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As South Sudan turns 1, scandal looms

On the eve of his country's first anniversary of independence, prominent South Sudanese human rights activist Deng Athuai was found brutally beaten and tied in a bag by the side of the road in Juba, the capital. According to local sources:

A military intelligence source told [the] Sudan Tribune that Athuai was found "crying inside [a] sack along the road side" between Kabur-tit and Gumba forest by the South Sudan security services.

Athuai had been reported missing on July 4, after he disappeared from his hotel in Juba. He is now in a coma at Juba Teaching Hospital, according to the Sudan Tribune.

Athuai is the chairsperson of South Sudan's Civil Society Alliance - the country's first non-profit umbrella network and a partner of the U.S.-based think tank Freedom House. He recently participated in a protest march demanding that South Sudan's parliament release the names of 75 government officials known to have embezzled $4 billion in public funds since 2005.

Athuai's colleagues refuse to speculate as to the identity of his assailants.

That year marks the juncture when South Sudan gained autonomy (a precursor to independence in 2011) from the north after decades of war, and began receiving $2 billion a year in oil revenues. For a country in which 71 percent of GDP comes from oil exports, and oil production accounts for 98 percent of all government revenues, this is a serious chunk of cash. The auditor-general's office reported that $1.5 billion went missing in the 2005-2006 fiscal year alone.

When the scandal was revealed in June, President Salva Kiir sent a letter to officials asking that the funds be returned:

"Many people in South Sudan are suffering and yet some government officials simply care about themselves.

We fought for freedom, justice and equality. Many of our friends died to achieve these objectives. Yet once we got to power, we forgot what we fought for and began to enrich ourselves at the expense of our people."

The letter was sent to approximately 75 officials -- the same ones whose names Athuai demanded should be made public. However, in the letter Kiir had promised amnesty and confidentiality to those who returned the funds.

Despite this event, as well as the country's dire economic situation since it shut off oil production in January, celebrations for the anniversary of independence began at midnight and will continue throughout the day.

"We have fought for our right to be counted among the community of the free nations and we have earned it," President Kiir told the gathered crowds. "To the extent that we still depend on others, our liberty today is incomplete. We must be more than liberated, we have to be independent economically."

President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan apparently turned down an invitation to attend the celebrations.

Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

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Is it a copout to blame Japanese culture for the Fukushima disaster?

Imagine, for a moment, that 9/11 Commission Report Chairman Thomas Kean had begun his group's historic 2004 report by blaming the country's inability to prevent the attack on the "ingrained conventions of American culture" -- perhaps on the arrogance of American exceptionalism or fear of government regulation. At the very least it would have provoked a serious media backlash if not yet another investigation.

That's essentially what Japanese government science advisor Kiyoshi Kurokawa did in his preface to the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission Report, released late last week. He writes: 

What must be admitted – very painfully – is that this was a disaster “Made in Japan.” 
Its fundamental causes are to be found in the ingrained conventions of Japanese culture: 
our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to ‘sticking with
the program’; our groupism; and our insularity.

Had other Japanese been in the shoes of those who bear responsibility for this accident, the result may well have been the same. [...]

Many of the lessons relate to policies and procedures, but the most important is one upon
which each and every Japanese citizen should reflect very deeply.

The consequences of negligence at Fukushima stand out as catastrophic, but the mindset
that supported it can be found across Japan. In recognizing that fact, each of us should reflect on our responsibility as individuals in a democratic society.

Parts of the report are quite damning, particularly on the cozy relationship between government nuclear regulators and the plant operators. But Kurokawa's lament about Japan's culture of conformity is provoking something of a backlash -- at least from international observers. A Bloomberg editorial describes it as "both a copout and a cliche" noting that "notwithstanding the commission’s lament about the Japanese “reluctance to question authority,” many citizens did repeatedly express their concerns about the safety of Tepco’s Fukushima reactors, including legislators from Japan’s Communist Party. Their warnings were brushed aside by those in power." FT Tokyo correspondent Mure Dickie worries that turning Fukushima into a specifically Japanese failure risks making other countries complacent, just as regulators were too quick to bruch aside the Chernobyl meltdown as a typical case of Soviet sloppiness that could never repeat itself in Japan's more technologically and bureaucratically advanced system. 

These are good points, though it also seems worth pointing out that Kurokawa's "any Japanese person could have made the same mistakes" argument is itself a kind of groupism. Ironically, a report urging Japan to reflect on the lack of accountability in its bureaucratic culture seems to strive not to hold anyone in particular accountable.

YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images