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South Sudan: Where the most obvious governance failure hides in plain sight

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Jok Madut-Jok – Apart from the multiple wars that have plagued South Sudan over the past several years, by far the most damaging and frustrating blunder in the day to day governance in this country over the past 15 years, since the end of the liberation war in 2005, is the blurred line between professional civil service and political appointments.

Most of those who pass as civil servants in the young state today were almost all “appointed” wholesale as soon as the then Government of Southern Sudan (GOSS) was set up beginning in 2005. Almost none were “recruited.” There is a big difference between political appointees and those hired through due process of meritocracy to become career civil servants. Political appointees can be removed from their job just as easily as they were appointed by an executive order.

When South Sudan became independent in 2011, there was as much global rejoice as there was quick recognition of deficit in skills necessary to run the new state. Efforts were made to find any South Sudanese officials who had served in the old Sudan before the breakup, to train new civil servants, including the release of the former fighters who fought in the liberation war, in order to beef up the functioning of state institutions. Inter-Governmental Agency for Development (IGAD), a Horn and East African trade bloc, invested in an effort to transfer skills by hiring and stationing some senior civil servants from other East African countries in various ministries in Juba, pairing them with South Sudanese officials for a period of time in hope that the latter would be taught basic skills on the job.

This was applauded at first, given the protracted armed struggle that had compelled majority of South Sudan’s educated class to join the war or to flee from the war-torn country, missing any opportunities they could have had to develop their careers. But it was not long before pride got in the way of making use of foreign skills.

Any loud discussion about former combatants being unequipped to staff the nascent institutions of a new country and needing to upgrade their skills was totally unwelcome by these soldiers and their politico-military leaders in charge of the country, never mind the fact that they had spent more than 20 years in the bushes of South Sudan, fighting long, hard and testing wars. During the war, many senior officers used to declare that their duties would stop at the war of liberation and that they would need people with skills to run the country once it is free.

This was not to be. The liberators, typical of how they undermined their own revolution all across Africa, were not going to relinquish any space for the country’s other types of human capital to contribute to the shaping of the country’s development. It was these liberation fighters who were now to become the administrators, bank officials, police officers, judges, accountants and human resource personnel, after two decades of very little to no exposure to systems of governance of any kind.

Most of them had no capacity to do the jobs they now occupied. But the mention of this was near taboo. They were the ones to set up the institutions of the new state and the whole endeavour of state-building, of bringing professionalism to the institutions, strengthening the rule of law and entrenching the philosophy and practice of state machinery, faltered. This is not to say the failure of the state is entirely the fault of liberators. They were all that the country had, at least in the immediate sense.

It was, however, hoped that some of them would be trained on the job, some would retire in a few years and be replaced by more skilled, technology savvy and younger recruits, some perhaps returning from the Diaspora and others from the old Sudan.

But the liberators nailed themselves to the seats of government singularly by virtue of being liberators. Many of them regarded these jobs as rewards for their liberatory roles. A sense of entitlement to these jobs kicked in at almost all levels of government, including the top political leadership, which is made up of liberators.

They vigorously resisted any calls for civil service reforms or establishment of a system that looks for skills as basis for employment in the public sector. Some national ministers declared that they did not want any former fighters, their comrades in arms, being re-evaluated and reassigned according to their credentials. “No one asked them for certificates when they volunteered to fight to liberate this country,” one minister angrily said in response to the calls for review of personnel files with an eye to possible streamlining of civil service recruitment requirements.

The minister for public service and human resource development resigned 2011 in protest of the resistance to civil service reforms, to cleansing of ghost names from the payroll and to establishment of a board to supervise personnel recruitment, salary scales and to ensure that meritocracy is sustained in the hiring process.   

The most senior civil servant in a ministry in South Sudan’s government is the undersecretary, the equivalent of permanent or principal secretary in other East African countries. The person occupying this post needs to be a technocrat, someone who has spent a long time applying the laws of the land as enacted by elected representatives, creating institutional memory of the department they run and wider government.

Ordinarily, the only ‘boss’ such a person serves is the public, and the constitution, under any president or any other political office holder. This is not designed to give anyone a life-time job, but it enables them to speak truth to power without the risk of being fired. That is the way the Constitution is supposed to work. If they are career civil servants, they should have risen through the ranks without the president appointing them, nor should he be able to remove them without due process.

But this is not how it works in South Sudan, where the Presidency has taken more discretions and more powers than the Constitution allows and the undersecretary has been an appointee of the president and therefore also removable without any recourse.

This system, despite its obvious shallowness, is allowed to thrive, going 15 years now, out of total ignorance about how a constitutional state functions. It is also a way to serve the nepotistic cabal that controls the political office, give them a chance to hire cronies at a whim. But more importantly, the executive office maintains this system in order to be a smokescreen for what is clearly an attempt to keep civil servants loyal to the political class.

The system seems structured this way in order to enable the President to remove career professionals for the simple reason of replacing them with new favourites, new political allies, relatives who have lobbied for a post or to silence career professionals, lest they get dismissed if deemed disloyal.

Anyone looking to find explanation for why South Sudan is essentially a failed country, look no further than the mediocre civil service that has resisted reform for 15 years. It is the absence of career professionals from the state apparatus that is at the root of the ghastly theft of public resources, the low human development indexes, the level of everyday violence, the failure of most infrastructure projects, the depletion of foreign reserves and the fact that four million of the country’s citizens are displaced.

Jok Madut-Jok is a professor of anthropology at Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University.

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