My following essay appears in Al Jazeera America:
On a blazing hot March day in the town of Ganyiel in South Sudan’s Unity state, 19-year-old Elizabeth cautiously smiled. Born in Yei, a southwestern town near the border with Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the young woman was unafraid to criticize her country’s leaders.
“Stop killing,” she said referring to South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and his main rival, rebel leader Riek Machar. “We need peace.”
Elizabeth completed school — one of the few South Sudanese citizens who have done so — and speaks basic English. “Only WFP gives us food. We can’t find it anywhere else,” she said pointing at the World Food Program workers handing out aid in an open field of cracked brown dirt. “There’s not enough in the market. And there’s too much water in the land to cultivate crops.” For Elizabeth, living in Ganyiel with her young son and mother and with her husband in Ethiopia looking for work, the future was bleak.
Civil war has raged across Africa’s newest nation since December 2013. Tens of thousands have died amid horrific allegations of mass rape, recruitment of child soldiers and war crimes. Peace talks between Kiir and Machar have broken down numerous times. A recently leaked report from the African Union (AU) suggested that it temporarily take over the country and exclude Machar and Kiir from the transitional government. In South Sudan, nobody believes the AU is up to the task. In fact, many argue that it’s a ploy to steal the country’s oil and other natural resources. The AU denies making these recommendations.
Ganyiel, a relatively peaceful area, has attracted more than 100,000 civilians displaced by the civil war. But it suffers constant flooding, raising concerns about worsening living conditions. The United Nations says 2.5 million people in South Sudan are facing severe food insecurity. This number could reach 4 million by the end of the year, in a country with a population of 11 million. Meanwhile, South Sudanese leaders — almost all of them men — stay in luxury hotels and endlessly negotiate an elite power-sharing deal in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa.
“If the men got out of the way,” said the U.N. humanitarian coordinator in South Sudan, Toby Lanzer, “women would probably just run the country much better.”
I visited Ganyiel last month with the WFP, which was delivering tons of sorghum and cooking oil, using 10 planes to air-drop the supplies. “We constantly have to make decisions where to drop and deliver food,” one of the aid workers said, noting the huge demand and lack of resources. In other words, some needy families will miss out on the meager food handouts and have to fend for themselves under inhospitable circumstances. Temperatures can soar to 115 degrees in the summer months.
It’s easy to write off the humanitarian disaster in South Sudan as just another local conflict, a bloody African civil war with no resonance beyond its borders — a confusing mix of tribal groups fighting over land and power, disconnected from the modern world or even regional players. This would be incorrect, not least because the fingerprints of the United States, the European Union and major African powers are everywhere.
The U.N. and international nongovernmental organizations admit that they’re unable to provide more than Band-Aid solutions. South Sudan joins a growing list of quasi-nation-states, including Palestine, Nauru and Papua New Guinea, which exist more on paper than in reality.
This is not to deny the South Sudanese people’s hard-won freedom from oppressive Sudan, where they were often treated as little more than chattel. In his book “The Shadow of the Sun,” the late Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski recalls visiting what was then southern Sudan in 1960 and witnessing the viciousness of a war between north and south that the West essentially ignored. Millions died in the following decades.
“We are in a world in which man, crawling on the earth, tries to dig a few grains of wheat out of the mud, just to survive another day,” he wrote. Little has changed in the decades since his trip.
Except, of course, South Sudan is now an independent country, with huge Chinese and American contributions. The U.S. invested heavily in South Sudan’s independence, hoping to find a reliable strategic ally that would help counter the predominantly Muslim Sudan, buy U.S. weapons and challenge Beijing’s growing influence on the continent. China was far cleverer in its strategic aims, funding infrastructure and oil resources with an eye on the long game. Washington now appears distracted in other theaters of war. But Beijing continues to court Sudanese leaders. The United States still provides huge amounts of foreign aid, underscoring the kind of dependent relationship it hopes to engender.
But Kiir isn’t necessarily playing along with Washington’s cajoling. In a speech at a rally in the capital, Juba, recently, he appeared uncompromising toward his local opponents and foreign pressure. This did not stop a South Sudanese student from calling for Kiir to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for being a “revolutionary icon and peacemaker.”
Millions of South Sudanese desperately need food, water and hygiene assistance. But that is not enough. The elite’s powermongering and apathy for peace have dispossessed millions of people, from Bor to Wai and Ganyiel to Juba. It continues to polarize citizens and erode the country’s social relations. The U.N. Security Council is considering targeted sanctions, and critics are calling for travel bans, asset freezes and denying the children of elites access to Western education. These levers of pressure may already be too late.
