Radical Atheist Global Mope (August 2015)

South Sudan
South Sudan

Every minute of the day, someone somewhere is suffering avoidably, and that’s inexpressibly bad. Civilisation abounds with preventable human misery, and I think people should think about that regularly, ritualistically, in an act of quasi-religious observance.

Look at the last few hundred years of human history and you see colossal, gut-wrenching waste. Every day, a veritable mountain of human potential gets wasted – bulldozed, dynamited, smashed off the face of the earth. Living, thinking, feeling human beings with the potential to achieve great things and enrich the lives of those around them are wrenched out of the only existence they’ll ever have, often for the most pathetically preventable reasons.

Billions more live, but are stifled – by incredible poverty and the exhausting, life-limiting struggle just to stay afloat, or through being written off as worthless by the societies they live in and denied the encouragement and investment that would let them live secure, comfortable, fulfilling lives.

Wiping out suffering should be the highest, most urgently pursued goal of advanced societies. We should plough capital and resources into righting avoidable wrongs wherever we find them. And until the war on preventable misery has been won, we should sit and think about the lives that are needlessly squashed and wasted and painfully curtailed every day. Continue reading “Radical Atheist Global Mope (August 2015)”

Bem Bulletin #3 – January 2015: Malawi Floods, Boko Haram & SYRIZA


This month: we reflected on society’s erratic internationalism in the wake of the outcry over the Charlie Hedbo massacre; we tried to excuse our abysmal taste in bad action films with dubious politics; and we presented a nice bit of pragmatic radicalism from the mouth of Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias.

… And on the musical front: delightfully odd bedfellows, schmaltz-pop guitar wizard Les Paul with Mary Ford, and West Country weirdo PJ Harvey.

In this month’s Bem Bulletin:

1. 2015

2. Malawi Flood

3. Boko Haram Massacre, Nigeria

4. SYRIZA Continue reading “Bem Bulletin #3 – January 2015: Malawi Floods, Boko Haram & SYRIZA”

South Sudan: Why Are People Killing Each Other Again?

With thousands facing starvation in South Sudan, squabbles between rival elements of the country’s political elite have spilled over into ethnic violence, bringing more misery to one of the poorest, most war-torn places on the planet.

South Sudan is the world’s newest country. It’s also one of the most impoverished. In May 2011, what had until then been the largely non-Arab southern province of Sudan declared itself an independent republic, splitting with the Arab-dominated North, and the Arab supremacist government of indicted war criminal Omar Al-Bashir.

It’s hard to think how a fledgling nation could have a worse introduction to independent statehood. Left reeling from the horrifically violent civil war that brought state-sponsored genocide to nearby Darfur, five million South Sudanese had life-threateningly little to eat, and 250,000 were deemed at risk of imminent starvation. One in ten infants expired before their fifth birthday, and mothers were dying in childbirth at a rate higher than anywhere else in the world.

Its economy, arguably the world’s weakest, was desperately dependent on selling cash crops and oil, and its national infrastructure was practically non-existent – huge swathes of the population were without power or running water let alone healthcare or education (literacy rates are atrocious), and there were about 35 miles of paved road in the entire country.

And now, just two years into the nation’s crisis-plagued existence, people are killing each other again.

The first sign of trouble emerged in July, when Salva Kiir, South Sudan’s President and leader of the ruling Sudan’s People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), fired his entire cabinet. Vice President Riek Machar, who also got the sack, attacked the move as a step towards dictatorship, and announced his intention to challenge Kiir for the SPLM leadership.

It wasn’t long before the dispute went from being about personality politics to ethnicity. President Kiir is a Dinka, the largest of South Sudan’s ethnic groups. Vice-President Machar is a Nuer, the second largest. The two haven’t got a great track record when it comes to peaceful coexistence – in the 1990s, while the cross-ethnic SPLM was supposedly fighting for freedom against the north, internal relations broke down, and a Nuer splinter group calling itself the White Army massacred 2,000 Dinkas.

