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If you want the right person to present on ‘Business in the Asian Century’, one can’t get much better than the Global MD of McKinsey, perhaps the consultant’s consultancy. This was the most recent event for the Asia-Scotland Institute, which promotes awareness and collaboration between one small vibrant nation of rugged mountains with a distant continent that’s 568 times its size and 812 times more populous. We are not afraid!

Dominic Barton (Pic: Wikipedia)

Dominic Barton
(Pic: Wikipedia)

Enter Dominic Barton, a Canadian at the top of his game and, until recently, head of McKinsey’s activities in Korea and Shanghai. With a list of titles that rivals anyone outside the royal family, the Edinburgh audience of a Monday night could only expect a compelling and sincere delivery. From the outset there was complete silence as Mr Barton explained the enormous changes over the next two decades in Asia. There will be further urbanisation into cities, growing life expectancy and a doubling of the middle class. This would be coupled with a shift eastwards of the talent, capital, headquarters and brand strength of new corporate players, many of which operate in unique, local conditions, and are unknown to western markets.

This shall happen, regardless of the Euro or US-cultural hegemony of the current period. Disruptive technologies would enable the transformation. McKinsey names the top five as mobile online, automated knowledge, the internet of things, cloud computing and robotics, each obeying the merciless momentum of Moore’s Law. Eastern industry leaders have no compunction in cross-sector competition: for example, Alibaba, the Chinese online store – Global trade starts here ™ – has successfully entered the loans market because it understands far more about its customers’ habits and needs than your traditional bank. What implications, I ask, does this have to old economies, where things are done a certain way and investment houses are unassailable? Such a brave new world does not respect gentlemen’s agreements.

Mekong River Its water is shared by several countries (Pic: Creative Commons)

Mekong River
Its water is shared by several countries
(Pic: Creative Commons)

And as a backdrop to all this change, the Global MD highlighted an enormous resource scarcity. How do you feed, teach, clothe, transport, shelter and amuse so many more people, each consuming so much more. There will be a 40% gap in water scarcity by 2030, leading to issues between border nations: Ethiopia and Egypt on the Nile; China with Vietnam, which both tap the Mekong. And the sorting of waste, the harnessing of renewable energy, the reduction of pollution – all these will be challenges.

The mood in the room, when I looked around and listened for the falling pin, seemed to be positive. Yes, it was all about challenge, but not how to stop it, nor a fear of it, nor how our lives would be affected adversely because of wealth moving east, but about the potential.

The questions, moderated by Bill Jamieson from the Scotsman, proceeded for half an hour, but all the time I was thinking, and I couldn’t stop these thoughts for the rest of that evening. To me, it was all about how, in a society where we’re unable to rip up everything and start afresh, can we continue to hunt with the tigers. Our rivals are companies so young they can install smart cloud-based systems overnight. Their employees make their homes in cities with streets without trace of dilapidated Victorian infrastructure. They are served by political structures that enable things to happen efficiently without paying lip service to aristocracy, church, state, local bureaucracy and pressure lobbies. No, we have a different legacy, the prize for getting there earlier, the shackles of democracy laid over tradition. Perhaps, after all, it is now the West that has further to go.

The million-dollar question asked of Mr Barton (an answer to which he hadn’t quite figured out) was by how much Asian countries would disrupt the profit pools of individual Western businesses? Answers on a modern postcard via www.nickwilliams.org I’ll forward it on – trust me.

The Asia-Scotland Institute was founded in Edinburgh in 2012 and is chaired by Roddy Gow.


NWNick Williams may be known best for his Pocket Mountains guides to the Highlands and Islands, but he has also trained as a mountaineering instructor and has thirty years of experience climbing all over the world. He organised the first international expedition to post-Soviet Kazakhstan and written a memoir, Jagged Red Line, which describes adventure and trauma in the Caucasus. Nick works as a coach and consultant, specialising in resilience for individuals and organisations. He speaks French, Mandarin and Russian.

By Philipp Hedemann in Addis Ababa

A man in a doctor‘s white overalls laughs hysterically and rolls on the floor. His eyes bulge, sweat and tears pour down his flushed face, saliva streams from the corners of his mouth. His legs quiver, he flails, he tears at his firmly-knotted tie, gasping for air. Is he insane? On drugs? In need of a doctor?

Suddenly, the lunatic gets up, wipes away the sweat, spit and tears, takes a deep breath and says, with a deep, serious voice: “Now I want you to laugh like this.”

