South Sudan: extremely poor or ridiculously rich

Surrounded by a series of blue and red suitcases two young women check in for the flight to the South Sudanese capital Juba. Their suitcases are of an expensive brand and their clothing is pricey too. The luggage weighs much heavier than the free baggage allowance but unlike other passengers, they do not plead for exemption. They pay without batting an eyelid a considerable amount for the excess luggage.

“It is mainly presents for family. In Juba it is hard to get nice things unlike here in Nairobi where you can buy almost anything as long as you have a happy back account”, says one of the ladies. The two South Sudanese women study in Kenya where their fathers possess houses besides the homes they own in Juba. They clearly belong to the elite of South Sudan because upon arrival in Juba they do not throw themselves into the mayhem in order to obtain a stamp on their passports or retrieve their luggage. This is taken care of by a man in a dark suit and fashionable sunglasses who sees them through customs with a simple hand gesture, and whisks them away.

The South Sudanese elite consist of politicians, senior military officers and businessmen. They are all members of the ruling party the SPLM which was before the independence in 2011 a rebel movement.  The political power struggle between President Salva Kiir and his former vice president Riek Machar in December degenerated into an ethnic conflict as a result of which the SPLM and thus the elite disintegrated into two camps. Kiir is a Dinka and Machar is a Nuer, the two largest tribes in the country. More than a million people became displaced by the conflict.  800,000 fled to neighbouring countries and at least 10,000 people have been slain, but the number is probably much higher.

Machar went into the bush where he formed a rebel group of mainly Nuer fighters, and calls it the SPLM in opposition. Since then, the army consists predominantly of Dinka. “Corruption is the driver of the civil war,” concludes Abraham Awolich of the South Sudanese research institute SUDD. “The struggle is about power that provides access to wealth. South Sudan may be a developing country but it generates huge revenues from oil production. ”

At independence, the average per capita income in South Sudan was over 1350 Euros. This more than doubled Kenya’s 550 Euro per capita income, and was even four times as much as that of Uganda’s 350 Euro, in spite of which these two countries are significantly more developed than South Sudan. But because of the conflict and the embezzlement of huge sums of public money, the average income of a South Sudanese has become halved.

The leadership of South Sudan came into the hands of rebel leaders who fought twenty years against the Sudanese government in Khartoum.  North and South Sudan concluded a peace treaty in 2005, which culminated in the independence of the South.  Leaders of the world’s youngest state exchanged their uniforms for suits and ties, and shamelessly began to use their government positions to amass wealth and enrich themselves. Many former rebel leaders believe that they deserve to grab from the state coffers because they risked their lives for the freedom and independence of the country. They conveniently forgot the other two million South Sudanese who died during the war against the North.

RSS, Dinka's 2,2011


Dinka warriors

During the rebellion against Khartoum, Dinka and Nuer also once faced each other in a bloody battle. Machar did not agree with the way the now deceased John Garang (a Dinka) led the rebel movement. Machar together with his Nuer militia, split from the SPLM in 1991. However in 2002 he again joined the SPLM, and pleaded for forgiveness for the massacre that his militia had carried out in 1991 among the Dinka in the city of Bor.  “The disagreement of the nineties has never really been discussed between the two sides. Too little has been done to reconcile, and that has contributed to the escalation of the present dispute between Kiir and Machar,” says researcher Awolich.

Machar makes no secret of his ambition to become president. He blamed Kiir for corruption and lack of development last year, and announced his intention to vie for the presidency in 2015. That put both sides on edge.

“We ordinary people are killing each other because two men want to be the boss and share the oil wealth among their friends,” sighs a woman in the miserable camp for displaced people in Bentiu, the north of South Sudan. The nagging elite do not seem to care about the misery in which the population lives.  Cities like Malakal, Bentiu, Bor and Leer are partially destroyed by the fighting. Displaced people live in unhealthy conditions in the camps near bases of UNMISS, the UN mission in South Sudan, where they hope to find protection.

The filth of the UN camp in Bentiu

In Juba there is little evidence of the conflict. Early this year, shortly after the fierce fighting in the city, there were hardly any people or cars on the street. Development workers had left; affluent South Sudanese went to Kenya and Uganda. The Nuer population in Juba sought refuge at the base of UNMISS, near the airport.

Now the traffic jams are back. Cars of relief organizations and fuel guzzling Hummers of the local elite drive bumper to bumper on the few stretches of tarmac road in Juba. The common people have to make do with the suicidal motorbike taxis and few buses. Terraces of expensive hotels and restaurants are full. Only the neighbourhoods where mostly Nuer previously lived are partially deserted.

