Common Sense Notes: Why South Sudan is Poor - Part 1
By Atem Yaak Atem - March 29, 2017
Academics have written books on topics such as why nations fail or peace fail. These scholarly works try to delve into roots causes by their authors going into histories of specific areas while others examine case studies of recent times and dealing with particular countries or regions of the world, for instance. Such findings naturally come out with what they say are the main causes. Those researchers also give recommendations on what could be done to right the situation under reviews. Opinions on their conclusions are not, as expected, universally endorsed. And that is not our concern here.
This tantalising title does not claim to belong, by approach, to those works distilled from careful research. The concern of this article and those which will follow is to look at our society, its current problems and how they can be tackled successfully, in the long run, from a common sense perspective. I lay no claim to being an expert or an authority in any field that I will touch on. The only knowledge I may claim is the experience of having lived and known and sometimes worked with some of the shakers and movers of our society on which I have written about for more than decades. (The only outstanding South Sudanese leaders I had not been able to interview were Clement Mboro and Abel Alier).
Two weeks ago, I attended a funeral service for a member from my county who died late last year. One of the speakers on the occasion was a bishop who had just come from South Sudan. Frankly, I am not one of the fans of men and women of collar- in the diaspora or at home- who spend eternity preaching. But this clergyman was different: very brief and to the point. His message of hope in which he touched on the hereafter as well as the temporal. The latter attracted my attention.
The man of cloth told the gathering that people should not lose hope even everything seems to be going wrong in our ancestral home. “People must hope and work towards making things better”, adding that following the disastrous split within the SPLM/A in 1991- in which many communities in the former Jonglei Province suffered greatly- many people lost hope.
However, the bishop recalled that the fact that some people kept hope alive that things would turn around and be better, was able to keep despair at bay. And indeed, good times followed despite the enormous suffering and loss in lives of loved ones, he remembered. Among the good things that came to the patient people, were reconciliation and independence in 2011. “And with ayäng (flag) flying high, we should hope that things will be better again”, he said. End of message.
We are in the news for the wrong reasons
Our country is one of the five nations- four of them in Africa and one in them, Yemen, in the Middle East- facing famine in addition to armed conflicts. With a total of 20 million people in those countries in need of food assistance, the crisis has become the concern of the international community. The UN has been appealing for the world, meaning the rich countries, to help.
In a recent discussion in the media, questions have been asked why famine and poverty seem to be confined to South (southern hemisphere); about the effectiveness of the institutions of governance in that part of the world; that some of the problems in some countries are human factor behind them.
True, in Nigeria, Central African Republic, Somalia and South Sudan, both war and natural catastrophe- drought- are to blame. For our country, this is not the first time that the land has been hit by a combination of war and natural calamity: Bahr el Ghazal region suffered drought that created famine in 1998. And war, especially the Murahleen raiders worsened the situation.
Search for scapegoats
There is no doubt that this famine and even the civil war will one day come to an end. But the big question will be: will the return of peace and stability usher in prosperity? Some people will say yes. However, if one looks back beyond December 15-16, 2013, the night the current civil conflict broke out, one would be liar to say that we were not a poor country. Again, during the relative peace period, 1972-1983, the region that is South Sudan today, was stable but not in the least a society of well-fed people; we have always been dirt poor people, peace or war. And the answer we always gave for our misery was the selfish system of rule in Khartoum that deliberately refused to develop South which has always been known to be very rich in natural resources- fertile land, abundant rainfall, many rivers and streams teeming with fish, forestry, livestock, name it.
After independence, the blame game shifted to ourselves. The power elite this time had no convincing reason to accuse Khartoum for our present problems. To the opposition, official, armed or otherwise, the culprit is the government; for its part, the government blames the armed opposition for “starting” the war in the first place that has created displacement of people, hunger as people cannot cultivate their farms.
Here in this world created by the 43rd American president, George W. Bush in which there exist only we versus they, we miss the real actor that is responsible for the poverty in our society. The culprits we refuse to name or do not know who they are, in my humble opinion, are the power elite. In plain words, I and you- unless you an ordinary pastoralist and farmer scraping a living in our rural areas- are the real culprits.
Whether you are a supporter of the government of the day or a member of the opposition in any form or not in any way attached to the two main protagonists- the government and opposition- there is no way one can claim to have no role and responsibility in whatever was or is happening and will happen in the near future.
Let me put it this way: our shared attitude towards many things accounts for our successes and failures. Our attitudes are at the root of our endemic poverty. And collectively, each and every member of the power elite whether they are politicians, civil servants, businesspeople, journalists, or members of the organised force, cannot step aside and declare they are innocent. There is no way one can escape responsibility over what goes wrong in one society when as the same time one is proud, for example, of belonging to the generation that finally brought about our country’s independence.
In the next pieces I will elaborate on elite’s attitude towards rural areas versus urban centres; concept of work and “dignified” jobs versus manual work.
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