Belachew Girma is not mad: he is the world’s laughtermaster. In 2008, he laughed for three hours and six minutes. Non-stop. In Ethiopia, a country where most people do not have too much to laugh about, he has established Africa´s first school of laughter.

“We give training in how to laugh about famine and destruction,” says the web page of the institute. Perhaps these strange goals convinced 22 Ethiopians to enrol for the laughter seminar. In a neon-lit room they sit in a circle around the man who rolls on the floor. Some of them look irritated. Others, keen to please their master, try to drown out his laughter with their own.

Alemayehu Anbessie is a devoted follower of the laughter guru. Thick blood vessels appear on his forehead as he joins in with the world champion, but they can’t distract from his right cheek. A cancer tumor as big as an orange scars his face grotesquely. “I can´t laugh away the cancer, but laughing helps me to live with it. Since I learnt how to laugh, I don’t need to take painkillers any more,” says the 58-year-old engineer.

Orthodox doctors would maybe think something was funny about the laughtermaster’s model student, but Girma is serious. “I have been HIV-positive. Now I am healed. God cured me, and laughter is the best medicine,” he says in a voice that accepts no disagreement. With god and gallows humour, Girma’s transformation from a suicidal drug addict to an ever-laughing, self-taught psychologist started nearly ten years ago.

Once, Girma was a teacher. But as a teacher you cannot make money in Ethiopia. So he got himself a dog, taught it some tricks and started performing with the animal. The audience liked the funny guy with the dog, and the funny guy liked the audience. After the dog show, he started a band and toured the country. The salaries were not bad. Girma could buy a little shop and a hotel, and still had a lot of money for qat.

For many years, Girma chewed the leaves that can bring schizophrenia. He washed down the bitter taste with plenty of alcohol. He got to know the wrong people, opened a nightclub, made money with prostitutes – and slept with them. He lost control over his own life. The hotel and the shop burnt down, and when he had just rebuilt them a flood destroyed them both again.

When his first wife became ill, Girma also went to see a doctor. Shortly after he got the diagnosis – “HIV-positive” – his wife and his lover died. “They got it from me. I just wanted to follow them,” Girma says. A photo from his darkest days shows him, qat-crazed, pointing a revolver at the bottle of beer balanced on his feet. At the time, Girma often considered aiming the weapon not just at the demon drink, but also at his head. He did not. Instead, the once docile Christian came across a Bible and a self-help book, in which the healing power of laughter was praised.

“I devoured the two books and decided to change my life. I stopped chewing qat and drinking alcohol and began to laugh, though there was not much to laugh about,” Girma says. His favourite words from the Bible are from Proverbs: “A joyful heart is good medicine, but a broken spirit dries up the bones.”

The Bible and the laughter were the catalysts in Girma’s Damascene conversion. Two girls became half-orphans through him, and now he helps orphans in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa to laugh their way back into life.

At the beginning, Helima looks shyly to the floor while Girma kneels in front of her in the garden of the street kid project, says “Let me be a child,” and chuckles loudly. Soon she joins the laughter of the sixfold father and tears of laughter pour down her cheeks. “I am always happy when Belachew comes. He showed me how to laugh just like this,” says the ten-year-old, who lost both her laughter, and father, five years ago.

Regularly, Girma offers his laughter therapy to orphans, half-orphans and street kids for free, and once a week he teaches at a school without charge. Apart from this, he is laughing all the way to the bank. Four laughter sessions cost 450 birr, about as much as an unskilled worker earns in a month. As well as the vocal practical exercises, the participants are also given diary mottoes such as “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade”, or “No one is poor as long as he can still laugh”. The laughter students like it.

“In Ethiopia there are many problems. When we laugh, we can solve them more easily,” says Girma, who set the official world record for laughter in Dachau, Germany. One of his diary mottoes is “A day without laughter is a lost day”. Girma has not lost a single day in the last 3,500.

- Philip is a correspondent for the International Network of Street Papers

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Displaced persons camp, North Kivu province <em>Picture: Julien Harneis</em>

Displaced persons camp, North Kivu province Picture: Julien Harneis

Moses Seruwagi
Street News Service

They are men who have lost all pride and self-confidence and who have been left severely traumatised by recent events. At the medical centre in Uganda where they are being treated, they talked candidly about the horrendous crimes carried out against them.

“In the past, I thought that it was only females who were raped but not men,” said John, a 27-year-old refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). “I cannot understand myself today. I feel pain all the time in my anus and bladder. I feel like my bladder is full of water. I do not feel like a man. I do not know whether I will ever have children.”

