Monthly Archives: April 2012

South Sudan – the new African Pakistan?

In a blog entry I wrote last year (see July 2011), I wished South Sudan a happy birthday on the day it became the world’s newest country. I warned, however, that it might become a modern-day version of Eritrea, which, upon gaining its independence from Ethiopia in 1993, embarked on a pattern of brinkmanship and eventually war with its former “colonizer.”  I thought I would write a blog about South Sudan a year later assessing its progress, but the country’s leadership hasn’t even made it even ten months without screwing everything up.

The separation of South Sudan from Sudan has been a messy divorce.  Each country has witnessed major violence within its borders.  South Sudan witnessed over 600 deaths in a tribal massacre last year.  Sudan, for its part has had to contend with restless “trapped” minorities, particularly its Nuba population, on the border with South Sudan. George Clooney was actually arrested several months ago protesting Sudan’s heavy-handed approach to these groups.

Almost since independence, however, South Sudan has continued to encourage violence along the now-international border.  It has encouraged and supplied Nuban militants and most recently moved its regularly army into the oil rich border region of Heglig, only to be driven back by Sudanese troops.  The clashes have led to the escalation of tensions across much of the border and the leader of Sudan, indicted war criminal Omar al-Bashir has made characteristic threats of liberating South Sudan and cleansing Sudan’s border regions.

It’s a mess, but it was a predictable mess.  Conflicts between countries occur when disputes involving resources and nationalism dovetail with the leaders who calculate the value of seeking unity and popularity at home through the forceful confrontation of a foreign enemy.   Leaders promote themselves by painting one-dimensional pictures of evil adversaries that become engrained as cultural understandings within the populace, who then constrict the range of negotiating options available to leaders in future conflicts.  Long-term rivalries evolve that become more and more intractable.

As such, what’s happening between Sudan and South Sudan reminds me as much of an African version of the India-Pakistan rivalry as the events leading to war between Ethiopia and Eritrea in the nineties.  India and Pakistan, two similar ethnically diverse countries, were partitioned in 1947 leaving similarly ‘trapped” minorities on each side of the border.  Instability and violence ensued leaving millions dead and the legacy of Kashmir, a territory within India that Pakistan claims to this day and which has spawned multiple wars.

Like Pakistani nationalism, South Sudanese nationalism is developing along two lines. The first influence involves religion.  In the Pakistani case, Islam served as the unifying basis of nationalism among its diverse population vis-à-vis the infidel Indian state.  In South Sudan the religious picture is much more diverse, but it is clear that a “not-Muslim” identity is a unifying force among the diverse animist and Christian peoples of the state.  Leaders in both countries seek to divert attention from internal divisions by emphasizes the commonalities in religious affiliation among their populations while emphasizing differences with rivals.

Second, the South Sudanese, like the Pakistanis feel aggrieved about and sympathy for the groups that were not included in their new state.  In my own book, I write about how irredentism is perhaps the most destabilizing force in international relations and most likely source of interstate conflict.

Fortunately, South Sudan and Sudan are unlike Pakistan and India in one key way — neither is particularly strong and each relies heavily on the international community.  Through the United Nations and important partners like China and the United States, strong pressure can be brought on each country to help prevent further escalation of disputes and reach negotiated settlements on the some of the more tractable border issues.

Ultimately, however, the leaders of each country are going to have to decide for themselves whether they want to continue to spend resources and lives defending self-created and self-defeating nationalist goals or whether they want to avoid the path of failed states and pursue a path of development.  South Sudan will likely avoid the full-scale conflict and destruction that Eritrea found itself involved in after its independence, but the real question is whether it will grow up to be the African version of Pakistan – a country that fails to address its problems because of its perpetual obsession with what it doesn’t have rather than what it can be.

Un-reasonable gun laws

This week I was re-watching HBO’s 2008 mini-series “John Adams,” and I was struck by some of the dialogue used in both the prosecution and defense of British troops involved in the Boston Massacre.  Referring to the fact that British troops had fired on a crowd that had been pelting them with a variety of potentially dangerous objects:

Prosecutor: “A person cannot justify killing if he can by any means make his escape.”

John Adams in defense: “Consider yourself in such a situation and judge whether a reasonable man would fear for his life.”


Here we are, 240 years later, and the same issues are still relevant in considering the events that led to the tragic shooting of Trayvon Martin last month.

Over recent years, voters in Florida and roughly 20 other states have decided to conduct an experiment by voting for lawmakers and laws that, compared to anytime in American history, 1). maximize access to handguns and 2). maximize the benefit-of-the-doubt given to individuals owning such handguns to point them at another person and pull the trigger.  Let’s look at each factor.

Handguns are ubiquitous throughout the United States — about 65 million in all.  A legal handgun costs a few hundred dollars — only a couple weeks salary of someone even earning minimum wage.  Of course millions of handguns are also obtained illegally or through “gun show” and other such legal loopholes.

The aggregate effect of the influence of handgun ownership on crime is unclear.  Pro-gun arguments usefully involve pointing to international statistics that show how some countries with high rates of firearm ownership, like Switzerland and Norway, are some of the least prone to murder.  Of course, conflating firearms with handguns is deceptive, given that handguns are responsible for a far greater proportion of homicides than other types of firearms, and data comparative data on handgun possession in different countries is difficult to come by.

Gun control advocates like to point out that the murder rate in other developed countries is far below that of the United States.  However, some of the most restrictive firearm laws in this country are in major metropolitan areas like Washington D.C. which have very high murder rates.  Cultural and economic factors almost certainly play a much larger role in the overall rate of handgun deaths than handguns themselves.

Local gun control laws rarely work to restrict overall violence because handguns are readily smuggled in from adjoining municipalities.  Stricter national laws might reduce handguns over time, but is probably politically unfeasible anytime in the coming decades.  Given the inability of local governments to restrict handgun ownership, the important question is how to regulate the conduct of those wishing to arm themselves. .

While overall trends may or may not be affected by handgun laws, particular instances of violence can be attributable to the presence of a handgun, a vague legal context, or both. Creating a wider space for “self-defense” shootings is not the answer.  Over recent years, the number of “justifiable” homicides has risen pretty dramatically in states that have enacted “stand your ground” handgun laws, even as overall murder rates continue to fall.  This is because possession of a handgun encourages the escalation of conflicts that someone might otherwise shy away from at the outset.  “Stand your ground” laws simply serve to further incentivize confrontational behavior by replacing more traditional, and somewhat more objective, criteria for self-defense with subjective judgments based on “reasonability” that leave decisions up to would be shooters during moments when their judgment is most clouded.

In the Trayvon Martin case, it was the combination of “the gun” and the law that encouraged George Zimmerman to play vigilante and pursue the 46th suspicious person he thought he witnessed in his neighborhood.  The fact that Zimmerman’s weapon was likely concealed gave Martin the space to overreact in his justifiable concern about being confronted by a stranger on the street and he probably struck Zimmerman.  Zimmerman responded with disproportional force in a situation he shouldn’t have been in in the first place.

Without the handgun the confrontation would at most likely ended up as a forgotten assault case.  Without the backing of the law, Zimmerman would have likely stayed in his car and let the police handle matters.  Handguns don’t mix well with unclear laws and owners with bad judgment.  The people of Florida chose to allow millions of residents with varying levels of judgment and responsibility to own handguns with the sole injunction that they “act reasonable.”  This is the outcome.