Juba now allowed to play barefoot in the big league

Saturday March 5 2016


By Charles Onyango-Obbo

South Sudan was admitted into the East African Community last Wednesday, at a summit of the region’s chiefs in Arusha.

It was an admission that was made possible because the bar was lowered for it. When Rwanda and Burundi were formally admitted in 2007, they were made to sweat for it. They had to pass a series of business and financial laws to meet the EAC requirement of members having a free market economy of some sort.

South Sudan, on the other hand, applied to join shortly after its Independence from Sudan (Khartoum) in 2011, when there was a lot of hope about its future. It has now been admitted at a time when the civil war that erupted in December 2013 has turned what was a promising country into a basket case.

The thinking in South Sudan’s case thus seems to be that EAC membership will civilise its politics and bring peace.

The Burundi case — it joined when it was at peace and has now relapsed into civil war — suggests that EAC membership cannot immunise a country against madness.

Kenya too had its post-election violence in 2008 long after the revival of the EAC, and after last month’s chaotic election in Uganda, the country at one point came perilously close to political disaster.

So where is the benefit of EAC membership? The war in South Sudan may actually not be all bad for Kenya and Uganda, who were trading heavily with it before it blew up again.

When and if South Sudan ever begins reconstruction, Kenyan and Ugandan companies will be the ones that get the big contracts.

Kenyan companies, especially banks that were trading in South Sudan before the second war, will now find it easier to repatriate their fortunes that are trapped in Juba and other places. Because South Sudan law made it very hard for foreign companies to send their money back home, Kenyan banks had millions of dollars held up there.

A favourite story in Nairobi business circles immediately after the outbreak of the December 2013 violence, and the evaporation of the South Sudan economy, was that one day President Salva Kiir’s men arrived with trucks and sacks at Kenyan banks to carry away the money they had stacked in their vaults.

The money kept Juba going for some months. In turn, Kenya partly leveraged it to push the South Sudan belligerents towards a political settlement. It is the kind of story that, even if not accurate, still rings true.

More importantly, the EAC seems to have reached a point where, barring the miraculous formation of a political federation or a single currency tomorrow, there is nothing happening politically and at regime levels.

The most interesting things are taking place with businesses and the private sector: RwandAir picking up the pieces on flight routes after the collapse of Air Uganda, and Safaricom creating cross-border payments through its M-Pesa mobile phone payment system.

South Sudan has joined the party at a time when all its fledgling businesses have been wrecked. The result is that it has come barefoot to play in the Premier League.

If there are high expectations that the EAC will put ugali on South Sudanese tables, and it doesn’t happen quickly, the community could face its first backlash from a member state. The fragility of South Sudan’s entry should be acknowledged if it is to be managed.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is editor of Mail & Guardian Africa. E-mail: [email protected] [email protected]