Fast-forward to December 2013, and Machar and other opposition figures threatened to boycott future meetings of the SPLM’s National Liberation Council in protest at President Kiir’s leadership. In response, Kiir tried to have all Nuer members of his Presidential Guard disarmed, claiming they and Machar were planning a coup against him. The Nuer troops resisted, and violence ensued.

Ever-simmering Neur-Dinka tensions suddenly boiled over. Dinka troops rampaged through Nuer areas of Juba, the South Sudanese capital, looting homes and shooting people on the spot. Then, startlingly quickly, unrest went country-wide. Nuer and other non-Dinka militias began retaliating against Dinka communities. Two Indian peacekeepers were killed trying to protect unarmed Dinkas from a two thousand-strong mob of armed youths. And as Nuer rebel groups loyal to Machar began seizing key towns and cities, ethnic in-fighting wobbled on the brink of civil war.

How could a relatively trivial political tiff ignite nationwide ethnic meltdown? And, more fundamentally, why do situations like these keep happening in Africa?

Privately, even a lot of well-meaning, scrupulously PC Westerners will admit to believing that it’s because African people are just inherently violent and sectarian – that it’s something ‘in the genes’.

Obviously, butchering your neighbours is no more inherently ‘African’ than cluster-bombing villages is inherently American. But people have an unfortunate tendency to avoid hunting for answers they know will uncomfortably challenge their view of the world.


Grimly often, Westerners look out at the world and assume that their customs, religions, forms of political organisation and general way of doing things amount to some kind of global default setting – that, in this case, big European-style nation-states are just the obvious, natural way of structuring societies.

In Africa, many societies developed along a different route. They were much smaller, much more locally focused and, as a result, there were a lot more of them. They hadn’t developed a lot of the technologies Europeans had – something a tech-fanatic West sees as proof positive of their inferiority – but, on the other hand, they weren’t anywhere near as staggeringly unequal or destructive to their environment either. These weren’t pre-modern utopias by any stretch of the imagination – irrational prejudice and chauvinism were often rampant. But they were very different to anything found in Europe.

There were still some indigenous African kingdoms, empires and the like. But hundreds of thousands of people across the continent identified with their village, a small group of villages, or an extended network of family and friends rather than any overarching geographical unit. This was the case in what we now call South Sudan – the Dinka people and the Nuer people were loose federations of cattle-rearing clans.

Then Empire arrived. Big, bad European Empire, not the relatively small, home-grown affairs that had occasionally cropped up in the past, especially in Islamic north-west Africa. The Great Powers carved up the continent, drawing arbitrary borders that paid no attention to indigenous social and political structures, and then set about exploiting their new imperial possessions for all they were worth. The first most people heard about being Congolese or Nigerian or French West African was when a white man with a gun and a pith helmet came and told them.

After 1899, Sudan was effectively British – it was technically part of the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium, a flimsy power-sharing agreement-cum-proto PR exercise, but it was very obvious who was in charge.

By this stage, the British were well-versed in the divide-and-rule subjugation techniques they and other powers had practised to perfection across the continent. If your aim is to steal land and resources right from under an area’s indigenous population, you need to subdue that population as quickly and efficiently as possible or face them kicking up a time-consuming fuss.

In case after case, colonial powers achieved this by setting the locals against each other – making sure the subjugated were too busy squabbling to unite against their common enemy.

It wasn’t just a Machiavellian political strategy, though. We accuse ‘Africans’ of being fanatical about ethnicity. If they are, they got it from us. The British were genuinely fixated with race, reflecting the crude social Darwinism that underpinned much imperial thinking. Rather than seeing Sudan’s multiple ethnicities as a jumble of largely man-made cultural identities, they saw the various groupings as being profoundly different from one another at a genetic and biological level.

First, they split Sudan in half. They ploughed money for health, education and economic modernisation into the Arab north, believing it to be culturally and ethnically superior to the ‘backward’ south. They purposely exacerbated north-south tensions, instilling the idea that that the two groups were fundamentally, incompatibly different. And, unsurprisingly, the north came to despise the south, seeing it as savage and inferior, while the south bitterly envied the north.

