Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a columnist, activist, author and labor organizer. He is the executive assistant to the national vice president of the American Federation of Government Employees. Bill is an editorial board member of BlackComentator.com, as well as the chairman of the Retail Justice Alliance. He is also the co-author of “Solidarity Divided”; and the author of the newly released book, ‘They’re Bankrupting Us’ – And Twenty Other Myths about Unions . He is a co-founder of the Center for Labor Renewal, and has served as President of TransAfrica Forum and was formerly the Education Director and later Assistant to the President of the AFL-CIO.
Sharmini Peries: It’s the real news network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. According the United Nations, the world is facing its greatest humanitarian crisis since 1945. A record 70 million people will require emergency food aid this year. East Africa, Yemen, Northeast Nigeria are in a grip of a devastating food crisis and the South Sudanese are suffering from famine already. According to UNICEF, 27 million people lack safe water, increasing the threat of cholera and spreading other water-borne diseases. Joining us today to discuss the causes of famine in these countries is Bill Fletcher Jr. He’s an author and former President of Trans-Africa Forum, a senior scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies and an editorial board member of blackcommentator.com. Bill thank you for joining us today.
Bill Fletcher Jr: My pleasure Sharmini. Thank you.
Sharmini Peries: Bill, before we start, let’s turn to a clip of Mr. Steven O’Brien, the under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief, speaking to the UN Security Counsel about the situation in Yemen, Somalia, Kenya, and South Sudan.
Steven O’Brien: The situation for people in each country is dire and without a major international response, the situation will get worse. All four countries have one thing in common: conflict. This means that we, you, have the possibility to prevent and end further misery and suffering. The UN and its partners are ready to scale up, but we need the access and the funds to do more. It is all preventable. It is possible to avert this crisis, to avert these famines, to avert these looming human catastrophes.
Sharmini Peries: So Bill according to the Under Secretary, the international community has a responsibility, an obligation to protect the population of these countries from starvation. We also know that famine is rooted not only in drought but when farmers’ lose their means of production and livelihood, people must sell their land and their cattle and then everything they have and culminate in places where the crisis is actually worse. Give us a sense of what are the conditions that culminate to create famine.
Bill Fletcher Jr: The thing is Sharmini, it’s important when we look at these so-called humanitarian crises that we understand that, at base, most of them are political, economic, and environmental crises. So the difficulty when you look at these through the prism of the mainstream media is you would just think that these are, I don’t know, natural disasters of some sort. That there’s nothing you can do about them, that they just happen. But what’s interesting is when you mention the countries, Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan, you could add onto that the Darfur Region of the Northern Sudan, what you see in each case is political crises, in many cases war. Somalia has not, for example, had a very functioning united nation state since 1991. The South Sudan almost immediately upon separating from the Northern Sudan, found itself immersed in this horrendous civil war. The Darfur region of course has been fighting against the Cartoom government in Sudan. In other words, the conditions for addressing any of these crises, anything that might be perceived as natural like a drought, is undermined by the instability of the region. You’re not going to be able to address most of these crises without some level of political stability.
Look at Yemen. Yemen will not resolve its situation as long as there’s a continued war, as long as the Saudi’s continue to bomb. That’s the fundamental thing. When we’re looking at resolving these crises, we’ve got to look at political solutions first.
The other piece, though, is environmental. If you look at the Darfur crisis or if you look at even the Syrian civil war, one of the major contributing factors has been the shift in the environment and the impact that that has had on forcing populations to move and aggravating already horrendous conditions.
Sharmini Peries: Bill of course we don’t want to blame everything on the U.S. but one cannot ignore the fact that U.S. backed Kenyan invasion of Somalia as well as the drone and proxy wars in Somalia and creating famine on the ground is, as you said, politically driven or politically caused at times. Give us a better understanding of these kinds of political situations that you’re talking about by giving us some examples.
Bill Fletcher Jr: Let’s look at Somalia because it’s a very tragic case. Somalia was a unified nation: The Somali Republic. In 1991 there was an insurrection against the historically backed back the U.S. dictatorship of Syad Bari. When Syad Bari was overthrown and essentially the United States abandoned Syad Bari. Instead of a unified government taking over, you had the dissent into warlordism that most of the world, including the United States, frankly could care very little about. What was of most concern to the West, was access to resources in Somalia and they were more than comfortable working through the existence of warlords. When you have a situation like that which existed beginning in 91 and then that was followed by the introduction for awhile of something called the Union of Islamic Courts that was then overthrown by the Ethiopians, this gross instability made it impossible for the resurrection of a real Somali state.
The United States has a particular obligation here. One is that it propped up a dictatorship, the Syad Bari regimen. Second, it abandoned Somalia when it no longer needed it for strategic regions. Third, when it decided to re-intervene particularly through the use of Ethiopian troops in 2004, it further destabilized the situation. The United States is complicit in the situation, but I wouldn’t say that the situation there is solely to be blamed on the United States, but we certainly have a nickel in that dime.
Sharmini Peries: Let’s turn to South Sudan, the newest state to come into existence and has been ravaged by three years of a brutal civil war. Oxfam states that more than 3 million people have been forced to flee into neighboring countries. What role are international actors playing worsening the situation in South Sudan and, conversely, what can be done to improve the situation there?