My following essay appears in Al Jazeera English:
The book launch was held in a large restaurant last weekend in the middle of the South Sudanese capital, Juba. Veteran journalist and editor of The Citizen, Victor Keri Wani, was being celebrated for his 40 years in the media business, an eternity in a country that had successfully split from its northern neighbour in 2011 to become the world’s newest nation.
After extensive introductions, the only male speakers spoke warmly about Wani’s broad career. Mentioned by nearly all of them were the absence of South Sudanese history written by locals. Let’s not wait for foreigners to do it for us, they agreed.
The lack of a local publisher made it impossible for the innumerable manuscripts by academics and intellectuals to find a home. Wani concurred and thanked the enthusiastic crowd, dressed in their Sunday best clothing, and hoped that the country wouldn’t be solely defined through its ongoing war and ethnic strife.
This will be a challenge. Since fighting broke out in December 2013, killing tens of thousands of people in the months ahead, the nation has been torn apart by brutal conflict, the recruitment of children to fight and evidence of horrific mass rape.
Over 100,000 people continue living in protection of civilian camps in five states, some fearing for their safety. Displacement of civilians has been extensive, something I’ve witnessed in Wai in Jonglei state and Ganyiel in Unity state.
I heard from countless men, women and children who expressed anger at the inability or unwillingness of the warring factions to make peace. These relatively brazen views are growing in strength, posing a threat to the ability of the state to remain even moderately secure and contiguous.
In both Wai and Ganyiel, the United Nations and various NGOs are providing food, water and medical care. The UN says 2.5 million people are food insecure nationwide and this figure could increase to four million by the end of the year.
Peace talks have collapsed and a leaked African Union report detailed cases of war crimes committed by forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar. Last week the South Sudanese parliament extended Kiir’s term for another three years and delayed elections.
In Wai, 25,000 civilians are living mostly in the open air, fleeing areas where fighting is a daily reality. In Ganyiel, situated near swampy ground, the region is relatively peaceful but beset by threats of flooding as the rainy season approaches. Over 100,000 civilians are given food aid air-dropped by the World Food Program (WFP). It’s a miserable existence.
But it’s a mistake to presume this is all just another African war with barely discernable details.
Bulwark against China
At its birth, South Sudan was given a US stamp of approval, destined to be a reliable bulwark against China, a superpower that had spent the decade post 9/11 massively expanding its footprint on the continent.
What Washington either ignored or dismissed, according to a recent Foreign Policy feature, were vital details about reliable infrastructure and oil production, trained doctors and teachers, forces to contain corruption and sustainable agriculture.
It all collapsed so quickly that left to pick up the pieces was various UN agencies and NGOs.
Today, according to South Sudan’s UN humanitarian co-ordinator Toby Lanzer, 400,000 children are out of school and for every 100 kids who start primary school only one will finish secondary education. That’s at least one lost generation and counting.
South Sudan has become an aid-dependent entity, bringing necessary questions about the sustainability of this arrangement. The ability for states to survive principally from the support of governments, donors or corporations looking to turn a profit is doubtful.
Sustainability of aid dependence
From the Pacific to Africa, the fate of nations is too often decided in the boardrooms of London or New York. The last years in Australia and Britain have seen a growing trend to tie aid to the profit motive, helping Australian and British businesses with possibly a few scraps coming the way of locals in developing nations.
Aid is never benign and is always tied to a richer nation hoping to gain some advantage in a poorer one, whether it’s political influence, business gain or poll position when a resource industry emerges. Like clockwork, South Sudan recentlyannounced it was open for mining business.
The need for indefinite aid in South Sudan is unquestioned and this year alone the UN needs $1.8 billion in assistance. I’ve met nobody in South Sudan who questions the necessity of gaining sovereignty in 2011 – a position echoed in South Sudanese communities from London to Sydney.
And yet with a faltering economy, a government printing more money and bundles of cash being flown into Juba in the middle of the night, 21st century independence in the heart of east Africa is faltering.
Antony Loewenstein is a freelance journalist based in South Sudan and best-selling author of many books, including the upcoming Disaster Capitalism (Verso).
My following story appears in today’s Guardian:
Angela has been living in the remote town of Ganyiel, in South Sudan’s Unity state, for 18 months. Trying to feed her five children has been hard.
Angela is angry with the country’s warring parties. “I pray for peace,” she says. “But if they won’t stop the conflict, I’m telling [president] Salva Kiir and [rebel leader] Riek Machar to fight each other with their own hands and stop killing our kids.”
Many internally displaced people in the area share Angela’s frustration. Their views were heard by Ertharin Cousin, the executive director of the UN World Food Programme (WFP), and the deputy special representative of the UN secretary general in the UN mission in South Sudan, Toby Lanzer, when they toured Ganyiel last weekend.
“It’s important the world recognises the crisis here,” Cousin said. “People here are victims, and without us they have nothing.” She said the WFP had a shortfall of $250m (£168m) to operate its programmes for the next six months.