When the heavily-armed white men keeping the two sides apart eventually left, the result was a half-century of civil war, thousands of deaths and genocide in Darfur. Imperialism left similar disasters waiting to happen all across Africa – perhaps most notably in Rwanda.

The south itself received radically different treatment. Before empire, relations between the Nuer, the Dinka and the various other south Sudanese ethnic groups were relatively harmonious. They had a lot in common – their languages and belief systems were quite similar. There were occasional clashes, and cattle raids were a part of everyday life. But, ultimately, these identities were fluid – Nuers and Dinkas mixed, made friends, sometimes even got married.

But under British rule, they were turned into rigid, compartmentalised tribes – Dinkas had to stick with Dinkas and Nuers with Nuers. Dinka villages were forcibly separated from Nuer ones by barren stretches of no man’s land. When the inhabitants tried to build on these British-policed no-go areas, their houses were dismantled. Some particularly zealous imperial foot soldiers suggested burning them down.

And so, over time, what ethnic group you belonged to became the be all and end all of south Sudanese life. Artificially separated from one and other, Nuer and Dinkas began to look at each other with suspicion. Gradually, one group became dehumanised in the eyes of the other. They were reduced to a name, a faceless ‘them over there’.

Once, the two had been neighbours, sometimes rivals, sometimes friends, but rarely openly hostile to one another. Their new unnatural isolation proved to be the perfect breeding ground for paranoia and inter-ethnic grievances. Distrust turned to prejudice which, in some cases, turned to irrational hatred.


Unfortunately, when things go wrong in people’s lives, there’s a human tendency to look for someone to blame, to lash out at it in revenge. And in a world that’s often bafflingly complex, and where the truth is frequently far from obvious, it’s easier and more emotionally satisfying to blame something or someone concrete,  a person that you know or a group you live near, rather than some invisible force you can’t understand. It’s why British people are so easily duped into blaming powerless immigrants and benefit claimants for their woes rather than an economic system run for and by a rich elite. Throw in the ludicrous inequality generated by said economic system, and people become bitterly angry at the assumption that other people are doing ‘better’ than them, possibly at their expense.

This, tragically, is what has happened in post-colonial Africa. Subjected to ever-more extreme and unregulated forms of neoliberal capitalism by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and other rich Westerner-dominated international bodies, the continent has become extremely unequal.

‘Losing out’ in Africa isn’t about getting less pay, or losing your job. Horribly often, being at the bottom means starving to death, which adds a particular violent urgency to the daily fight for survival. Sustained poverty creates a constant tension. It only takes the tiniest suggestion that the other team might be screwing your team over or somehow threatening your chances of survival for people to lash out with desperate force.

And this, ultimately, is what lies behind the current crisis in South Sudan. The British turned the Nuer and the Dinkas against one another. Once they’d left, the two groups were able to establish a shaky truce while they fought against a common enemy, the Arab north, who the British had entrusted with the keys to the government on the way out.

With independence, that unifying bogeyman was gone. And when a Dinka President sacked his cabinet, used his Dinka bodyguards to disarm Nuer soldiers loyal to the Nuer Vice President, he lobbed a figurative match into a century’s worth of pent-up bitterness and suspicion. Ingrained prejudices one side harboured about the other were suddenly ‘proved’ right, and both sides responded with desperate violence – feeling that if they didn’t strike first, the opposition would and wipe them out.

That’s how you end up with a situation where members of one meaningless group can fill a police cell full of hundreds of members of another meaningless group who are fundamentally the same and then machine-gun them through the bars.

Where we’re at now.

Hundreds of thousands of people have been forced out of their homes by the continuing violence. Aid agencies are feeding and watering them, but, as ever, the task facing them is enormous, and the feeble South Sudanese state can do little to help them.

Neighbouring countries, themselves largely impoverished – Uganda, Ethiopia and others – are having to cope with waves of South Sudanese refugees fleeing the violence. Both inside South Sudan and beyond its borders, ramshackle displaced persons’ camps are running desperately short of clean drinking water and basic medical equipment.