John is just one of possibly thousands of victims of male rape in Africa, as brutal civil war and tribal conflicts continue unabated.

On 14 January 2009, rebels loyal to the former renegade Congolese general Laurent Nkunda attacked Jomba village in the country’s North Kivu province. There, the militia abducted ten people including six boys and forced them to carry out looting before taking them to a jungle base in Virunga National Park. John was among those captured.

“We were held for nine days,” he said. “The leader of the group asked to have sex with me. I did not understand what he meant. He ordered that I be tied up and then he raped me. The other nine came after him. I passed out. My bottom was covered with blood. All nine days in the bush were like that. It was like that for the others. One of the boys died.”

Nearly two years on from his ordeal, John is one of dozens of male and female rape victims being treated at a trauma counselling centre called the Refugee Law Project (RLP) in the Ugandan capital, Kampala. The survivors come from a number of African nations ridden with conflict, including DRC, Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Burundi.

The RLP was founded ten years ago and is an outreach of the law faculty at Uganda’s main university of Makerere, where staff help rape victims recover from their mental and physical wounds. The centre – situated on a hill in the northern part of the city called Old Kampala, where it is housed in a colonial-style residential building – is unique and not generally known by the Ugandan community.

Salome Atim, the RLP gender official responsible for aiding male rape victims, said that since the beginning of the year they have received about 30 cases of male rape, mostly refugees who have escaped from conflict areas. “These are the ones who are open,” she said. “The others do not speak, and that means there could be very many [victims].”

Many males fear speaking out because they are often branded homosexuals even by doctors and medical workers trying to help them. In other cases, rape victims from Islamic states such as Somalia refuse to talk because revealing what happened can result in them being labelled criminals by wider society.

Atim added that homosexuality, which is taboo in many African societies, compounds the dilemma – but in the Congo, where society is more open, some people feel more able to talk, although only after much counselling.

“People are not used to homosexuality and they do not listen to these people,” she said. “They think anal sex is consensual where they think the victim agreed. They [victims] get further stigmatised because the moment they go to a health centre, they are asked, ‘So you are homosexuals?’ So they do not speak. We help them to open up slowly.”

One of her patients, Pierre, was a student at a school in the Congo city of Bukavu. In 2004, gangs from one of the numerous militia groups trying to exert control of the area attacked his family home and gang raped him, his father and his brother.

“Men in uniform broke into our home. They tied up my father’s legs and arms. They then undressed my brother and told me to have sex with him. I refused,” Pierre said before breaking down in tears as he spoke.

After composing himself, he continued. “They undressed me, held my penis between sticks and repeatedly banged it. One of them held my leg and another held the second leg and they pulled them apart. The rest of the gang then raped me one by one.”

According to Atim, Pierre was suicidal when he arrived at RLP and has since been treated in a psychotherapy clinic.

Ugandan social workers say that male rape has been prevalent as a weapon of war in many conflict zones and also in prison cells, but these crimes are mostly unreported because the focus is on female victims.

John, who covered his face with a cap during the interview, said he now struggles to walk any distance due to unhealed wounds. “When I walk a long distance, blood flows out of my anus. When I eat hard food like cassava I have problems going to the toilet because my rectum gets out when I pass out faeces.”

The names of the interviewees have been changed at their request.

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Street scene in Mogadishu <em>Picture: ctsnow</em>

Street scene in Mogadishu Picture: ctsnow

By Caroline Gluck

It’s hard to blend in during a community visit when you’re wearing a heavy flak jacket. But here I was in Mogadishu, the conflict-ravaged capital of Somalia, dressed not in the hijab I had just bought in Kenya, thinking it was culturally appropriate, but strapped into a bulletproof protective vest, weighing 10 kilos or more, slowing down my movements as I ran about trying to film the work that Oxfam is supporting and marking me out clearly as a foreigner.

I was part of the first Oxfam visit to Somalia by non-African staff in years. The country has been mired in civil conflict for the past 20 years, but now severe drought has pushed millions into desperation. The United Nations has declared six areas of the country famine-affected – more than a quarter of the population had been displaced by the crisis and conflict, with several hundred thousand fleeing into neighbouring countries such as Kenya and Ethiopia. And inside the country, many more are displaced. Hundreds of thousands have taken shelter in makeshift settlements and camps around the capital, Mogadishu.