Bill Fletcher Jr: I’m not sure I have a good answer in terms of what best to be done, but I think it’s important to understand that South Sudan was the site of a long-standing rebellion, revolution, against the Northern Sudanese government based in Cartoom. The Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement, which for many years was led by John Guaran, the late John Guaran, did not intend on leading a secessionist movement. The objective was not the separation of the South Sudan. The objective was actually the transformation of the Sudan. They were based in South Sudan but they were also aligning with other forces. During this movement, this struggle, there were forces from the West that became very interested in the South Sudan for both resources reason and for ideological reasons. There were the interest in oil, the large stocks of oil in the South Sudan led to a great deal of interest on the part of major oil companies. The ideological interest was sort of bizarre. There were these right-wing Christians that decided that the fight in the Sudan was the 20th and then 21th century version of the crusades of Christians against Muslims, because the South Sudan is largely Christian and animist. Despite the fact that the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement was not a right-wind movement, there were these outside right-wing Christian forces that got involved in stoking the coals.
When Guaran was killed in an air accident and there was a transition in the leadership, there was also a transformation in the movement itself. There was a reluctance on the part of the Northern Sudanese government in Cartoom to come to real terms and finally when there was a resolution of the crisis, the people of South Sudan decided to split off and form a different country.
Initially Sharmini, there was optimism that the South Sudan was going to be a new and proud addition to the African Union, but a power struggle unfolded in the South Sudan within the ruling elite and that power struggle then transformed into a civil war which pitted one faction which called upon certain ethnic groups against another faction that called upon other ethnic groups and it has been an absolute disaster ever since.
There will be no military solution, in my humble opinion, to the South Sudanese crisis. I know that the African Union has been trying desperately to arrive at some sort of settlement. It will only be through some peaceful negotiations that this will be brought to an end. In the meantime what’s happening, as you mentioned, is famine, disease, rape, rape is an instrument of political oppression being carried out by forces on both sides. It is an absolute disaster.
Sharmini Peries: In Nigeria, I don’t mean to do a survey here of all the countries in crisis, but each of these have particularities that people should know about. Nigeria, Oxfam states that at least 4.4 million people in Nigeria in the Northeast part of the country are in need of urgent food assistance and this is projected to reach 5.7 million by June of this year. What similarities, and of course differences, are there between the situation say in North Nigeria and those in Sudan and Kenya and Somalia? Countries like Kenya and Nigeria, these when we think of them, we think of them still as lush and green and plentiful, but they are no longer. What has happened?
Bill Fletcher Jr: Well to borrow from Gill Scott Herron, it follows a pattern if you see what I mean. If you look at Nigeria, what you have is a combination of gross corruption, the involvement of Western oil companies in the extraction under abysmal conditions of oil and natural gas and you have this bizarre fundamentalist movement, the Boca Haram, in the Northern part of Nigeria that has been carrying out an insurrection against the central government, has been involved in kidnapping, suicide bombings, various forms of terror that make it very difficult to govern and create some level of stability in the North. One of the peculiar elements of the situation in Nigeria is that there are political forces in Nigeria that have ostensibly, mainstream political forces, that have been in varying ways backing Boca Haram and seem to have an interest in creating instability in Northern Nigeria either perhaps to strengthen the hand of the military to bring about greater pressure on other elements of the political elite of Nigeria. But in the meantime, it’s the people of Nigeria that are suffering.
You have that in the North, then in the Southern parts in Nigeria, particularly in the areas where the oil companies are in operation, you have the extraction of crude oil and natural gas, you have a movement for autonomy, you have an environmental justice movement that has been challenging the corruption of the national government as well as the antics of the multinational oil companies and this environmental justice movement has been met historically with very vicious oppression at the hands of the military and the national government.
Once again, the conditions that exist, the so-called natural conditions that may lend themselves to a drought, cannot be handled and addressed sufficiently because of the level of instability that exists in the form of war.
Sharmini Peries: Now this is very interesting and difficult situation because with all of these political complexities and with Al-Shabab and other so-called terrorist factors, it’s very difficult to deliver aid to the people that needs it, particular food supplies, water supplies and so forth. Are they in such threat in terms of their life on the line now, how does institutions like the UN deliver services to them?
Bill Fletcher Jr: Well you know the thing is Sharmini when you’re looking at situations where there is terrorism, and I’m separating that from the South Sudan which is a different kind of civil war, you have to appreciate from the beginning that activities of terrorists are both similar to criminal organizations as well as insurrections. To the extent that terrorist organizations like Al-Shabab or Boca Haram are able to tap into any kinds of legitimate political disenchantment on the part of the people, political or economic, they’re not …
The situation will not be resolved solely by military means. The United States’ general approach is to assume in the face of terrorist activity that you resolve it through a military option. Time and again, this has proven to be an inappropriate measure. There needs to be a level of political reorganization in those countries where you are actually winning people to believe that the nation state is listening to their demands, listening to their concerns, and is actively trying to address them. It’s in that context that you can win people away from any level of support for the terrorists. Certainly, there will be a military side to this. You’re not going to be able to convince most of these political forces through nice language to lay down their arms, but when they are in fact isolated from the population, they are not going to be able to sustain themselves. So if you want to address the issue of famine, drought, etc, then there has to be a level of political organizing. If the national government does not have credibility in the minds of the masses of people, the whole thing goes to nothing.
To go back to Nigeria, to the extent that the population doesn’t believe that the national government is paying attention to issues of corruption, is paying attention to legitimate demands in the North, I don’t mean fatalistic sectarian demands but legitimate demands of the people of the North, the government is not going to be able to defeat Boca Haram. Boco Haram will be the herpes of Nigeria. It will be there indefinitely in the system so you have to extract that by winning over the population. I think, unfortunately, whether you’re looking at Nigeria or many other countries, there’s an assumption that simply through the power of the gun, the situation will be resolved and it won’t no matter how many drones you have.
Sharmini Peries: Alright Bill so much more to discuss but I thank you for now and hope you can join us again to continue this discussion. Thank you.
Bill Fletcher Jr: Thank you. Thank you very much.
Sharmini Peries: Thank you for joining us here on the Real News Network.