Dr. Lawrence Wongo: Oil, Secession and Corruption: the Achilles’ Heal of the Two Sudans

On July 9, 2012, the first anniversary of its independence, the prognosis for South Sudan is less than encouraging. Fighting erupted in April 2012 between Sudan and rebels in the Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile states; thousands of civilians were either killed or displaced. Many innocent people were forced to flee across the border into South Sudan and Ethiopia and now find themselves in refugee camps in areas that are food insecure due to persistent drought and poor harvests. Having to deal with displaced people in areas where residents already suffer causes additional hardships, social tensions and conflict potential. The situation is made worse by the remote and inaccessible places that make it logistically impossible to distribute aid supplies. The UN has started new emergency aid airlifts of food, medicines and other supplies to the refugee camps under difficult conditions.

Meanwhile, the Sudanese Government continues to effectively deny humanitarian and human rights organizations access to the conflict-affected states of Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile. Poor harvests, increased demand, skyrocketing prices and endemic poverty have all contributed to severe food insecurity that will affect an estimated 4.7 million people in 2012. The situation has been aggravated by fighting along the disputed border with Sudan and an upsurge in ethnic violence over cattle rustling in some states. Most dismaying to many is the border closure between the two countries that has disrupted normal trade and the supply of food commodities to South Sudan’s markets. Oil production, which previously supplied South Sudan 98% of its income, has remained shut since January 2012, amid accusation of oil theft by Khartoum. Attempts to work out a deal whereby landlocked South Sudan would pay Sudan oil transit fees to export crude oil via its pipelines, have so far failed. Without the resumption of oil exports any time soon, the threat of famine and malnutrition will continue to hang over South Sudan.

As South Sudanese celebrate the first anniversary of their independence, it is worth noting that, for the first time, President Salva Kiir has acknowledged that official corruption is the greatest enemy to the development of the country. Kiir took the unprecedented step of accusing 75 current and former high ranking government officials of stealing a staggering 4 billion dollars in state funds. In letters to the suspects, the President challenged them to return the money, which as he painfully explained, was either deposited in foreign bank accounts or was used to buy property, in cash, in South Sudan or abroad. Kiir warned that the credibility of the government, in the eyes of the citizens and international community, is at stake and may suffer irreparable damage as a result. The President’s revelation was not much of a shocker, since concerned citizens and the opposition have been complaining about rampant government corruption since 2005, but to no avail, despite his often repeated message of “zero tolerance to corruption.” It remains to be seen whether or not any of the suspected officials will comply with the President’s directive. What is clear is that South Sudan is now in the midst of an economic crisis and desperately in need of money. Last month, the World Bank warned of possible state collapse if South Sudan runs out of foreign exchange reserves, which it predicted could be depleted by July 2012. Corruption and a general lack of transparency have made the prospects of getting international loans a tricky business for the country.

The government has announced some austerity measures to address the financial crisis, but these do not even begin to address the present corruption problems or other economic issues that have been festering for years. Many people think that the government proposed solution is too little too late and the austerity measures are only going to hurt the ordinary citizens and have a destabilizing effect on the country. A fair and acceptable solution must include a cut in the salaries and benefits of senior government officials and the downsizing of the bureaucracy. In the final analysis, the citizens of South Sudan demand nothing less than a full investigation and prosecution of those implicated in corruption. Barring that, it hard to imagine what effect the austerity measures will have on the people of South Sudan.