A letter from the world’s youngest nation

Raymond Mujuni

What you need to know:

  • To this end, they are one with their people; no one believes much will change in an election.

I hankered down South Sudan’s capital, Juba, this week aboard the flamboyant but empty airbus of Uganda airlines.

We were no more than a corridor compartment of travellers but the experience aboard was merry.

Folks were chatty and forgiving. It didn’t bother them that our takeoff was delayed for a ‘brief’ one hour on the tarmac with us inside the jet.

When we took to the skies, the ardent display of our poor urban planning stared up at us with sneer and the closer we got to Juba, the more scarce and scant buildings got.

The mighty Nile still snarled through shrubs and thickets dodging small settlements that are sparsely spread.

Of South Sudan’s 12 million supposed population, 2 million live outside the country after fleeing successive conflicts.

Donors are pushing the world’s youngest nation to hold its first election. They have set pretty tough ultimatums and are breathing down the neck of the transitional government to shape up or ship out. I am contributing to that effort in a small way. I have come to train their editors on how to report elections.

When you walk in the streets of Juba and talk to the people in bars, they say they are tired of the big men of South Sudan. They accuse them of driving very expensive cars in a poor country.

They accuse them of using guns to suppress all forms of citizen engagement but when you speak to the men in the big landcruisers, they don’t trust each other.

They say the society needs reconciliation and healing before they can embark on a tough process such as elections.

They don’t believe they have the money to hold elections but they equally don’t believe much will change with the election. To this end, they are one with their people; no one believes much will change in an election.

But South Sudan has promise. The country sits on 3.5 billion barrels of oil, the third largest in Sub-Saharan Africa after Nigeria and Angola – both large economies on the continent.

About 50% of the country’s land is prime agricultural land and yet just 4% of it is farmed – that 4% provides the livelihood of close to 80% of the population.

The money economy is still a long way from takeoff. There are men outside my hotel sitted on blue plastic chairs buying and selling dollars. Dollars are a favorite here, the South Sudan pound has been hammered badly, to carry it requires space and security – both in short supply.

Only 1% of the population is on the electricity grid which is rickety and shaky so most of those are also users of generators. Like my hotel. A five-star hotel nonetheless.

Many people ignore, one, the economic conditions required for democracy to succeed, two, the social cohesion adequate for principled disagreement to be resolved institutionally and, three, the core resolve of individuals to secure the best possible outcome for themselves – even if that means hostile, divisive and unimpressionable politics.

What is a South Sudan voter to do with an election? Choose which candidate over another? Both outcomes, whichever way they vote, will likely benefit the asset class in South Sudan.

The elite who drive landcruisers, own large tracts of land, control government and the assignment of resources are unlikely to be done away with – if they voter wishes so – by an election.

Which is why, a new, important, re-engagement with African countries, most of whom sit on the bottom of the economic pyramid, where distribution of economic gains has failed dismally is urgent and important. It is nolonger enough to lecture Africa on elections as a basis for democracy if the markets aren’t producing equity and redistribution of wealth.

Africa’s wealthy and ruling elite are stuck with that election question and equally stuck with dysfunctional societies.

Mujuni Raymond is a Ugandan Investigative Journalist