One year after independence, morale is still high in South Sudan. But initial hopes for rapid progress towards development, establishment of human rights and economic prosperity have faded. "It is as if the war never stopped", sighs pastoral worker John Deng in Bentiu.
Bentiu lies in the centre of South Sudan’s oil region, but the town still looks like a dirty hamlet with no sign of progress visible. John has to look for fuel on the black market; basic foodstuffs are very expensive or unavailable because of the border closure with Sudan. "There is a shortage of everything, like during the war days", he laments.
"What we fought for"
President Salva Kiir recently sent a letter to 75 ministers and officials about the endemic corruption plaguing the country. He ended it with these words: "we fought for freedom, justice, and equality. Many of our friends died to achieve these objectives. Yet, once we got to power, we forgot what we fought for and began to enrich ourselves at the expense of our people". In the letter, he says amnesty will be granted to those who return stolen money, either wholly or completely, to a special bank account in Kenya.
Not much has improved for the majority of the population since the Sudanese People´s Liberation Army (SPLA) took power after the peace deal of 2005. According to Kiir’s letter, since then, a staggering "4 billion dollars are unaccounted for, simply put, stolen by current and former officials, as well as corrupt individuals with close ties to government officials". Four billion dollars is twice the annual government budget.
The scale of the problem is partly due to the lack of a tradition of accountability within the SPLA according to Minister of Higher Education, Peter Adwok Nyaba. "It all has to do with our lack of structures during the liberation war. We were not prepared for ruling the country, we lack capacity and vision," he says. I asked every official I interviewed during my recent stay in South Sudan whether he or she received the letter. Only one minister admitted it.
Corruption in South Sudan is not a subtle affair. Rather than intelligently skimming some money off the top of a large foreign aid grant or fiddling the oil revenues, hands are dipped directly in the till. This lack of sophistication means it’s been known for a long time who the worst culprits are. The US administration gave the South Sudanese president a list of suspects more than a year ago and names also circulate on the internet.
Time to change
"The honeymoon is over", says Pauline, who works at the ministry charged with setting up the civil service in the rural areas. "Everybody was used to stealing and nobody worked properly. SPLA soldiers turned civil servants think the government owes them something, they don´t behave as servants of the people. We need a better work ethos. Now with the austerity, we will be forced to change. It is a blessing in disguise".
The blessing she refers to is the shutting down of the oil pumps in February. In a commercial dispute with the government in Khartoum over transit costs for South Sudan’s oil to Port Sudan, the government in Juba turned off the taps, despite it being dependent on oil for 98 percent of its income. On independence South Sudan inherited 75 percent of the oil fields, but the necessary facilities such as pipelines and refineries are mainly in Sudan.
Lean times lie ahead. The government still operates in guerrilla mode and is convinced it can survive till the end of the year on its tiny remaining income. But South Sudan produces almost nothing; nearly everything has to be imported. There’s an unspoken assumption that foreign donors will provide food aid as they did during the war years. "There is hardly any formal economy, so there is not very much to collapse", says a private banker in Juba.
It has not been a happy first year of independence. The relationship with Sudan is extremely hostile with serious conflicts over oil and disputed borders. Thousands have died as a result of intertribal violence in Jonglei province, with fighting only ceasing recently following a successful disarmament operation. And on top of all that, civilians cannot trust their own leaders either. According to a human rights report by the US administration, SPLA soldiers still widely beat and detain people without charge and journalists complain about a lack of press freedom. `We are just muddling through`, according to one minister.