Reyna with the kids in Fiamah, Monrovia, Liberia

Friday, October 5, 2012

i am a girl

for my Fiamah girls

i am a girl
Not a piece of property
Not your toy, not your baby doll
You will not be my sugar daddy

i am a girl
I don’t want to be initiated
Mutilated, confiscated, separated
I want to be educated

i am a girl
I don’t want to be married, or a mama
At least not yet
Until I find my prince
Not some pimp who promises to pay my school fees
Or help me with the rent
As long as I am pleasing him

i am a girl
Go pick on someone your own size
I need to breathe
To play, to dream
To know that I can be whatever I want to be
Not what or who you say

i am a girl
And right now a woman rules my country
A woman who was once a girl
Who did not let herself be defined by others
Who rose above and made history
So being a girl is not such a bad thing to be
You see

i am a girl
I have a hope and a future
I have my place in this society
And it is not beside you
Its in a classroom, at a desk
Being a star student in school
Because that saying that girls rule the world?
I am here to prove that its still true
i am a girl

Monday, September 17, 2012

Partners in Hope

Meet Florence. She is a teacher at Cornerstone Academy. There are 13 other teachers just like her between the two schools we work with, Cornerstone Academy and Reyna International Christian Academy. Florence devotes her whole day to teach children, to give them an opportunity for a much brighter future than she herself has experienced. It is hard to be a teacher anywhere, but especially hard in Liberia, West Africa.  These teachers are rarely paid, and when they are, their salary is $20 for the month, hardly enough to help them take care of themselves and their family's needs.

           The need for teachers in Liberia is so great that the government and the University of Liberia offer a free 4-year degree in teaching. They even pay for your books. This is a golden opportunity. However, many do not take advantage of it for several reasons:   1) Even if their school is paid for, the teacher struggles to find the resources to take care of their family and to pay for transportation to and from classes at the university; and   2) Even if they graduate with a teaching degree, they will not be able to find a job that pays consistently unless they uproot their whole family and move to the rural areas, where there are considerably more government schools. This would require more money, which they do not have.

         Monrovia, the capital city where Doors of Hope works, more than tripled its population during the war years as people fled to the city for refuge. So now you have a million people lacking even the most basic infrastructure, like running water and electricity, and the number of schools doesn't even come close to meeting the needs of the number of children in Monrovia. Most of the schools in the city are run by churches and private organizations, which are not able to pay the government salary. So as they say in Liberia, "This is the problem we have with our education system."

Now for the good part. I am so thankful that we work with amazing people in Liberia, such as Pastor Jallah Nupolu and his wife Martha (above), founders of Cornerstone Academy,  and Pastor Lincoln Togbah and his wife Chepay (right), principal of Reyna International Christian Academy. They see and clearly understand the problems relating to education in Liberia, but are determined to create solutions that will improve the lives of their communities. While I was in Liberia in June, I spent many hours talking to these leaders, and we came up with a plan, a "Teach for Liberia" if you will.  Our plan is for Doors of Hope to pay a consistent salary of $50 a month to our teachers as long as they agree to take classes towards their teaching degree and be a faithful employee of the school. This will enable them to provide  for their families more consistently, while also encouraging and empowering them to obtain the training they need to become quality teachers. The teachers benefit, the students benefit, and the whole community benefits by having a quality, established school.

 In order to make this a reality, we need more committed partners with our organization. We are looking for 30 Partners in Hope who will commit at least $25 monthly to help pay the salary of our teachers and raise the quality of the school and community. $25 a month is a small sacrifice for us, but imagine the changes it can make in the life of a teacher like Florence, her family, Cornerstone Academy, and the community. Imagine if, as a result of this initiative, 5 years from now we have 14 teachers with degrees! Students who are being taught at their grade level and are prepared to go on to some of the best secondary schools in Liberia!  Girls staying in school and not having babies at an early age! This is what the community in Liberia is hoping for, and it can be a reality. We need your help.


If you commit to being a monthly Partner in Hope, please shoot us an email at and tell us how you would like to receive a reminder of your commitment every month. We can send you an email, text, or Facebook message. We also send out newsletters 4 times a year and you can always visit our Facebook page, Doors of Hope Foundation.

If you would like to give a one-time donation to this teacher initiative, but not sign up to be a monthly Partner in Hope, you can visit our GoFundMe page and direct your donation to this.

Or you can always send your gift to Doors of Hope at 2814 W. McLean St., Chicago, Il 60647. From our hearts, we want to say THANK YOU for being willing to offer hope to students, teachers, and communities in Liberia!

Monday, April 30, 2012

"One man's terrorist is another man's war hero": A Look at Charles Taylor

The moment I heard the announcement of the verdict for Charles Taylor, former president of Liberia who was found guilty on 11 counts of aiding and abetting the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels in neighboring Sierra Leone throughout the 1990's,  my mind went straight to a conversation I had with  Benjamin Geedah,one of Taylor's former fighters, in the fall of 2010.  I interviewed Benjamin at a friend's home in the Peace Island community of Monrovia. Peace Island, interestingly enough, was a community created by Liberia's civil war, with close to 20,000 internally displaced people gathering there and living as squatters on what was considered private government land. Benjamin is one of many former fighters who landed here, being unable or unwilling to return to their home village for fear of almost certain rejection by their family and community because of the sins they committed during the war.

Benjamin Geedah was 14 years old and in the 7th grade at a mission school in May of 1990 when the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), led by Charles Taylor, came to his home village in Rivercess County. He recalled that it was a Sunday morning and he and his friend were walking to get some food. The rebels attacked his village and caught them. They demanded the 2 boys to take them to their homes to provide them with food. As the men were helping themselves to his family's food, Benjamin's friend stood up, in his own kitchen, and a soldier shot him dead on the spot. For showing disrespect to their authority. The rebels asked Benjamin to carry the boy to a field and bury him. He did, and he recalled to me shaking with fear that he might suffer the same fate as his friend. So he went directly to the chief of his village, and asked the chief to take him to the commander of the rebels, whose fighting name he remembers as General Noriega,  and offer him up as their son. And that is how Benjamin Geedah became a child soldier.

He told me how he was trained to fight on the same field where he dug a grave for his friend. His training was brief. The NPFL had advanced rapidly across Liberia since they entered the country from the eastern border with Cote D'Ivoire on Christmas Eve 1989. At the beginning of the rebellion, Charles Taylor had the support of many influential Liberians living in the United States, among them the current president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who wanted to see the disastrous regime of President Samuel Doe come to an end. He quickly garnered the support of many civilians in Nimba County, his entry point into Liberia, where most people were of Gio and Mano descent, the two tribes who had been brutally targeted for retribution by President Doe after one of their own, General Thomas Quiwonkpa, had tried to overthrow him in a failed coup attempt in 1985. By May, the NPFL had crossed the country to its western coastline, and by July they would make it to the outskirts of the capital city. As they marched across the country to the capital, they looted, raped and killed many innocent civilians along the way. Within a year of his revolutionary entrance into Liberia, Taylor lost most of his US-based supporters as news of the egregious human rights abuses of his troops began to come out. Benjamin Geedah remembers the scene being the same in many villages that he and his fellow rebel fighters entered, the same brutal routine carried out when the rebels entered his own village. They would take young women and rape them in front of their parents, an act that instantly cut the girl off from her family so that she would be forced to be a soldier's wife. Taylor's army operated on a "pay yourself" basis. Any food, water, supplies that were needed were taken from the citizens of the villages they entered. Any refusal to comply was met with a bullet to the head.

