, our crimes are tried by the ICC, our public serves are financed by a generous international aid community, our debts are cancelled, our press freedom is defended by Reporters without Borders and CPJ, our human rights are promoted by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

This is a call for institutional growth, ultimately, which presumably comes from economic growth and stability. These are things that several East African governments have already: Uganda, Kenya and Rwanda look fairly set on all fronts. So what’s the hold up? Some, Mwenda included, might argue that aid dependency holds these countries back. This might be partially true. But can it be the whole story?

The is an extract from an article about a speech on poverty given by Lant Prtichett. This speech also focuses on the importance of institutions and the possible negative effects of Western interventions to those institutions:

The typical unskilled laborer in Haiti makes about 80 cents an hour. If that same person moves to the United States, studies show they will earn about $8.50 an hour. So why are Haitians poor? It is not because they are lazy or uneducated, Pritchett said. Haitians are poor because they live in a society that cannot make productive use of their labor.

Pritchett outlined four aspects of society that are different in developed countries. These well-off countries have a productive economy, a government that is responsive to the citizens, a capable bureaucracy, and the rule of law. Digging wells in Haiti might provide a bit of relief to that country’s poor, but it isn’t going to change any of these four things, Pritchett said. In fact, many kinds of humanitarian aid may short-circuit the development, he said. Until a country develops institutions that make productive work possible, its people will remain poor, he added.

It seems to me that the similar worlds of aid, development, humanitarianism and human rights have become overly conflated. What attracted me to human rights work was a number of things: the desire to help the most unfortunate, people like IDP who have been mistreated by the institutions that are meant to protect them; the importance of speaking truth to power (something, amusingly, that made me want seek out work for Andrew Mwenda and The Independent before the more recent criticisms became obvious); and, most importantly, the idea that the power of rights based programming is that it seeks to establish a foundation on which more complex developments can be built. If a government can act with impunity, collecting bribes or mistreating their opposition, they are very unlikely to benefit their population. It is interesting to me that Mwenda would choose to use the word ‘tyranny’ in his title. Tyranny is just what human rights seek to abolish, to undermine for good; this is a historical movement born from WWII, after all.

There is a threat to human rights organisations, which leads me to the second criticism I have seen recently. Please watch the following video [HT @c_hargreaves]:

Here, Chris Hedges warns of the very real danger facing the human rights industry – it has become too popular. Previously, unmentioned in the MDGs, human rights have become huge business and, as such, other parts of the broad church of ‘international affairs workers’ – which I mean to encompass not only development but business, military and politics too – are moving to use the tag of ‘human rights’ to sugar an unpleasant pill – the post-colonial imperialism that Mwenda warns of.

What is very interesting to note is how Hedges identifies this mission drift: it is the mark of “corrosive neo-liberal ideology”. It is this very same ideology that Kagame’s development project is founded on and one that Mwenda, at least in my reading, also embraces. For me, this is another mark of hypocrisy from a man once renowned as a fearless critic of corrupt and dangerous leaders. Conflict of interest and mission creep is something that human rights organisations must be increasingly vigilant against in the post MDG landscape. These two arguments are a useful precursor to this challenge.

Hedges warns of what human rights must not become; Mwenda is an example of the consequences of ignoring that warning.

Interview | Javie Ssozi – Helping Ugandan voices reclaim the legacy of the LRA war


Think Africa Press recently published a very thorough, balanced and well-written analysis of the Kony2012 furore and what it means for humanitarian organisations and their future campaigns – read it in full here. There was one section that really got my attention,

Kony2012 was unrivalled in its spread as a viral campaign and, in the UK, donations to international aid NGOs have been rising. But at the same time, these same strategies are possibly undermining the cultivation of more concerted, long-term commitments. (Kony2012 itself did not even sustain interest long enough to mobilise action for its Cover the Night campaign the next month.)

While I broadly embrace the sentiment that, long-term, the ‘success’ of the campaign will be seen in an entirely different light I think that this point of view misses a very important part of the video’s audience – Ugandans.

The website UgandaSpeaks.com was set up in the aftermath of Invisible Children’s campaign. As the Think Africa Press article points out, the film had very little Ugandan input, focusing much more on the IC director, Jason Russell. For obvious reasons, many Ugandans were incensed by having their narrative, their issue, taken off their hands and presented to the world as a problem that revolves around the actions of North Americans. The founders of UgandaSpeaks wanted to combat that.

