The symbols of South Sudan’s key challenges boom overhead every 15 minutes, briefly denying Juba residents the chance of sensible conversation, making paperwork on desks flutter and shake and dust rise on the streets.
They are aircraft, commercial flights carrying businessmen and aid workers, and United Nations transport craft ferrying food and people to staunch the needs of more than a million made homeless and thousands killed since renewed internal conflict erupted in December 2013.
Residents of Juba have become used to the noise but recognise that the aerial traffic encapsulates the dilemma facing the world’s newest nation as it tries to develop and tap its undoubted potential.
“Peace. For South Sudan to really begin to grow, we need peace more than anything else,” says Caesar Riko, the policy and advocacy advisor of South Sudan Chamber of Commerce.
“We can grow, even in conflict, but not the way we could if there was peace.” The world’s newest nation was born in July 2011 in jubilation after almost 30 years of war with the Khartoum government in the North but descended into internal conflict in December 2011 when President Salva Kiir accused his deputy, Riek Machar, of plotting to overthrow him.
That simmering conflict shut down South Sudan’s key oil fields in the North of the country and has highlighted in cruel focus the need for the country to diversify away from 98% dependence on petroleum for the revenue with which to develop a country of around 12 million people.
The challenges are enormous: a country the size of France with a population of which barely half is literate; massive undeveloped tracts of land where subsistence farming is the income for half of the nation.
The country has about 7,000 km of roads in total, of which only 200 are paved; compare that to Kenya, with 160,000 km of paved roads and nearly 12,000 of modern tarmac, or Afghanistan – 42,150 and 12,350.
“The needs are enormous, but so is the potential,” says TradeMark South Sudan Country Director Eugene Torrero. “We have an ambitious programme developed with our partners here which will produce results and ready the country for the East African Community (EAC) membership.”
A key area of modernisation is to upgrade the systems, personnel and performance of the Nimule border crossing with Uganda, the lifeline through which nearly all of South Sudan’s
needs arrive by road, much of it from Mombasa, a distant 1,600 km and between three and 15 days away.
A dust storm in summer months and quagmire during the rainy seasons, the Nimule crossing is a key focus of TMEA-backed programmes to speed the flow of traffic and cut costs to consumers, as well as raise revenue from customs and institute a system of standards to protect consumers.
“We are making a lot of improvements over the last few years,” says Colonel Wilson Ramba, Chief Customs officer at Nimule. “Revenue has gone up from 28 million SSP in January 2014 to 52 million this year ($`1.00 = 5.69 SSP).
The increase, borne out every month for more than a year, is due to improvements in customs procedures, training for personnel and better layout of the once-chaotic systems that Nimule presented for daily traffic of around 200 vehicles a day. Clearance times have fallen from five days or more to around one day, a key factor in reducing the costs for consumers, exporters and importers. Every day a truck is on the road costs around $400 at least.
The launch of a computerized declaration system linking Nimule with the Uganda Revenue Authority (URA) is imminent and this will further streamline the process pending plans to build a One Stop Border Post (OSBP) along the lines of similar stations TMEA is helping to build in the EAC.
Collecting more revenue is a key to the diversification of the South Sudanese economy away from oil. “We are committed to gathering more revenue for development, and we are succeeding,” says Ramba.
Building a system of standards is also key to streamlining trade and is something TMEA is involved with across the EAC to protect consumers and make commerce easier by harmonizing the qualities of key goods.
“Unfortunately South Sudan has become a dumping ground whenever goods near expiry date or cannot be sold easily elsewhere,” says Jacob Matiop, head of the National Bureau of Standards (NBS) at Nimule.
“In the past you could sell almost anything here, but we are not going to let this happen. We are inspecting goods, protecting consumers, and saying NO to things that are expired be they drugs or food or whatever. It’s a key part of modernisation,” he says.
Both Customs and NBS staff are receiving technical assistance from TMEA programmes as well as English language training in which around 200 officers will get a solid grounding in the lingua franca of the EAC.
“Arabic is still our everyday language so we need to learn English so we can compete and communicate,” says customs officer Zacharia Akdon.
More than two million people left Sudan when South Sudan was born, and a hard core of government professionals were trained in the North but now needs to adapt its skills to the challenges of building a new country.
“What I am doing is getting money for the government to build this country,” says Akdon. “We need roads, schools and hospitals, and some of the money must come from more revenue,” he says. The South Sudanese President declared the country “Open for Business” at a key investment conference in December 2013, attended by more than 800 delegates from 50 countries.
“God has blessed us and endowed our young country with vast resources in terms of fertile lands, forests, water resources, minerals and petroleum resources… Those who wait too long may miss the vast investment opportunities that our country offers,” he told the conference. Cruelly, the unresolved conflict erupted about one week later and peace talks have yet to end conflict in three of the country’s six states or allow more than a million people to return in safety to their homes.
But TMEA work has continued largely uninterrupted, helping the Customs and Standards and partners streamline trade and increase revenue.
“What we are building are sustainable systems for prosperity, and prosperity is a key building block for peace,” Torero says.