Benjamin himself saw action on the front lines for the first time in July of 1990. He was fourteen years old. He was part of an attack on Sinoe, which his troops successfully captured. In the spring and summer of 1990, the NPFL took hold of huge swathes of the countryside, including Grand Gedeh and Grand Kru,  the base of President Doe's support, all the way to the southernmost part of the country, the town of Harper in Maryland County. But the grand prize,Monrovia and President Doe, were not to be theirs. The INPFL, an offshoot of the NPFL led by Prince Johnson from Nimba County, took hold of key parts of Monrovia and on September 9, 1990 Prince Johnson and a group of his fighters found President Doe at the headquarters of ECOMOG, a regional peace-keeping force that had recently landed, captured him and then videotaped his brutal torture and death at their hands. Even though the President was dead, and Taylor's forces had control of much of the country, Taylor had fallen from grace with the international community and had missed his chance at grabbing the ultimate position of power at that time. A peace plan had already been drawn up several months before by ECOWAS, a group of West African nation-states, and agreed upon by other factions and civil society groups within Liberia,  that formed a new government called the Interim Government of National Unity (IGNU).  This body proved to be fairly impotent, but was held in power by the presence of ECOMOG, the peacekeeping force that represented ECOWAS' interests. ECOMOG managed to drive the NPFL back, but Taylor has never been one to admit defeat. By the end of 1990, Taylor had set up his own government, the National Patriotic Reconstruction Assembly Government (NPRAG) in Gbarnga, a town situated in Bong County,  the heart of the interior.  While this government was not recognized by any international body officially, the reality was that the official government of the land, the IGNU, only held sway over the capital city. Outside Monrovia, Taylor ruled as king over what became known as "Greater Liberia".

"Greater Liberia" was actually an overwhelming testament to the genius and charisma of Taylor, and it provided him with many business contacts which he nurtured throughout those years and then used to full advantage to help fund the war in neighboring Sierra Leone through his infamous diamonds-for-guns schemes. Liberia is a tiny country, but it is abundantly rich in natural resources, most notably iron ore and timber. Taylor exploited both resources to the fullest by making deals with international investors and corporations to come in and extract these riches. His NPRAG and his own pockets got a handsome cut of those profits.  British journalist Colin Waugh writes in his book Charles Taylor and Liberia that "During the period of NPFL control of the commodity economy of Liberia from 1990 to 1993, the estimated value of timber, diamonds, rubber, iron ore, and other commodity businesses ran into hundreds of millions of dollars. Accordingly, it has been estimated that the taxes that Taylor's government was able to levy on this trade could easily have exceeded $75 million annually." That is a whole lot of loot, and most of it went to Taylor and his cronies directly. He did , however, offer generous gestures to his constituents, such as the move to  establish a minimum wage of $2 a day, which was more than what workers had been receiving before. It was actions like these that kept him popular amongst a large portion of Liberians.

While there was some semblance of order in Greater Liberia during those years, the NPFL was ever-present and ready to resort to violence when threatened or challenged by either the local population, other fighting factions, or ECOMOG. And they often did. Benjamin Geedah recalled to me that he was based in Totota, Bong County, as part of the force called on to establish and maintain order in Greater Liberia. There he was trained in explosives and became a bomb specialist. He was sent to Cape Mount in the northern part of the country to do battle against a new faction called ULIMO. As Benjamin got older, he was given more responsibility and he proudly recalled to me his excitement at being made a commander of a group of child soldiers close to Taylor, which became known as the Small Boys Units. The day I interviewed Geedah, he brought 3 of these now young men with him.  One of the young men, Innis Glaywano, proudly shared with me his fighting name, Killer 1. He was given that name when he was 10 years old. These young boys spent most of their time guarding Taylor at his compound and affectionately referred to him as "Papay".

"Papay" Taylor lost more and more territory as the controversial ECOMOG force gained ground, but often in a violent manner. ECOMOG was far from a neutral force, supplying rival factions with arms to help bring down Taylor, and bombing and looting indiscriminately, often harming and killing civilians. In late 1993, a peace accord was signed that set up a Council of State as government, with the various faction leaders sharing power, followed by a turbulent 3 years with several broken agreements and ceasefires, until 1996,  when another peace agreement was signed which provided for democratic elections for the first time since 1971.

When Charles Taylor was elected as President in July of 1997, by the very people that he had waged a rapacious war against for the better part of 7 years, the international community was stunned. It still baffles historians and journalists who look at the situation from the outside. It baffles me. One of his slogans was "He killed my ma, He killed my pa, but I will vote for him." There are many theories and many opinions, even amongst Liberians themselves, as to why the people voted for Taylor. You have to remember that the election came at the close of 7 war-ravaged years, which saw close to 250,000 Liberians killed, and 1 million more flee to neighboring countries or other areas as refugees. A little over 600,000 people voted in the election, and it would seem that while they were also greatly affected by the war, those who were able to vote were those who had survived with the greater part of their lives still intact. You could also point to the fact that Taylor owned one of two radio stations that still had broadcast reach through out the country, and radio is the primary means of media consumption and therefore influence for rural Africa. You could also point to the improvements that Taylor made in agriculture, the jobs that he created by reviving extraction industries, and the wages that he established while he was in control of Greater Liberia. Journalists and historians have also theorized that Taylor seemed the best alternative in a country filled with power-hungry and blood-thirsty warlords who had raped and pillaged the country at will for the last 7 years. If he was elected, there might be an end to the fighting because someone had finally WON. If you ask Liberians on the street, you would probably hear all of these things. When I asked Benjamin Geedah, I realized that notwithstanding all these arguments and opinions, the reality was that some people still genuinely loved, admired,and supported Taylor.

Benjamin described to me how the personality of Charles Taylor was magnetic. He could make anyone believe anything, make people believe that HE would find a solution to their problems and that HE was on their side. He was magnanimous toward his constituents, especially the young men that he brought into his fighting force, the ones who affectionately called him "Papay". He promised them many things. He would spin grand tales for them about the spoils of war, the power they would have and the material things they would gain when they finally won control over the country. He promised them handsome compensation for all the sacrifices they had made for him over the years. For Geedah, that dream came shattering down several years after Taylor became president. None of the promises that Taylor seduced him with were fulfilled. Not one. Geedah and the other former fighters knew that Taylor had the means now to give them what he had promised, but as Benjamin recalls, they were forgotten. In Geedah's own words, they were used as "mechanisms" in war. They were used to help Taylor get what he was after, then they were cast aside. But what baffled me was what Geedah said next when I asked him how he felt about Taylor now. "If Charles Taylor came back to Liberia today and asked me to fight for him, I would do it." "Even though you understand now that he used you?", I asked. "Yes,  I will remain loyal to him. Your ma is your ma no matter what." A chill came over me as I realized he meant it. Killer 1 and the other young men nodded in agreement. This was not grandstanding or boasting just to shock an American.

For Benjamin Geedah and the young men that fought with him in the NPFL, even though they felt used and forgotten by Taylor, what came next for them was no better. The improvement, the rebuilding, the new vision that was promised to them when the war ended in 2003 and then again when current President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected in 2005, has not affected them at all. If they were forgotten by Taylor when he ascended to power in 1997, they feel that they were branded as outcasts after Taylor left power in 2003. Life has not been kind to them since. They live in a community that , as of 2011, had only two hand pumps available for water for 20,000 people to share. When I visited, there was one public school in the community, and its exterior walls were made from woven mats, a structure that surely would not withstand the brutal rainy season. The Peace Island community was not recognized by the government at all until President Sirleaf's visit in 2011, where her promises of better schools and sanitation services were seen as an election stunt and felt more like a slap in the face. To be fair, the task of rebuilding a country that was completely destroyed by 14 years of war and 9 years of destructive mismanagement before that is enormous, and one that will not be completed in one or two terms. From the outside, it is easy for someone like me to see the good that President Sirleaf has done for the country. But when you fought for Charles Taylor, never received any compensation for your sacrifices, and now live in Peace Island,where your children have no school to attend and your wife has to guess which days she will be able to get water, change cannot come fast enough. It is hard to be patient.