Although in a rebel-held area, Ganyiel is a relatively safe village, away from the fighting that started in December 2013 after Kiir accused his vice-president, Machar, of plotting a coup. The war has caused the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians and displaced almost 2 million people. Ganyiel’s isolation is worsened by constant flooding. An estimated 110,000 people are seeking refuge in the region, tens of thousands more than a year ago. With roads barely functioning, the best way to deliver aid is by air.
According to the WFP’s head of nutrition, Darlene Raphael, 32% of children in the region are malnourished; rates above 15% are considered critical. Raphael assists locals in teaching others how to prepare food four times a day and wash their hands with soap and water.
More funding alone won’t solve the food shortages. “We have logistical limitations such as not having anywhere to land and park more planes. Furthermore, donors have limits to how much more they will fund,” said a WFP representative.
The organisation has airdropped food around Ganyiel since March 2014. This year, 10 planes are regularly delivering cooking oil, sorghum cereal and yellow split peas. Almost 70% of South Sudan is inaccessible during the rainy season and WFP is using the current dry period to prepare for the coming downpour.
According to WFP figures released in March, nationwide food distribution reached 377,000 beneficiaries in February. The UN says that 2.5 million people across the nation are food insecure, and that number could easily rise to 4 million by the end of the year.
In Ganyiel, things have improved greatly since the start of the war. One year ago the market was almost empty; today, it is filled with basic goods. There is a feeling of semi-permanence among the population. But everybody complains of regularly going hungry, despite the aid. The local commissioner, John Tap Puot, said government intimidation against journalists and civilians was ongoing and there weren’t enough medicines, doctors and water available. In 2014 the floods killed many cattle and destroyed crops, forcing locals to become dependent on the WFP and NGOs for food.
The political and economic crisis in the country is growing. A recently leaked African Union report recommended that both Kiir and Machar be barred from any future government and – more controversially – that the AU take control of the country.
Lanzer says the government is printing money to avoid financial collapse, risking hyperinflation. Officials deny they are increasing the money supply. With a 60% drop in oil production due to the war and a falling global oil price, the country recently announced it would vigorously pursue mining. But a lack of proper regulation risks profiteers exploiting untapped resources. Washington, which had hoped South Sudan would be a reliable, African success story, appears uninterested in further, serious engagement.
During a public rally for Kiir in the capital, Juba, last week, attendance was low – roughly 4,000 people turned out – and few solutions were offered to the crisis. The threat of sanctions hangs over the nation.
The latest UN figures show that 112,590 people are living in refugee camps across five states. In Ganyiel, people know about the recently collapsed peace talks. “I want the international community to force Kiir and Machar to sign a peace deal,” said Angela.
I just heard about this shocking story in South Africa and signed a statement in solidarity:
The savage attack on Zainub Dala shows the terror of the freedom to use words, and the desire to obliterate them.
On Wednesday March 18 author, Zainub Priya Dala was violently attacked as she left her hotel during the Time of the Writer Festival in Durban. A woman driving alone, she was harassed by three men who forced her off the road, cornered her, held a knife at her throat, smashed a brick in her face, and called her “Rushdie’s bitch”. The day before she had been asked about writers she admired: Salman Rushdie’s name had figured on a long list of others. People walked out in protest.
Writers do not fear difference of opinion. On the contrary, we thrive on difficulty, on complexity, on posing vexed questions and exploring unresolved ideas. We sketch characters with conflicting emotions, fraught relationships with their families, their lovers and their gods, we place them in troubled circumstances, sometimes offer them redemption. This is the stuff of good drama, of engaged fiction. We gravitate towards, not away from, debate and nuance, knowing that the more considered the idea the better the text.
But what we do not thrive on, and what we will not tolerate, is violent intimidation. Like us, Dala is a writer. She is a reader. She is both a consumer of and producer of words. She would not have avoided a conversation; she would not have shut down a debate. But debate, conversation and engagement are not possible in the face of violence.
And this type of violence – cowardly, sinister, designed to create fear in the moment and silence in the future – is the sort that simultaneously demonstrates its terror of words and its desire to obliterate them. In South Africa, our freedom of speech and movement is a fundamental right. Our Constitution insists on them. It is the same Constitution that protects the rights of those uncomfortable with or offended by Rushdie’s work.
The question of freedom of expression, of speech, has occupied South African writers for decades and is one that has changed shape over the years as we’ve moved from repression to democracy and into the troubling era of the “secrecy Bill”. As South Africans, as writers, we have not always experienced freedom but we have always known what we were fighting for, sometimes at a fatal cost.
