A LONG queue of cars and motorbikes snakes from the dusty forecourt of a petrol station into the main road, hampering traffic on a sweltering afternoon. Over the past fortnight the queues have become increasingly common in Juba, South Sudan’s capital, as a shutdown of oil production — caused by an oil-fee dispute with Sudan — begins to bite.
Dollars from the sale of oil are getting scarcer and food prices are rising. In the space of one week, pasta has gone up from one South Sudanese pound to seven, beef is now 30 instead of 25, goat has risen to 35 from 28, and a can of Coca-Cola that was three pounds is now four.
The government has already taken some austerity measures, halving all government spending (although protecting salaries) and cutting monthly grants to the 10 states. The government says it will also triple tax revenue within six months through better tax collection.
The finance ministry is working on the new budget ready for July, but is keeping its cards close to its chest. So far the public has gone along with President Salva Kiir in his willingness to square up militarily and economically to his counterpart in Khartoum, President Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted by the international criminal court for alleged war crimes.
David Deng, research director at the South Sudan Law Society, a civil society group, says the public is resigned to the escalation of tension given the north’s past record of brutality in trying to crush the southerners’ drive for independence.
“In a situation where you are attacked, you have to defend yourself, people are comfortable with that,” he said.
Deng acknowledges Kiir’s government may be playing up the external threat to shore up a sense of national unity. South Sudan remains deeply divided, as evident in the ethnic strife in Jonglei state that displaced tens of thousands of people. In fact, since independence last year, the number of people displaced within South Sudan as a result of internal conflict — at least 200,000 at one time or another — far exceeds the number of refugees (100,000 plus) that, fleeing escalating conflict between Sudanese government troops and Juba-backed rebels in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile state, have arrived from Sudan since the end of 2011.
But given the deep suspicions of the north after 22 years of civil war — ended in 2005 by the comprehensive peace agreement — South Sudanese are quick to believe the worst of Khartoum. Deng, a South Sudanese-American, also thinks the world was too quick to condemn South Sudan for shutting down oil production and sending troops into the oil-rich Sudanese border town Heglig, a move that sparked fears of all-out war. — The Guardian, London