South Sudan recovery depends on solving power struggle

South Sudan Refugees

If there is any chance for South Sudan to get back on its feet, it will need to be serious about the mundane.

So says Fredrick Lokule, a veteran civil servant who is passionate about bureaucracy, of all things — specifically tax collection, the thankless task that any functioning state requires.

But the government of South Sudan, the world’s youngest country, has long been driven by personalities, not by policies. Now it cannot afford to pay even its most experienced technocrats.

Mr. Lokule, who is in charge of his state’s revenue authority, says he has not been paid for more than two months. His office sits on an unpaved road and experiences frequent power failures, so his employees have grown used to working in the dark.

“People are patient,” Mr. Lokule said. “But of course we’ve been frustrated because of a lack of this, a lack of that.”

South Sudan has, at least officially, just emerged from more than two years of a brutal civil war that killed tens of thousands of people and displaced over two million.

Much of the damage remains. Even here in the capital, nearly 28,000 people are still sheltering in a United Nations camp on the outskirts of the city. Many of them fled their homes in December 2013 after troops loyal to President Salva Kiir clashed with those loyal to Riek Machar, who had been dismissed that year as vice president, and killed hundreds of civilians in the city during the early stages of the war.

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Since then, most of the war’s atrocities, often perpetrated along ethnic lines, have occurred far from Juba, in the country’s north and east. Civilians were killed deliberately. Child soldiers were recruited to fight. Women were raped en masse.

In recent weeks, the country’s top priority has been to form a transitional government that strikes a delicate peace between former warring rivals. But South Sudan’s governing elite have done little to focus on something just as critical to the country’s health: righting the devastated economy.

“You cannot talk about improving the economic situation now, because peace and security are the cornerstones for whatever you do,” Michael Makuei, the country’s minister of information, said last month as the government was being formed.

After an August peace agreement, Mr. Machar returned to Juba on April 26 and was sworn into his old position as the vice president to Mr. Kiir, essentially returning the country to the fragile political situation it was in before the war.

Both leaders claim membership in the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, which began in 1983 as the political wing of an army fighting for autonomy from Sudan.

But the party has always been divided by power struggles. Since South Sudan achieved independence in 2011, the movement has functioned less like a political party and more like a tenuous coalition of war veterans who have never quite been able to put down their weapons. Its members have been accused of committing war crimes, fanning the flames of ethnic tension and profiting from rampant corruption.

“Our apologies to the people of South Sudan for the situation we, the leaders, have created,” Mr. Kiir said in a speech after Mr. Machar resumed his post. “You have been patient throughout the duration of the crisis.”

More than half of South Sudan’s roughly 12 million people live below the poverty line. Food prices have skyrocketed because of inflation. People are dying in hospitals where medical supplies are running low. Oil fields were damaged in the war, slashing production to less than half of peak levels.

Now, saddled with fees and debt repayments totaling about $25 for every barrel of crude exported via Sudan — and facing low oil prices globally — South Sudan is desperately short on hard currency.

Mr. Machar, who met with officials from the International Monetary Fund last week to discuss a much-needed economic recovery, insisted before his return to the capital that if the peace plan was followed, development would come.

“The money spent by the government on perpetrating the war will be available for other things,” he said.

People in the capital are struggling to make ends meet. Abraham Matoch, 27, a laptop technician, said his workplace had not had a regular electricity supply for about two years. So he pays top dollar for power from privately owned generators, many of which run on fuel from the black market. His business is barely profitable, but he said his five siblings relied on him for support.

“All I want is for the economy to be stable,” he said.

In order to secure the outside funding that South Sudan sorely needs, the country’s leaders must prove their ability to govern. But high-level officials argue that the transitional government has much to accomplish before it can address the problems plaguing the population.

To that end — and despite the lack of cash — South Sudan’s government has expanded. A new cabinet of 30 ministers was appointed shortly after Mr. Machar’s arrival, with former rebels leading 10 ministries, including those of the interior, mining and petroleum.

Lam Akol, a veteran of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement who now leads an opposition party, became the minister of agriculture — a sector about which, he admitted, he knows very little.

During his first few hours in office, he greeted a parade of well-wishers from behind his huge desk, offering candy and cookies as the electricity supply sputtered.

“I don’t deny that many of the problems have been personal,” he said of the government’s internal power struggles. “But now there are many centers in this government, ensuring that no one center is controlling everything.”

Troops from both sides of the conflict are undergoing a balancing act of their own. Leaders of the two armies have begun talks on how to enforce security in Juba. The plans include the formation of a police force with 1,500 recruits from each side.

Col. William Gatjiath Deng, a spokesman for Mr. Machar’s troops, said he was disappointed that the government had been slow to demilitarize the capital in accordance with the peace plan. He also acknowledged that some of his troops might have trouble adapting to the transition after two years of conflict.

“They are still holding the violence in their minds,” he said. “But we trained them. We told them we are here for peace.”

The soldiers, who do not know when they will receive salaries, have settled in a garrison on the edge of Juba and have built small homes out of wood, straw and mud. During the day, civilians from the nearby displaced persons camp are welcomed into the makeshift barracks. Women have volunteered as cooks, preparing huge vats of beans to distribute to the troops.

Nyakoang Doar, 54, who has been living in the United Nations camp since her husband and three of her six children were killed in December 2013, said the government had not stopped killing civilians in Mr. Machar’s ethnic group, the Nuer, until his soldiers had begun to arrive here this year.

“We women are really suffering,” she said, pointing a finger at Colonel Gatjiath as she waited for a batch of beans to boil. “You men are not doing so well.”

Since the formation of the transitional government, reports of violent skirmishes across the country have raised fears that South Sudan will not be able to maintain peace in the buildup to national elections in 2018, in which Mr. Machar could square off with Mr. Kiir once again for control of the party.

But technocrats like Mr. Lokule hope the country can put personal politics aside for now, and focus instead on a blueprint for development that will attract foreign investors. He said he was proud to be involved in the establishment of a new national tax revenue authority, which should come to fruition soon as part of the peace deal.

“When we split from Sudan, we came with the spirit to build a country,” he said. “We hope everything will be O.K., and this depends on keeping the peace.”

New York Times.

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