The relationship between the government of South Sudan and the donor community is changing. International discourse on the East African country has moved from warm and sympathetic to disapproving, critical and exasperated.
The tense relationship took a hit in March when Juba stated its intention to raise the permit fees for foreign aid workers from $100 to $10,000. The fee hike, aimed at foreign workers, was perceived to be directly targeting the numerous international aid agencies working in the country. Nine of every ten foreign workers in South Sudan represent these agencies.
Perhaps it was with this in mind that the government has now announced that plans to raise the permit fees are on hold.
South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in 2011 after a lengthy civil war. Two years later it was plunged back into conflict. The fighting has created what the UN calls a “man-made famine”, and has resulted in a refugee crisis. Basic services in South Sudan have routinely been provided by aid agencies or charities for decades.
So the suspension of the proposed permit fee hike is a welcome political reprieve. But it won’t offer much comfort to the Sudanese people. The UN says that more than one million South Sudanese children are malnourished. Hundreds of thousands “face imminent death”.
The March memorandum announcing the new fee stated that the dramatic increase would boost government revenue. Some might argue this is a reasonable line of argument for a poverty-stricken state with limited infrastructure.
But when you consider how the South Sudan government spends its money, you begin to question the hike. In 2016 the finance ministry confirmed that nearly half of the country’s budget would be spent on the military and national security.
Just one tenth would be spent on health, education and humanitarian affairs.
While it’s true that the South Sudanese government has been fighting a major counter-insurgency since December 2013, security is not a new budget priority for the country’s ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM).
South Sudan’s system of government is built on buying the loyalty of disaffected or anti-state actors. This system has incentivised periodic, violent “contract re-negotiations” by the ruling elite, for whom brief rebellions can mean accessing a larger piece of the pie in the longer-term.
Juba defended the fee hike by arguing that the current charge was too low compared to the fees imposed by neighbouring states. While there is some truth in that, raising the cost of a permit from $100 to $10,000 would price South Sudan out of the market.
Very few agencies would have been able afford to keep more than a handful of senior staff in South Sudan under the now-suspended arrangement.
Ruse to keep agencies out
Two interlinked issues lie at the heart of this episode.
The first is that the South Sudanese government wants to limit the access of international actors to the parts of the country most affected by the ongoing conflict.
On a recent trip to Arua in northern Uganda, I spoke to South Sudanese refugees who had lost family in the recent counter-insurgency operations in Yei. Their descriptions of the conflict were harrowing.
The UN has also described the operations in Yei as “horrific violence … against innocent and vulnerable civilians, including women and infants”.
Despite evidence to the contrary, earlier this year President Salva Kiir reiterated his government’s assurance that “all humanitarian and development organisations have unimpeded access to needy populations”.
Few believe that Juba truly welcomes the presence of international agencies and organisations, many of whom continue to draw global attention to state abuses and the dire situation that’s resulted from the conflict.
This speaks to the second issue: the tense relationship between Juba and the “international community”, which in South Sudan comprises UN staff, NGO workers and diplomats.
To put this in context, the SPLM and independent South Sudan are to a significant degree the product of international politics and patronage.
During the 1990s and 2000s, when SPLM was still a rebel movement, it survived on resources from foreign NGOs and charities. It also received military and diplomatic support from regional states and Western donors who were also opposed to the Khartoum government.
The peace talks which led to an independence referendum were overseen and supported by international “guarantors. They later played an important role in ensuring that the referendum results were recognised and implemented.
Since becoming an autonomous region of Sudan in 2005 and gaining independence in 2011, South Sudan has relied heavily on development assistance to fund its budget and host a 12,000-strong UN peacekeeping mission (UNMISS).
It’s currently among the top ten aid recipients in the world.
Because of this close and symbiotic relationship between South Sudan and international actors, representatives of the state have become increasingly testy about the perceived influence of the western donors. This has worsened as international discourse on the Juba government becomes increasingly negative.
Shortly after the 2013 conflict broke out President Kiir accused UNMISS of being "brought [to the country] as a parallel government”.
A few months later vice president James Wani Igga told anti-UN protesters that “if [UNMISS] is a colonial system we need to fight … and I will go into the bush to fight!”.
In mid-2015 the government expelled UN humanitarian relief coordinator Tony Lanzer. There have been a number of similar expulsions in the past 18 months.
It’s in this context then that one should interpret the March 2017 comments by government spokesperson Ateny Wek Ateny. Speaking about the fee increase he said that “if you can’t pay $10,000 then you hire a local person instead”.
As much as Juba benefits from international patronage there’s still simmering resentment among leaders and academics towards the perceived dominance of development, non-governmental and humanitarian organisations.
Foreign aid-workers are envied for their hefty salaries which are usually much higher than those of their local counterparts. They also enjoy benefits and protections that are not available to nationals.
It also doesn’t bode well for the government to be perceived domestically as being in the pocket of foreign powers amid a civil war.
As such, frustrating aid workers who travel around in armoured 4x4s and live in military compounds – or the country’s best hotels – could be interpreted as a low-key propaganda move by a government which has little interest in the humanitarian consequences of its actions.