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Seven Years of Shifting Sands: South Sudan's Government Must Make the Change

July 24, 2012
Open Democracy

Dr. Pamela L. Lomoro


In seven years of independent control, South Sudan has not diversified its economy. Now the domestic agricultural sector languishes and international agri-businesses procure land for export markets. This failure could fuel conflict, if real change is not made.

A year ago amid great jubilation South Sudan became an independent nation. That 98% of the population voted for separation from Sudan is stark evidence of the citizenry’s strong desire to rid themselves of Khartoum’s centuries of inflicted poverty, oppression and marginalisation. Much has been written in the media about the challenges and achievements of the past year since independence.  This piece is a response to one such article by Mr Aggrey Tisa Sabuni, an advisor to the government of South Sudan. Mr Sabuni’s article is aptly titled 'South Sudan: building the foundation of the world’s newest nation'. Indeed South Sudan is at the foundation level of development. Every good building must begin with a solid foundation, the fundamentals of which are a good plan, identification of appropriate resources and sound management. In all of these requirements South Sudan has failed: it appears to have set its foundations on sand, which shifts and washes away with every rising storm.

The challenges have undoubtedly been enormous for a country that is starting from ground zero. Mr Sabuni has enumerated some of these challenges accordingly but in my opinion he has failed categorically to provide convincing evidence of achievements. Instead, like most government mouthpieces, his article labours over sweeping statements about general plans and the determination to build long term prosperity.

The government of South Sudan’s decision to shut down oil production remains controversial. Clearly, this decision was carried out without strategic analysis of the consequences and clear alternative plans as disclosed in a recent cringe-worthy report by the World Bank. It was an emotive, hasty and irrational decision that has seen South Sudan now finding itself between a rock and a hard place, having found no means of financing an alternative pipeline to transport its oil to the market. So what does the government do? It offers a $3.2 billion compensation package and $4.9 billion worth of debt relief to woo Khartoum back into the fold. It would appear then, that the country has gone full circle while needlessly exacerbating the level of poverty among its people who have not even begun to reap the peace dividend.

The world food programme warns that 4-7 million people face food insecurity in South Sudan. For a country whose economy relies so heavily on its oil, South Sudan has failed miserably over the past 7 year since the signing of the CPA to diversify this economy. Mr Sabuni’s claim of a rise in non-oil revenue of 250% since July 2011 is a grossly misleading interpretation of the data.  What he selectively omitted from this information is that only a few well-placed individuals are siphoning the collected tax revenues. The country relies heavily on imported items from both the East Africa region and the Sudan. Compounded by the resurgence of open hostilities in the border area with Khartoum, it is precisely the lack of foresight in strategic planning and implementation of economic diversification by the government of South Sudan that has caused rising domestic prices for basic commodities.  It has been seven years since the country acquired the driving seat of its national affairs yet still it imports everything from bananas to meat products, despite the wealth of livestock and the fertile environment with which it is endowed. Again, Mr Sabuni’s claim that agriculture provides livelihood to 80% of the population must be set into context. The truth is that 80% of the population is dependant on foreign aid, supplemented by subsistence farming of the most primitive kind.  

While international and non-governmental organisations (FAO, AGRA, USAID, CRWRC, etc.) have been instrumental in their effort to develop the agriculture sector, the ministry of agriculture has been engaged in elaborate back seat drafting of plans and little else in terms of implementation. Like most government ministries staff skills are grossly misplaced and management systems are not in place. The notion that South Sudan does not have human resource capacity has been conveniently exaggerated. Those with real skills might be few but indeed they exist and are eager to demonstrate their skills. Unfortunately for them, the recruitment process all the way from top down favours who you know, not what you know, and there is little by way of monitoring and evaluation of staff performances against set objectives. Within the agricultural sector in particular, there is greater need to engage in research and implementation of advanced farming methodologies (in terms of environmental management, mechanisation and crop science) in order to alleviate food insecurity, growing urbanisation and unemployment. It does not help that over the past few years the Oakland Institute report on South Sudan estimates that 5.15 million hectares of land has been sought or secured by private investors in the agribusiness sector through shady deals with government officials and community leaders. The land rights of community land owners have been ignored, and this is already emerging as a grave source of conflict. Further, these large scale investments have hitherto yielded nothing in terms of food production for local consumption.

While South Sudan’s children are dying of nutritional deficiencies from the severe lack of vitamins and protein, the country’s livestock are dying out through starvation, uncontained serious diseases and even old age. What has the ministry of agriculture done in terms of developing disease control, veterinary services and grazing land over the past 7 years of its existence? The answer is sadly nothing.  Investment in livestock management should have been set as one of the top priorities of the ministry of agriculture given that this has the significant potential of curtailing livestock migration over great distances in search of water and grazing land, thereby containing diseases while contributing to the prevention of conflict between communities, such as that witnessed between the Dinka herdsmen and Zande farmers in the Western Equatoria state.

South Sudan continues to struggle (even more profoundly since the oil shut-down) to provide basic services in terms of education and health care to its population, despite having acquired over $12 billion USD in oil revenue over the past 7 years. It is fair to say that the challenges of starting from scratch have been daunting and there is some truth to that old and tired, self-handicapping adage favoured by the government when trying to justify its dismal record of achievement – that Rome was not built in one day. Indeed Rome was not build in one day. A lot of foresight and proactive incremental steps went into building Rome. That, together with a transparent and responsible management of both the financial and human resources. The population at large have seldom seen signs of tangible incremental steps toward service provision. Instead, rampant corruption by the president’s own admittance, and as laid bare in the country’s auditor general’s report speaks of the real reasons why we have not seen the seeds of development sprouting. Many a time lip service has been paid to combating corruption. That is all - lip service without any evidence of a prosecution.

President Kiir made promises to start building 30 primary schools and four secondary schools during the first 100 days of his government, in office since independence. Even before the oil shut-down took place this target was not met and nothing more has since been said about it, just like many other elaborate promises made by the government. Non-governmental organisations, with their lack of a harmonised approach to the provision of services, continue to be the thin concentration of oxygen that is keeping the country on life-support machine. This in itself is not a good thing by any stretch of the imagination. South Sudan cannot continue to hand out its territories to NGO franchises that come in and encourage the culture of dependency among the population.

Mr Sabuni’s assessment of the past year is nothing more than a scraping of the barrel for positive things to report.  That is not to say there is absolutely nothing positive to report. Unfortunately damning evidence overshadows the minute slim pickings in the achievement camp While one year is not enough time to expect much in terms of development, we must remember that this government has been firmly in control of national affairs for the past 7 years; hence my assessment is based from the viewpoint of that duration. The most resolute achievement to have come out of South Sudan in its first year since independence is the independence itself. The decision of 98% of the population who voted for secession from the north, and their absolute resilience and hope in the face of the continuing adversity brought on largely by poorly thought out leadership decisions, lack of implementation and rampant corruption, should serve as the inspirational impetus for change.