It can be fairly safely assumed that Western governments will make their usual paltry contributions, and the bulk of aid will have to come out of the pockets of generous members of the public. That glaring injustice aside, it’s money that’s desperately needed, and if anyone had a bit spare, you can donate to Oxfam’s South Sudan appeal here.

As for the future, not just of South Sudan but of all African countries wracked by ethnic violence, a long-term solution is only going to arise from education – getting to kids when they’re young, and teaching them that the cultural divisions their parents’ and grandparents’ generation had hardwired into them are arbitrary and meaningless. That, and the rich world-sponsored wholesale socioeconomic reconstruction of the continent, but that’s a political conundrum for another day.

Crisis in Burma

Burmese Rohingyas sat in the boat they used to flee persecution
Burmese Rohingyas sat in the boat they used to flee persecution

This month we land in Myanmar, more typically known by its pre-military dictatorship name ‘Burma’, where decades of government-stoked prejudice against a Muslim minority have flared into violence, then humanitarian crisis, as some observers chillingly predict genocide.

Junta-ruled since its army seized power fifty years ago, Myanmar stands out as one of south-east Asia’s most profoundly troubled countries. Awareness of Burma’s repressive military leadership is unusually high in the West, largely thanks to high-profile political prisoner turned opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Less publicised is its often abject poverty, widespread use of both child workers and child soldiers, popularity among human traffickers and, topically, institutionalised racism.

Last year, violent riots broke out in the country’s Arakan region. Buddhist and Muslim Burmese clashed after it was alleged that a group of the latter gang-raped one of the former. In retaliation, ten Muslims were murdered by incensed Buddhists. Thereafter violence quickly escalated and the Burmese army was sent in to keep the peace. It wasn’t long before soldiers were accused of leading rather than preventing attacks on Muslims. Continue reading “Crisis in Burma”

Grisly Arithmetic: humanitarian crisis in Mali

Some of the 50,000 Malian refugees who have fled to neighbouring Niger - almost ten times as many have fled elsewhere
Some of the 50,000 Malian refugees who have fled to neighbouring Niger – almost ten times as many have fled elsewhere

Crisis-riddled post-colonial Africa once looked to Mali as a heartening example that the continent could have peace and social stability. Now, as various ethnic and religiously driven factions fight for independence, the country looks set to tear itself apart.

Last year, sectarian violence in northern Mali forced 450,000 people out of their homes and left 1.2 million struggling to feed themselves as fighting disrupted food supplies in what was already one of the world’s most impoverished countries.

The crisis began with Mali’s Tuareg ethnic minority, cattle-herding Saharan nomads mostly living in country’s northern Azawad region. The Tuareg have spent decades chafing for independence and, last January, Tuareg militia groups took a bold stride towards realising that aspiration by rising up and expelling central government troops from their home province. Continue reading “Grisly Arithmetic: humanitarian crisis in Mali”

Looking Back on Somalia

Somalia-famine-007Between October 2010 and April 2012, Somalia was wracked by the world’s worst famine in 25 years. The humanitarian response on the ground was typically heroic, but international donations were sluggish. Last week, new figures released suggested thousands more were killed than originally thought.

Somalia – another arbitrary geographic unit where people fundamentally no different to anyone anywhere else on the planet have been left to endure decades of abject suffering.

Independence from the British Empire brought a brief but dysfunctional flash of Western-style Somali democracy in the 1960s, before an army coup replaced it with a dictatorial pro-Russian regime. The seventies saw stuttering attempts to meld Soviet-style economics with Islam, but after a war with more straightforwardly Marxist Ethiopia lost it the USSR’s backing, Somalia’s rulers became increasingly violent and repressive, largely binning ideology in favour of clinging on to power anyway they could. Continue reading “Looking Back on Somalia”

Grisly Arithmetic – Live 8, radical humanitarianism and 1.2 million needless deaths

Live 8
Live 8

If you’re over about twenty, you’ll probably remember 2005’s Live 8 concerts, the Bob Geldof-orchestrated anti-poverty events in the lineage of 1985’s Live Aid.