Another reason Taylor still has some supporters in Liberia is because Liberians are the most forgiving people I have ever met, or as some more cynical people have suggested, Liberians suffer from an "amnesia" that allows them to brush over crimes that were committed during the war and affords corrupt and brutal warlords a measure of impunity they would be hard pressed to find anywhere else. In truth, it is probably a little of both.  At the end of the second war in 2003, fighters that only days before had been raining mortar on each other, were hugging and giving each other high fives, celebrating that the war was finally over and Taylor had left the country. Former warlords, such as Prince Johnson,  and even Taylor's ex-wife Jewel, who allegedly had a hand in many of his illegal business deals, now serve as democratically elected senators in the national legislative body.  The country did establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) to bring perpetrators and victims together and seek justice and restitution for atrocities committed during the war. Some rebel generals, including my good friend Joshua Blayhi, went before the commission and were blatantly honest about the breadth of the crimes they committed. The TRC took that into consideration and also their remorse and contribution to Liberian society since and , in the case of Joshua, recommended complete amnesty. In many of these cases, there was also reconciliation and restitution with the victims. This is the Liberian spirit of forgiveness at its best.

Other warlords and faction leaders ignored the summons of the TRC or tried to manipulate the details about the crimes they committed, and some of these leaders were recommended for further prosecution. There has been much debate over the arbitrariness of these recommendations, since even the current President Sirleaf was recommended for prosecution and to be banned from public office, though her early support of Taylor was dropped and her contributions to rebuilding and reconciliation have been great. However, it all seems to be a moot point now as almost three years have gone by since the release of the TRC report and no steps have been taken to implement any of the findings. This is the Liberian spirit of amnesia at its worst.

It now seems that the only Liberian war criminal that will ever be brought to justice is Charles Taylor. His conviction last Thursday by the Special Court for Sierra Leone was for war crimes and atrocities that he perpetrated against the people of Sierra Leone, in their separate war that ran parallel to Liberia's horror. He was found to have aided the RUF rebels in committing serious war crimes such as murder, rape, and use of child soldiers. Much evidence was provided that he smuggled diamonds that the RUF mined in Sierra Leone through Liberia to sell on the international market, and then used the profits to provide arms, logistical support, training, and safe houses for the rebels.  Records of exports to Belgium from the years in question show that Liberia was exporting close to 6 million carats of diamonds annually, when its own mines could only produce at best 200, 000 carats. There was never any question really as to whether grave atrocities were committed in Sierra Leone, or as to whether conflict diamonds were illegally smuggled through Liberia and sold on the international market. The role of the Special Court was to decide if Charles Taylor was the main party responsible for the commission of these crimes. In determining that Taylor was guilty of playing a huge role in funding and aiding the RUF, but not guilty of being solely responsible, it seems like a fair verdict was handed down for his role in Sierra Leone. 

His conviction, however,  has nothing to do with events in Liberia, so it doesn't bring a sense of justice to Liberians or offer them any form of restitution. His crimes against the Liberian people will never be prosecuted, and many Liberians are okay with that. Call it amnesia, call it forgiveness, they just want to move on.  A restaurant owner in Monrovia commented to the BBC's Focus on Africa program, "What can we say about what happened in Sierra Leone and the court's decision? It does not concern us." Helene Cooper, a New York Times reporter and native Liberian, wrote in an article that hit the presses the same day the verdict was announced that she is just resigned  to the hope that history will remember what Taylor did to Liberia as well. The ambivalence about the verdict or the mixed emotions that many Liberians feel are understandable. However, in Sierra Leone there were reports of thousands of people cheering, of the amputee victims of the RUF saying that this guilty judgement brought a sense of closure to their years of horror. Not only did the guilty judgement bring closure to a horrific chapter in Sierra Leone's history, it opened a new chapter in the annals of international justice. Taylor is the first African head of state to ever be convicted, and many supporters of the International Criminal Court and other justice tribunals hope that this sends a message to other warlords and would-be tyrants that impunity will not be a foregone conclusion anymore.

While I welcome the guilty verdict of Charles Taylor, I do wonder if our definition of justice needs to be expanded. Conviction and punishment for a warlord , while bringing a measure of  closure to his victims, will not really do much else to improve their daily standard of living. It does not help a war-ravaged country rebuild. It will not give an amputee his arms back. It will not give a woman her virginity back. True justice will include punishment for the perpetrators, and restitution for the victims in the form of empowering them in concrete ways to rebuild their lives and communities. True justice will include job training for amputees, funding and support for local disarmament programs, education for ex-combatants, counseling for victims of rape and sexual abuse. These are the steps in the staircase that lead to the countries of Liberia and Sierra Leone rebuilding themselves and pressing on to a brighter vision for  tomorrow. Maybe then, men like Benjamin Geedah and Killer 1 will see some of their long-awaited promises fulfilled, not by a power-hungry warlord, but by their own hard work and a society that gives them the opportunities and tools to flourish.

Friday, March 23, 2012

"Not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character": Trayvon Martin

" Trayvon was our hero. At the age of 9, he pulled his father from a burning kitchen, saving his life. He loved sports and horseback riding. At only 17, he had a bright future ahead of him with dreams of attending college and becoming an aviation mechanic. Now that's all gone." Those are the words of Trayvon's own father, Tracy Martin, in a petition that he and the boy's mother, Sybrina Fulton,  started two weeks after their son's death to pressure the state's attorney in their Florida district to arrest and prosecute the man who murdered their son. As a parent myself, I cannot imagine the anguish of losing a child in such a senseless way, and then having to fight for his killer to be brought to justice. This should not have happened.

But it did. On February 26th, Trayvon Martin was walking back from a convenience store carrying a bag of Skittles and an iced tea when he was followed and then shot by  self-appointed neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman.  Trayvon was unarmed. Zimmerman told police that he was acting in self-defense. Police in Sanford, Florida, where the murder took place, have not yet arrested him because they say they can find no evidence to contradict that statement. If you listen to the 911 call that George Zimmerman made shortly before the shooting, it seems clear to me that he was acting out of paranoia, and while he may or may not have used a racial epithet, he clearly refers to Trayvon in a derogatory sense. He makes the statement, " These a**holes, they always get away". He starts following Trayvon because he says "This guy looks like he is up to no good, or on drugs or something" because "it's raining and he's just walking around and looking about...just staring, looking at all the houses." What is interesting is that Zimmerman felt  so threatened by Trayvon though he knew nothing about this young man. Obviously, I or anyone else can't read Zimmerman's mind, but it seems like he was judging this young man solely on his appearance, a black teenager wearing a hoodie.   In the 911 call tapes, when the dispatcher asks Zimmerman if he is following him, he says "Yes" and they say, "We don't need you to do that." Yet when the story is pieced together, it plays out that Zimmerman continued to follow him, at some point Trayvon turned around and said, "Why are you following me?" and then a scuffle ensued, though it is not clear who started it. Neighbors heard a commotion outside and also called 911. When the police arrived, Zimmerman had shot Trayvon Martin in the chest and he was dead.