I caught up with Javie Ssozi, one of the co-founders of the site, to get some more information on the project.

Javie Ssozi

UgandaSpeaks was prompted by the KONY2012 phenomenon, a topic which has garnered an unbelievable amount of attention as well as a huge backlash from the development blogosphere and Ugandan journalists and activists. What do you think UgandaSpeaks can add to this discussion?

What UgandaSpeaks adds to the topic is not only valid arguments about the subject but also voices of Ugandans who have more experience in the legacy of the war in the North.  

There seem to be quite a lot of people involved in founding the site: who are they and how did you all come together?

The people who are involved in UgandaSpeaks are:

  1. Javie Ssozi
  2. Rosebell Kagumire
  3. Maureen Agena
  4. Echwalu Edward
  5. Ole Tangen

All of these people have had experience covering news stories or doing social work in Northern Uganda where Joseph Kony and the LRA committed terrible atrocities.

Who is running things, day to day?

We all work as a team even though myself (Javie) does most of the work related to the website. 

How many submissions have you had so far? Are Ugandans excited about this initiative?

Yes, many Ugandan journalists, storytellers and social workers have strong interest in the initiative. In fact, many young people who have just started their careers in storytelling and journalism have asked to join the UgandaSpeaks team. Many other Ugandans have shown support through retweeting and sharing our stories on Facebook and other social networks. 

A lot of the people behind UgandaSpeaks a fairly well known journalists and activists – who will be overseeing the film production aspect of your project?

 Javie Ssozi and Maureen Agena oversaw the production of the film.

Recently, there has been something of a backlash (see here) against the rhetoric of ‘telling positive stories about Africa’ – does a project like UgandaSpeaks go beyond a marketing/advertising push? How?

Actually the approach that UgandaSpeaks takes is more personal story driven. Our narrative takes shape from the experience of the teller. For example we do want to tell positive stories about Africa but also we realize that people have challenges. So, we allow for people to show both sides of their stories. 

Is your aim to place Ugandan authored stories about Kony in the international press or the national press?

I think we have already done this. But our aim is to share the stories of the people who have first hand information about what happened in Northern Uganda. Eventually we shall cover stories about all sorts of people and things around Uganda depending on our budget. 

Who is your audience and why are they your audience?

Our Audience on the KONY2012 topic is mainly people from the west because they know so little about Uganda. We just want to educate them and perhaps in doing so we shall recapture the narrative that KONY2012 video puts across. 

Have you had any approaches by Ugandan political figures? If not, do you think they staying away from this topic because of pressures from international aid/development organisations?

Eventually the Prime Minister of Uganda (Amama Mbabazi) did two YouTube videos on the topic. I  think our government officials are not technically agile as we (UgandaSpeaks/ independent netizens) are but also I think they have to follow some kind of procedure.

How do you feel about aid/development? Does it have it’s place or is it time to replace it with large-scale trade initiatives?

Aid is good because in one way or another it ends up helping someone somewhere. However, aid is NOT sustainable. Promoting entrepreneurship and trade would be a more sustainable way of supporting people in the developing countries. 

Is there a middle ground in the aid vs trade debate?
Since (most of) the aid is always ending up in the hands of people who will either miss use it or embezzle it, I think trade would be the way to go. And there are already a number of initiatives promoting trade between Uganda and the rest of the world. I believe more of these initiative would bring the ultimate change we need – and perhaps one day we shall be like China! This country has the potential to supply 3% or even more than that of the world’s food.

Guest Post: Taking Matters Into Your Own Hands


My friend and colleague, Andrew Smith, recently gained some celebrity for a letter he sent to his MP asking him about his attitude towards gay marriage. Owen Paterson, MP for North Shropshire, responded negatively and became the first cabinet minister to publicly state that he was against marriage equality – a newsworthy statement that has pushed the issue back into the headlines. Here he is:

Andrew at Penn Station

People who wear Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle t-shirts can cause political furores. Believe.

This is a terrific example of how individual advocacy and interest can have big ramifications. For all of you people who care about rights, take the time to send a letter to your MP and ask about their stance on gay marriage or another issue close to your heart.

