South Sudan: Lifting off With the Flag
By John A. Akec
On the eve of the declaration of South Sudan independence, namely on July 8th 2011, and as the nascent nation was preparing to receive its guests in its capital city, Juba; history was being made in the far away land of America. In Florida and from Kennedy's Space Centre, the Atlantis space shuttle was being launched for the last time to mark the end of 30-year US Space Shuttle Programme. And as I watched the launch of Atlantis on the TV at home, and as the clock counted down to the launch, my mind wondered off to reflect on our nation that was about to be borne the following day. I found many inspiring analogies and connections between the launch of the space shuttle, Atlantis, and the birth of the 193rd United Nation member, the Republic of South Sudan. This article is about sharing these thoughts with my readers. There are a few differences, though, that will be pointed out.
A space shuttle is a complex cutting-edge technology that has been championed and excelled by the United States' main space agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA), since its launch in April 1981. In fact, the Programme conception dates back as far as historic Apollo Moon Landing in 1969. The Space Shuttle fleet is comprised of 6 vehicles (technically referred to in NSAS' speak as orbiters), namely Discovery, Endeavour, Challenger, Atlantis, Columbia, and Enterprise. In the 30-year history of America's Space Shuttle Programme, the shuttles carried out 135 missions, flew over 870 million Kilometers, took some 335 astronauts into space at cost of US$ 209 billion, created hundreds of thousands of jobs across America; delivered communications satellites, scientific investigation equipment, and deep space probe telescopes into Earth's orbit; created advanced engineering technologies with many spin offs and applications that have greatly benefited mankind and saved lives; improved air travel safety; and deepened our understanding of the universe. Beside financial cost above, 14 precious astronaut lives were lost in 30 years. More lives could have been lost had it not been due to the ingenuity of NASA;s scientists and engineers, backed up by generous financial resources from the nation and the unwavering political commitment from the very top of the US Administration.
NASA is ending the Space Shuttle Programme to find alternative means of sending equipment and astronauts into space. And so this will be the last for Atlantis before retiring to space science museum. Like all other shuttles, Atlantis shuttle and its boosters contain some 2.5 million moving parts and hundreds of scientists and engineers sitting in front of giant control panels that monitor and display shuttle vital variables at every moment of its flight. Each moving part of the shuttle is wired up to computer system that ensures every component is functioning before final launch command is issued. And when that happens, it is "all system go!" It takes months and weeks of rehearsal by astronauts, preparation, and meticulous planning by all concerned because much is at stake. Here, failure is not an option.
So is it with launching of our new independent state of South Sudan. The new state must be made to work. Although some failure is expected and, indeed inevitable, it but must be minimized. Like space shuttle programme that was inspired by President Kennedy vision to land first man on the moon, the Republic of South Sudan is the realization of a vision by the Patriarchs of South Sudan struggle. It was achieved at a cost of 2 million lives and unaccounted lost in wealth and property. It took half century of struggle, engaged hundreds of thousands of citizens and various global actors at different levels and capacities, demanded commitment and perseverance to get to the point where South Sudan finds itself at the moment (free as bird, unshackled by will of man save its own!), a new nation fully ready to serve its citizens!
So like Atlantis, the raising of South Sudan's flag was the equivalent of countdown to launch. Hence in theory, it should have been 'all system go!' And if we are honest, we need to admit that it was not that simple for the birth of the Republic of South Sudan to just pick and go. This is because of various reasons, some of which are excusable to varying degree. While we can trust mechanical and electronic artifacts that make up the 2.5 million parts in shuttle and boosters to deliver at the touch of a button, we could not say the same thing exactly about human resources which make up for moving parts in the government of the world's newest country. Humans, by their very nature can forget, can be incompetent, may lack experience, or do not always obey orders in a way mechanical elements of the shuttle would do. Here 'ready to go' means the nation is fully ready to deliver services the citizens need on day to day basis such as keeping security, having electricity to light homes, availability of running water, installation of radars to watch our borders and skies, payment of workers' wages on time etc.
In South Sudan's 'launch', there might have been too many teething problems to contend with. For example, by coincidence or by design, many flights from Khartoum to the Southern cities were grounded on technical grounds at the time when demand was the highest. As a result, the fair of air tickets between Khartoum and Southern cities doubled or tripled in the last few months in the run up to Independence Day. What went wrong? We may ask. Whose business it is to protect citizens of a country from mass exploitation or deliberate economic persecution wherever they are in the world?
Next, the central government of Sudan issued an order to treat Southern banks as foreign banks, therefore demanding the existence of a correspondence bank in order to allow money transfer between Northern and South Sudan and the Republic of Southern Sudan, a measure that will cause untold hardship to over a million South Sudanese citizens in the North. If the Republic of South Sudan is not yet to offer unimpeded banking services on the next day of independence, then it is going to be easier to send money from Khartoum to London than to Juba. Are we ready for this or do we have long answers?
Also, when the North prevented fuel transportation from North to the South, the fuel prices rocketed in the South. Could we have foreseen this coming our way? Luckily, today we read in the newspapers that South Sudan is going to launch its own currency beginning from 18th July 2011. Hats off for that one, Mr. Deng Athorbe, Malok Aleng and your staff! This will counter recent measures in Khartoum that would treat transfers from South Sudan as from a foreign bank despite the initial plan to use Sudanese pounds for the next 6 months in the South. It would have meant buying the Sudanese pound twice – at the origin and at the destination. A double lost for citizens of the South.
While using the Atlantis analogy in the birth of our nation would be like comparing apples and oranges, we should make no mistake about the fact that many well tested engineering principles that have been successfully applied to design of tanks, oil refineries, and space shuttles in a way that ensures their smooth launch and operation, can also be applied to great effect to design a functioning government department, national economy, army logistic system, computer network, city transportation system, or even the whole government apparatus of a country so that things function smoothly and seamlessly in the shortest time possible. It is worth mentioning that a number of World Bank pundits have recently predicted that it is going to take 20 years for South Sudan to have a functioning government. However, this author believes if methods and tools of systems engineering are applied to design of system of governance, we can shrink this time to mere 3 or 4 years.
Systems engineering approach was developed by the military during World War II and later perfected by space and manufacturing industry in US and Europe. It emphasizes the necessity of taking a total view of design of organizations and hardware systems. Namely the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. In other words, it is not about optimizing the output from sub-systems, but rather that of maximizing the whole system performance.
Thus the flag is up. The issues at stake are complex. Are we ready to go as a total system? If the answer is no, my question is why not? Instead of resting on the dire predictions of World Bank experts or importing civil servants from East Africa to fix our systemic problems, we can do well by first putting our in-house skills to good use. In Academics and Researchers Forum for Development, a think-tank and an advocacy group, we are more than ready to tackle such national challenges head on. Not with emotions but with skills and professionalism. So have a go, and give us a call.