This isolated incident brings several deep wounds in our American life to the surface, and the most obvious is racial profiling. This is an awful and ugly fact of our society, and as the poignant movie Crash portrayed so well, it is ingrained into each of us at some level, but some choose to look past stereotypes and see human beings just like them, and some choose to feed those stereotypes with ignorance. It may seem that I, as a white female, would not know a thing about racial profiling, and it is true that I myself have probably never been unjustly identified solely because of my race. But being in a mixed race marriage and living in a predominantly Hispanic and black neighborhood, I have witnessed family members and friends undergo this humiliating treatment while I have sat alongside inwardly atoning for the ignorant actions of some members of my race. I have sat in a car as my husband and brother-in-law were pulled over (as we were parking!!), questioned relentlessly as to why they were in the neighborhood they were in (we were in a mostly Italian, middle-class suburb) and then I was asked my name and scoffed at and told, "Well, you certainly don't look like a Rivera." That night, my husband and I both burned with shame and anger, but for different reasons. I and my children have watched my husband being asked to step out of the car and be handcuffed for no apparent reason, only to find out moments later that they had mistaken my husband's name for someone else's. No apology, either, for the handcuffing in front of his own children. A young black teenager was walking from our house to the youth center several blocks away with a guitar in his hand, and was stopped by the police. They questioned whose guitar he had, and said to him, "Black kids don't play guitars."  On another occasion, I was taking a young black man home from our youth group and was pulled over in front of his house. I was questioned as to why I had him in the car with me. He actually apologized to me and said "This happens all the time". A year later, that same young man was arrested and had drugs planted on him by the arresting officer.

Let me clarify why I share all these stories. It is not to claim that I know about racial profiling, because I understand that I CANNOT understand the humiliation that my black and Hispanic friends and family members go through when they are profiled because of their race. It is also not to take aim at police, because I believe that there are many fine policemen on our streets who genuinely want to serve and protect. It is just to show that racial profiling is SO real and SO prevalent still today, in 2012, in small Appalachian towns, in major cosmopolitan cities like Chicago, and yes, in the suburbs of Florida. When will we finally open our minds and hearts to our brothers and sisters, fellow humans, and learn to judge people "not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." When I think about the senseless death of a Florida teenager wearing a hoodie and walking home with some snacks in his hand, a carbon-copy of a scenario I see at least ten times a day in my own neighborhood, I grieve, and I too,  long for Dr. Martin Luther King's dream to be realized.

The Trayvon Martin case also calls into question a controversial law in Florida, the Stand Your Ground law, which permits someone to use deadly force if they can claim self-defense. For the claim to be valid, the shooter or assailant  needs to be able to prove that they faced an imminent deadly threat. In this case, knowing that Trayvon Martin was unarmed, carrying a bottle of iced tea and a bag of Skittles in his hands,  and weighed a slight 140 pounds, it is a stretch to see how he could be perceived as an "imminent deadly threat". It is up to the police to decide if they believe the self-defense claim and therefore arrest the shooter or assailant or not. In this case, the Sanford police say that they were "prohibited from making an arrest at the time based on the facts and circumstances presented to them, including some physical evidence". Reportedly, Zimmerman had a bloody nose and blood on the back of his head. And Trayvon Martin had a fatal shot to the chest. It just doesn't add up. The law also gives no stipulation for gray areas, as in this case, in which Zimmerman was following Martin for some time and so could have provoked him. If the killer provokes his victim, then claims that he was attacked, and therefore used lethal force to protect himself, is that viable grounds for escaping arrest and prosecution? As Michael Siegel, a former federal prosecutor in Florida, shared with reporters from the Associated Press, in cases like this where the motives and evidence are murky, the usual practice if for the police to arrest the killer and then leave it up to the courts to decide if the self-defense claim holds.

What further complicates this law is a special caveat of the Florida version that grants immunity from prosecution or arrest to someone who successfully invokes the self-defense claim, which Zimmerman did. So it might seem that all hope is lost for justice for the Martin family. But there has been a determined fight by Trayvon's parents, who started an online petition to the prosecuting attorney in their district that has garnered over 1.5 million signatures already, and a growing national outcry led by the Rev. Al Sharpton and reaching the heart of the President, who compassionately stated today, "If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon Martin."  It seems that these cries are NOT falling on deaf ears, and several investigations are being launched into the shooting death, the Sanford Police Department's handling of it, and the constitutionality of the Stand Your Ground law. The Justice Department and the FBI have launched civil rights investigations, and on Thursday the Governor of Florida Rick Scott announced that he was appointing a special investigation of the murder led by state's attorney Angela Corey.He also appointed a special task force to review the controversial law that is giving Zimmerman a free pass in this case. A report in the Tampa Bay Times showed how the law has been used irresponsibly, but successfully, to avoid prosecution by people involved in everything from road rage incidents to gang shootings. It is a dangerous law that promotes vigilante justice.

 Also on Thursday, the Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee stepped aside temporarily after the city commission gave him a vote of no-confidence. The tensions in Sanford remain high, in a town that is roughly 50% white and 30% black, and has a history of racial discrimination, especially among law enforcement. In 2005, two white security guards shot and killed a black teen and were not prosecuted because they too claimed self defense. It was later determined that the teen was shot in the back. In 2011, the son of a lieutenant in the force beat up a black homeless man and didn't turn himself in until the video was posted to Youtube. At the time, an investigation was launched into the department's conduct on the case, and the police chief was dismissed. All of the public outcry that has come about in the past week, and the pressure that is being put on the Sanford Police Department to arrest the killer, is small comfort to the citizens of Sanford and especially to Trayvon's family. They want to see an arrest, and soon. Every day that goes by without justice being served feels like a slap in the face to them. Yet they also say that nothing will bring back their sweet son, Trayvon. Because of one man's ignorance, his promising future was cut short.  He was killed for the "crime" of "walking while black". The Sanford Police Department didn't get it right, but hopefully the Justice Department and other parties involved will bring the restitution this young man and his family deserve. Hopefully this law will be amended so that it cannot be manipulated to serve someone's racist intentions. Hopefully our society will learn from this young man's senseless murder and move towards the fulfillment of Dr. Martin Luther King's dream of a world where our children are judged "not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character".

Sunday, March 4, 2012

History Repeats Itself: Hunger Crisis in the Sahel Region of West Africa

The overwhelming majority of people in America do not know true hunger. We might know what it feels like to be hungry, but we do not know what it means to feel the physical sensation of hunger plus the mental and emotional despair of not being able to fulfill that need. I have heard some people declare, "We were so poor we did not know where our next meal was coming from."  While that is the reality of some families at some point in time in our country which I don't want to dismiss, there is always a solution. If there is no money available to buy food, we can rely on friends and family, or on a church or government shelter or food pantry. This is called food security, and in America we have it. It is one of the greatest and most taken for granted blessings of living in this country.

In the Sahel region of West Africa, the reality is far different. This region, which lies just south of the Sahara Desert, includes the little-known countries of Mauritania, Mali, Niger, and Chad, and covers parts of Senegal, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, and Cameroon. The main reason the rest of the world is not very familiar with this area is because it remains one of the most under-developed places on the planet. The northern part of the Sahel is mostly desert, and the southern reaches are mostly savanna and bush, but the balance shifts with each passing year due to climate change. The Sahara desert spreads 30 miles further south every year, and this rate of desertification has doubled since the 1970's. The Sahel has been home to the Tuareg people group, a nomadic tribe originating in  North Africa, since the 4th or 5th century. It is also home to other Arabic and black African tribes, all of whom were left largely alone when their countries were carved out by the European powers and then again when those countries were granted independence. In these countries, the rule of law that emanates from the seat of government in the capital city does not reach these tribes. Indeed, the Sahel is a vast area sprinkled with remote rural villages linked by very poor roads or no roads at all. So the rich traditions and nomadic ways of these tribes, the Tuareg in particular, remained much the same up until the last 20 years.

The majority of villagers in the Sahel region rely on subsistence farming, on  their own livestock and agriculture, to survive. This region suffers from cyclic droughts, leading to chronic food insecurity. In plain English, the harsh climate and living conditions of this region create a "lean season" during the dry season every year. This lean season usually begins in May and lasts until October when the next harvest comes. During this time, people typically eat once a day and sometimes go up to 36 hours without eating. Even in a normal year, when crops are good, the rains are plentiful, and the harvest abundant, during this lean period, half of all the children in this region under the age of 5 suffer chronic malnutrition. But, this year is not a normal year.

