Who’s benefiting from the south Sudan petro-dollar?

Last year I spent a few weeks in Juba, the capital of south Sudan where I was covering the peace talks between the Ugandan government and the LRA rebels and in the same year I attended the Global investigative journalism conference in Norway where I had an opportunity of meeting south Sudanese journalists. Most of them were based outside the country but I had a lot of discussions with them most of which rotated around media development in their home country.

The media in south Sudan just like most ‘post conflict’ countries is still undeveloped and there’s hardly an independent press. Knowing that it was just in 2005 when the comprehensive peace agreement (CPA) was signed to end decades of civil with the north it would be very unreasonable for anyone to expect a vibrant media in just a period of three years. In the absence of such a media, there’s limited ways of tracking progress whether it is political, social or economic especially whether that progress has trickled down among ordinary south Sudanese most of whom have just moved from neighbouring countries like Uganda and Kenya where the war forced them to live as refugees.

map-southsudan-050908After the CPA one thing was very prominent, the oil sharing and the agreement gave the southerners rights to this natural resource. For the last three years, the CPA has been the centre of media coverage both regional and international and it is understandable because of the long overdue need for black south Sudanese to govern themselves.

Save for a few ethnic clashes that the media has covered in the south; the government of semi-autonomous south Sudan has generally stayed out of bad coverage. During my visits to Sudan I saw the hardship that these people go through and among the journalists with whom I covered to the talks the place was called ‘the most expensive place to live south of the Sahara’. Most of the goods come through Kenya and Uganda. It takes many hours for trucks to reach Juba as they carry goods ranging from tomatoes, sugar to building materials.

I appreciate how difficult it is to overcome these infrastructural huddles but I have always wondered what changes the ordinary people in Sudan are seeing after three years. This week the BBC ran a story that partly queried the government. The problem is that we are not having these queries quite often. For instance the article says “South Sudan’s government has received nearly $7bn (£4.2bn) in oil revenue since it took over after a 2005 peace deal, but many question whether it is doing enough for its people.”

Indeed the oil bonanza in south Sudan has benefited few and it is very known in Kampala and Nairobi how lavish anybody with a slight connection with SPLM lives. By looking at their lives it would be hard to capture a real picture of the country they serve that still has no roads in place, no basic needs for most people who have returned from refugee camps in foreign countries that had become home to them.

Many of these people have made this not-so-easy trip back to their homeland and they just want to get a little help to make life in this land that is still littered by landmines. Yet their leaders continue to amass wealth with no major steps to rebuilding the country.  Most of these concerns we discussed with many of my journalist colleagues. Coming from Uganda where the current government (the only government I know) established after a NRA rebellion/struggle just like SPLM, I shared my fears. Fears based on what Uganda has been turned into. A place where those who fought for 5 years to take power have an upper hand in taking in charge of what our future should be.

A government that many in the beginning gave a benefit of the doubt with its flaws either out of fear of returning to the past turmoil or simply out of hope for a better future is still characterised by tribalism. And just like the NRM/NRA, the SPLM faces tribal questions which if not dealt with in a proper way could send this country on another conflict after they secede in the coming years.

South Sudanese should learn from Uganda after where 23 years in power, the obsession of who fought is still with us and the bush war is still used to deny us, either knowingly or not, the right to have decent elections. Not forgetting the army that never really transformed from a personal/ struggle army to a national army capable of not taking sides of who were part of it.

Southerners must be very aware of the Ugandan situation where ministers stay in a post for over 10 years even when the roads deteriorating despite huge budgets given. A place where you must know someone in the power circles to be awarded a contract or to run a good business. This sense of self importance that engulfs all those we call heroes in our countries keeps them blind from our situations. They enforce the very same government ways they went to fight.

These are lessons that will not easily be learnt in the absence of the media but they are worth taking. It will not be an easy road because unlike in Uganda where the media had somewhat a level of independence and professionalism that one paper can bring to the attention of the nation how much a president spent to provide the presidential jet for his adult married daughter to give birth in German because he can’t trust Ugandan doctors, this capacity is absent in Sudan. Some have tried to use the new media like the Sudan tribune to bring out news from the south these forums are just a drop in the ocean.  Well the coverage of events doesnt necessarily stop what happening but the spotlight might help keep check. Much  as the coverage of the north and south divide is important so is the coverage of how the southern government is performing otherwise ordinary people will find it hard to believe that the north eve let off some oil wells to the south.