We commemorate, we don’t celebrate. Those were the words of a South Sudanese citizen to a friend, who had sent a congratulatory message on the occasion of the tenth independence anniversary, marked this week, without the usual fanfare.
Those words capture the sense of despondency and despair that many South Sudanese feel, a decade after the nation was carved out of what was once the biggest country in Africa. The government said it would mark the day only symbolically because of limitations imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Perhaps that is as it should be and President Salva Kiir and his administration need to reflect deeply on the crisis facing the country. A decade after independence, South Sudan remains under the grip of conflict and partisan politics as the population bleeds.
The World Bank projects that without a firm commitment to policy reforms, the double economic and health crisis, exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, could see the fragile economic gains of recent years washed away.
The country faces widespread household poverty and food insecurity. Service delivery is all but gone and financial management remains chaotic. Inflation is galloping because of printing money to bridge the budget deficit, beyond the economic resources to support such action. Displacement of people from the land has seen food production shrink sharply while inflation means that many citizens cannot afford whatever reaches the market.
In a such a situation, the average man needs encouragement, if the country is to avoid slipping back into total chaos. In its latest assessment of the country, the World Bank recommended that the government support development of the agriculture sector and address the underlying causes of conflict. The Bank also recommended boosting service delivery.
Although that might appear a tall order, it is actually doable if the will were there. Rebounding oil prices as the global economy opens up and the restoration of more wells to production mean that the country’s inflows will improve significantly. But, without better budgeting and allocation of resources to the productive sector, the money from oil will remain the curse it has always been, snuffing out any incentive for sound economic management.
President Kiir needs to take the tenuous peace from simply holding to creating the conditions that allow people to go back to their economic activities. The people of South Sudan are not asking for much. All they want is the political factions to stick to their end of the bargain so that individuals can apply their talent to lift themselves out of poverty.
With a ratio of one person for every 10 square kilometres of land, more livestock than the human population, South Sudan is sitting on a lot of potential. All it needs is an economic environment that attracts both domestic and foreign investment to exploit natural resources, create employment and in the process boost export and tax revenues.
South Sudan accounts for the largest refugee population in the region. Uganda alone hosts more than a million refugees from the nation. Many more are internally displaced. All that is productive energy that is locked out of the economy. Any signal that everybody can return to safety at home will go a long way in breaking the cycle of violence.