This year, the rains failed to come, a drought ensued, and so now the lean season is already here in late February, a full 3 months before its usual arrival. This means that instead of families storing up food or preparing themselves for a 6 month lean season, they now face a full 9 months before they can reap a harvest again. And the amount of food they were able to store was considerably less because of the poor crop yields. Hunger is already hitting the rural populations hard. An aid worker with the humanitarian organization CARE in the capital city of Niger, Niamey, wrote on his blog about the 3 phases of hunger. He writes that the first phase drives villagers into the city to try to buy or beg for food when they have run out at home. The second phase leads to people knocking on the doors of residents in the capital city, looking for work to help them buy food or simply asking for food. He goes on to say that the third phase is when the people stop asking, they are too weak to keep looking, they often just camp out and hope that someone will help them or they just wait to die. This aid worker said that the first phase is happening in Niamey right now, but  from past experience he knows that it only takes weeks to get to that third phase.

The drought is not the only component that makes this year unique. A conflict between the Tuareg people group and government forces has arisen in the north of Mali, and that has caused a flood of refugees into neighboring countries, often directly into those areas that are already suffering from severe food shortages, and the hunger crisis is just multiplied. The latest estimates show that within the last month, 130, 000 Malians have been displaced by the fighting between the Tuareg rebels and the government forces. 60, 000 people have been displaced inside of Mali, and another 69,000 outside of  Mali, with an estimated 29,000 refugees making their way into Niger, 22, 000 in Mauritania, and about 18,000 into Burkina Faso.

This is not the first time that the Tuareg rebels have fomented a rebellion ,but this is one of  the strongest stands they have made, and it comes at a disastrous time. Their presence was reportedly strengthened in the last several months by the return of  Tuareg fighters from Libya, where they defended the Qaddafi regime, with whom they have had a long-standing alliance. The group of fighters organized themselves as the AZAWAD National Liberation Movement and stated their demand for independence for the northern region of Mali where they make their home. This is just the latest in a long history of rebellions stretching back to the early 20th century when the Tuaregs fought against French colonial rule. After Mali and Niger achieved independence in 1960, the Tuareg took up the fight to become autonomous and form their own sovereign state. There was one more major rebellion in the early 90's, and now in 2012 the cause has been renewed. The rebels have attacked northern towns and government bases in Mali. So far, the rebellion has not spread to other countries where the Tuareg reside, but the flight of people from Mali is making an already bad situation, especially in Niger, even worse.

One Malian man, Moussa Jibou, told the BBC that he left his family home in Menaka, a northern town, and fled to Niger, leaving everything behind. "It was a question of saving our lives, so we had to come", he said. The sad reality, though is that they will not find much assistance in Niger, the country in the Sahel that has been hit the hardest by this drought. Nearly half of the people of Niger, an estimated 5 1/2 million people, do not have enough to eat. A mother, Dije Ousmana, told CARE workers that she tries not to think about the 3 babies that she has lost in previous years during the "lean season", when food was hard to come by.  But now this year, times are even harder, and she has a 2 month-old baby named Abdulahadi, whom she has lost her ability to nurse. She watches him wail to be fed, but as she puts him to the breast, there is no milk for him. She told the CARE worker that she had not eaten yet that day.

This is the tragic face of true hunger, and as a mother who has nursed three children, I cannot imagine the despair of not being able to feed your child and not having any alternatives. To think that this baby might die, and many others in the course of this hunger crisis in the Sahel, when the shelves of our grocery stores here in America are lined with food for families and formula for babies. We only have to drive 5 minutes from our house to fulfill any food craving that we might have. It seems a huge injustice that we in America and much of the Western world have an abundance while people in places like Niger are dying for lack of food or access to it. Isn't there a way that we can transfer some of our abundance to them? This is one solution, and this is where humanitarian aid comes in, but it is not as easy as it sounds, and rarely does it solve the problem.

Aid agencies are raising the alarm about this hunger crisis in the Sahel, hoping to avert the famine that hit Somalia and other parts of East Africa last year and is still ongoing. They have asked for $735 million to respond to this crisis, and so far only about $150 million has been pledged. The UN says that is had enough emergency food to feed 2 million people for a month, but this is hardly an adequate response when you consider that the number affected in the Sahel right now stands at around 11 million ,a number that is sure to rise, and that the "lean season" is expected to last for 9 months this year because of the drought and crop failure last fall. This crisis is highlighting the fact that while humanitarian aid has its place,and is the quickest and most effective way to respond to the emergency,  long-term development in this region would do so much more towards preventing a crisis like this and would ultimately cost far less money. The Sahel has long been ignored by aid agencies, partly because the harsh landscape makes it very hard for workers to reach people living in the rural areas. Aid programs are focused in the capital cities, like Bamako,Mali, Nouakchott, Mauritania, and Niamey, Niger, and seldom reach those rural and nomadic populations living in the far reaches of those countries that are part of the Sahel. Mauritania has the world's least amount of potable water, and 1/3 of the population already suffers from severe food insecurity. Niger and Mauritania are rated by the UN as two of the world's poorest and underdeveloped countries. Niger also has one of the world's lowest literacy rates and the  world's highest maternal mortality rate, with 1 in 7 women dying in childbirth, a horrifying statistic that long-term and targeted development projects could help improve.

This is actually the third time in a decade that the Sahel region has faced severe food shortages. As was mentioned before, this region is so underdeveloped that it is always classified as food insecure, and therefore always teeters only a step or two away from a hunger crisis. So why not look at the root causes of of the food insecurity of this region ,and address those through long-term development projects instead of waiting for an emergency to respond to? This is not just the responsibility of the aid organizations. Indeed, the governments of these countries need to take seriously their responsibility to care for all their citizens, even those nomadic tribes in the far reaches of their countries that the decision makers in the capital have little in common with. But it is precisely their lack of care that makes it even more critical for humanitarian organizations to work with local tribesmen and leaders to tackle some of the problems that exacerbate their food insecurity. Access to basic services like health care, sanitation services,and clean water needs to be vastly improved. Indeed, one of the main reasons the country of Niger has the highest rate in the world of mothers dying in childbirth is because the majority of mothers do not live with in close distance of a hospital. Governments and aid organizations also need to take a closer look at the issue of climate change and face the realities of how this is affecting the Sahel region, which is becoming increasingly desertified each year. This trend, if not reversed, will lead to more cyclic droughts, which in turn will lead to greater food insecurity. Agricultural techniques need to be improved to adapt to climate change, at the same time respecting the traditional nomadic ways of some of these tribes that inhabit the Sahel.

 Measures such as these will not only improve the region's ability to deal with climate change and increase their food security, but they would also be measurably more cost-effective. It costs 10 to 20 times more money to airlift food into a region, as is being done now in the Sahel to try to meet the needs of the millions of people who find themselves desperately hungry, than it does to ship food for a regular feeding program as part of a development project or a farming initiative. It costs $80 a day for an aid organization to treat a malnourished child, but only $1 a day to prevent that malnutrition from happening through school feeding programs, basic health services, food starter kits,and the like. The Sahel region is a very harsh place to live in and to work in. It is difficult to get to the people that need help, but it needs to made more of a priority so that emergencies such as the hunger crisis taking place now are fewer and far between.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Boko Haram: The Rise of Muslim Extremism in Nigeria

When you hear the word "terrorist", what is the mental picture that your mind conjures? For most Americans, the images of the bearded and turbaned men who led the suicide attacks on 9-11 would be our default response. Easy to define, and even easier to keep at a safe distance from us since they are so clearly "other". But if you live in northern Nigeria,the most populous democracy in Africa,  a "terrorist" might look like your next-door neighbor or the shopkeeper down the street, someone who looks like you, speaks the same language as you, and even practices the same religion.

