Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Reflections on South Sudan: One Year After Independence

On July 9, 2012 South Sudan, the world's newest country, celebrated its first birthday. This past March I traveled to Juba, South Sudan and on the occasion of the first anniversary of the country's independence, Ben encouraged me to write about my experience and my thoughts on the country as it stands today.

The Deep End of the Pool
After nearly 24 hours'  travel, I stepped down the stairs and onto the tarmac at Juba Airport. It is March but the midday temp was already surpassing 90 degrees and the natural musk of  airplane food and recycled air was compounded by sweat. I followed the crowd into a sparse room split in two by a wooden counter. To my left was the immigration control window, which looked shabbier than the bullet-proof check-out counters that are becoming harder to find in the bodegas of Northwest DC. There was a vague system of lines, but mostly a mass of people, some wearing UN badges, some wearing suits; mostly, it was a seething mob hot and crowded into a third of a larger room after being trapped hot and crowded in the plane from Addis Ababa to Juba. This was my introduction to Africa. I'd never been to the continent before, but suffice to say I was starting in the deep end of the pool.

After arguing, some shoving, and handing over the USD 100 entrance fee--cash only from bills printed after 2006, as I learned from the discourteous immigration officer--I went to customs and had my bags searched and then okay-ed by writing "OK" in the bag with white chalk. None of the customs "officers" wore uniforms and it was difficult to see or perceive the official state. 

On the way to the hotel I experienced about 50% of the paved roads that exist in Africa's newest capital city. My hotel, the Nile Beach Resort, was behind the soccer stadium, down about a half mile of dirt roads. Later, I learned that my hotel was probably the fourth best hotel in Juba. You see, my room had running water (though not hot water), an A/C, a TV that got two channels (one channel would change based on the whims of the individual working in the registration hut), and if I stood close to the registration hut I could get a wifi signal. Belying its name, the resort has no beach whatsoever.

This was March 2012, two month after the government of South Sudan had refused to pay the extortionist rates Sudan wanted to charge to transit the South's oil through Sudan's pipelines to the coast. The South Sudanese decided the best bet was to just shut the oil off. But this was just before the violence in Heglig along the border. I was in Juba for a conference, an opportunity for the South Sudanese government to talk about all the investment opportunities in the country. And there were many. The country needs paved roads, clean water, agriculture, industry; you name it, Africa's newest state needs it.

The Afterglow of Independence
At the conference, there was a former Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) soldier who'd started a construction business based almost entirely on hard labor. His workers had literally dug the ditches and helped plain many of the dirt roads around the city. He joined the SPLA when he was 12 years old and now I figured him to be in his late 20s. Here was a man whose life knew more of war than of peace. Yet, to speak to him, you couldn't help but be excited. On the first day of the conference he came wearing the South Sudan flag like a cape and a beaming smile; this was a man who had fought for the freedom and independence of this country and the excitement of that victory still shown upon his face. When he took the stage he spoke in broken, nearly unintelligible English, but the pride, the care, the sheer commitment he had to his country was evident immediately. He encouraged many of the assembled potential investors to believe in South Sudan. He thanked the international community for its support. Juba is one place in the developing world where being a Westerner isn't a liability and the gentleman's energy was infectious. As he left the stage, all those assembled clapped and cheered. After a dizzying arrival, this man appealed to the optimist in me that South Sudan was a country full of opportunity, freed from the burden of state neglect, her freedom fighters were now rulers, and if they were anything like this man surely the country had a positive future, with or without the oil on.

Another speaker in the conference was a South African who had been sent by SAB Miller to open the South Sudan Brewery. Literally the first factory in South Sudan was a brewery (and having enjoyed a not insignificant quantity of their product while in Juba, I would say it beats PBR). The brewery gave way to general bottling of soda and filtered bottled water.  This brewery, the first industry, which on the surface strikes as a specious use of priorities was turning a healthy profit, but as just importantly it was providing an incredibly large quantity of free filtered water at various water stations around the city. I felt like I was hearing from the brewery a lecture on what corporate social responsibility is supposed to be: make a product, make money on that product, but use the byproduct of that profit to help a community that desperately needs it. The head of the brewery was a jovial man, excited to be in Juba (I would come to find this was a rather uncommon sentiment), excited about the work he did, and the ability of his company to give back. Again the optimism swelled within me. This was an investment that had paid off and was paying dividends to the community. But this was not my final impression of South Sudan and its prospects.

