South Sudan: Fragile and Resilient

In July 2011, South Sudan gained political independence. With the exception of Eritrea, no other African state has been created in the post-colonial period (i.e., since the 1950s). South Sudan now faces a long and difficult road to stability and prosperity.

Like many of the former European colonies in Africa – especially the Belgian and Portuguese territories – South Sudan’s independence inheritance was limited. In the case of South Sudan, governments in Khartoum systematically marginalized this geographically peripheral region. Some basic data tell a grim tale of under-development:

  • Only about 25 percent of the young state’s population is literate. Most developing countries have figures in the range of 50 to 80 percent.
  • South Sudan possesses a physical area larger than France. The new country, though, has virtually no paved roads. The longest stretch – connecting the capital of Juba to Uganda – is only about 100 kilometers.
  • Less than 1 percent of the population has access to electricity. That’s right, only a tiny fraction of South Sudanese can count on reliable access to a power grid. The 1 percent figure presumably does not include those who have access to a generator.
  • Maternal and infant mortality rates are falling, but they are shockingly high. The improved figures (since independence) are: 76 infants deaths per one thousand and 2,054 maternal deaths for every one hundred thousand births. This maternal mortality rate is the worst in the world.
  • A disputed border with Sudan and internal conflicts have led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands.

Yet, the new country has weathered its early independence phase better than many predicted. This assessment is especially remarkable given the long standoff with Sudan over oil transit fees. And South Sudan does have key natural resources other than oil. A high percentage of arable land, fairly dependable fresh water supplies, and ecotourism potential are a few of the country’s key natural assets.

The world’s newest state, though, is landlocked and situated in a highly volatile region of Africa. The Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo are both neighboring failed states. Adjacent portions of Uganda, Kenya, and Sudan have also experienced armed conflict or communal unrest in recent years. The South Sudanese people will require much more resilience in the years ahead.

The Limits of Vigilantism: Guns, Oscar Pistorius, and the NRA

The murder trial of South Africa’s accomplished Olympian, Oscar Pistorius, is bringing many key issues into the spotlight. We are once again reminded how much the mass media loves covering celebrities. The case also provides an opportunity for international news outlets to explore the widespread culture of violence that still grips South Africa. The timing of the Pistorius affair is also interesting, given renewed attention to gun violence in the United States.

Oscar Pistorius has not had a full hearing in court, but his defense seems to rest on the foundation of self-defense. The star runner says that he fired because he suspected that an intruder had entered his well-fortified house. If his account is true, Pistorius’ actions reveal a clear bias toward vigilantism and a distrust in the ability of the state to protect citizens from criminals. After having spent significant time in South Africa  in recent years, I can say that there is a strong basis for this lack of confidence in the South African government. Even so, it is worth remembering that the month-long football (soccer) World Cup tournament (2010) occurred in South Africa with almost no serious crime perpetrated against foreign visitors. Violent crime remains a serious problem in the country, but the primary foundation for that violence is the long period of apartheid that preceded the present era. The white minority government of the National Party oversaw a police state, and the African National Congress (ANC) and other resistance groups fought back with targeted violence.

In the United States, a country that shares a “wild frontier” culture of European settlement with South Africa, a gun culture of vigilantism also persists. Sadly, too many Americans are ill-informed about the costs of our gun culture. For starters, three out of five victims of gun violence in America are suicides. With more limited access to firearms – either through personal choice or tighter gun laws – many of these suicides would not occur. As well, the National Rifle Association (NRA) and other gun rights groups have stifled open discussion of the risks associated with gun ownership. As the MSNBC commentator Touré notes, the NRA is quick to point to the self-defense benefits of gun ownership, while downplaying the true facts about gun violence. Research indicates that a person living in a home with a gun is more than 20 times more likely to be injured or killed by that weapon than by the weapon of an armed intruder.

The following quote from Dr. Art Kellermann, a health policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, accords with the society-wide statistics on gun violence in the United States:

… as a young ER doc, I wasn’t seeing too many bad guys shot by homeowners . . . I was seeing kids shot by another child while they played with a gun they had found. I saw spouses who had shot one or the other in a family dispute. And I saw older individuals and sometimes teenage kids who used a gun to either take their life or attempt to take their life.

The NRA is right to point to the political importance of gun ownership in resisting tyranny (see a previous post from this blog). That fact should not obscure a more balanced discussion of vigilantism and the true dynamics of gun violence.

Critically Weak and Failed States are the Last Holdouts on Polio Eradication

Immunization Campaign in India

India exceeded the expecations of many in its anti-polio campaign. The efforts of local groups, such as the Rotary Club of Nagpur (pictured) are part of the story. Photo credit: Rotary Club of Nagpur, India (Creative Commons license).

In the West, the news media tends to spotlight terrorism risks emanating from failed states, to the exclusion of other important threats. As I discuss in my book Failed States: Realities, Risks, and Responses, state failure is not necessarily linked with terrorist activities, and especially globally significant terrorism. One theme of state failure that deserves more attention is public health. And recent information about polio is a prime example of the key link between state decay and global health threats.

Only three states in the world still have endemic polio. The last holdouts are Nigeria, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. All three are familiar names to readers of this blog. And the lingering problem of polio strikes a strong chord with me because I have seen the victims of polio-related paralysis first-hand in Nigeria.

These weak and failed state holdouts are remarkable when compared with the global progress on polio eradication. Much has been accomplished since the 1988 launch of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI). Here I quote from the World Health Organization:

Overall, since the GPEI was launched, the number of cases has fallen by over 99% . . . In 1994, the WHO Region of the Americas was certified polio-free, followed by the WHO Western Pacific Region in 2000 and the WHO European Region in June 2002 . . . More than 10 million people are today walking, who would otherwise have been paralysed. An estimated more than 1.5 million childhood deaths have been prevented . . .

The situation in Pakistan is particularly troublesome, given that polio vaccination rates have declined in Balochistan and other regions bordering Afghanistan over the last decade. In Nigeria, cultural resistance to vaccination has been party of the story.

Polio Immunization Campaign in Namibia

Photo credit: coda (Creative Commons license).

Lingering pockets of endemic polio remain a global threat. The World Health Organization warns that these last remaining strongholds could lead to widespread public health problems in much of the world. As WHO’s October 2012 fact sheet states, “Failure to stop polio in these last remaining areas could result in as many as 200,000 new cases every year, within 10 years, all over the world.”