I visited some of those camps with two Oxfam partners, Hijra (Humanitarian Initiative Just Relief Aid) – which specialises in providing water, sanitation and hygiene – and SAACID (a Somali word meaning “to help”), whose therapeutic care centres for malnourished children and mothers are supported by Oxfam. But we were under strict security rules and told not to linger in one place for too long.

Somalia is not like most other countries. While the security situation has improved in central Mogadishu, no one takes things for granted. People still worry about getting shot or abducted, cars being targeted and explosive devices going off.

Gunshots often ring out – sometimes fired into the air by government forces or peacekeepers simply to clear traffic jams because there are no working traffic lights in the city.

Outside the capital, the security situation is even tougher. Fighting continues among the country’s rival groups and thousands of people find themselves trapped between different forces, unable to freely move and access basic food and health services.

Those who have made it to Mogadishu, often after long journeys by foot, as they flee conflict and famine, end up in the overcrowded makeshift camps dotted around the city. They live in densely packed areas in huts that are made out of plastic sheets or rag cloths supported by twigs.

It was in these crammed camps that we spent some of our time seeing how Oxfam-supported projects are providing help to those desperately in need.

Clean drinking water and sanitation is a priority, especially as the rainy season is approaching and there have already been deadly outbreaks of diarrhoea and cholera. Hijra has been installing water tanks, tapstands and chlorinating water. They have built latrines and helped and trained communities to form volunteer water, environment and sanitation committees to make sure the water sources aren’t contaminated. One group of people were energetically sweeping up garbage as we arrived to look at how the community got their water.

In Siliga camp for thousands of the displaced, I met mother of seven, Habiba Osman. “There is no problem with water now,” she said. “We have plenty of water all day long.”

She explained that so far, apart from a worrying outbreak of measles, disease outbreaks had largely been kept under control. “We have been given chlorinated water, jerry cans and soap. And we’ve been given hygiene training. We don’t have many problems here, thanks to God”, she said. “But there is a lot of hunger. We don’t have proper food distribution but we do have enough water.”

But we had lingered long enough and it was time to get back into our vehicle to our next location.

My glimpses of the city, behind the tinted windows of our car speeding as fast as it could to avoid being a sitting target, were tantalisingly brief. The legacy of war was obvious: there were many wrecked or bullet-marked buildings. But the city also showed surprising signs of brisk daily life. There were colourful hand-painted shop signs, while some traders sat on the dusty roadside, touting their wares, normally small collections of fruit and vegetables. Some sat behind sandbags, which might offer some protection if fighting flared up. Signs of commerce and of food availability were evident: but for many who fled from hunger and drought, the prices were way above what they could afford.

That’s why the centres that offered some basic help were packed. At one community based therapeutic care centre run by SAACID, staff were working flat-out as mothers and their children continued to stream in.

In one area, health promoters were explaining good healthcare practices to young mothers, and why it was important to breastfeed; in another, children were being vaccinated against measles; and in yet another section, the frailest of children were being assessed and weighed. Almost all were malnourished, some dangerously so. Mothers coming here will receive therapeutic food to help their child’s recovery.

Hawee Mohammed, 35, had brought in her seven-month-old son, Ibrahim. He weighed just 4.7 kilos – almost half the normal weight for a child of his age.

The family moved to Mogadishu from Bay region, an area declared famine-hit by the UN after their animals died and the children got sick. Hawee told me Ibrahim’s twin brother died of diarrhoea and she was desperate to get help for Ibrahim, who had a high fever.

“There are many people who are in a similar situation to me, or even worse off”, Hawee said. “The situation is terrible.”

As in most crises, it is the youngest who are the most vulnerable. Hundreds of thousands are dangerously malnourished in a country which has the world’s highest mortality rate for children under the age of five.

They desperately need help. The famine in Somalia shows no sign of easing and tens of thousands of people have died. The UN says 750,000 people are at risk of starvation. As I saw on my visit, aid is getting into Somalia. But the problem is that it is still nowhere on the scale needed.

Caroline Gluck is a field-based press officer for Oxfam.

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Sportacus – or Francesco Totti? <em>Picture: Daniel C Griliopoulos</em>

Sportacus – or Francesco Totti? Picture: Daniel C Griliopoulos

By Stewart Weir

And the Six Nations draws to a close with the usual amount of cheers and tears. Scotland beat Italy to avoid the wooden spoon – or, given the close relationship between the two nations, maybe it should have been the ice cream scoop.