The following is a blog post Andrew wrote about the incident (originally published on Join The Debate by ARTICLE 19).

I have learnt a number of things already this week. The first is that participating in the UK democratic process is made incredibly easy by www.writetothem.com. A quick email and I was able to ask my MP, Owen Paterson, to make his position on marriage equality clear. The second is that through twitter, it took only a few hours to get my dissatisfaction with the response I received retweeted by the coalition for equal marriage and then picked up by Politics Home.

By the time I finished an ARTICLE 19 training in Nairobi today, Owen Paterson’s opposition to marriage equality (and a quote from me in response) had been reported by the Shropshire Star, the Daily Mail (a life-long personal ambition), the Huffington Post, Pink News, the Torygraph, and the Independent. No.10 Downing Street issued a statement reaffirming its commitment to a vote on marriage equality by the next general election. Apparently Teresa May is doing an “out for marriage” video. It is difficult not to love the right to freedom of expression on days like today.

It brought me back to a point that ARTICLE 19 has stressed recently – that what most commentary on equality measures for Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, and Transgendered (LGBT) people seems to miss is that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation silences voices. Prejudice against LGBT people, long manifested in our laws and even more prevalent in our customs, makes people too frightened to express themselves. It forces people to hide a part of their identity that is integral to them, because if it were exposed they fear that stigma would define them and they would lose everything else. It makes others pause before speaking out against homophobic speech, concerned that the same stigma may stick to them too.

When the Civil Partnership bill was being voted on in 2004 I was a closeted teenager in rural Shropshire. I preoccupied myself a great deal with making sure that no one knew my sexual orientation. Despite the progress of civil partnerships sounding like a pretty good idea to me at the time, I didn’t say anything about it. I did not write a letter to Owen Paterson MP in 2004. He voted against the introduction of civil partnerships without ever hearing my views. I had censored myself.

Things have moved on for me personally. I came out. My friends and family were great about it. I realised that civil partnerships aren’t what I want, that “separate but equal” is a maxim that I am not impressed with. I can now write to my MP about equality, tweet about LGBT rights, blog about it, be out at work and email my parents links to the newspaper articles I’m quoted in.

Despite opposing marriage equality, Owen Paterson MP told me that the Government is “rightly committed” to promoting equality for LGBT people around the world. His voting record indicates that he has done everything in his power to be an obstacle to progress. Owen Paterson incongruously applauds the Government’s efforts to promote LGBT rights around the world, while failing to recognise the connection between recognising marriage equality and promoting equality everywhere.

I am currently working with ARTICLE 19 East Africa in Kenya, where sodomy is still a criminal offence as a direct consequence of British Imperialism – and in several neighbouring countries expressing your sexual orientation can get you killed – frequently with indifference from the government and impunity for perpetrators. Google “David Kato”. David Kato was a human rights activist murdered for speaking out for equality – for expressing himself.

Disconnected from marriage equality you might think? No it is not.

I was in a bar in Nairobi a night or two after US President Barack Obama, of Kenyan heritage on his father’s side, came out as a supporter of marriage equality. To the gay men and women I spoke to that night, many of whom live in the kind of fear I’ve been lucky enough to never have experienced, it meant a great deal that a world leader had made such a public statement that nothing – neither religion or tradition – justify discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender. Marriage equality says a whole lot about our values as a whole, including who we allow to express themselves freely.

Legislating for marriage equality in the UK will send people living with the realities of discrimination – whether casual prejudice in Shropshire or threats of murder in Uganda – a clear message that they are not alone and that the tide of change is in their favour. It will provide a bit of self-assurance to people who would rather self-censor. If the UK wishes to play an international role on the promotion of human rights, our moral authority depends on the coherence of this commitment to equality.

I am hopeful that in the coming months the proposals for marriage equality will stimulate dialogue and debate. People will robustly defend their views and attack those of others, as they should. I strongly believe that views underpinned by fear and ignorance will be exposed as such. I hope that everyone who wants to can make their voice heard in the discussion.