We have always known that freedom of expression is, at its deepest, most profound level, the right to speak without fear. It is the knowledge that sharing an opinion with the public should at best be met with passionate engagement, at worst with disinterested dismissal. It is, in its simplest form, the right to speak. It is also the right to listen and to be heard.
There is no glory to be had in attacking an unarmed woman alone. There is nothing heroic about attempting to intimidate people into silence. This was an unconscionable and shameful act. Above all, it was criminal.
As writers, as South Africans, we wish to make this plain: we will not be silenced and intimidated by brutish thuggery. We stand in solidarity with Dala. She is one of us, and in the tradition of our country’s resistance and resilience, we say clearly and unanimously that an injury to one is an injury to all.
PEN South Africa, the local chapter of PEN International, a worldwide association of writers; Njabulo Ndebele, Nadia Davids, NoViolet Bulawayo, Rustum Kozain, Mandla Langa, Margie Orford, Phillippa Yaa de Villiers, Imraan Coovadia, Gabeba Baderoon, Fourie Botha, Imran Garda, Kirsten Miller, Thando Mgqolozana, Ben Williams, Tshifhiwa Given Mukwevho, Dilman Dila, Siphiwo Mahala, Fiona Snyckers, Helen Moffett, Nthikeng Mohlele, Percy Zvomuya, Jacob Dlamini, Zakes Mda, Ivan Vladislavic, Elinor Sisulu, Rachel Zadok, Louis Greenberg, CA Davids, Futhi Ntshingila, Tony Eprile, Mark Winkler, Charlotte Otter, Beverley Naidoo, Elaine Proctor, Bettina Wyngaard, Sumayya Lee, Margaret von Klemperer, Hettie Scholtz, Danie Marais, Liesl Jobson, Henry Jack Cloete, Ingrid Glorie, Marita van der Vyver, Isobel Dixon, Jackie Phamotse, Lili Radloff, Adeline Radloff, Antony Loewenstein
Al Jazeera English report on wildlife suffering alongside people in war-ravaged South Sudan:
My following feature appears in the Guardian US:
In the small town of Yei, in southern South Sudan, missionary reverend Shelvis Smith-Mather closed his eyes and prayed. On a searing hot February day, wearing a yellow tie and dusty black shoes, the 35-year-old man from Atlanta, Georgia, was opening a community forum dedicated to reconciliation in a country torn by war. “We are flesh and blood,” he said. “We have flaws. But with God’s work, we can work well for peace.”
The meeting, held at the Reconcile Peace Institute near the borders with Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, gathered a group of male and female adult students. Later, they were asked to imagine the community they wanted by 2030; they listed an end to tribalism and skin markings, better education and human rights, God-fearing citizens and freedom of speech.
These are ambitious targets in a country engulfed by a civil war that has killed tens of thousands, where children are being abducted to fight, and where rape is endemic. Millions also currently face severe hunger. This wasn’t the dream in 2011 when South Sudan became independent, gaining the title of the world’s newest nation. President George W Bush liked the idea of a Christian nation adjacent to Islamic Sudan after September 11, and President Barack Obama continued to uphold this vision, though with less enthusiasm.
Reconcile, which has trained hundreds of people in conflict analysis and leadership, was established in 2003 by indigenous church groups to push a faith-based vision for South Sudan, which has a population of approximately 11m people – 60% of whom are Christians, 32% holding traditional beliefs such as animism, and roughly 6% are Muslims.
Smith-Mather is Reconcile’s principal; he moved to Yei from Kenya with his wife Nancy in 2011. They live in a simple brick house with their two young children and intend to stay for another three years as employees of the Presbyterian Church USA and Reformed Church in America. Their organisation calls them “mission co-workers”, not missionaries, in an effort to show they’re collaborating with, not directing, local partners. Yei also has a leading maternity and children’s hospital run by medical missionaries from Harvesters Reaching the Nations.
Both Shelvis and Nancy are deeply aware of the historical baggage associated with missionary work. Nancy recalled being in South Sudan’s Jonglei state, where she met a black woman who told her that her white skin was more beautiful than her own. “Maybe that message came from a missionary,” she told me. “Maybe it was just from colonialism, or from the common belief that what comes from outside is somehow better than what exists here.”
She hoped that her time in Africa would allow her to break down those destructive perceptions. Shelvis agreed. “I’m often asked why in the world would you go to South Sudan and live there when there’s war and challenges?” Nancy said. “Because of my faith my response is, ‘how could I not?’ God calls us into the places of suffering.”
I asked Shelvis and Nancy about US pastors and missionary churches funding and supporting anti-gay legislation in Uganda. “It’s counter to the message of love I understand coming from faith,” Nancy argued. Shelvis, for his part, said that “many religious leaders in South Sudan would say homosexuality does not exist in the country” and “there’s a certain deference that I need to have for conversations being had here, and be respectful of those.”
