Last week a work assignment took me on my virgin trip to Juba in South Sudan. The trip got off to a less than stellar start when we ran into headwinds at the boarding gate at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA). Two of my colleagues had forgotten to carry their yellow fever certificates and were asked to stand aside while “Juba” was consulted. My prayerful third colleague and I, who had both happened to travel to Nigeria in May this year, were told we were lucky. “If you have been to Nigeria in the last sixty days the Juba authorities will not allow you into the country,” was the professionally polite statement from the ground staff. Alright, so this could not have been informed to our travel agent at the point where the ticket was being issued? Memo to self and to anyone else: do not plan for any trips to Juba and Lagos within the same quarter. My colleague’s prayers were answered and “Juba” responded with “Yes, they may proceed without yellow fever certificates.”
When one lands at Juba, one can be forgiven for thinking you are at a United Nations airfield. Numerous World Food Program planes and helicopters are parked at the airport and there’s a heavy presence of United Nations Mission In South Sudan (UNMISS) uniformed personnel. Upon deplaning, a masked attendant in a white coat pointed us to a tent before which is a plastic water tank with some filmy water to be used to wash one’s hands. With dripping hands we were then guided into a tent with gloved, masked attendants taking temperatures with guns as Red Cross staff from Japan monitored them intensely. Ebola readiness is very apparent and the form that we had filled on the plane was quickly marked with our temperatures. That form was the only medical item that generated any interest from the airport officials. It seems the yellow fever urgency at JKIA was a storm in a teacup. Ebola had taken its place. We finally entered into a low-slung building that had seen more war than peace and maintained an ambient internal temperature of at least 35 degrees Celsius in its poorly ventilated confines. An attractive, brand new terminal building lies in its last stages of completion adjacent to the old terminal. The silence around the incomplete building signifies that there has been a pause in its construction.
We stood in line to get visas. It would take at least 3 pages to write what the process of obtaining a business visa at Juba International Airport entails. Suffice it to say that we watched the Kenya Airways plane that had brought us get cleaned, refueled, boarded by outbound passengers and take off into the azure South Sudanese skies before we finally received our passports back. We pushed our way through heaving masses of people awaiting luggage that is belched out of a scanner fed from a conveyor straight from the airside tarmac. It’s impossible to differentiate between arriving passengers and the hoi polloi.
John, our driver, meets us in a mercifully cool Toyota Land Cruiser, a car that is as common in Juba as a Mercedes in Frankfurt or a Probox in Eastleigh. Juba, he points out, is an ode to East African unity. Somalis own most of the petrol stations while a great number of hotels are owned by Eritreans. Most of the food is imported from Uganda while most of the skilled labor in the banking, hotel and construction industries is Kenyan. As we drive through Juba town we see a lot of hotels under construction, I stopped counting at 10. Kenya’s UAP Insurance is putting up what looks like the tallest building in the city while CFC Stanbic, Equity, Co-operative and KCB Banks take their pride of place in the city’s financial directory.
The main line of business for many of the banks is trade finance and foreign currency trades. Due to a weak judicial system, lending is generally not widespread due to the risk of unenforceable judgment debts and realization of securities. As a result, the businesses in South Sudan do not benefit from the opportunity of working capital and capital expenditure facilities that can generate rapid economic growth and employment.
We drive across the Nile on a steel reinforced bridge that allows single file access each way. The banks of the river teem with old mango trees that seem to grow wild. We drive out for at least 35 kilometres and note that there is almost no agricultural activity on what are very clearly fertile lands adjacent to a perennial fresh water source in the Nile. That Juba can become fully self-sustaining in food production is apparent to the untrained eye.
With oil proceeds at an unhealthy 98% of total government revenues, President Salva Kiir cannot be comfortable about the country’s exposure to the oil extraction industry. Income tax rates are low, with the highest tax band at 20% and very little actual tax collection. Robustness is also required around the power sector as there is minimal power production from the national electricity provider South Sudan Electricity Company which takes 468 days to install a meter at a client site, according to the World Bank Group publication “Doing Business in South Sudan.” Even if the electric meter is installed, there remains the issue of receiving electricity and therefore the bulk of homes and businesses in Juba run on diesel generators, which make any manufacturing process very expensive to run.
It is obvious that once the LAPSSET corridors open, a lot of opportunities will arise for even more trade between the two countries. But, even more importantly, skilled labor is very scarce and it would do well for the Government of South Sudan to enter into labor agreements with its neighbors to import professionals with the sole view of up-skilling its own citizenry for future posterity. Teachers and medical personnel would be a great start.