Reality after Euphoria

South Sudan on the Road to Independence

Text: Denisa Augustínová, Photo: Martin Bandžák

It may look like the capital city of Juba has changed and developed, but it remains clear that the situation in the world’s youngest state has been moving forward very slowly. I like the saying so often repeated in connection with this country: a new country is not a new toy, functional, straight out of the box. It's been unpacked, but for all its novelty it’s damaged, and most of its parts are not working. The country, which is at its very beginnings after nearly 45 years of military conflict and missed the greatest part of the industrial revolution and twentieth century development, is starting from even less than scratch.

After a long struggle against the Khartoum regime, rebels have become statesmen

The government here has hardly any money. Its authority and influence exists only within the capital’s borders. One and a half years after declaring independence more than eight million people have no official citizenship, and outside the capital only forty thousand citizens have managed to get hold of new documents. Introducing the tax system and customs can hardly pay for the resources lacking in the budget, of which almost 98 percent comes from oil revenues. This caused considerable problems last year, when armed conflict with the North broke out in April and for some time the pipeline taps closed. At the moment the ceasefire is holding after pressure from the international community, but local currency inflation has reached 75 percent, pushing food and diesel prices to dizzying heights.

The borders, especially with Sudan, remain vague and ill-defined. But the country has its own flag, anthem, beer, and president, and even a seat in the UN General Assembly. There’s a story circulating in Juba that when the South Sudan delegation arrived in New York, UN workers panicked and had to run out to buy more chairs so they could cram them in.

The centre of government is Juba, the capital and the main trade hub, which still looks like it might feature in an African western. One needs a vivid imagination to see it as the capital. Makeshift houses of bricks and sheet metal with high walls rise in between mud houses. Layers of paint crack in the inexorable heat. The main roads are asphalt, though these do not extend far beyond the city. But even this is a huge improvement: before independence, the country had only 80 kilometres of asphalt roads; this figure is now a thing of the past, expanding to 120 kilometres thanks to the Chinese engineers present everywhere. City side streets are often impassable, covered in deep mud in the rainy season. The morning after a rainy day, we usually have to call for help to shovel the mud away from in front of our gate, as it slides down the unfinished roads and completely blocks us from leaving the house.

The Presidential Palace and the football stadium have been rebuilt at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars, and electricity is always available for their operation. The same cannot be said of the rest of the city and the country. Generators are another omnipresent part of life in Juba. The city’s supply of electricity is constantly interrupted. Each watt must be produced using loud smoking, decaying engines and expensive diesel. There’s no escaping the constant hum when the generator noise competes with that of air conditioning. People in Juba often complain about this, and constantly comment on diesel shortages, but if one moves around the countryside, the surroundings are noticeably poorer, with generators used more sparingly. I haven't seen a single generator in any hospital or school an hour outside the capital.

Security has significantly deteriorated with independence. Nevertheless, large 4x4 cars are the preferred means for the new rich in uniforms or for retired soldiers and civil servants. For everyone else in the city there are minibuses, or the ubiquitous boda-boda: bicyclists who, for a few Sudanese pounds, will take you wherever you want. However, their new specialty is to jump in front of cars to get financial compensation for their injury. Street gangs have a variety of ways to get rich: in addition to unreliable money exchange, there is the sale of drugs and weapons. I remember the first time I came to South Sudan almost ten years ago, I could walk around the city, and in many ways I felt safer than in the new country emerging as the result of a peace treaty. The use of microbuses was uncomfortable and uncertain, but not dangerous; today this is almost impossible. Civilization, investment, mobile phones, and alcohol have arrived. After decades of conflict the omnipresent weapons have not disappeared, and people are used to using them to solve any disagreement. Law enforcement officers have not fully grasped their role, and have repeatedly apprehended a humanitarian organization’s white car or an individual who didn’t want to argue with their assault rifles. The infamous shooting during the independence celebration left many people dead just because they kept entering the stadium during the anthem, which annoyed some policemen. In September last year, a regional police officer was killed in Rumbek by his 30 subordinates, who were dissatisfied when they received no wages due to lack of state budget resources.

However, it has to be noted that certain things have been accomplished. The city was in ruins after the SPLA insurgent bombing in 2005. Today we can talk in many ways about reconstruction and improved functionality. Certainly there are visible superficial indicators of wealth: supermarkets, overpriced hotels, luxury car dealerships, glassy banks (though without cash for most of the time), and new roads being dug in all directions from the city.

