In South Sudan, Salva Kiir can’t fake it until he makes it

Thursday December 7 2017

South Sudan President Salva Kiir

South Sudan President Salva Kiir (left) and Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta. South Sudan is all but broke because of the war that has ravaged the country in the past four years.  

By CHARLES ONYANGO-OBBO
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We have all read the stories.

South Sudan is all but broke because of the war that has ravaged the country in the past four years, and the corruption and incompetence of President Salva Kiir’s government.

Most civil servants haven’t been paid for a year.

Year-on-year inflation has hit 183 per cent, and the South Sudanese pound has all but collapsed.

Two million South Sudanese have fled as refugees to the neighbouring countries, and about seven million need humanitarian assistance and protection.

Despite that, the Kiir government has chosen to pay a foreign company up to $11 million for drones and security cameras in the crime-riddled capital Juba.

TECHNOLOGY

Though I am a technophile, I also know that these kinds of interventions do actually require a minimum level of technological infrastructure, and an effective police, to actually work. South Sudan doesn’t have either.

The scepticism becomes justified when one learns that the first cameras will be fitted around State House in Juba, basically for President Kiir, the ministerial quarter, and the airport.

However, the most revealing aspect of this is that President Kiir went to launch the two drones and 11 cameras.

It revives the question of why Africa’s Big and Medium Men and Women like to launch things — even the smallest ones.

In my parish near the Uganda-Kenya border, some time ago a bridge broke. The bridge led to a big market and some primary schools. Our old man — a fellow who was very sensitive about matters education — wasn’t bothered about the market traffic, but he couldn’t take the fact that children had to make the perilous crossing to and from school. He cut down some of his own trees, and fixed the bridge enough for it to be safe for foot traffic.

As far as I know, the community didn’t thank him, nor did he seek their gratitude. Perhaps, not to oversell his altruism, they suspected that he also did it so his morning newspapers could be delivered quickly and dry.

MAKESHIFT

Nevertheless, not too long ago, I saw the photo of a Cabinet minister in the Democratic Republic of Congo cutting a ribbon to open a “bridge”. The bridge was a crude small thing, about 10 per cent of the makeshift one that our old man built. Unbelievable!

Now potholes are a menace in many African — and world — cities, yes, and they need to be fixed. Recently, some Nigerians on social media regaled us with photos of a state governor in an elaborate ceremony launching the fixing of potholes. Even for a people who have seen it all and are gifted with a rich cynical sense of humour, it was too much. Kenya, too, has had its fair share of, especially, governors and county officials, inaugurating several absurdities.

So why would a president launch two drones and 11 cameras; a minister open a bridge built of three one-metre-long logs, and a whole state governor launch the fixing of a pothole?

KNOW THE PEOPLE

Not to be entirely dismissive, there might be a good reason why people like President Kiir do the things they do.

As politicians, they actually do know the “people” well, and figure that they understand and appreciate small tangible things. To a mwananchi in Nigeria’s Kaduna state, the filling of a pothole, makes a lot more sense than his government signing up to the Paris Climate Change accord — although in northern Nigeria, climate change is 100 times bigger an issue.

There are local votes for potholes, but almost none for climate change agreements.

Secondly, it’s the illusion of progress, that is, when you know you are far away from your desired goal, the stuff you do to create the impression and provide the emotional satisfaction that you are getting close to (or have achieved) that final goal.

The advanced form of the illusion of progress was played out in the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and it’s kept alive in North Korea today. They would build Potemkin towns. You are driven along a nice street with beautiful buildings, but they are actually cardboards or facades with nothing behind them.

In North Korea, visitors are often driven past well-stocked supermarkets, with big juicy fruits, except for one problem — the products are fake.

However, not everyone can fake it until they make it. For President Kiir, it is both a failure of imagination, and a messed-up sense of priorities. The drones are a symbol of failure.

 

The author is publisher of Africapedia.com and explainer site Roguechiefs.com. [email protected]