But the big event saw England fall at the final hurdle to the Irish, so missing out on a Grand Slam. I mean, they only had to turn up to win, such was the 1990-like pre-match hype. That result meant that Wales had a chance of taking the championship, if they beat France by 28 points.

Who the hell started heaping such expectation on Wales in advance of the match in Paris?

Regardless, it was ill-founded, with the French running out easy winners – so handing, if you have been following things, the title to England. They received the series trophy, not in front of 70,000 spectators at the Aviva Stadium, but witnessed by just a few cameras and photographers in a Dublin Hotel.

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An anti-climax, or what? England had few complaints, despite their rally after the break, soundly beaten 24–8 by an Irish side which had led 17–3 at half-time.

“We won the first half, but England won the second half,” said Irish captain Brian O’Driscoll.

Wait a minute. 17–3 at the turnaround, 24–8 at no-side. Surely Ireland won the second half 7–5?

Poor arithmetic, Brian. Or do you have ambitions to be a future Irish finance minister?

Rangers beat Celtic 2–1 to take the Scottish League Cup. But that’s not the football highlight of the weekend.

Fiorentina and Roma playing out a 2–2 draw is hardly a scoreline to set pulses racing. But in scoring two goals for Roma, Francesco Totti (who has more than a passing resemblance to Sportacus from Lazy Town, minus the moustache) reached the landmark tally of 200 goals in Serie A.

To put that in to context, Serie A is more than a century old. But Totti is only the sixth player to reach that elusive mark. Giuseppe Meazza and Silvio Piola from the 1930s, and Gunnar Nordahl and José Altafini from the 50s and 60s, had their double-hundred before Roberto Baggio (the unthinking man’s Stevie Fulton) arrived, some 33 years after Altafini.

A decade on, and Totti has emulated their feat. But at the age of 34, he might not add too many more to his collection and certainly doesn’t have a hope of catching Piola’s all-time high of 274.

Of those still playing in Italy’s top flight, only Alessandro Del Piero is close to becoming the seventh member of this exclusive club.

Indeed, it’s not so much a case of marvelling at who has netted 200 goals in Serie A, as recognising the famous names who didn’t even come close: Gabriel Batistuta on 184, Luigi Riva and Roberto Mancini each with 156, while on 142 is Christian Vieri, who does not make tellies for Panasonic…

But returning to the League Cup, do you realise petrol was only 88p a litre when Celtic last won a trophy? Yes, that long…

It would have been easy to miss it. But the draw for the Betfred World Snooker Championship took place on Monday, where 16 seeds were matched with 16 qualifiers to decide the first round proper at the Crucible.

There was a bit more razzmatazz about the draw, as there is with most things concerning Barry Hearn. No more the draw being held on the radio (which ended in a cock-up when the same player was drawn against two different opponents), or in secret, as it was a few years ago, the outcome held over for a day before being announced. Did I hear the word “fix”?

But even Monday’s event was a pale and poor imitation of what was once the norm, when the draw took place at peak-viewing time on a Saturday afternoon as a main feature on Grandstand. Snooker may still be as popular, but it just doesn’t feature as near the front of the Beeb’s sportfolio…

No sooner had Rangers placed the Co-operative Insurance Cup in their trophy cabinet, than they heard they would be defending the Scottish Communities League Cup next season.

There probably has never been such an extreme switch in where sponsorship cash has been sourced. From the Co-op – mutual, benevolent, social and community based – to the £1 million promised by Scottish government from pimping, fraud and drugs.

Sorry. It doesn’t come directly from the Scottish government’s activities in pimping, money laundering and the likes. The investment actually comes from cash seized from criminals, through the Proceeds of Crime Act.

The Proceeds of Crime Cup? Now that would get you recognised. I hear the Colombian authorities are looking at having a Cocaine Bowl next season.

And just a thought. After all the brouhaha of the Old Firm game at Parkhead a few weeks ago, could there be a chance in the future where troublesome managers and players – already threatened by authorities and polis alike – might end up as unsuspecting sponsors of a cup competition their teams are entered in?

And Elizabeth Taylor dies. Many mourn her passing. I just reflect on the small fortune she probably cost me over the years.

See, because of her, I fell for the likes of Charlotte Brew, Jenny Hembrow, Linda Sheedy, Geraldine Rees, Joy Carrier, Valerie Alder, Jacqui Oliver, Gee Armytage, Venetia Williams, Penny Ffitch-Heyes, Tarnya Davies and Rosemary Henderson. Not in the way you would “fall” for a movie star.