Yet the new nation is still struggling with many problems. In South Sudan, there is again a "huge humanitarian crisis" that will continue into the coming years. It is estimated that about 300,000 people have been repatriated from north to south, causing even more pressure on the dysfunctional system. The increase in population means there are more people needing schools and hospitals, to eat and to work. And this puts pressure on all service providers. For example, a growing population means an increased demand for food supplies, much more what is now available. This is one reason we see malnutrition in most areas of the country. Almost 70 percent of the population has no access even to basic health care. Most health services are provided by NGOs and the UN. The major health problems include infectious diseases, malaria, and the consequences of violence, as well as mother and child care and chronic child malnutrition. The country is struggling with the highest maternal and infant mortality in the world. There are 120 doctors for 9 million inhabitants, slightly less than 100 nurses and about 150 midwives. Due to rain, for most of the year access to health care gets even harder, and a pregnant woman might need to walk for two or three days before reaching the nearest clinic.

16-year-old Mora was brought to the clinic by her mum after they had walked for almost eight hours. The young girl was in her fifth month of pregnancy and had a complicated case of malaria. They first tried to stop her bleeding with herbs in the village. The doctors finally managed to save Mora, but couldn't do the same for her child. "The lack of access to essential services needed during pregnancy, as well as for common health problems, is the leading cause of maternal death in South Sudan. It is estimated that nearly 80% of maternal deaths could be averted simply by improving access to healthcare facilities for pregnant women and mothers. Distance, lack of staff, lack of education, migration, and belief in traditional healers do nothing to improve the situation. The numbers are only slowly decreasing, and we rejoice at any improvement, but still more than 90 percent of mothers in this country give birth at home," says Sisto, a doctor working with MAGNA in the Terekeka area.

The plan of course is to change all this. The biggest cause for the long civil war was the South being oppressed by the North, which excluded the South from real political power and used the country's wealth (especially oil) to finance Khartoum’s elite luxury lifestyle. The government is betting the country's future on oil and revenues from it. This is the majority contributor to the state budget, but for almost six months last year not a single barrel was pumped due to the ongoing quarrel with the North. Therefore the government did their utmost to collect taxes and introduce new taxes and duties, even abolishing tax concessions on humanitarian commodities such as medicines. But this could never come even close to patching up the holes in the state budget. For several months salaries of government officers went unpaid and all forms of social assistance were suspended. The whole country suffered from an acute shortage of oil, which traffickers began smuggling from Uganda at triple price, and people were forced to stand for hours and days in queues even if they were lucky enough to acquire a small amount.

The authorities are overloaded with new regulations, which change every month. The government is trying to tackle the South Sudanese labour market by withholding work permits from workers from neighbouring countries, especially Uganda, Kenya, and Ethiopia, who still account for most of the country's professional staff. South Sudan struggles with a lack of human resources, as nearly 80 percent of the population is illiterate. Workers from surrounding countries are outraged; for most of them this discrimination is incomprehensible. “We cannot accept it, I have lived in this part of Sudan for twenty years, I hardly remember my native village in Uganda, except for my studies in Kampala; I have lived here almost all my life, but now we are uncomfortable. But I don't know who else will work here,” explains Jafna, a young teacher.

What the government clearly does not do is develop its own industry and workforce. During the war, chicken was being imported from Brazil, refrigerators from China, cigarettes from Kenya, vegetables from Uganda, and medicines from India. Less than a year after independence, the market is still flooded with cheap products from China and neighbouring countries, with which South Sudan cannot compete. The government has presented a bold plan that leaves out efforts to enter the East African Community's free trade zone in the near and medium term. It has decided that agriculture and oil will save the entire state budget and bring the country to Africa's forefront. This of course requires strong leadership, planning and hard work. Instead however we are witnessing arguments, a struggles, and almost no coordination of activities between individual ministries. Bureaucracy and more bureaucracy is a nightmare, and minor as well as severe corruption are  rampant. The many promises made by President Salva Kiri – from laying a new oil pipeline through Kenya, purchasing new aircrafts, and building a new capital, to organizing sporting events such as the African Football Cup, as well as raising salaries for civil servants, or handing out seedlings to farmers – are just a dream. International organizations point to a deteriorating humanitarian situation, ethnic unrest, an increasing number of displaced persons and refugees at the border, an alarming measles epidemic, many infectious diseases, malaria, and malnutrition, as well as constant violations of human rights. The government acknowledges that violence by soldiers on the civilian population is unacceptable and they do not want to be associated with it, but in reality they widely disregard soldiers’  bad conduct. Because of criticism in a report on human rights violations at the end of 2012, they entered into open conflict with the UN, dismissing a senior official.

After the euphoria of independence, we need to start focusing on the new country’s real situation, not forgetting that it remains one of the greatest humanitarian disasters in history. The oil taps are open today, bringing a lot of new money to boost a stagnating economy. The first item on the agenda is infrastructure construction, in particular the introduction of electricity. Without electricity, industry and business are basically dead. The government urgently needs to change its income distribution strategy, giving attention to developing access to education, health care, and rural development. As of now 40 percent of the state budget goes to defence, and enormous sums have been lost throughout the year in corruption scandals. The question remains open of whether South Sudan will copy the northern political model (though without Sharia law), where a small elite controls everything, or moves in a different direction.

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