Home | Comment & Analysis    Tuesday 22 January 2013

Funny Guest

By Steven Wöndu

January 22, 2013 - This is in response to Dr Spencer Kenyi’s long critique of the proposition by an American Senator that our crude oil could be transported by trucks to Djibouti. I am inclined to think that the Honorable Texan was joking. In our current gloomy mood, we need some comedy. Unfortunately our guest did not choose his joke well. You do not jokingly tell a starving man that the stones are about to turn into bread. It is not amusing to report to a sick person the ‘good news’ that the prices of coffins have dropped.

Brother, let not your heart be troubled. Even if our good guest was not joking, do not be dismayed by such an impossible proposition. When I was a child, I cried and threw myself down when my sister told me that the tamarind seed I had swallowed was going to germinate in my stomach and grow on my head. If I had known that it was a scientific impossibility, I would have laughed at my sister. The Senator is suggesting that we drive one thousand heavily laden tanker trucks from Bentiu daily though the swamps to the Ethiopian highlands. This requires a fleet of at least 30,000 trucks to sustain a monthly cycle. Can’t you see this must be a joke? What happened to your sense of humour? You know very well that even if our good American and Japanese donors built for us another road and another bridge, there are numerous other impossibilities. Let me rephrase what you have correctly pointed out:

• Malakal is 1,291 feet above sea level. Addis Ababa is 7,761 feet above sea level. Our trucks or pipeline would be facing an uphill task, literally.
• Average temperature in Malakal is between 20 and 40 degrees Centigrade. That of Addis Ababa is between 10 and 20 degrees Centigrade. Our minimum is their maximum. We would have to contend with frozen crude on transit.
• There is no border crossing into Ethiopia, or Djibouti, or Uganda or Kenya with the capacity to process one thousand trucks daily even if there was no other business for the customs and immigration officials to do.
• No country in this region, no matter how friendly, can allow another to feed 1,000 heavy trucks into their road daily. We have not been able to build a road in our own country and are forbidden from doing so in someone else’s territory.
• We do not own any sea port under the sun. The port is the main asset Djibouti has. They cannot surrender it to us? There we cannot use the weapon “we liberated you”.

Dr Kenyi, you think the Senator was serious but that his proposition is impossible. Some people, who also took the Senator seriously, are warming to the idea so they think the proposition is possible. Invite the proponent and supporters of this idea to conduct an experiment; load crude onto a truck in Bentiu and drive it to Djibouti tomorrow. The outcome would settle the arguments about time, topology, gradient, temperature and viscosity. That would leave them with the ‘smaller’ matters of procuring tens of thousands of trucks, border processes, sovereignty and port ownership.

Many people share your observation that we have been mesmerized and inebriated by the glut of oil dollars and political victory. Consequently we have illusions and delusions about what we are and what we can do. To us nothing is beyond our means and capacity anymore. We think that we deserve preferential treatment by the world. We award ourselves rights to almost everything even in other peoples’ lands, cities and homes. The common talk is that graft or ‘rent seeking’ as you call it, has superseded patriotism and the national interest. Nevertheless, do not drive yourself crazy over this proposition. We need you and your brain. Impossible plans cannot be forced to become possible by mere passion for the proposition. They may be attempted at a terrible cost to society but in the end reality will always prevail.

The ‘Dutch Disease’ of our oil boom will not be similar to what happened in Holland and this is why. Holland had a real economy; agriculture and manufacturing, before the oil. The rise in the exchange rate of the local currency (guilder) made Dutch products uncompetitive in the world market. Industry collapsed, unemployment ensured and the population had to survive on State welfare transfer payments. The redundant youth took to substance abuse and other vices. In South Sudan the real economy does not exist in the context of international trade. The oil revenue is ‘eaten’ by a few. In a best case scenario, the privileged elite will partner with foreign investors to create enterprises in the primary, processing and service sectors. A few individuals related to the investors will be employed. The rest will have to create an informal real economy as the only means of subsistence. They will continue cracking granite with their bare hands, catching fish, cutting bamboos, tilling the land, burning charcoal, hewing water etc. Hopefully this can eventually develop into a parallel sector. It is this dualism of the formal and informal sectors that eventually converged and caused the emergence of a competitive manufacturing sector in Kenya.

When oil wealth is not invested in the domestic economy and the none-oil sector fails to support livelihoods, in the long run the depraved masses lose their temper and vent it on those they perceive have stolen their wealth. It is therefore in the personal interest of the political elite to invest sufficiently in the real economy to avert a disaster. In this scenario, everyone loses, including those who ‘saved’ their loot in foreign banks. Call it the Mobutu phenomenon.

As for graft my friends, do worry but do not kill yourselves. South Sudan will not be swallowed by the greedy humans. On the contrary, South Sudan is the animal that swallows people.

The author is South Sudan’s General Auditor.