Monday, January 6, 2014


The chaos of south Sudan is a wake up call for all pre-industrial nations, that collapse is only a heart beat away and that staving this implosion is not helped by beefing up security but by improving the general welfare of the people.

To give the government of south Sudan the benefit of doubt, it takes more than a decade to transcend the kind of ethnic divisions that trigger and perpetuate the violence we are witnessing.

Following the Rwanda genocide in 1994, observers tried to explain how such a tragedy could take place and which other countries may be vulnerable to an atrocity on such a scale as happened in the small East African nation.

The government's role in the genocide can not be underestimated, but one thing they singled out is the lack of ethnic diversity in Rwanda, which allowed for easier mobilization along ethnic lines. A more diverse society -- like Uganda say, would be unlikely to see such bloodletting because it would be difficult to cobble major alliances across ethnic lines to perpetuate it.

So if for example you wanted to pit the Banyankole against the Banyoro, it is unlikely that any other tribe will mobilize en masse in support of one group against the other. It is even more unlikely that you will get enough groups on one side or another to form a black-and-white situation that will not only fan the violence but remain coherent enough over a long enough period to execute mass genocide.

The post election violence in Kenya in 2007 was proof of this. 

The long time Luo-Kikuyu rivalry for a time tipped the scale into violence but sanity was able to prevail relatively quickly because no other tribes bought into the chaos, apart from the Kalenjin to some extent.

In the Kenyan situation -- apart from US gunboat diplomacy, commercial interests prevailed on the situation to calm things down.

That is a luxury south Sudan does not have.

In his book "The Lexus and the fig tree," Thomas Friedman noted that no two countries with a McDonald's fast food franchise have ever gone to war --former Yugoslavia was the exception. He suggested that the presence of a McDonald's chain is evidence of a large enough middle class. The middle class, because of their commercial and therefore long term interest in national stability, often resort to non-violent dispute resolution. Viable commercial interests are color blind, transcending race and tribe ensuring greater societal cohesion.

Violence once unleashed can rarely be contained, taking on a life of its own and consuming indiscriminately everything in its path. The are no winners in war, only losers.

South Sudan comes up empty handed on both counts. It has two tribes, which between them it is estimated account for 80 percent of the country's population and no middle class to speak of, the economy never having grown due to decades of civil unrest.

For us onlookers our main concern should be a rapid, private sector growth of the economy, the ideal conditions for the growth of a viable middle class, if not to forestall future civil war to at least avert the worst excesses of such an eventuality.

Singapore patriarch Lee Kuan Yew noted a significant difference in demonstrations as more and more of the population owned their own homes. He reported in his book "From third world to first, the Singapore story" how demonstrators would be seen lugging their mopeds up to their flat before taking to the street, and that with this background demonstration was less violent and chaotic.

By enabling the private sector, especially the indigenous businessman, to grow through enabling policy jobs are created, wealth is generated and a middle class of sufficient critical mass comes into being to stabilize the society and perpetuate this virtuous cycle.

Unfortunately growing the private sector is often not in the short term interests of seating governments, unless of course they have strong business interests themselves. A strong business community provides an alternative power center, a counter weight to government, which in lobbying for its own interests can make incumbents very uncomfortable.

But in the long term a society anchored by a solid middle class will ensure the protection not only of property but the lives of exiting leaders.

The point is that all the security apparatus in the world will not guarantee national stability if poverty continues to run rampant and there is no hope of social advancement.

The example of south Sudan is proof enough that the issues of national stability while they cannot be left to governments alone, these same governments have a key role in encouraging the growth of the middle class, regardless of the short term discomfort to themselves.

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