No. I thought that at least one of them would follow Liz and win the Grand National, just as she did on Pie, by Two Get One Free out of The Local Bakery (that’s not an offer to look out for on your next shopping trip, but the sire and dam), in the 1944 film National Velvet.

So muggins here always thought that the dream world of the big screen might just become reality. Much to the delight of my local bookie.

Ach, he’s not bad really. If I stick twenty quid on them, he does give me 500/1 every year on Kilnockie winning the Scottish Cup.

Talking about Hollywood, that thingy called YouTube (or YouYaTube, as the rival Glesca derivative is known) makes stars out of ordinary folk. Just film it, edit and stick it up, and before very long there you are, entertaining people you have never been formally introduced to, who are laughing at your expense.

This blockbuster was sent to me the other day. No animals were harmed in the making of this video. However, the same cannot be said for pies and pints.

Judge for yourself, and please tell me a) if Voiceover Man from The X Factor has anything to worry about, b) if this is not the best hand-off you’ve ever seen and c) do people’s arses look bigger on screen?

PS – Should anyone take exception to this offering, my name is Roddy fae Selkirk…

I suspect like a great many, I get confused over who can play for who at international level. It’s now become the norm that you can play for anyone, even if you have represented a different country at an under-age level.

Take Victor Moses, sold to Wigan a few years ago as cash-strapped Crystal Palace hawked off any talent they had. Despite playing for England at under-17, under-19 and under-21 level, Moses might play for Nigeria against Ethiopia in the Africa Cup of Nations – which, apart from the word “of”, is ostensibly the same as the old African Nations Cup.

Moses was born in Kaduna, Nigeria, but has dual nationality. He may, quite possibly, have triple nationality. But Ireland are not sure whether they have a claim because of the similarity between national flags.

Anyway, the FIFA police are not happy because protocols and paperwork haven’t been completed, making Moses ineligible, or at least until someone finds a pen.

But hang on. Could Scotland have a claim? I mean, we had Jordan. And Moses would have been nothing without Joe…

Surely Moses is a British or UK passport holder. I’m sure someone at Wigan could have a word with him. Maybe James McCarthy for instance. Oh, maybe not the best choice there.

Of course, Nigeria have bigger problems. Goalkeeper Victor Enyeama has been ruled out of the game because of an ankle injury, and sadly not because he’d accidentally been stuck up someone’s arse…

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Sudan mapBy Andrew Macdonell in South Africa

“The coming year will probably see the birth of the world’s newest independent nation. This week voters go to the polls to deliver, what is expected to be, an overwhelming “yes” for independence. The new country would take up seat number 193 at the United Nations and, with substantial oil reserves, hopes to accelerate internal development.”

Only time will tell whether the above turns out to describe a Scottish future; but for now it does describe a real story that is developing in North East Africa.

The aspiring nation in question is South Sudan which, with an estimated population of 8.8 million, is possibly on the verge of independence from Sudan.

On Sunday 9 January 2011, citizens of the southern part of Sudan started voting on whether their home region should become an independent country. This referendum is the result of years of negotiation that have followed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement that was signed between the warring factions in 2005.

Africa’s largest country in area, Sudan straddles the cultural and religious divide between Arabia and Africa. This is a boundary that you won’t see on any map, but it is as important as any of the national boundaries on the continent. The resulting civil war between Sudan’s largely muslim north and largely christian south has been raging, on and off, for over fifty years. The conflict began in the early 1960s, stopped after a peace accord in 1972, only to start again in 1983 and continue until 2005.

As is often the case with independence struggles, progress has turned out to be more dependent on a favourable external geo-political climate than on any internal factors. In Sudan’s case, international acceptance of a split has been fuelled by oil and by a need to maintain influence in the region. According to BP, Sudan has proven oil reserves of 6.7 billion barrels. This amount of oil may be only one 40th of the reserves in Saudi Arabia, but it is still a significant asset. The west has come to realise that a two-nation Sudan may provide a more secure supply of oil than one Sudan at war with itself.

The Americans also sees a split in Sudan as being a way to counterbalance the increasing Chinese influence in Khartoum. This was highlighted in November when Senator John Kerry visited Khartoum on behalf of the Obama Administration and promised that Sudan would no longer be classified as a state sponsor of terrorism provided that it allowed a peaceful referendum in the south. The African Union too has been encouraging dialogue between north and south. Its representative, former South African President Thabo Mbeki, has been the lead mediator of talks over the past 18 months.