However, Shelvis stressed, “regardless of an individual’s particular viewpoint on homosexuality, as Christians living in a broken world, we have to be careful to match our zeal for our faith with the same standard of compassion, love and mercy that Christ offered to those whom opposed his views.”
Hunter Farrell, World Mission director for the Presbyterian Church USA, tells me that the church pays seven missionaries in Sudan and South Sudan. It spent around $1m there in 2014 and currently prioritises the South Sudan education and peace building programme, which aims to raise $2.3m to improve education for tens of thousands of children. World Mission’s 2014 budget was $28m, and it operates around the world, from El Salvador to Sri Lanka.
But not all missionaries in Africa are as understanding as Shelvis and Nancy – something made clear when considering how belief and homosexuality collide across the continent.
Africa is by and large conservative, and many poor countries are susceptible to charity with a socially conservative agenda. It’s within this context that many US evangelical churches go to Africa to win the battles that are being lost at home. Many of them subscribe to the dominionist movement, which supports turning secular governments into Christian theocracies. They pressure NGOs not to accept Christians in same-sex marriages. Missionaries have traversed the length and breadth of Africa for centuries, so this 21st century American campaign is just the latest in a long line of foreign influence.
From gay marriage to abortion rights and birth control, the last decades have seen huge strides in the west towards minimising discrimination and encouraging equality. Hatred still exists, but public opinion has experienced a sea change towards accepting difference.
The Rev Jackson George Gabriel, the curate of the Episcopal Church of South Sudan and Sudan, tells me that he welcomes outside encouragement, confirming that the American branch of his church “are telling us to stand firm against homosexuality”. In a country where President Salva Kiir has said that homosexuality will “always be condemned by everybody”, and where the public shaming of gay South Sudanese by local tabloid media is growing, his stance enjoys a lot of support.
Gabriel fears western influence is fundamentally changing African societies for the worse. “Western society is trying to destroy us,” he says. “Behaviours such as fornication, spirit of independence, gay rights, no respect for elders, abortion and birth control are being imported. African leaders must maintain our culture.” He says the archbishop of the local Episcopal church is currently directing his ministries to investigate if they receive any funds from foreign churches that back homosexual rights. “If so, they must cut all ties,” Gabriel says.
These attitudes mirror the social agenda of many US evangelicals organisations which have both charitable and ideological agendas.
Samaritan’s Purse, run by Franklin Graham, son of the Christian evangelist Billy Graham, has a large presence in Africa and been active in Sudan since 1993. Along with providing food, fishing kits, water, shelter, training, hygiene and medical supplies, the group proselytises, screens the evangelical Jesus Film to thousands of people and rebuilds churches (“People are open to the Gospel here,” says country director Brock Kreitzburg). As a global enterprise, it has also been accused of blurring the line between church and state during its emergency relief work in developing countries.
Graham is a powerful figure, having met Kiir and Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir many times to advocate for the country’s Christians. He visited South Sudan in March, prayed with Kiir and the rebel leader Riek Machar, and inaugurated an airport hangar in Kenya. Graham is also anti-gay, backing Russia’s draconian laws against sexual minorities. He told delegates at a recent Oklahoma State Evangelism Conference to “get involved in politics. [The] gays and lesbians are in politics [and] all the anti-God people are.”
Despite repeated requests, the group refused to provide details on the amount of money it currently spends in South Sudan, though its 2013 financial report said that in 2012 it had more than $2m of expenses in the nation and raised more than $376m worldwide.
Part of the agenda of US evangelical churches is explored in a 2014 report by the Rev Kapya Kaoma called American Culture Warriors in Africa: A Guide to the Exporters of Homophobia and Sexism, which is endorsed by Desmond Tutu. Kaoma is an Anglican priest from Zambia now living and working in the US with the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts due to threats against his life. His work paints a picture of the myriad of US groups and their African allies who, he says, are “seeking to impose their intolerant – and even theocratic – interpretations of Christianity on the rest of the world”.
This includes the American Centre for Law and Justice (ACLJ), whose founders are televangelist Pat Robertson and lawyer Jay Sekulow. The organisation has visited South Sudan’s leadership with aims to influence its political agenda. The organisation has pushed for the criminalising of abortion and homosexuality across Africa and operates in Russia, Israel and Europe. The Republican presidential hopeful Jeb Bush recently appointed Sekulow’s son, Jordan, to be his “liaison” with religious conservatives.
Human Life International, a far-right American Catholic group working in Nigeria and Tanzania, opposes abortion and contraception. Stephen Phelan, its director of mission communications, tells me that the problem lies with secular aid groups, not evangelicals. He condemns “wealthy governments and enormous NGOs spending billions each year to impose their culture on Africa, including values that are literally foreign to African families … At times these funds actually go to aid Africans who live in less developed parts of the continent, but a great deal more is spent on population control than on wells, roads and medicine combined.”
