In October last year, South Sudanese watched with horror a video that had gone viral on the Internet showing a debate at the East African Legislative Assembly (EALA), where members criticised South Sudan for failure to honour its membership obligations in the East African Community.
Some members described the young nation as “not ready” to be part of the community and threatened to expel it from the regional bloc. South Sudan was admitted into the East African Community (EAC) in September 2016. But it has been criticised numerous times, for lack of security within its borders; failure to protect East African businesses and workers; failure to contain runaway inflation and economic decline.
The EALA has pointed out that the leadership of South Sudan has offered nothing other than to keep promising to do better. But the matter in the latest debate was Juba’s failure to pay the nearly $30 million membership fee it owes the EAC.
The language of rebuke to South Sudan has been strong, with some EALA members arguing that South Sudan has to make up its mind, to be a member or not to be. South Sudan’s members of the EALA begged their unrelentingly critical colleagues to be patient with Juba, to no avail.
Many people have since lamented that South Sudan’s accession to the EAC was done without the requisite public debate on the merits and demerits of membership.
In fact, the EALA at one point had to reject the first list of proposed members South Sudan was sending to Arusha, due to the crude and undemocratic way in which they were selected. Juba had to withdraw those members, recognising that there had been very little thought put into this, beyond simply joining. Some local analysts suggest the government should have sought a national consensus, followed by a phased programme of accession.
Some South Sudanese social media activists even suggested that President Salva Kiir orders an immediate withdrawal from the EAC, until the country is ready.
The growing argument is that it is more dignified to withdraw now, and reapply when peace has been consolidated, economy rebuilt and institutional capacities improved, than insist on an unsustainable and humiliating EAC membership.
Perhaps a little history is necessary here. South Sudan’s decision to explore the possibility of joining the EAC dates back to the period preceding its independence from Sudan in July 2011.
It gained momentum immediately after independence and was really inspired by the emotions of the country’s new status as an independent state than by clear thinking about it benefits or obligations. It was not born of research and analysis of geopolitical, economic and security imperatives.
No studies were done to confirm real benefits to the new state. Nor an assessment of the capacity required for South Sudan to carry out its obligations to the organisation. Instead, the officials in charge of making the case for EAC membership primarily based their efforts on finding and highlighting the merits and almost deliberately ignoring whatever demerits were staring them in the face.
This was underscored by the statement made by Aggrey Tisa Sabuni, presidential adviser, while delivering the instrument of ratification on the Accession to the Treaty for the Establishment of the East African Community, when he said in Arusha, that membership in EAC for South Sudan will change the nation. Not a single reference to potential challenges that might face the country in honouring its membership roles.
One commentator joked that: “Our leaders may be telling us that it is good for the country to join the EAC, but in reality, they only want their children to be able to enter Kenya and Uganda without paying for entry visas.”
There were limited consultations with the wider population. Even the country’s legislature was not fully involved. I attended a few of these discussions, including one heated debate convened in 2012 by the Ebony Center for Strategic Studies the outcome of which was a clear disagreement with the government’s accelerated accession.
It was not enough to demonstrate the advantages of EAC membership. The process also needed to identify the stumbling blocks that could prevent South Sudan from taking full advantage of EAC membership. How South Sudan’s legislature actually ended up ratifying the instrument of accession is unclear. The process was done under immense pressure from the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Marial Benjamin, who in turn was pressured by the president of the republic.
The dissenting voices, none of which were actually opposed to South Sudan’s membership in the EAC per se, simply cautioned that such a momentous policy, one committing the country to obligations that are bound to affect the entire populace should not be enacted in such a hurried manner. “What is the hurry?” asked one Peter Biar Ajak, who has long gone to jail without trial for his criticism of the country’s direction.
As things stand, South Sudan has difficulties attaining full membership in the EAC, mainly due to financial delinquency, but more importantly due to half-heartedness in Juba about fulfilling the requirements.
With that, is it not time for South Sudan to renew local debate on its future in EAC? The more than three years of half-baked membership have so far functioned as a gauge to both the political will in Juba and the popular perspective on the country’s membership in EAC.
The choices for South Sudan are clear, to improve its image in the EAC, by improving its behaviour with regards to membership obligations, rethink its membership in the short term or remain the black sheep in the EAC family.
Jok Madut Jok is a professor of anthropology at Syracuse University and senior analyst at The Sudd Institute