A few months after South Sudan declared independence, an SPLA general turned up in Kampala to look at properties. He approached the owner of a small hotel who said he wasn’t keen on selling. “How much would you ask for if you were to sell?” the general asked persistently.
The hotelier dropped a seven-figure dollar number that was, as they say, aspirational. “I will take it,” the general told the stunned hotelier, adding that he preferred to pay the money there and then, in cash. Since the general had neither experience nor interest in actually running the damn place, the hotelier would be retained on contract to manage the hotel.
That story, while undoubtedly embellished in bits by Kampala’s gossip industry, is a true story. There are dozens of other stories that, through different faces and anecdotes, speak to the profligacy of a certain calibre of South Sudanese “investors”.
The stories speak to something deeper as well; the dysfunction in South Sudan that has now brought Africa’s youngest country to a civil war that threatens to destroy the centre and has already sucked in Uganda and other countries in the region.
The only surprising thing about the current crisis in South Sudan is that many people have been surprised by it. No one expected South Sudan to transform into a proper nation state overnight. It had been at war for three decades and such was the poor state of the infrastructure that a country about two-and-a-half times the size of Uganda only had 100 kilometres of tarmac roads at independence.
Yet most of the causes of the current crisis can be found in the present poor leadership, not in the legacy of war and deprivation. Few countries can claim to have enjoyed the levels of goodwill that South Sudan inherited when it became independent; even fewer have destroyed it as quickly. It is as if the leaders of South Sudan looked around them and decided to borrow all the worst habits of their neighbours – corruption, nepotism, incompetence, autocracy, tribalism and disregard for the rule of law.
Just a year after declaring independence, President Salva Kiir was writing to 75 government officials asking them to return $4 billion that they were accused of stealing. To put that in perspective, each of the officials had stolen roughly more than fifty million dollars, or $150,000 per day!
The problem, insiders say, was not that the officials had stolen; it was that they had stolen too much. Within days some of them had handed back some $60 million.
As we have seen in Uganda, people who take arms to fight for power tend to develop large appetites and take to primitive accumulation of wealth, driven by a primal instinct to make up for lost time.
Countries like Uganda and DR Congo survive such plunder for decades because the countryside is fertile enough to allow peasants to survive in spite of the state. However, South Sudan relies on oil for 98 per cent of its revenues; it was born with the Dutch disease.
Control of the state in South Sudan guarantees access to oil wealth. The country can choose a peaceful route through a power-sharing broad-based government, or the violent militancy of strongman rule.
The international community is heavily invested in South Sudan to allow the latter option. It has to continue to baby-sit the country through this crisis and long beyond the inevitable recourse to the former option. So much for independence! Col. John Garang was right, after all.
The coloniser is gone. The people of South Sudan must now emancipate themselves from a local ruling elite. They must be saved from themselves.