South Sudan: A ‘thankless kid’?

Is South Sudan wrong to limit access of foreigners to its labour market?

South Sudan gained independence in 2011 [AFP]
South Sudan gained independence in 2011 [AFP]

In mid-September, the South Sudan National Ministry of Labor and Public Service and Human Resources Development used its prerogative to regulate the workforce and roles of foreign nationals in the Republic of South Sudan by issuing a ministerial order. The order, despites all its intentions, evoked a surprising and remorseless criticism from neighbour states in East Africa, especially Kenya and Uganda.  

Even before the ink on the order had dried, a Kenyan economist at the Brookings Institute rushed to call the decision “stupid“. As if that was not enough, on a nationwide show, Kenyan NTV called the Republic of South Sudan a “thankless kid“. I suppose that “kid” refers here to the short time span of South Sudan’s independence (declared in 2011).

Ugandan prime minister, on the other hand, warned the government in Juba against pursuing this measure, asking that the decision be rescinded. He was soon after his statement relieved of his job. Whether this was unrelated to his remarks on South Sudan or not, it was a responsible move by President Yoweri Museveni to sack him.

The South Sudanese government decided against proceeding with its plan soon after it was announced.

S Sudan children at risk of starving to death

However, to date the negative sentiment about the order is still being felt. If you are a South Sudanese travelling to Nairobi, Kenyan immigration officers at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport would often greet you with questions such as: “Why do you come again to Kenya when you (South Sudanese) are chasing away Kenyans in your country?” I usually answer with great irritation that, “I am not here to work!”

The persistent hostility over this matter begs the question: Was Kenya really under the illusion that the South Sudanese people were to transfer their sovereignty from Sudan to Kenya? Did anybody in East Africa really think South Sudan is a “kid” that would never grow up?

The motivation behind this ministerial order was to create space for the South Sudanese to find jobs and be responsible citizens by paying their taxes. It called for positions of executive directors, secretaries, HR officers, receptionists, etc in public and private enterprises to be given to South Sudanese citizens.

It did not call for the expulsion of foreigners of any nationality in South Sudan. It simply aimed to establish a procedure for regulation of the work force; any sovereign nation has the right to do so. Besides, a sensible mind would, indeed, agree that the decision by the minister was rightly placed when considering issues of national security.

What I find strange was how a well-educated economist at Brookings Institute, Mwangi S Kimenyi, found a rather strange parallel between the South Sudanese case and Idi Amin’s order to expel foreigners from Uganda. If I have to remind Mr Kimenyi, both the republics of Kenya and Uganda have institutionalised similar workforce priority to their citizens. How many foreigners in these countries work as directors, secretaries, HR officers, receptionists, etc? Countries around the world regulate access to their labour markets to foreigners, either through laws or strict visa regimes. Why should South Sudan not follow suit?

Right now, government officials are using Kenyans and Ugandans as secretaries when South Sudanese are sitting jobless by the roadside sipping tea all day long. This practice has been ongoing ever since the Republic of South Sudan established an open-border policy with its neighbours. If anything, this Republic has been more thankful than necessary and, in some cases, has allowed others to exploit it.

The ministerial order in my view, and in the view of many South Sudanese, was not comprehensive enough.

It was not right for an economist in a highly respected US think tank to provide such misguided interpretation and compare it to the policy of expulsion by the former President Idi Amin. NTV’s qualifier, “thankless kid” is purely insulting to South Sudan and completely disregarding reality.

To the contrary, South Sudan has been overly generous with its neighbours and their citizens.

Counting the years of independence, South Sudan is a kid, yes. But the kid must grow up! And for this kid to have healthy growth, everyone must either back off or learn to nurture it.

Panther Alier is one of the “Lost Boys of Sudan” who fled Sudan’s civil war in the 1980s. He returned to South Sudan in 2009, after the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, to participate in rebuilding of his country.

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