In Uganda, American evangelicals have partnered, and sometimes trained, local pastors and church leaders to push extreme, anti-gay legislation. Leading newspapers outed people as “top homosexuals”, such as Frank Mugisha, and gay men and women face discrimination and violence.
The documentary God Loves Uganda documents this political evolution by focusing on the American missionary organisation International House of Prayer(IHOP) and its work in Uganda. Spokesman Jono Hall, who appears in the film, tells me that the group does “not have any organisational presence in Uganda or any other part of east Africa, and we do not have any intention to”.
The film’s director Roger Ross Williams explains to the Guardian that the “only response from IHOP has been denial, denial, denial … I screened in Kansas City a number of times, and IHOP folks came and someone even stood up and said they were ashamed of their church. We also flew IHOP leaders to New York to screen the film and had a three-hour conversation with them afterwards. They said it made them think about how they spread the word. But then they continued to spread hate and even invited anti-gay pastors from Africa to Kansas City.” Williams warns that growing numbers of American churches are operating in Rwanda, Ghana, Cameroon and Malawi.
In Uganda, a key supporter of the movement to stigmatise gay citizens is the US lawyer and activist Scott Lively (who recently wrote that Obama “orchestrated a coup” in Ukraine to support the LGBT agenda). During multiple visits to Uganda since 2002, Lively has spoken of Africans resisting the “disease” of homosexuality.
Lively justifies his opinions in a way similar to Phelan. When I probed him on this, he explained that he doesn’t “want Africans to experience the same collapse of their family-centred Christian infrastructure that is still unfolding in America and Europe. I went to Uganda to warn Africans of the goals and tactics of the homosexual political movement.”
He tells me that his mission in Uganda was “to focus on prevention and rehabilitation of homosexuality. The western media know this but deliberately portray me falsely as an architect of the overly harsh and punitive law the Ugandan government eventually passed.” Lively says he currently has no plans to return to Africa but still supports a Bible school in Kenya. He believes evidence shows that Obama is gay.
His advocacy in Uganda was challenged by a lawsuit brought by the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) on behalf of the group Sexual Minorities Uganda; they argued that Lively’s ministries constituted persecution. CCR’s lead counsel on the case, Pamela Spees, tells me that although proceedings remain in the discovery phase and the next major court date will likely be 2016, the “campaign to export discriminatory, anti-gay policies into Uganda and Africa more broadly has been remarkably successful”.
However, Spees says that the significance of the court case “cannot be overstated. For Ugandans who have been able to come to the United States for court hearings and meet activists in Massachusetts, who are also working to raise awareness about Lively’s efforts abroad, it’s an example of forging human connections, solidarity and of bringing awareness – and in some ways is its own form of accountability.”
Despite the huge challenges and growing homophobic campaigns across Africa, Kaoma is optimistic. “I can prayerfully say every tear and drop of blood of African sexual minorities is the step towards total liberation,” he says. He cites a resolution tabled in Angola in 2014 by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights that condemned “acts of violence, discrimination and other human rights violations” against sexual minorities.
Bishop Senyonjo of Uganda, a rare voice in his country advocating for LGBT rights, also hopes that churches will change their ways. “Evangelicals, wherever they come from the US and elsewhere, should bring good news of inclusion and love of God rather than sowing seeds of discrimination and hate,” he tells me before adding: “The Gospel is supposed to be liberating to marginalised people.”
My following book review appeared in the Weekend Australian on 28 February:
Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs
By Johann Hari
Bloomsbury, 390pp, $29.99
The numbers are staggering. More than two million American citizens are in prison, about 25 per cent of the world’s incarcerated population. Many are African-American and Hispanic, in jail for drug offences. Race and the selective application of justice is a key theme of Johann Hari’s Chasing the Scream, a stunning examination of the “war on drugs”.
Hari, a British journalist, takes a trip down memory lane, to the US of a century ago when it was possible to “go to any American pharmacy and buy products made from the same ingredients as heroin and cocaine”. But a key instigator of the war on drugs, Federal Bureau of Narcotics head Harry Anslinger, soon found his enemy.
Singer Billie Holiday, a drug addict, was one of the most public victims of Anslinger’s zeal against black individuals who dared to question their second-class status. Holiday was a crusading woman who had been beaten, raped and abused for most of her life but her strength, and threat to the then social order, was to resist the suffocating, low expectation of her skin colour.
Anslinger warned the US House of Representatives’ committee on appropriations that Mexican immigrants and African-Americans were undermining social cohesion by excessively smoking marijuana. He had been informed of “coloured students at the University of Minnesota partying with female students (white) and getting their sympathy with stories of racial persecution. Result? Pregnancy.”
