Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Wrestling at Heaven's Gate: The Challenge of Forging a Vision for Peaceful and Prosperous South Sudan

By John A. Akec

The importance of a vision in the life of a nation is as ancient as our planet earth. Visions have underpinned the rise and fall of great civilisations through out the recorded history of the world. Its mention goes back as far as the Bible time, where in the book of Proverb we read: “where there is no vision, people perish.” Other versions of the holy book put it more starkly: “when there is no vision, people cast off restraint.” What does this mean exactly?

One the one hand, and in the biblical context, lawlessness and sin reign supreme in societies and nations where divine guidance and the moral anchors, which Christianity and all other forms of organised religion strive to provide, are no longer central to what people do or not do. Sodom and Gomorrah were examples of visionless societies that abandoned all restraint, and have been recorded to serve as a warning on the terrible end that awaits similar societies. 

On the other hand, and in the political and secular context, governments, societies, and political parties of every stripe need “a vision of the end, and without a vision there is aimlessness and vast chaos” as once noted by the great American educational philosopher, Robert Maynard Hutchins.

And without any shred of doubt, any possibility of agreeing a comprehensive peace deal in South Sudan is a welcome news. After all, “bad peace is better than good war,” as Yiddish wisdom puts it. But we also need to be reminded that this famous Yiddish wisdom is not without critics who counter that “a bad peace is worst than war.” In our context, one can argue that any peace deal that has no vision of the ‘end result’, is bad peace. Specifically, for South Sudan at this moment in time, the end result should be a united, prosperous, and resilient nation.

Hence, while we applaud the current momentum towards an inclusive peace deal that has been jump-started by the signing of Khartoum Framework Agreement, the absence of clear pointers to state-building goals should be a cause for concern, lest the emerging peace deal eventually unravels like its predecessors. Therefore, it is incumbent upon the parties to the regionally backed peace talks to try their hardest in order to negotiate a peace settlement whose primary goal does not merely stop at the distribution of power, but that which must be based on a farsighted vision capable of propelling the country out of the vicious cycle of violence and socio-economic stagnation into spheres of sustainable peace, unity, security, and prosperity. In short, we need a peace deal that “will end all wars” in our country.  And here are some, not necessarily all, of the elements of such a vision.

First, the agreement should resolve that South Sudan must be governed by its constitution. Our Interim Constitution is a good document that must guide and inspire all that we do or not do. And if there are clauses in the constitution that hinder our progress towards building a prosperous and united country, then we should speedily amend them. And until the amended constitution is passed, our current constitution should be our reference point and the anchor on which all government, business, and civil society actions are based.

Second, we must recognise that stagnation and the lack of socio-economic development could be a cause of current and future wars. Citizens must be given stakes that will raise the opportunity costs of war and consolidate peace. In the last 4 years, our country experienced negative economic growth as indicated by an ever contracting GDP. Oil production has dropped from over 350,000 bpd in 2011 to under 120,000 bpd in 2018. We remain amongst the most oil dependent countries in the world. The contribution of tax to government budgets is insignificant We fought three disastrous wars since 2011. Our ability to provide services such as health and education has been affected negatively. Foreigners want to take over security of our citizens.

And as the late architect, Constance Adams, who worked in American space programmes once noted: “no nation in the history of the earth has failed to conduct great projects and remained significant.”  The Great Wall of China, Pyramids of Egypt, Burj Khalifa in Dubai, and Ivor Tower in Paris, are all expressions of what peoples of those great nations are capable of dreaming up and achieving. Until now, we as a nation are yet to complete a single ambitious project that we can be proud of.

What is holding us back? One may ask. It is my view that we can only reverse our fortunes if we can look inward to identify the weaknesses in our systems; and then device strategies for overcoming them. Let me briefly outline some of these internal systemic weaknesses and possible strategic options for future success.

To begin with, by failing to raise enough taxes from our citizens to fund government’s budgets, our country is missing out of the benefits that come with dependence on tax revenues. Research shows that the benefits of depending on taxes for government revenues include strengthening of the institutions of fiscal governance, improved government transparency and accountability, and strengthening of nation’s bureaucratic capability.

Furthermore, as a country, we must recognise that we have been drinking from a poisoned well. That is, our oil dependent economy hinders our progress at many fronts. Economists have long found strong links between dependency on primary commodity for export earning and likelihood of civil wars. They argued that rents from extractive industries (oil and gas, diamonds, and timber) increase greed and attract the wrong kinds of people into politics. Researchers made their conclusions after studying underlying causes of 47 civil wars in resource-rich countries around the globe. Commenting on these stark findings, Tina Rosenberg of New York Times wrote: “Every nation wants to strike oil, and after it happens, nearly every nation is worse off for it.” Weaning ourselves from too much dependence on oil revenue could be the beginning of progress. The sooner, the better.

The question is how? Help is around the corner in terms of availability of models to emulate in order to escape the resource-curse. The same research that unearthed these dark findings also points to possible remedies and experiences of others such as Norway (locking oil revenue out of economy), Alaska (distribution of rents to all citizens and future investment accounts), Botswana (establishing cluster of institutions for protection of private property), and Rwanda (developmental state) are just few examples of countries that have succeeded to break loose of resource paradox by following certain strategic options. One radical strategic choice recommended by Mick Moore at the Institute of Development Studies at University of Sussex in England (and coauthor of an up coming text book: Taxing Africa: Coercion, Reforms, and Development), is for the resource-rich countries to distribute all revenues from primary commodity export to their citizens and then ask the citizens to pay percentages of that back in tax. He believes this can create a sense of commitment amongst citizens and strengthen accountability.

Moreover, our country needs to build its bureaucratic capability not only to be able to collect sufficient taxes but also to be able to manage external shocks more effectively as well as being able to turn our societal aspirations into actionable policies and projects. This can be achieved by reforming civil service so that only, and only the most capable and ethical amongst our citizens can be admitted into the public service, irrespective of the ethnic background or religious belief.

Finally, any future peace agreement should aim at reducing the transitional period to no more than 12 months. Why? Elections by and in themselves are part of democratic development in the life of a nation. Regular elections do much to exercise tolerance of citizens and the politicians to celebrate victory in humility, and accept electoral defeat in grace. Elections also provide the needed once-in-a-while opportunity for citizens to hold their government accountable and chose those who will rule the country on their behalf, and hence impart legitimacy and give strong mandate to elected government nationally and internationally.

Depending on how the above nation-building blocks are captured by the peace deal being negotiated, we will be wrestling at heaven’s gate. And wrestling for that goal we should.