Telling Positive Stories – The backlash


Also published by Generation C Magazine and Development in Action

Telling positive stories about Africa - The memo

Does anyone really understand the logic behind this PR campaign? [Created using easel.ly]

A fair amount of hand-wringing has been going on lately regarding a narrative in aid/development that has been pretty prevalent for at least as long as I’ve been interested in it (around 5 years) – ‘telling positive stories about [Africa/Sub-saharan Africa/the developing world etc]’.

J. (previously of Tales From The Hood) recently posted this link on Aidsource before making the following points:

1) The aid industry has been getting advertising makeovers for, oh…. FORTY YEARS. It’s time to take off the makeup. Can we stop “advertising” and just “tell the truth” already?

2) Telling the public great stories about ‘what works’ is fine, I suppose. But the real messages that they seem to be missing are the ones about what DOESN’T work. (just sayin‘)

The article he was replying to – read it – highlights this position:

“Communication about development aid has long focused on making the case for its need,” says Tom Scott, director of global brand and innovation at the Gates Foundation. “There is a huge opportunity to talk about how it works and what it does – to tell the real success stories that exist.”

This was referenced in the discussion about this article on Aidsource as absolutely not being a new idea. I’d definitely have to agree with that one – since starting my first NGO comms job about 10 months ago I have lost count of the amount of times I have heard speakers at events or read articles by influential comms types telling us that ‘success stories’ are the main way forward. While I think there is a lot of use for this approach – the advocacy done by ONE on supporting better aid budgets for example – it is, first and foremost, an advocacy tool and one that might go some way to explaining how NGOs distort the issues and, in the long run, disappoint their public.

Elliot Ross over on Africa Is A Country also recently posted an article responding to a new campaign by Mama Africa aimed at combating ‘Hollywood stereotypes’ of African men (video below). While giving some praise to the work of this organisation he condemns the video for both being a little forced/not funny as well as tying into the idea of PR being the answer to the problems of Africa:

Sure, the Western media continues shamelessly to traffic in vicious stereotypes of black African masculinity drawn from the deep histories of racist iconography that remain at their disposal in spite of (more likely under the cover of) the general subscription to a rigid politically correct consensus. Yes, it would be nice if they would give this a rest once every few centuries.

But do we really need this kind of “positive image for Africa” stuff? At best it can be framed as a necessary corrective, but the whole PR “brand Africa” shtick is boring, patronising, and finally insubstantial in its attempt to transform the West’s time-honoured way of imagining the continent, ideas that are thoroughly tangled up with ingrained – and much beloved – supremacist notions of Euro-American culture and identity. This isn’t all going to go away because you pointed out that there’s a bloke in Nairobi called Brian who works in HR.

Here’s the video:

While these critiques are interesting and certainly worth thinking about, it strikes me that they are very much from a ‘development’ point of view. A rather brilliant article on Ugandan media site Journalism.co.ug about police and government pressure on the way in which journalists report the news showcased a slightly different angle on why the ‘positive stories’ narrative could have negative consequences – it is worth quoting it at length (HT @Natabaalo):

[An anonymous police officer] says journalists should do what the police order them to do during demonstrations, after all “when journalists are injured by demonstrators, it is still the police to blame”.

But recent trends show journalists are more likely to be harmed by the police and other security agencies than by protesters. Especially since Walk to Work protests started in April last year, sections of the media have been singled out as “enemies of Uganda’s recovery” by President Yoweri Museveni.

For publishing pictures of opposition leaders and supporters being roughed up by security agencies, Museveni has argued that sectors like tourism and investments from abroad would be negatively affected. He has called for a different approach to reporting so that the media depicts a different side of Uganda – as a great investment destination and tourism hub.

This type of journalism, a lot of times misinterpreted as development journalism, is what is preached by most leaders in poor and transitional countries. Some have argued that in poor countries, the government of the day needs support. They add that the government in such a country will probably have to take decisions which are based on the common good but which harm individual liberties.

The idea that fair, free journalistic reporting could inhibit both Government and development aspirations is one that showcases a worrying marriage of convenience. Aid skeptics and jaded development workers have long supported oppressive regimes as a justified means-to-an-end – Kagame in Rwanda, Park Chung-hee in South Korea or China, in general, are oft-cited examples of ‘bad guys doing good things’ in terms of economic development. But this betrays a double standard – as outsiders looking to help, we cannot condemn one thing (i.e. civil liberties) for ourselves while condoning it for others without weakening our position.

