Crisis looms as Sudan economy falters

Thousands of refugees arriving in Upper Nile and Unity State are encountering overflowing camps  (Alfons Rodriguez)

Thousands of refugees arriving in Upper Nile and Unity State are encountering overflowing camps (Alfons Rodriguez)

I was sitting in a market in Agok, a small border town in Warrap State, while a group of young men avidly hunched over a battered Sony portable radio transistor to catch the latest news about the first anniversary independence celebrations on July 9. 

As the countdown reached fever pitch, the word on the street was that celebrities and dozens of other South Sudanese living abroad would be coming home to attend the much-anticipated celebrations, among them the international supermodel Alek Wek and Chicago Bulls basketball player Luol Deng, as well as  Hollywood actor George Clooney.

The town of Agok is about 800km away from Juba, the capital of South Sudan and about 30km south of Abyei, the disputed oil-rich central region claimed by South Sudan but under control of the northern Sudanese government in Khartoum.

The republic of South Sudan officially declared its independence from Sudan on July 9 2011, following decades of conflict with the Muslim north. Its independence was the residue of the comprehensive peace agreement signed in 2005 between the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement and the government of Sudan to end the second Sudanese civil war that claimed millions of lives.   

Alor Bilek’s (23) nostrils flared with indignation as he narrated how he had been separated from his parents when he was five, only to return last year after more than a decade of living in refugee camps in East Africa.

“Of course I feel bitter about what happened in Sudan. My childhood was spent in the frontlines fighting in the war as a child soldier rather than being in school.
There is no benefit to war, only destruction of property and loss of life. I saw my parents only last year after spending almost 20 years fighting in the war and living in refugee camps.

“We have deep emotional scars. Our Arab brothers wanted to impose sharia law throughout Sudan and discriminated against us because we resisted their religion. I am looking forward to the independence celebrations. It is also a monument to our former leader, John Garang [killed in an aeroplane crash in August 2005]. We have many reasons to celebrate.”

Modest and reserved
Angok Piot, who owns a cellphone shop in the Agok market, was initially modest and reserved when the Mail & Guardian requested an interview with him, but he later became animated and gestured with his arms when recounting the cruelty and ruthlessness of Khartoum.

“The separation has brought us peace and we must now concentrate on rebuilding our country and our lives. We support our leadership and President Salva Kiir Mayardit to push for the separation from the north. [Omar] al-Bashir is a criminal, but God will judge him and not us. They [Arabs] mistreated us. In Khartoum we lived like slaves and maids,” said Piot.

Wek, the supermodel, recently told a local magazine that the country faced many challenges in rebuilding just about everything destroyed in the war, including homes, schools, bridges, banks and other major infrastructure.

She said that reconciliation was key to moving out of these ruins. “Independence was long overdue. The civil war has had a lot of bloodshed and has uprooted many families. Of course there are challenges, as any new country would face, but it is a start to rebuild the community. I would love to do whatever I can to be a part of that.”

Yak Aguer, a student, said the resolution of the conflict would go a long way towards assisting the country to rebuild itself. “The war must come to an end. We want roads, telecommunications, banks, proper healthcare and, above all, security,” Aguer said.

Crippling economic crisis
Ahead of its first year of independence, South Sudan faces a crippling economic crisis. Food and fuel prices have increased exponentially. The country’s pound has been in free fall as the Bank of Sudan cut its supply of dollars.

The economic crisis took a dramatic turn for the worse after the Mayardit government decided to shut down oil production in January after talks on fees for the export of oil through Sudan broke down.

A few weeks after closing the oil taps, the South Sudan president reportedly held a meeting with Marcelo Giguale, the World Bank’s director of economic policy and poverty reduction programmes for Africa.

According to local reports, Giguale told Mayardit that the World Bank had never witnessed a situation as dramatic as the one South Sudan was in. He said the country’s ­economy faced collapse, a massive depreciation of the currency, an exponential rise in inflation and a depletion of foreign reserves.

Government and army officials who spoke to the M&G said the economic situation might force South Sudan to go the route of other African countries in chasing billions of dollars in aid from Bretton Woods institutions, an option called “billions tropism” by Albert Teveodjré, an African intellectual and internationally acclaimed diplomat from Benin. 

As the six-month rainy season began in July, tens of thousands of refugees fleeing fighting in Sudan were facing a full-blown humanitarian crisis in the South Sudan’s Upper Nile and Unitary State. The heavy rains usually make things worse in these areas, causing floods and the outbreak of waterborne diseases.

Overflowing camps
According to Médecins Sans Frontières, refugees arriving in Upper Nile and Unity State are encountering overflowing camps in which basic life-sustaining supplies and services are unavailable.

Access to water is extremely limited, malnutrition rates are at emergency levels and refugees are dying daily from a lack of water and adequate medical care, as well as exhaustion, hunger and dehydration from long journeys on foot with little or nothing to eat or drink. Currently, the two states are hosting more than 150 000 refugees from Sudan.

The independence celebrations also come amid the failure of African Union-mediated border talks between Sudan and South Sudan over the 1800km border.

Khartoum accuses South Sudan of making new land claims, most importantly to the Heglig oil field that contains most of Sudan’s known oil reserves and is vital to its battered economy. Heglig has been controlled militarily by Khartoum for many years, especially since oil was discovered in the area in the late 1970s.

Khartoum claims the oil field belongs to Sudan, citing a 2009 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague on Abyei, another disputed area.

However, Juba contests this claim, citing a map it said was introduced by Khartoum itself in the mid-1940s and pointing to the ethnicity of the local population.

Valley of humiliation
The United Nations Security Council has since threatened to impose sanctions on Sudan and South Sudan if the two countries fail to halt the violence at their common border and return to the negotiating table to resolve the border dispute.

Back in Juba, 10 days after taking a trip down the “valley of humiliation” suffered by the South Sudanese people across the plains and swamps of the country, I paid a visit to the local football stadium to watch street urchins kick a ball.

Football fever has hit South Sudan following the country’s first friendly with Kenya in Juba.

In May this year, South Sudan became the 209th member of Fifa, football’s governing body. The world’s newest team will now be eligible to play in the qualifiers for the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations and the 2018 Fifa World Cup. 

The lads, dressed in knock-off T-shirts of AC Milan striker Robinho, told the M&G they could not wait to watch their captain, Khamis Liyano, raise the flag of South Sudan at their first official game and show Africa and the world what they are capable of. It is the kind of optimism you encounter throughout South Sudan despite the hard realities.

Charles Molele was in Sudan as a guest of Médecins Sans Frontières

Charles Molele

Charles Molele

Charles Molele is a senior politics reporter at the Mail & Guardian. Charles joined the paper in 2011. He has covered general news, court and politics for the past 19 years, and also worked as a senior reporter for the Saturday Star, Sunday World, ThisDay, Sunday Times and is former politics editor of the New Age. Charles's other career highlights include covering Kenya's violent general elections (2007/08), Zimbabwe’s sham general elections (2008), Mozambique's food riots (2010) and the historic re-election of US President Barack Obama (2012). Read more from Charles Molele

Client Media Releases

Fempreneurs shine during EWP gala event
Might as well face it