Welcome to South Sudan

Malakal, South Sudan

I came to South Sudan at the end of April. I came with a nongovernmental aid organization and when I arrived it was still Southern Sudan, an autonomous region in the largest and one of the poorest countries in Africa.

Road to UNMISS log base in Malakal

After 17 years of civil war and then 11 years of fragile peace and then another 21 years of civil war, a so-called Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed in Nairobi in January 2005. The CPA called for a referendum to decide the south’s fate and after six years of strained coexistence, the voting was held in January 2011. The decision was, as expected, almost unanimous. Only Abyei, an oil-rich region along the border, was prevented from voting over a dispute concerning the eligibility of a certain north-leaning nomadic tribe that comes to graze its cattle for about half the year.

Border clashes with the north followed the referendum. Also, rebel militia groups went on the offensive. There was a new country coming and the rebel commanders - mostly disgruntled ex-generals - knew that this was the time to get before all was gotten. The RMGs - there were nine of them in the Malakal region - were an uncoordinated menace, often supported by the north to destabilize the south. They would appear suddenly, well armed, drive the army out, plunder what they could, and then disappear into the bush when the counterattack was made.

On 9 July, independence was declared. Salva Kiir Mayardit was declared President. What's more, he is also Chief-of-Staff of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army and Secretary General of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement. Soon after independence the north closed the trade routes to the south as leverage to secure more favorable oil concessions. Also, with fighting going on in South Kordofan, the smuggling routes have also been squeezed.

In Malakal, prices have risen and shelves have emptied. Rarely can you find canned meat or processed cheese, corn flakes and cocoa powder. Other basic commodities are scarce or have disappeared entirely: potatoes, oranges, apples, flour, and cooking fuel. With production infrastructure but no refinery capacity, diesel has more than doubled in price and petrol is now so scarce that many boats and vehicles are grounded and so expensive that it might be cheaper to cross town by Land Cruiser than by motorbike.

This has made the aid work harder but also more necessary. The organization I work for is called the American Refugee Committee International. It’s a moderate size NGO, headquartered in Minneapolis of all places, and works in nine countries mostly in Africa. My title is Field Coordinator, which is suitably modest but less accurate than ‘Head of Field Office’.

As a Field Coordinator you supervise the programs, logistics, HR, security, and the accounting. You manage the project managers; approve or reject the expenditures; procure, warehouse, and deploy equipment and materials; and coordinate these activities with donors, government agencies, and other INGOs. You hire and promote and discipline and when necessary fire. You’re the IT (non)expert, the instructor, the counselor, and the bearer of good and bad news. When you need help you request, then cajole, then finally plead to you country office and sometimes you get it but mostly it comes late or too little or not at all and still you manage. Also, when it is needed and if it is not entirely disagreeable to you, you dig trenches, install light fixtures, service the generator, and repair the motorbikes.

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