Despite a night curfew which supposedly began from eleven, the loud thumping disco music in De’Havana on Wednesday and Sunday night goes on until four in the morning. It keeps residents from their sleep. The people at the lounge bar drink and dance like there is no war in their country.  A neighbour who complained and threatened to report to the police was given a mere shrug of the shoulder by the manager. He pointed to the drinkers at the bar among who were some senior police officers. The complaining neighbour was advised to go home because the owner of De’Havana has close ties with influential and powerful members of the elite.

South Sudan has earned billions of dollars from the oil which accounts for 98 percent of its revenue. Despite additional billions of dollars of international development aid South Sudan is one of the least developed countries in the world, and was recently named as the weakest state in the world.  Health care is mostly provided by international medical organizations. There are hardly any investments in agriculture whereas large parts of the country are perfectly suited for it. Three quarters of the population is illiterate.

President Kiir admitted two years ago that government officials had misappropriated some four billion Euros from the state. Experts believe that it is only a tip of the iceberg. The excuse put forward is that the country is only three years old and struggling with teething problems. However, a human rights activist sneers cynically: “But not too young to kill and rape. And by the way, the building of the country began in 2005 when we made ​​peace with Khartoum. ”

Not only is there criticism over corrupt and wasteful leaders. The international community who pumped huge amounts of money into the country also has a case to answer. Donor countries should have sufficiently anticipated the reports of widespread corruption.

The South Sudanese Kon Kelei, who for years lived and studied in the Netherlands, now works for the government in Juba. He does not believe that development money was stolen. “The Netherlands has contributed much to the peace process with Khartoum. There is no tangible monument built for that but it is extremely important for our country. ”

Kon Kelei

Kelei returned to his native country four years ago. He believes that development funds are not discarded. “They are not invested properly. There is a lack of knowledge among people who run this country. Skills of people cannot be improved in a three-day workshop as has been the norm in recent years. Why are officials not sent to neighbouring countries for a few months of thorough practice-oriented training? ”

The question arises whether South Sudan became independent too early.  SPLM leader John Garang was a lifelong supporter of a united Sudan after political and democratic changes. He died shortly after the peace agreement with Khartoum, but Kiir his lieutenant who took over command of the SPLM, was in favour of secession.

“The population was ready for independence but not the SPLM. There were never structures set up that could be used as a government system after Independence. The SPLM also lacked a vision for this country. Everyone is and was simply too occupied with their own lives”, grumbles Isaac Kenyi who was an observer at the peace with Khartoum.

Now the gray-haired man is again an observer on behalf of the Catholic Church in the peace talks in neighbouring Ethiopia. He believes that both parties do not negotiate seriously. “They are bickering about irrelevant things and then they go to wine and dine together. International sanctions are needed. Confiscate the properties abroad of politicians and issue a travel ban for them. That might encourage some seriousness on their behalf.”

The countries in the region, united in IGAD, try to keep the peace process on track. But they are too weak to enforce a solution. The U.S., Britain, the European Union and Norway, who are committed to the Southern Sudanese independence, seem less driven to offer a helping hand to mediator Ethiopia.

Mud, everywhere mud

All developments in South Sudan seem to be put on hold due to the heavy rainy season. The sticky mud holds the country in a firm grip. Aid agencies struggle to reach IDPs and feed them. The positive side of the weather is that the fighting, notwithstanding the cease fire, is hindered as well.

On dry days, when the sun goes down, the roof top of the James Hotel in Juba is filling up with people.  It is the latest, popular entertainment venue where local elites and international aid workers enjoy a drink and a snack. It overlooks a city barely lit because electricity is rare, and only the wealthy have power generators. And if you look very closely, you can see glowing in the UNMISS camp little lights. Those are the fires on which the displaced people are cooking their evening meal.

Ilona Eveleens
I have been since 1993 in Africa, first in South Africa and since 1996 based in Kenya. My work as an Africa correspondent for amongst others the Dutch daily Trouw, the German newspaper TAZ, several radio stations and magazines has brought me from the east to the west and from the south to the north of the continent. All aspects of Africa, be it politics, economics, culture or ecology has my interest. I have written a book on Kenya, which is a guide to get to know the country. Currently I also work as a trainer of mainly young African colleagues who want to do the best job in the world.

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