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Building a state from scratch

By Andrew M. Mwenda

What the leaders of South Sudan need to avoid as they begin the task of building a state and moulding a nation

Last week I was in Juba, South Sudan on the invitation by friends from the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM). It is an invitation I had been postponing for nearly two years, unsure what awaited me. But I knew it was a great opportunity to witness at firsthand an experiment in building a state from scratch. There are hardly any new states emerging from nowhere unto the world scene anymore. I was both saddened and thrilled by what I witnessed during that brief visit.


There is nothing in South Sudan: there are hardly any roads, schools, hospitals, railways, power dams, water supply systems, bridges etc in the literal sense. There is no functional education or healthcare delivery system. There is hardly a functional judiciary, civil service or police force. The only thing that exists in South Sudan that is closer to what you find in modern states is the army. So soldiers have to do nearly everything – be the doctors and nurses, teachers and lecturers, legislators and ministers, man the civil service, be judges and prosecutors, run the intelligence services and airport administration – everything.

Therefore, as I moved around Juba and slightly beyond, something struck me: these people; inexperienced in the art of government, have a monumental task of trying to build a government and all its functions all at once. They have to build physical infrastructure and equip themselves with skills to run the ministries. Building hospitals, schools, roads and office blocks is the easiest part. With oil money, South Sudan can hire the best architects to design and the best construction companies to build anything. The hard part is building systems to deliver healthcare and education services, maintain roads and bridges, etc.

I was saddened by the sheer scale of the challenge given the absence of human skill to deliver on the tasks.  But I was thrilled by the opportunity to begin from nowhere and do great things. Without skills, South Sudanese will bungle many things up. Contractors will cheat on projects. Individuals will take advantage of internal weaknesses to divert vital resources from their intended public purposes to personal gain. Donors will recommend and South Sudan will accept well tested policies and institutions – both those that have worked best in the West and those most unsuited for the new nation’s real challenges and much more.

Then there is politics; the local and regional (involving the wider Sudan and its own schisms), and the international. Internally, South Sudan has primarily the task of building an identity of the new nation from the myriad “tribes” that constitute it. This will be the most important task that can be best served by the promotion of a national language. The second most important task will be to build a state and focus attention on institutions like the army, police, intelligence and judiciary to ensure that the state can perform its most basic function – protection of people’s lives and property. To perform these basic functions, South Sudan will need money. Therefore, the government will need to build institutions for economic management like an effective central bank (for monetary management), a good ministry of finance (for fiscal management) and a strong tax administration system (for resource mobilisation).

Donors and other elites would talk about democracy, human rights, economic development etc. All these are necessary but not primary. South Sudan needs to begin early to ignore such voices. The government needs to be clear about what is primary, what is secondary and what comes last. An attempt to provide equal attention to all challenges is not a formula for success. Particular attention has to be placed on those things that are vital for national survival and security is most paramount. But because the provision of security needs to be backed by money, the promotion of good macroeconomic policies and creation of institutions to do this go together.

The experience gained in building an effective security system – police, army and intelligence services – will be vital when government attention extends its focus to building affective systems for the delivery of services like education and health, transport and communication systems for the country. The dilemma for South Sudan is that because it has limited human capital, it has to move very fast to invest in its people i.e. funding them to acquire education and skills. Initially, I would suggest training people abroad especially in the region, as it slowly builds its own capacity.

This is a task that will take generations. By paying special attention to building local security capacity, South Sudan will be able to effectively counter schemes from Khartoum, tell international human rights groups to back off and hold the international community seeking to usurp its sovereignty at bay. The new nation will also need to avoid too much World Bank, United Nations, and especially the kind Western European involvement in its affairs. Many of these groups will be well intentioned but they will seek to implement policies and practices that work best in their countries and will most likely be least suited for a new nation like South Sudan.

In this direction, South Sudan will need to build alliances with regional states like Tanzania, Uganda, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Rwanda to learn how each one of them has built itself from scratch by reorganising the colonial and quasi-colonial structures to meet domestic needs. The danger of course will be an attempt to re-invent the wheel. There is so much good in our inherited colonial institutions and practices. The challenge is how to domesticate them and bring them into alignment with local peculiarities. However, South Sudan has to know that there are no solutions from the experience of its neighbours for its own development; there are vital lessons.

Democracy is a vital public good that few would argue against. But it needs many things in place for it to work properly. This is the lesson South Sudan should take heed of. A rushed and over ambitious drive to democratise before the state’s own capacity to mediate conflicts has been put in place is a recipe for disaster. And South Sudan should remember that democracy is a journey of generational time, not an event that can be achieved in one day or week or month or year.

amwenda@independent.co.ug

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