This sounds comical today but Anslinger’s vision remains alive. Hari argues “the main reason given for banning drugs — the reason obsessing the men who launched this war — was the blacks, Mexicans and Chinese were using these chemicals, forgetting their place, and menacing white people”. In the 21st century, it’s black Americans and Latinos who disproportionately feel the full weight of the law for often relatively minor drug offences.
The Obama administration still spends billions every year fighting a war that it knows can’t be won. Addiction is seen as a moral evil instead of a condition that should be treated compassionately.
Former policewoman Leigh Maddox, who spent years arresting and imprisoning drug offenders, tells Hari she eventually realised that “nobody ever trained me on the collateral consequences of marijuana arrests. I had no idea … It’s not something they’re made aware of. It’s go out and get numbers [arrests]. Do your job.” Today she runs a legal clinic in Baltimore, working with students to remove the arrest records of drug offenders. It’s one way to assuage her guilt for sending so many young people into a broken justice system.
Hari is an acclaimed writer who was caught plagiarising a few years ago, but this book is a redemption, and already a New York Times bestseller. It skilfully constructs a narrative around compelling, personal stories, the usually ignored or forgotten individuals who are selling or using various substances; living, avoiding or dying in the “war on drugs”.
Rosalio Reta was an American man who had killed for a Mexican drug cartel but eventually tired of his life and confessed to American officials. Hari visits the border town of Juarez, where he witnesses resistance to a US-led drug war that enriches politicians and police and causes intense suffering among a local population that is forced to flee, kill or remain silent.
He examines Portugal, a nation that ended the persecution of addicts and users in 2001. The numbers speak for themselves, a revolution in method and treatment. Drug use has dropped. “In the United States,” Hari writes, “90 per cent of the money spent on drug policy goes to policing and punishment, with 10 per cent going to treatment and prevention. In Portugal, the ratio is the exact opposite.”
Hari’s sympathies are never hidden: he’s opposed to the war on drugs. Chasing the Scream presents a persuasive argument that prohibition has not reduced drug consumption or abuse, but pushed generations into lives of misery, crime and imprisonment.
Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist and author of the forthcoming book Disaster Capitalism.
I’ve just returned from South Sudan (very briefly) to speak at Adelaide Writer’s Week. What a culture shock coming from Africa. Everything here is so shiny.
Anyway, I’ll be speaking about Israel/Palestine, my investigative work over the years, interviewing British writer John Lancaster on financial shenanigans and running a masterclass with the South Australian Writer’s Centre.
Here’s the Adelaide literary festival director Laura Kroetsch introducing my work:
My Guardian column:
The creaking Russian helicopter lands in an open field in remote Wai, a town in South Sudan’s Jonglei state. The sky is perfectly clear; the temperature reaches 45 degrees. Women wave the South Sudanese flag to welcome the UN’s top humanitarian official, Valerie Amos, who arrives with Unesco peace envoy and American actor Forest Whitaker. His peace and development initiative, founded in 2012, works across the region.
They’ve come with a small group from the capital Juba to see how the UN is managing around 25,000 women, men and children who arrived in late December, fleeing a civil war that has entered its second year and claimed tens of thousands of lives.
It’s a remarkable operation, establishing basic but workable services. Local leaders press Amos for more help – especially for digging bore-holes for water – and complain that the central government isn’t listening to their demands. I’m observing as a journalist, as Amos is leaving her position in March and touring nations with the most desperate needs.
Her visit was my introduction to South Sudan since moving here recently with my partner, who works for an international aid organisation in advocacy and campaigns.
Neither of us had been to East Africa before we arrived, but we knew something of the country through friends who worked with the South Sudanese community in Sydney. The country’s political strife felt like a distant issue. I saw the occasional news about communal violence, pleas for Canberra to play a larger role in resolving the crisis and events such as the one organised by my friend, photographer Conor Ashleigh, which helped teach young South Sudanese and Afghan youth how to use a camera (aside from taking selfies).
At first, the idea of relocating to a war zone elicited curious and confused stares from friends and family, but both of us have spent time in challenging nations. We’d both discussed for a long time our desire for a change of scene, away from Australia.
It wasn’t such a leap, then, to leave the comforts of home. We wanted to be more than just temporary bystanders, and had the chance to experience the inner workings of the world’s newest nation. It didn’t take long for my girlfriend to convince me that her job in South Sudan would give me the opportunity to deepen my experience as a journalist, while avoiding the usual fly-in fly-out habits.
Juba, where we live, has poor infrastructure, few paved roads and an excess of dust, but there are also bars on the Nile and a growing use of social media. We live in a simple apartment in a compound in the middle of the city. There’s a strict nightly curfew. Security isn’t excessive – this isn’t Iraq or Afghanistan – but streetlights are almost non-existent and it’s unwise to walk alone when the sun goes down.
