One year ago, we reported on the birth of the world’s newest nation, South Sudan and the celebrations that followed. A year later, the party
is well and truly over. The young country finds itself in a desperate plight, scarred by ethnic conflicts, humanitarian crisis and the loss of
its principal source of income. By Anver Versi with additional reporting by Wanjohi Kabukuru.
I visited South Sudan a few months before it gained its independence from the north to see for myself how well equipped the country was to exit its liberation phase and enter the more difficult development phase.
While there was a great deal of optimism and jubilation in the air, it was clear then that the country was in such a state of underdevelopment that an almighty effort on the part of the government, the people and the international community was needed if it was to make progress in the thousand and one areas that desperately needed attention.
I spoke to government ministers and department heads in makeshift offices and most of them admitted that after two decades during which “we were dodging bullets and shells and living from hand to mouth”, they just did not have the capacity or the know-how to run essential ministries and departments. I wrote that South Sudan urgently needed capacity-building support and called on the AU, neighbouring African countries, the multitude of international governments that called themselves the friends of South Sudan to come to the aid of this latest addition to African family.
The internal security situation was so bad that 15 kilometres from the capital Juba, villagers were living in terror of armed bandits. There were thousands of returning refugees and displaced people depending entirely on charity organisations.
For a country that depended almost entirely on the river trade from the north for its food, building materials and fuel, I was shocked to see that Juba did not really have a port. Only a small wharf built by the Japanese development agency, JICA, was equipped to offload heavy items. Fuel pipes snaked along the ground from battered ferries to waiting tankers. Many of them leaked. One carelessly thrown lit cigarette could have blown the whole area apart.
Yet Juba was two cities in one. Desperate poverty on the one hand, and brand-new commercial and residential buildings on the other. The streets were chock-full of 4x4s, most belonging to various UN and other aid organisations. There was a four-star restaurant in which the cheapest meal could have kept an average family alive for three months. Hotels were springing up to cater for the increasing number of speculators, investors and businessmen who had come to reconnoitre Africa’s latest petro-state.
I recollected having to pay over $180 for a tiny little cement box that dared to call itself a hotel room while the workers told me there were lucky to earn two or three dollars a day. I wrote about the modern carpetbaggers, who had arrived with their suits, their bulging briefcases, their smiles and jokes. In the evenings, they rubbed their hands together and spoke openly about how they were going to make a killing.
I heard stories about the ‘higher ups’ who were going on shopping trips to South Africa, Europe and Singapore. People whispered about billions of dollars that had gone missing. South Sudan was the latest fatted calf for an orgy of looting.
While I worried and wrote about all these things, I also wrote about the incredible spirit of many of the people that I met. I heard stories of great courage as teachers and other social leaders kept the flame alive during the darkest days of the war and how, at the risk of their own lives, they imparted knowledge, distributed what little they could forage and never allowed the spark of freedom, justice and equality die out in the breast of the people. My hope was that South Sudan, having seen the destruction that possession of a resource that the world needs could unleash on the unsuspecting, could take a wary and carefully thought-out strategy. The hope was that the country would use its relatively vast wealth from oil (estimated at round $7bn annually), to create a new state in which the needs of the people would come first and which would be a shining example in Africa.
If a role model was needed, there was Botswana. Indeed, with independence approaching, Obiageli Ezekwesili, then the World Bank’s Vice-President for Africa, urged the South Sudanese to ask themselves “‘How does our country go from being one with one of the worst human indicators in the world to prosperity avoiding the errors other African countries made after gaining independence 50 years ago?’. It could help if Africa’s youngest nation emulated an African example,” she said. “At independence, Botswana was one of the poorest nations in the continent. Today it is one of the richest. Landlocked and economically isolated as a result of sanctions and boycott campaigns against Zimbabwe and then apartheid South Africa, Gaborone invested in its most important resource – its people.”
Serious own goal
Unfortunately, this well-meant advice appears to have gone unheeded. One year later, South Sudan seems to have fallen prey to all the Horsemen of the Apocalypse simultaneously. The humanitarian situation, especially regarding the displaced people, is dire. Food is in desperate short supply, as is clean drinking water. UNHCR has complained of a lack of funds – all of South Sudan’s avowed friends in the West are looking the other way.
There have been terrible ethnic clashes which the army seems to have been utterly unable to control. Prices of the most basic commodities have skyrocketed. Inflation is around 89%. Salaries have not been paid or paid late while there has been little or no progress in terms of building schools or dispensaries.
Corruption has rapidly escalated. It is now so bad that President Salva Kiir has written to a large number of high-level executives asking them to return around $4bn that has been siphoned off. The hard-pressed population has also been asked to contribute from their meagre resources to the upkeep of the security forces.
But perhaps the biggest blow of all is that since January, all oil revenues have dried up. In that month, South Sudan, thinking more from the heart rather than the head, shut off the flow – on which it depends for 98% of its revenues – because of a dispute with the North on carrier charges. The only outlet for South Sudanese crude is via the pipeline that runs through Sudanese territory. There is a Ghanaian proverb that says: ‘If your fingers are in somebody’s mouth, you do not hit them in the head’, otherwise you are likely to lose your fingers.
Earlier this year, Juba angrily accused Khartoum of outright theft and overcharging transit fees. The dispute boiled over and in January 2012 South Sudan’s cabinet passed two resolutions to shut down all oil production and seek an alternative oil pipeline to another neighbouring country. For its part, Khartoum defended its action saying it was confiscating $815m worth of oil due to unpaid fees. Khartoum charged Juba $32 per barrel as transit fees. Juba expected to pay less than a dollar.
In August 2011, South Sudan’s energy bosses discussed the Lamu Port South Sudan Ethiopia Transport (Lapsset) corridor, which offers Juba a standard-gauge railway line, road and an oil pipeline linking Lamu Port in Kenya and South Sudan’s oil fields. In March 2012, President Kiir joined his counterparts President Mwai Kibaki of Kenya and Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in laying the foundation stone of the proposed Lamu Port. This was five weeks after Juba had signed an MOU with Kenya’s Energy Ministry agreeing to foot the $3.9bn oil pipeline to Lamu.
But this was a classic case of counting one’s chickens before they were hatched. Juba still depends heavily for virtually all its requirements on the North. During the rainy season, roads into and out of South Sudan are almost impassable and the most viable transport means still remains the river and the barges that sail down from Khartoum.
Whatever the history between the two and no matter how much the South may chaff under what it considers unfair terms of trade, it has few options. Conflict and confrontation may have served the South during the war of liberation but development calls for cooperation and compromise. The current stand-off benefits nobody. South Sudan will need to borrow heavily, on promise of future repayment once the oil starts to flow again, and may find itself tied hand and foot to an endless cycle of services debt repayments. In effect, it could lose sovereignty of its oil in all but name to international lenders.
It is about time South Sudan starts thinking with its head, not its emotions.