In the West, many people wrongly equate the word Muslim with ideas like jihad, ignoring the fact that there are millions of moderate Muslims within our borders and around the world that have lived a peaceful existence with neighbors of differing religions for decades, and in the global case, centuries. There are whole sections of society, especially in America,  who are convinced that all Muslims are extremists.I want to be very careful how I present this issue, because I do not want to condone those ignorant views.  In Africa, and specifically northern Nigeria, it is widely known that this is not so. Most of the northern half of Nigeria is Muslim, and most of the southern half is Christian. Yet there are Christians who live in the North, and Muslims who live in the south. They have co-existed relatively peacefully for years, but now a new brand of  Muslim extremism, propagated in Nigeria by a group called Boko Haram, has exacerbated tensions between the two religions and made life fearful, even for moderate Muslims. 

Boko Haram has stepped up its resistance to the government and increased its attacks on authority structures and innocent civilians alike in the past two years, their most recent and deadliest attack to date being the January 20th attack that killed over 200 people in northern Nigeria's largest city Kano. Kano is a mostly Muslim city with a population of 9 million people. Police stations, passport offices, and immigration buildings were the main targets of a coordinated attack where around 20 bombs, some car bombs and some suicide bombs,  were set off at various locations throughout the city. A spokesman for Boko Haram, Abul Qaqa, told journalists that these attacks were in response to the government's failure to release some of their members who were being detained in Kano.Indeed, northern civil rights activist Shehu Sani had organized a meeting between Boko Haram members and former Nigerian president Olesegun Obasanjo last September, and in that meeting sect leaders stated clear demands that some of their leaders be released, that the military be removed from Maiduguri, Boko Haram's home base, and that justice be served for the death of their leader. At that point, it wasn't clear if the government would honor any of those demands. What the Kano attacks clearly show is that this extremist sect is serious about its agenda and that they are arming themselves and planning for an even greater and longer insurgency.

When President Goodluck Jonathan visited Kano after the bombings, he stated that the security situation in Nigeria  was more complicated now than during the Biafran war of 1967-1970, because this time the enemy is not clearly visible. They rely on surprise attack, they hold to extreme ideals, and they refuse to compromise with the government, Christians,  or even moderate Muslims who do not support their tactics. The government response has been at best inconsistent, and many feel this is a main reason that Boko Haram is still growing in strength and spreading the scope of their attacks. Though in recent weeks after the Kano attack President Jonathan opened the door for dialogue with the leaders of Boko Haram , an offer they have refused, the response of the government up to that  point had been one of indiscriminate force, and this led many people in the north to feel even further isolated and disenfranchised by their Westernized, southern-led government.

Boko Haram's home base is in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state in north-eastern Nigeria and home to a million people. Muslim extremism in West Africa appears to be a new phenomenon, but not that surprising if you consider the history of this much-neglected area of Nigeria. The Muslim roots of this area can be traced to the precolonial Sokoto caliphate, an Islamic empire made up of mostly Fulani people that covered parts of  northern Nigeria, Niger, and Cameroon. This empire took pride in its scholarly Islamic tradition, and this can still be seen today in the fact that many Muslims in this part of Nigeria look down on Western education and do not allow their children to attend government schools. The Sokoto empire was crushed by the British colonizers in 1903, but the brand of Islam remained undiluted through the years of colonial rule.

This area of Nigeria has been largely ignored by the central government because it is far from the oil wealth found in the South, and is mostly home to more traditional Muslims who never fully assimilated into Western culture. As a result of the alienation by the government, poverty and lack of resources are endemic in this region,and are only made worse by the fact that many Muslims refuse to take part in the government services that are offered. As often happens, women and children are the ones who suffer the most. In areas where sharia law is in place, the legal age for a girl to be given in marriage is 9.  There are many young girls in northern Nigeria who were married by 12 or 13, dropped out of school, had a few children, and then were divorced by 19 or 20 with no means to support their family. The statistics are staggering: around 5 million children in northern Nigeria alone are not in school, and 2 out of 3 of those are girls. Some children are not in school because their parents cannot afford it, but many are not in school because of the fear of Western morals being taught or the pressure to marry young and start a family.

It was in this environment that Mohammed Yusuf set up a mosque and Islamic school in the city of Maiduguri in 2002. The school became renowned and drew poor Muslims from all over northern Nigeria and the surrounding countries. As Yusuf's following grew, the group named themselves Jama'atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda'awati Wal-Jihad, which in English means "people committed to the propagation of the Prophet's teachings and jihad". The name Boko Haram, a Hausa term translated loosely as "Western Education is forbidden", was given to the group later by the press and the greater Nigerian public. The group established a community that lived by strict Sharia law principles  around their mosque in Maiduguri. Their leader, Mohammed Yusuf, taught that followers should withdraw from all aspects of Western society such as government schools and democracy as a form of governance and base their lives solely on the teachings of the Prophet Muhammed. His school became the African equivalent of the madrassas in Afghanistan , a seat of learning for extreme Islamic ideology and a training ground for future jihadis.

In July of 2009, government officials, fearing Yusuf's increasingly radical sermons calling for jihad against the ruling powers in Nigeria, sent in security forces to attack the group's mosque in Maiduguri. The sect fought back and went on a killing spree in the city that lasted for four days. When they ran out of ammunition, the government retaliated and killed or arrested many alleged members of Boko Haram,including Mohammed Yusuf who later mysteriously died in police custody,  but also innocent civilians suspected of associating with the radical sect. After the dust settled, over 700 people in Maiduguri had lost their lives in the senseless violence. The government declared then that they had crushed the "uprising" and considered the sect to no longer be a threat. As proof, they laid out in public view the bodies of group members that they had killed. This was a huge offense to even moderate Muslims, as their religion prohibits mistreatment of the dead. Then accusations started to come out that the government was indiscriminately killing those that had been arrested under suspicion of affiliation with Boko Haram. One journalist reported that at the jail where he was detained, some 50 young men were taken away and executed. These extra-judicial actions of the security forces led to much distrust among the people of Maiduguri, and many citizens expressed that they  felt they could trust noone, the Boko Haram sect who was willing to wage war against any person, even another Muslim, who did not subscribe to their radical ideology, and the police who were supposed to protect them but had instead killed many innocent people in their violent crackdown. This climate of distrust and fear has spread to the majority of Muslims in Nigeria. Professor Kyari Mohammed at Modibba Adamo University in Yola, says that "For the average northerner, it is double jeopardy. He is targeted in the North by Boko Haram because he does not believe in their brand of Islam, and also in the South by Christians who feel that attacks by Boko Haram are attacks by all Muslims."

The government gravely underestimated the strength of the radical group. They were not exterminated after the government crackdown in Maiduguri , but instead recovered quickly and have unleashed waves of terror throughout northern Nigeria in the past year. In December of 2010, the group took responsibility for a number of bombings in the central city of Jos, which killed 80 people. In May of 2011, they bombed several areas after the inauguration of Jonathan, a southerner and Christian, as president. Then in August, in their first attack with global implications,  they bombed the UN headquarters in Abuja, killing 24 people. Throughout the year, small-scale attacks and gun battles were waged in Maiduguri and Damaturu in the North, killing hundreds of innocent bystanders. On Christmas Day, Boko Haram claimed responsibility for a bombing in a church in Abuja that killed 43 people. Some small groups of Christians retaliated by bombing a mosque in a southern state and killing a handful of people. Violence always begets more violence. It seems clear that an ideology that embraces extremism is unlikely to accomplish its goal and will more likely alienate itself even further and hurt many innocent people in the process.