It’s safe to walk the streets during the day, though, and I’ve already lost count of the times I’ve been asked whether I know relatives living in Melbourne or Sydney’s big South Sudanese populations. Over 19,000 South Sudanese live in Australia – many refugees, who arrived over the last decade. People I meet are happy that their family members are safe and thriving away from South Sudan.
A government worker last week quizzed me on the Socceroos’ career prospects. He knew far more about them than me. Like many places I visit, apart from areas in the Middle East, Australia is seen as a benign force in the world.
Many of us know Africa as the place Bob Geldof used to visit, a continent defined by aid. That image was false, but it remains the case that without humanitarian aid, South Sudan – created with huge fanfare in 2011 – would likely collapse in many areas.
There are other descriptions: journalist Ken Silverstein wrote in February this year that after its creation, the country became the “world’s emotional petting zoo”. Alex De Waal, writing in African Affairs, argued that “South Sudan obtained independence in July 2011 as a kleptocracy”. The Guardian’s Daniel Howden wrote that the country was born from a “seductive story that could be well told by handsome movie stars” like George Clooney.
I’ll be exploring other questions during my time here, too. What role did Washington’s desperation for an African success story play in creating the current mess? Why is the African Union dragging its feet on human rights? Wikileaks cables confirm that US administrations were deeply involved in funding all sides of the brutal war that led to the 2011 independence; US Christian Evangelicals were key to building support for the soon-to-be independent Christian nation back at home.
Being in South Sudan will also force me to face the complex relationships that exist in a developing nation: between journalists and NGOs, and Western aid donors and their recipients. How much money stays in the pockets of foreign contractors and how much reaches the locals?
During my visit to Wai, the military governor of the rebel-held area said: “We are at war but at the end of the day we are one nation.” It was a hopeful plea, despite all sides committing horrendous abuses, at a time when South Sudan needs unity, reconciliation and accountability. It also leads to the most crucial question of all: what hope is there for a durable peace agreement between the warring parties, to avoid the ongoing displacement of millions of people and save billions of dollars?
My following story appears in today’s Guardian (I’m currently based in Juba, South Sudan):
Valerie Amos has joined calls for an arms embargo against South Sudan, the most senior UN official to back growing international demands for action against the country as it enters a second year of civil war.
“Anything that takes weapons off the streets, out of countries and out of communities will help us because ultimately for us it’s about bringing peace,” the UN humanitarian chief told the Guardian. “If there are no weapons, it’s harder for people to fight, peace will come sooner and we can get more aid to the people who so desperately need it.”
The United States has so far resisted efforts to implement an embargo, although the secretary of state, John Kerry, and senior members of the Obama administration have recently spoken in support of one. An arms ban would target both the South Sudanese government and the opposition, with both sides being accused of war crimes after fighting broke out in December 2013.
Tens of thousands of lives have been lost and millions of citizens forced to flee their homes during the civil war in the country. Aid group says about 2,5 million people are at risk of famine.
Amos, who leaves her position as UN under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator after five years in March, was speaking in Wai in Jonglei state at the end of a three-day visit to South Sudan with Unesco peace envoy and actor Forest Whitaker.
The UN is assisting around 25,000 people in rebel-held Wai, providing food, water, some shelter and basic medical care. Amos praised the resilience of the refugees she met, adding: “I just wish that those that are really pursuing this conflict would take time out to come and see what the impact of this is, particularly on women and children.”
The economic cost of war has already reached billions of dollars and a recent Frontier Economics report found that ending the conflict this year would save the international community about $30bn.
Amos said both sides should be held accountable for human rights abuses and expressed concern about an “economic crisis” in the country. “It’s a country dependent on oil and we have seen production halved,” she warned.
After meeting the South Sudanese president Salva Kiir and many of his ministers in the capital Juba, Amos both praised and criticised authorities. “The government does not want to admit hunger figures of 2.5 million people facing severe food shortages. We have to keep the pressure on,” she said, adding that the government had improved access to aid in many areas.
Amos has urged the international community to embrace a “more interventionist” approach towards global conflicts but urged caution against military involvement. “One of the things I’ve become more conscious of as I’ve been working in places like Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan is that we have this whole international framework of law and norms, but those rules are being broken every single day. We talk about the importance of protecting civilians yet it’s about those civilians being killed as a result of barrel bombs or women being raped.”
She said it was shameful that these abuses were tolerated. “So my question is, where is the accountability? Countries have signed up to these rules so how do we hold them accountable? When you talk about interventionism, everybody thinks about war and putting troops from another country on the ground. That’s not what I mean. When we see this happening, how do we stop it? One of my jobs is to raise these questions.”