World attention has also been drawn to Sudan by the genocide and humanitarian catastrophe in Darfur. Celebrities such as George Clooney have also helped to raise awareness of events in the country.

Of course any number of events could derail the process, but the situation currently looks promising for the secessionists. Crucially President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan has declared that he will abide by the result of the referendum. Time will tell if he keeps his word, although he is under considerable international pressure to do so.

However even if South Sudan gains independence, it will clearly not be the end of the story.

The fine details of separation have not yet been agreed and numerous contentious issues remain. The main one concerns the division of oil revenues between north and south. The current agreement defined a 50:50 split, but this will expire on completion of the referendum in 2011. The definition of the border will also not be straightforward as neither the north or the south are clearly defined and neither is ethnically homogenous.

The war between north and south could always flare up again – this time as an international conflict not a civil war. However this will probably not be in the interests of either side. As Zach Vertin, Sudan specialist at the International Crisis Group, points out – Sudan’s oil may actually keep the peace. “The oil is largely in the south, and the infrastructure to export it runs through the north, so there is mutual reliance.”

President Omar al-Bashir already has his hands full with the implications of his actions in Darfur and, with ongoing internal poverty and a restless army, the last thing he needs is an international conflict. However he is nothing if not shrewd and so will probably wait for the South Sudan factions to turn on each other.

It may not be a long wait as neither of the two principle protagonists in South Sudan politics have yet given any indication that they possess the statesmanship necessary to forge a new nation. The new president of an independent South Sudan is likely to be Salva Kiir Mayardit, who comes from the Dinka ethnic group; while his vice-president will probably be Riek Machar, from the second largest tribe, the Nuer. Both have a history of narrowly promoting their tribal interests – and they are both likely to focus on securing oil revenues rather than on selfless nation-building.

If the independence of South Sudan does occur then it will certainly be a momentous event in Sudanese history. However the implications are likely to reverberate throughout Africa and to say that a ‘can of worms’ will have been opened is an understatement of the highest order.

Ever since the first wave of African leaders took power at independence, national boundaries have been the one untouchable issue. African Presidents rarely see ‘eye-to-eye’ on most issues, but are united on this one. They acknowledge that the boundaries inherited from the colonial powers are frequently ludicrous, given that they often divide language groups, tribal groupings and even families. However it is also realised that redrawing them would be to court disaster by pitting country against country in potentially endless disputes.

An independent South Sudan would not strictly be the first new African country to successfully secede. Eritrea, for example, did break away from Ethiopia in 1993; but it could be argued that the Eritrea was previously an independent state under the Italians and that Emperor Haile Selassie had violated a United Nations resolution when the territory was annexed by Ethiopia in 1962.

Nonetheless the concern of many leaders is that the independence of South Sudan will set an ominous precedent and offer encouragement to the numerous secessionist movements throughout the continent. These include movements in Somaliland, the Western Sahara, the Casamance Region of Senegal, the Cabinda Region of Angola and Katanga Province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

So are there any lessons that can be learned by Scottish Nationalists from the situation in Sudan?

Well Juba, the proposed capital of South Sudan, is certainly not Edinburgh and it would be difficult to imagine two more different countries than Scotland and South Sudan. So any similarities in situation and experience between the two are likely to be very tenuous.

Nonetheless the possible independence of South Sudan does illustrate some of the conditions that are necessary for a successfully negotiated independence settlement.

Firstly in the complex world of modern geo-politics, no country is an island anymore. Independence is no longer really an internal domestic issue; but of concern to the whole world. Therefore, regardless of the strength of the case, no country will gain independence without the endorsement of major players on the world stage.

Secondly the divorce must be in the interests of both parties. In Sudan, both north and south have their share of problems but, on balance, both see a potential up-side to the separation. In Scotland’s case, full independence will only be achieved when it is patently also in England’s interest to be independent of Scotland.

Thirdly independence will only take place when it fits in with the prevailing international political climate. In 1960, Harold Macmillan famously spoke about the “wind of change” that was starting to blow through Africa in the decade when most of the African States acquired independence. A similar gale blew through Eastern Europe in the late 1980s when the Soviet Union disintegrated. In South Sudan’s case, it may be possible to detect the stirrings of a “breeze of change” linked to access to raw materials and competition for influence between the West and China.