While the idea of ‘telling positive stories’ might end up patronising Africans, it also might end up supporting those regimes that systematically undermine human rights, particularly those regarding the freedom of expression and the activities of the media. Without mechanisms of domestic accountability these governments are much more likely to revert back to being ‘bad guys who do bad things’. As an industry and as an international community, we cannot be complicit in that process. Particularly because you know that, once these governments do revert, our governments will condemn them publicly, only to be further undermined when it is pointed out that they had aided such leaders in attaining such a position.

And then the cycle continues. Or should I say ‘downwards spiral’?

London To Nairobi


This is from my column for the University of Bath’s student paper, a lighthearted look at my placement job.

A view of Nairobi. Image from: olliptkanen via Flickr

For the last 9 months or so I have been discovering and exploring London. I was born in the south London district of Tooting and I spent the first 18 years, give or take the odd holiday, ensconced in a suburb tucked about as far south and west as you can go and still be in the city. From birth to age 18 I lived in four different houses with my family. As the youngest I saw the number of necessary beds drop as we made each move, my siblings going off to University or moving out entirely, off ‘on their travels’.

I grew up doing all the usual things – watching television, bike rides, cinema trips, going to school,  playing football in the street, watching more television, playing computer games endlessly. I knew my suburb very well. The best places to mess around on bikes and skateboards, where to play football, the best shops and cafes, the pubs that served us all just a little before they should have. But ask me to take you around ‘London’ and I would have stared blankly. The inner city, the place with the monuments and famous streets – that was no more familiar to me than any other visitor.

Part of what I have discovered during my placement, then, has been my home city. I know nice pubs and restaurants all over town. If I run out of money on my Oyster card, I can probably walk it. I’m not stranded in the immediate environs of tube or bus stops that I got out of – a very common complaint for us suburban kids. I can actually back up claims like “come down, I can show you around” or “there’s this terrific pierogi place down south, I’ll take you”.

After I left school I moved to Kampala, Uganda, more or less on a whim – more on that here. I spent about a year there and can definitely say that I still know it and my way around it better than the place of my birth. Likewise, the fair city of Bath, where I have spent two happy years, is somewhere I feel, at least geographically, infinitely more confident with. It saddens me that next year will likely be the last I spend amongst all that sandstone and Georgian architecture (although I will not miss the dank, subterranean clubs). Development can take you to work in a multitude of exciting and beautiful places all over the world; I rather suspect that this particular corner of southwest England is not one of them.

The final three months of my placement are to be spent in a new city, Nairobi, capital of Kenya. I have never been, aside from a brief layover, although I have read and heard a lot about it – it’s one of those cities that, at least in the development sector, people end up working in. I’m intrigued to see the bigger, badder, elder sibling of my beloved Kampala. Could it be more exciting? More varied? Even more relentlessly energetic? It is, in all probability, a city I might well end up spending several years in. In East Africa, my region of interest, Nairobi is the biggest hub of international NGOs and, as such, represents the brights lights and the big city; the best place for me to get a job I’d love.

As far as I understand it, Nairobi is new not just to me. It’s a city of roughly 3 million souls and has the highest growth rate of any urban area in Africa according to UN Habitat. In 2010, it had the highest growth rate for luxury housing in the world, 25%, beating out Miami, Singapore and London. A recent article by Basharat Peer – a terrific long read that takes you on the modern and modernising hajj – saw the writer speak to the Saudi novelist Raja Alem on her hometown of Mecca, another city in the midst of a huge building boom,

“I used to know Mecca like the back of my hand,” Alem, who now lives in Paris, told me, “I returned after a five-year absence and didn’t know how to reach the [focal centre of the hajj and the city] Holy Mosque.”

Perhaps my little three months taster session won’t end up being that useful, at least not for my personal geographic knowledge. But it will be an escape from the hell that is commuting. It will be a step closer to my dream career. And, most of all, it will be a chance to get myself some new stories to tell you all when I come back next year and start to corner people in Plug again. Kwaheri until then.

South Sudan – Another Biafra?


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.

Follow Paan Luel Wël, a South Sudanese writer based in Washington DC, for interesting news on South Sudan. He blogs here and tweets here.