The day itself was a decidedly mixed bag. Yes, it brought a sudden, massive burst of publicity for humanitarian crises across the world, not to mention a deluge of popular compassion. But that global awareness was depressingly short-lived, and the aid promises it wrung out of world leaders ultimately proved hollow. It was a good-natured stab at changing the world and a bumper day for record sales. Having ticked the altruism box for another decade, egomaniac Bono-and-Madonna types could cheerily go back to raking in the dough. Continue reading “Grisly Arithmetic – Live 8, radical humanitarianism and 1.2 million needless deaths”

Grisly Arithmetic – ignorance, apathy and humanitarian disaster

starving-children1The Bemolution is staunch in its grouchy belief that the worst thing about civilisation is how sickeningly easy it is for one group of human beings to ignore the abject suffering of another. Horrendously, it’s not just socially acceptable to ignore the suffering of others – determined ignorance is society’s default position.

Bawling about injustice, inequality, poverty and war is a highly adaptable way of committing conversational suicide in an excellent range of social situations. For disastrously many, far-off suffering just doesn’t compute. People are puzzled at the notion they should know or care about humanitarian catastrophe, let alone try and do something about it. We’re conditioned not to criticise the world we find ourselves in beyond impotently grumbling, and we shrink from anything too bleak or upsetting that might make us question the way things are.

Given what goes on on our planet, this is very bad. It’s this blog’s position that a less horrific world, if it ever arrives, isn’t just going to be about dry economics. Bypassing our ingrained individual selfishness would require nothing less than a grand, socialism-enabling ethical overhaul – more specifically, a major compassion transfusion.

And thus, to further its pseudo-Buddhist fixation with suffering, the Bemolution is going to start a new item on the reasons why the world needs to shoved, firmly, in a less humanly disastrous direction.

Crudely, it’s going to have a go at roughly working out just how many members of our species have died unnecessarily over the previous 30 days or so, and how many are wobbling on the brink. It will try and highlight particularly grotesque humanitarian crises in an effort to spread the word. And it will spend considerable time moping about the horror of it all.

Forcing yourself to dwell on the suffering of others, no matter how personally unpleasant that might be for you as an individual, is a most vigorous way of exercising your empathy muscles. Buddhists have been doing it for over a thousand years.

Trying to comprehend the anguish of other people, and imagining yourself and those you like in those same terrible situations, is a way of training yourself to be more compassionate – and, on the side, of battering down the daft cultural barriers that mean we don’t see far-flung suffering as our concern, and only show basic human decency within driving distance, if that.

And now, to end, the Bemolutionary theme tune.

The Somali Famine

A girl stands on the outskirts of the Dabaab refugee camp, surrounded by 70 freshly-dug child graves
A girl stands on the outskirts of the Dabaab refugee camp, surrounded by 70 freshly-dug child graves

Early this month, the United Nations announced that the famine wracking Somalia, itself just the worst aspect of a food crisis afflicting a swathe of East Africa, was officially over. Given that this meant little more than the amount of food available to keep scores of ailing human beings alive had just crept over an arbitrary threshold, this doesn’t come as much consolation to the 2.34 million people still teetering on the brink.

In as much as it means that material conditions are improving in the areas afflicted by the world’s worst food crisis, the news is excellent. In the West, though, it was far more depressing than it should’ve been, only serving to highlight how few people had any idea it had happened in the first place. This was a situation that occurred, worsened, took a horrific toll and began to peter out while the vast majority of Western civilisation obliviously went on with its business. It’s hard to blame individuals when the amount of media coverage given to an event of this grim magnitude has been pitifully small. While tens of thousands of human beings starved to death, their plight was inexcusably allowed to slip down the back of the news agenda. On the rare occasion that it was deemed newsworthy enough to make the headlines, coverage was customarily blasé  – events were conveyed in random flashes with little attempt to explain the context or the causes behind them, the crisis generally presented as just another freak happening in an inherently backwards netherworld where nothing ever goes right. Continue reading “The Somali Famine”

New Crisis in Sudan

displaced camp darfurDisplaced persons’ camp, Darfur

This month our roving humanitarian spotlight stops over Sudan, where a fragile and widely-flouted ceasefire agreement is collapsing and sparking a new phase of horrendous ethnic violence.