Finally, timing is everything. The above three conditions are often temporary and rarely exist together at the same time for long. Secessionists often only have a limited window opportunity to make good on their claims.
It will certainly be interesting to see how events unfold this year in South Sudan.
Nothing is certain of course, but should the country gain independence then it will certainly raise eyebrows in all the capitals of Africa and, who knows, maybe also in Holyrood too?

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Dwight Eisenhower

Dwight Eisenhower

To refugees from some of the world’s worst humanitarian disaster zones, the media’s coverage of the plight of British holidaymakers stranded abroad by Iceland’s volcanic eruptions must surely induce a feeling of disbelief, if not utter disgust.

True, I would not like to have spent four or five days grabbing sleep in an airport terminal, or on a crowded bus, or being held to ransom by a continental taxi-highwayman as I tried to make my way home, but if one thinks of the horror of having to walk several miles a day for a pail of water (Somalia and Ethiopia), or the desperation of crossing seas on a makeshift boat (Cubans, Haitians, Albanians) or the sheer terror of having to flee genocidal butchery (Rwanda, Zaire, Sudan, Cambodia), surely we can put our little Dunkirk drama into some kind of perspective.

As ever, the Americans have a different take on the commotion going on in Europe. An editorial in the Christian Science Monitor points out that if Americans were ever faced with such a problem they would be even more hard-pressed to find their way home than we are.

“Unlike in the United States, air passengers stranded in Europe have more transportation options with highly interconnected and efficient trains, buses, and ferries,” says the Monitor. “American President Dwight Eisenhower recognized the security value of a national highway system, partly because he was so impressed by the German autobahn in World War II. He got the ball rolling on the US interstate grid, called the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways.”

Over time, the US had neglected its infrastructure, and “in the case of streetcars and passenger rail, even eliminated or reduced these networks. The US needs to again treat transportation with such seriousness. Within 50 years, America’s population is expected to surge by 150 million people. Likewise, transportation experts expect huge traffic increases in freight over the next few decades.”

At present, the paper adds, “America can foresee its transportation needs. But what about the unforeseen? Perhaps not a volcano, but another 9/11 or natural disaster, such as a severe hurricane season. The United States should be at least as prepared as Europe.”

Vampire Weekend: ContraIn the month that the big-hitters of British rock, the Arctic Monkeys and Kasabian, were nominated for 12 NME Awards between them another current NME favourite released their new album. A very different kind of record.

It takes a certain idiosyncracy to begin your second record with the couplet: “In December drinking horchata / I’d look psychotic in a balaclava” and go on to rhyme “diplomat’s son” with “ ’81” or “ski in the Alps” with “sunburn his scalp.”

Vampire Weekend are, however, decidedly not yer average band. The lyrics which I’ll admit fly over or around my head, are not the most interesting thing about Vampire Weekend. And Ezra Koenig, who sings, plays lead guitar and writes most of them, is not even their most interesting member.

The New Yorkers’ MVP, to these ears anyway, is Rostam Batmanglij, the keyboard player. He is the main production whiz behind their first two albums, as well as side project Discovery, in which he forms a duo with Ra Ra Riot singer Wes Miles.

The production on the first Vampire Weekend record had everyone talking about Paul Simon’s Gracelands and Talking Heads but Contra, possibly the weirdest record to top the Billboard Top 200 this century, represents a trickier beast to nail down. Contra has elements reminiscent of Youssou N’Dour, the Beach Boys, MGMT, Adam & The Ants, Air, The Specials, and the same African rhythms which infused the last record but this time, there’s more synth – Batmanglij’s department.

For all their kinks and quirks, Vampire Weekend are like the best bands. They sound like everyone else, and no-one else. Batmanglij’s use of keyboards, strings, vocal harmonies, singing lead and even harpsichord throughout make him worthy of any music fan’s interests.

The only comparable musicians in ambition and diversity working in this kind of area are Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, Jack White and possibly Damon Albarn. If VW have the standard band-cliche of musical differences (and all of them, like our own Franz Ferdinand seem like independently interesting fellas in their own right) Batmanglij may well make a top producer.

You wonder what will happen if he’s unleashed on a record from another big band in the next few years. For now, it’ll be worth enjoying him and the rest of VW perform infectious new songs like White Sky, Run and Holiday warming up the summer festivals.

Vampire Weekend might not be everyone’s cup of tea. It would be a funny kind of tea – Manhattan-based with infusions from Ethiopia, Senegal, Mexico, California and England. Whatever they’re putting in the water, seems to be working.