Unfortunately Out of the Country
If the conference began on a hopeful tone, it did not end so.  The agenda called for an impressive list of government ministers from all conceivable departments of the South Sudanese government. The goal was to put decision-makers in the room with investors, but time and time again we heard that "Minister so-and-so is unfortunately out of the country." For a young nation, it seemed curious that so many of it's high government officials would be out of the country. What became clear was "out of the country" more precisely implied "in Nairobi at his villa."

It became an open joke that many of the decision-makers, former generals in the SPLA, many whom had long toiled at war and had deep connections with Western diplomats, had gained independence for their country, fleeced what they could from the international development community and retreated to the modernity and solemnity of Nairobi rather than confront the stark poverty of their own country.  Imagine if the founding fathers of the United States, fatigued by war, prideful of their victory, had then largely retreated to estates in France, our ally and benefactor rather than stay to govern the country. Where would we be as a nation? South Sudan finds itself nearly bankrupt, playing games of brinkmanship with Sudan over oil and land, as a populace enjoys new found independence without progress. The fleecing of international aid is so pervasive that President Salva Kiir has actually demanded government officials return what is calculated to be $4 billion dollars in pilfered funds to help keep the country afloat as oil negotiations drag on between South Sudan and its erstwhile former masters in Khartoum.

Ground Truth
"Oh, the country will be bankrupt by September," said a friend of mine who'd spent the past year in Juba. In 2011, revenue from oil accounted for 98.1% of all government revenue collected by Juba. And the spigot has been off since January. But it gets worse than that. My friend continued, "And even if they turn the oil on, right now, today, it'll be six months before they receive payment." This was back in March and the oil is still off and doesn't look to be turned on anytime soon. The story I heard from my friend and many of his colleagues was one I saw played out at the conference.  The leaders in government had won the war and seemed quite disinterested in doing much more than that. Juba is the epicenter of more NGOs and aid groups than any other place in the world right now. The UN presence is huge, as is the U.S. presence.  The aid workers live in compounds, gilded prisons, with more stringent obvious security than I saw to get into the White House. I never felt unsafe in Juba. Ever. But no U.S. government employee could travel in Juba at night except by armored car. Those shiny, white Toyota Land Cruiser arrived in convoys after meals outside the compound like a mobster's taxi service.

I had a hard time reconciling the pessimism felt by the aid workers I talked with to the optimism felt by the man wearing the South Sudanese flag. I couldn't wrap my head around the notion that government leaders would leave so quickly after achieving independence, while this South African man opened a brewery and maintained a thriving business. There was opportunity here, good will, and people ready to do something for their new country, but the leaders were asleep at the wheel.

A Dangerous Game
Alan Boswell does a great job breaking down the massive lobbying effort by NGOs, celebrities, congressmen, and others that led to the sustained effort to have an indepedent South Sudan.  The effort was bi-partisan; it connected liberals with evangelicals; it was supported by the UN; and the final transition to independence was peaceful.  South Sudan's independence was not easy but its oil wealth (even if it can't get it out) and the support of the international community give it substantial advantages not enjoyed by other nascent states. But with so much support comes corruption. And, as patrons of South Sudan high-fived each other, the SPLA commanders picked the pocket of their own nation to enrich themselves.

It was like the objective of independence blinded the international community to the corruption. So what happens now?  Don't believe the hype about an oil pipeline to Mombasa, that's a dream and the initially suggested timeline of 18 months is laughable to anyone who knows anything about the extractive industry--worse, it still hasn't gotten started. For now, it looks like Juba will go bankrupt, but maybe so does Khartoum. Right now, I think the South Sudanese government is playing a dangerous game with Sudan and with the international community.  I think President Kiir and the country's leaders feel like they've been propped up and pushed along by the international community for this long.  Why would that change, especially with Khartoum falling off more people's Christmas card list every day? But that's a big if and in the end those government leaders can retreat Nairobi. It's the populace, long neglected by Khartoum, that will now suffer the brinkmanship its leaders have engaged in.

When I had arrived at Juba airport, I had missed it.  My friend told me about the old Russion MiG jet, crashed off to the side of the runway, now obscured by the long grass that had begun to overtake it. When I walked back out onto the tarmac to board the plane home I made a point to look.  And there it was rusting in the sun, a souvenir left behind by Khartoum, inoperable, in shambles. No one has bothered to move it, the battle over, the debris remains unattended.

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