In response to the Christmas day church bombings, the head of the Nigeria Christian Association, Ayo Oritsejafor, said that his members would do "whatever it takes" to defend themselves from the pattern of killings which suggested " systematic religious and ethnic cleansing". Many Christians in the North and the South have been keeping their children home from school after the spokesman for Boko Haram warned that their next targets would be primary and secondary schools. It is evident that the rise of Boko Haram has exacerbated tensions between Christians and Muslims in Nigeria, and even created tension and fear where there was none before. One can only hope that these extremist elements do not spread further into West Africa. I have witnessed in Liberia Muslims and Christians living peacefully as neighbors, attending school and church separately, but mingling freely in all other areas of everyday society. When women rose up in peaceful protest against the civil war in Liberia, Christian and Muslim women marched, sang, and even prayed together. There have been similar cooperative movements even in Nigeria recently, where it was reported that Christians and Muslims formed human shields for each group to pray during the fuel subsidy protests. The radical brand of Islam that groups like Boko Haram propagate only serves to undermine the somewhat  thin fabric that holds these societies together. There have been rumors of ties between Boko Haram and other terrorist groups, like Al-Shabaab in Somalia and the Al-Qaeda cell that has sprung up in the Maghreb region of northern Mali. The head of counter-terrorism operations for the African Union, Francisco Jose Madeira, said that "The possibilities of this group expanding its activities into the neighboring countries, deep into the Central African region or West Africa, should not be discarded." In other words, it is time for African governments to regard Boko Haram as far more than just a small radical insurgency but as a real threat to stability in the region.

The need to confront this growing threat is obvious, but how to do it is a very complex issue. Security forces did round up 158 alleged members of the sect in Kano last week, and arrested one of the key spokesmen for the group, but several people were killed in the raid which led to more allegations about the government responding with force. In another incident, the key suspect from the Christmas day bombings escaped custody, which led to inquiries about whether there were security officials who were sympathetic to the group. The chief of Nigerian police Hafiz Ringim was fired.  It is hopeful that the Nigerian government has learned from their past mistakes that retributive violence will only make the problem bigger. Indeed, President Jonathan and other government officials have recently said that they want to use dialogue to solve this security crisis, but that is something that Boko Haram is unlikely to agree to unless their demands are fully met, which is also unlikely to happen. This further alienates some people in the North, who do not understand why the government is not willing to compromise when they were willing to reach an agreement with militias in the Niger Delta that entitled those groups to monetary settlements for their grievances. To some Northerners, that just looks like another example of patronage in the South and neglect of the Northern Muslims.

Human rights activists in the North say that the government should pursue a greater program of development there, with better economic opportunities made available and essential services such as health care and education improved. The introduction of better social services and education planned in concert with and having the support of  local Muslims could help to alleviate the chronic poverty in the North, which many say creates a prime breeding ground for extremist elements like Boko Haram. These steps will take time, though, and a Nigerian leadership committed to do what is best for the entire country, not just their own ethnic or religious group. President Jonathan claimed to be that President in his campaign, but this crisis and the fuel subsidy crisis have greatly tested his leadership skills. In the meantime, people in the North and the South, Christian and Muslim, live everyday with the knowledge that there are people bent on committing acts of terror living among them. I am reminded of the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., who said "Darkness can not drive out darkness. Only light can do that." The fight against extremist elements in Nigeria, in the Middle East,  indeed throughout the world, will not be won by force or by retribution. Our own country's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have proved that well. Good governance, dialogue, and equal distribution of resources are the best options to create an environment of stability where extremism will find it difficult to thrive.

Friday, January 27, 2012

A Deadly Divorce: The Breakup of Sudan

Some marriages should have never happened, and such was the case with the African country of Sudan. You could say the marriage was arranged by the imperial power Britain, and it brought together ethnic groups that had opposed and oppressed each other for centuries. The arrangement was for rather selfish reasons that only benefited the colonizer, as was the case with most African countries whose boundaries were carved out by European powers.

The crown jewel of the British colonial empire was India, and in 1896 the Suez Canal opened which gave Britain a direct route to India through the Mediterranean and Red Seas rather than sailing all the way around the southern tip of Africa. In order to consolidate its hold on this precious trade route, the British found it necessary to control the Nile River , which fed into the Mediterranean Sea and is the longest waterway in the world, flowing through 10 African countries, from source to mouth. This involved taking over Sudan. They used the same principle of indirect rule to cover this vast country that they had employed in other colonies. They nurtured a Sudanese elite in the capital of Khartoum which was mainly from the northern half of the country, Muslim,  and Arabic-speaking. Outside of the capital, and especially in the vast southern regions of Sudan, they bought the allegiance of  local chiefs but left them to rule their people as they always had as long as they accepted ultimate British authority. England ruled the northern and southern parts of Sudan as separate entities until 1947, a mere nine years before the country gained independence. It was natural to do so since the two regions and their people have almost nothing in common. British journalist Richard Dowden said that Southerners are as physically and culturally different from Northerners as Chinese people are from Norwegians. Northerners are Arabic and Muslim, and their land is vastly desert. Southerners are mostly black African, and their religion is a mixture of Christianity and tribal beliefs. They are farmers who live off the land. Within the South, there are a number of  different tribes, the largest being the Dinka and the Nuer, and there are at least 60 indigenous languages spoken.

At the first independence, that of the whole of Sudan from Great Britain, power was handed over to the Khartoum elite that England had carefully selected and trained. 83% of investments were concentrated in the northern half of the country, mostly in Khartoum and Blue Nile province. From 1955 to 1972, a group called the Southern Sudan Resistance Movement and its military wing, the Anya-Nya,  fought for the secession of the southern part of the country. They didn't achieve their ultimate goal, but they did strike a deal with the government in Khartoum which gave the South more resources and more autonomy. However, eleven years later, in 1983, the mainly Islamic government reneged on their agreement. The fight for succession and freedom for South Sudan was taken up by a new group named the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) led by Colonel John Garang.

This second war would last for 22 years, and in the process what little development was present in the southern parts of Sudan would be reversed. 2 million people would lose their lives, mostly civilians who had been displaced and succumbed to starvation or disease, and another 4 million would lose their homes routinely and repeatedly by this nomadic war. The war was fought mainly in the South, and consisted of the Sudanese army and the rebel SPLA capturing and recapturing towns from each other. For two decades, there was no clear victor and no real outside attempt at a resolution.  The war was further complicated in 1991 when there was a split in the senior ranks of the SPLA, and Riek Machar , a young Nuer chief whose marriage to British aid worker Emma McCune became legendary, started his own rebel movement. This movement was made up of mostly Nuer, and they fought more against the Dinka-led SPLA than they did against the army of Sudan. At one point ,they were even being supported covertly by the government in Khartoum in an attempt to weaken the SPLA 's power and popularity. While the ideals of both southern rebel groups were noble in many respects, their fighting created a new version of hell for the innocent people who lived in these  regions, as they were often attacked or caught in the crossfire by any one of the three groups and could not feel protected, even by those factions that were "fighting for them". Riek Machar broke away from the government again in 2000, and then rejoined the SPLA in 2002 as a senior commander. As the war dragged on, the ideals that the groups in the South were fighting for became clearer and succession from the North seemed to present itself as the only viable way to achieve them. This new focus brought unity to the southern rebel movements once again and  that unity was a key factor in their success in brokering the peace agreement that was finally reached in 2005.