Sudan has internally broiled for over a decade, ever since a rag-tag alliance of indigenous African militias declared war on the Arab-dominated Sudanese government they accused of racial apartheid.

For hundreds of years Sudan has been ruled by the descendants of Arab migrants who came to the region in the twelfth century. Today Sudan’s population is 70% Arab, and over 90% are practising Muslims.

But Arab-African relations have been far from harmonious. Arabic culture is treated as supreme, while that of indigenous Africans is trampled over and demeaned. Sudan is oil-rich, but while the Arab north enjoys the proceeds, the impoverished African south goes without. In early 2003, rebels attacked police stations and military outposts in Sudan’s western Darfur region. Civil war was the result, and initially anti-government forces did spectacularly, state-embarrassingly well.

To save itself, the Khartoum-based regime had to radically rethink its strategy. It chose to fight guerrilla tactics with guerrilla tactics, calling on armed cattle herders known as the Janjaweed it had used to suppress previous inconvenient uprisings to tackle this latest insurrection.

Armed and funded by the state and backed by the Sudanese Air Force, the Janjaweed scythed into rebel-held territory. Arab settlements were left untouched, while the indigenous African population was slaughtered. Their towns and villagers were looted, bombed and burned, and suspected anti-government fighters were dismembered if they were lucky, summarily executed if they weren’t. Women and children in rebel areas were often (and, horrifically, often still are) systematically raped. Other times they were just executed. As time went on, the Janjaweed slash-and-burn campaign started to look like ethnic cleansing – a concerted attempt to wipe Darfur’s non-Arab Sudanese out of existence.

Today, we look back on what happened in Darfur as genocide. Approximately 400,000 people were killed, harrowingly many of them non-combatants, over 400 settlements were completely destroyed and over 2,500,000 people were uprooted by the violence.

A peace treaty was eventually signed in May 2006. In 2011, South Sudan, a hub of anti-government resistance, declared itself an independent state. But the region was left coping with a humanitarian catastrophe.

By its (official, sadly not actual) end, some were estimating that as many as 2,000,000 had been killed and 4,000,000 left homeless. Approximately 1,700,000 people are still living in makeshift aid camps in the region, with nearly 300,000 more in neighbouring Chad. Foreign aid is the only thing keeping them alive. The social fallout will be felt for generations – in one camp of 22,000 refugees, 20 babies conceived through rape are abandoned by stigma-fearing mothers every month.

What’s more, South Sudan has entered existence as one of the world’s poorest countries. Around 5,000,000 South Sudanese, roughly half the population, have dangerously little food to eat and approximately 250,000 are thought to be at serious risk of starving to death in border regions where renewed fighting has shredded vital farming areas.

war criminal omar al bashir

President Omar al-Bashir

An already dire situation is further compounded by the actions of the regime back in Khartoum. Under Omar al-Bashir, the only sitting head of state ever to be indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court, government forces are continuing to hound rebel elements still inside Sudanese borders. As violence reaches levels not seen since the 2006 peace agreement, indiscriminate bombing raids, looting, pillaging, and the rape and slaughter of innocents continue. 

People displaced by the latest round of fighting on the Sudanese side of the border are fleeing en masse to their newly-founded impoverished Southern neighbour. A fledgling country incapable of feeding itself is now left coping with 19,000 more refugees.

NGOs are working heroically to provide life essentials like food and clean water, but the burden is increasing and UN commanders tasked with protecting homeless civilians are complaining they lack the manpower to do the job effectively. Sudan needs more aid, more peacekeepers and more media exposure to grab the attention of both the public and the Western political class.

At the moment, a situation even more horrific than the Syrian conflict we see splashed all over the newspapers is steadily worsening and getting shamefully little media attention. It’s terrifyingly possible that the international ‘community’ could, yet again, self-obsess its way through another preventable human calamity.

Oxfam is at the forefront of the bid to keep hundreds of thousands of people alive across Sudan and South Sudan. You can donate to their Sudan appeal here.