The main features of the peace agreement were that it granted Southern Sudan the opportunity for secession and independence which it had fought for for half a century, and it granted them 50% of the oil revenues of the region. Both of these were huge victories for Southern Sudan.There are large amounts of oil reserves located in Sudan, estimated at 560 million barrels per day. 80% of these reserves are in the South. Yet the only pipeline travels through the North to Khartoum and on to the Port of Sudan at the Red Sea. The only refineries are located in the North as well.  So until this agreement, the South was receiving no benefit from this vast natural resource that it harbored. As for independence,  the agreement set up a referendum in 2011 that would let the people of Southern Sudan vote on the question of succession. In January of 2011, the decision was made for independence with 98.8 % of the votes in support of it. That figure alone gives you a clue as to the oppression and injustice the southern people suffered at the hands of the government. South Sudan officially became the world's newest nation on July 9 of 2011.While this was a great democratic victory for the people of South Sudan, and a cause that many freedom fighters like John Garang gave their lives for, it remains a fact that divorce is never easy. In the past few months it has become increasingly clear just how difficult the separation,  and now rebirth of South Sudan  as a new nation, will be. Especially when you have such a jealous, jilted ex-partner as Sudan.

Possibly the biggest point of contention is the question of oil revenues. As stated by the 2005 peace agreement, South Sudan currently receives 50% of the revenues from the 80% of the oil reserves it controls. Reserves which are now entirely theirs since they are now a sovereign nation. Yet the reliance on Sudan is  still there since they control the pipeline and the refineries. Currently, there are talks taking place in Addis Adaba to resolve this crisis that poses the risk of huge losses to both sides. For the North, oil revenues accounted for 50% of domestic revenues and 93% of their exports in 2009. They have lost much of this since the South's independence in July. It has left a gaping 36% gap in their budget that has them scrambling for ways to cover the deficit. Already, inflation has caused prices of basic necessities to rise significantly and people in the capital of Khartoum have not been shy to express their frustration. One way they have tried to compensate for the loss of revenue is to impose exorbitant transit fees of $36 US per barrel on the oil that is transported from South Sudan through the pipelines in the North. Since July, the two governments have not agreed on these fees and South Sudan has refused to pay them. So in return, Sudan has taken the revenues from the oil, saying that it is in lieu of the fees. South Sudan President Salva Kiir estimates that Khartoum has "stolen" $815 million worth of oil since July. In classic Khartoum style , the North has  responded that they have "confiscated" some of the revenues, but only to replace the transit fees that are owed to them.

As talks continued to deterioriate over this crucial economic issue, South Sudan announced on January 20th that it would halt its oil production. Then five days later, it announced that a deal had been reached with Kenya to build a pipeline from South Sudan's oil fields to the Kenyan port of Lamu on the Indian Ocean. They claim that it could be ready in a year, but oil industry experts say it will more likely take 3 years for the pipeline to be complete and ready for use. President Kiir stated that South Sudan would rather struggle for a while than continue to hand over its revenues to Sudan. At first glance, it seems like a disastrous choice to shut down production of oil. 98% of South Sudan's budget depends on oil revenues. But you have to consider that they are not receiving much of that money right now anyway because Sudan is stealing huge amounts of it. Also, 85% of the population in the South are farmers who live off their land and animals. They will not be greatly affected by the loss of revenue since they don't see much of it anyway. However, the financial strain would make it almost impossible to pay their large military, and there are fears that could lead to resentment and more instability. Whatever happens with the oil, a few things are clear. South Sudan will continue to look away from Sudan and south to Kenya and other East African countries to ally itself with in business and other matters. And the country will also need to seriously tackle the challenges of development and diversifying their economy so they are not so dependent on oil for their livelihood. If they are able to do this, the future will become brighter.

Another huge and often deadly point of contention is the issue of the border states, and this is where the oppression and brutality of Sudan becomes horrifyingly apparent.  The border states are home to both northern Arabs and Southern Africans. The states allegiances were all clearly delineated in the 2005 peace agreement, except for the disputed territory of Abyei, whose fate would be decided by a referendum in 2011. It was widely expected that the people of that territory would vote overwhelmingly to go with the South, but they were never given the chance. In May of 2011, the army of Sudan bombarded and overtook the territory, causing the 110,000 Dinka who lived there to flee. Riek Machar, who is now Vice-President of South Sudan, called this an attempt at ethnic cleansing by the Sudanese government and alerted the UN Security Council. His cries seemingly fell on deaf ears, though, as no action was taken.  It is not clear now if or when the referendum will take place.

Sudan has also made a habit of bombing refugee camps in South Sudan in the past few months, a charge which of course, it vehemently denies. In November, a refugee camp in Unity State for Northerners fleeing the fighting in South Kordofan province just across the border was bombed . Just last week, the UN confirmed that another refugee camp in Upper Nile province that houses some 5, 000 people fleeing fighting in Blue Nile province in Sudan was also bombed. It is probable that both attacks were carried out by the Sudanese Air Force since Antonov planes, planes which are a staple of the SAF, were used. Sudan accuses the South of supporting northern rebels in South Kordofan and Blue Nile provinces. South Sudan accuses Sudan of supporting southern rebels behind attacks in Unity State and Upper Nile Province. While those accusations are probably true on both sides to some extent, they provide a convenient place to lay the blame for bombings rather than admitting that the Sudanese Air Force carried out attacks on innocent civilians. President Salva Kiir has said that Sudan wants to drag South Sudan back into a "meaningless war". Khartoum denies that there are any refugee camps in the South and that people from the Northern provinces are fleeing to them, while at the same time it is closing off escape routes from the North into Unity State and other border areas in the South.

It seems that Riek Machar's claims of ethnic cleansing are accurate, and more and more calls for intervention and humanitarian aid are being made. Princeton Lyman, the US envoy to Sudan, warned last week that half a million people in South Kordofan and Blue Nile province in Sudan will face an emergency bordering on famine by March if international aid organizations are not allowed in. He also called on the UN Security Council to intervene. The government of Sudan, in another classic denial, says that these areas are too dangerous for NGO's to operate in. In what may be the most stunning foretelling of Sudan's brutal campaign against the black African peoples that are still residing in the North, the Satellite Sentinel Project , the brainchild of Hollywood star George Clooney and John Prendergast which uses satellite technology to observe the border of South Sudan, released a report this week that shows that the Sudanese army may be preparing for a final assault on the Nuba people remaining in the province of South Kordofan. Their satellites show that the Sudanese Air Forces (SAF) have cut off all the main evacuation routes for people wishing to flee the Kauda valley where 200,000 Nuba still remain. These 200,000 people are currently cut off from all humanitarian aid. It appears from the satellite images that the SAF is only a few weeks away from being ready to launch an all-out assault on this valley. They have encircled this population, and broader images showed that the army is building roads into the area for their equipment and lengthening the closest airstrip, presumably to allow it to accomodate bomber planes. In fact, the governor of South Kordofan, Ahmed Haroun, who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes committed in Darfur, stated last October that "These road construction projects will be the weapon for defeating the enemies."

What makes these reports even more chilling is the fact that the Satellite Sentinel Project noticed the same sort of buildup and road construction taking place last March around the disputed territory of Abyei. They issued warnings up to 6 weeks in advance, but those warnings went unheeded, and the Sudanese army overtook the district in May and displaced over 100, 000 black Africans, as was mentioned earlier. These warnings cannot go unheeded again. This technology is unheard of in this part of the world,  and so crucial to the protection of South Sudan, but it is only effective if  the warnings are taken seriously. The writers of the SSP report pleaded that "the community of nations must not again fail to act while some 200,000 Nuba civilian lives are in danger."

On Thursday, January 26th, the government of Sudan announced that all Southerners who remained in Sudan would be treated as foreigners. Yet, the military of Sudan is blocking the escape routes and building up their presence around the areas where Southerners are concentrated. All the signs point to the building up of a genocide. This is very serious, and anyone who cares about human rights should condemn what the nation of Sudan is doing and be gravely concerned about the status of the Southerners trying to return to their homeland. The world needs to pay attention to what is happening and call on international leaders to take action to prevent another genocide. And the international powers and members of the UN Security Council, those with the power to exert protection, need to take seriously the plight of South Sudan.  The world's newest nation and its people need to be given every opportunity to succeed.