Tough Times Breed Tough People

By Mariak Michael

In 2012 $100 = 150SSP (South Sudan Pounds)

In 2017 $100= 18,000SSP

The economic consequences of the current conflict go largely unnoticed and are placed secondary to issues such as famine, mass displacement, inter-communal violence, and political instability. 

This current conflict has one harsh fact…When you exchange dollars for SSP, your tribe does not help you, whatsoever. The price of milk is set by the market, not your regional or political afflation. SPLM-IG, SPLM-IO, SPLM-FD, SPLM-DC, etc. all have one thing in common: you have to figure out how to feed their kids. This conflict has made us all equal economically. We all cut back our expenses, sell luxurious items at throw-away prices, and resort to Chinese made items according to the value of your money. 

The current economic crisis in South Sudan has taught people many things, but most importantly the spirit of endurance and resilience. With inflation at close to 300 percent – the highest level second to Venezuela in the world – and our own “Ras John Garang-pound dropping 90 percent of its value since the outbreak of political violence, the majority of working South Sudanese are now poorer than they were 13 years ago.

 Fewer with good Bank credit bears the burden of carrying us to the other side of the river.

For 21 years, our people have sacrificed their precious lives for a country they believed will guarantee equality, justice, and prosperity for all. Yet thirteen years later after CPA (Comprehensive Peace Agreement that brought about our independence), ordinary people are on the streets begging for leftovers. South Sudan is a petrodollar economy with weak purchasing power, if it has anything at all, it only depends on oil export. 

Although we were doing fairly well in the entire Sub-Saharan Africa between 2006-2010, our country entered this economic shithole in early 2012 when the then Finance Minister Kosti Manibe, introduced the infamous “Austerity Measures” asa result of the oil wells dhutdown due to the Heglig Clashes, a strategy that requires government to reduce its expenditures before the December 2013 violence totally brought South Sudan to her knees.

The negative impact is staggering, you can definitely tell when you see able men and women begging at hotel entrances. It has compelled ordinary people of high morality to compromise on their deeply guided values and integrity just to beg for 10 SSP. 

When you see men and women pouring on the streets to beg for food, when the middle class survives on hand to mouth jobs, when young generation are dropping out of schools and resorting to criminal activities, that’s when you know, we have reached crashing and desperate level.

This situation of ours is not new in history. The powerful economies all over the world went down the same road, from the European Credit Crisis of 1772, The Global Great Depression of 1929–39, The OPEC Oil Price Shock of 1973, a devastating oil economic crisis which brought down some oil countries, the Asian Crisis of 1997, and Financial Crisis of 2007–08 but they (including governments) and ordinary people paid a huge price to prosper again. There is no short-cut to economic prosperity. 

For many reasons, this political and economic crisis is a short-term crisis. We are experiencing a “sweat to gain momentum”, an opportunity to re-evaluate our mindsets and to plan for new future. 

We have a fertile land blessed with immense natural resources, including gold, diamond, and uranium under the earth; yet we are the poorest country in the region, not only because of endemic corruption but also due to lack of human capital to extract the natural resources. Government definitely takes the lion’s share of the blame for lack of basic infrastructure and security but we also have to blame ourselves for being unproductive, idle and lazy to innovate and contribute to the economy.

However, the good news is the first South Sudanese are determined to make it happen, with or without peace. Youth have taken over hawking business, Boda Boda, Water tanks and other opportunities that were run by foreigners in Juba. 

Some youth have gone back to their villages to champion agro-business and farming. When an urban graduate settles in the village, that is the beginning of development.

I have also seen swift changes of attitude in extravagant spending. Many South Sudanese tycoons have ceased purchase of luxurious V8 vehicles, frequent travels and stay in five star hotels. I have seen foreigners such as Ethiopians, Somalians, and others too switching to eat at local restaurants. This is a great development. They are not just eating kombo but they are paying us back. 

A friend of mine once told me that “tough times breed tough people”, and indeed, this economic crisis will breed a tough, resilient and prosperous next generation in South Sudan. 

We must take an example from a woman selling tea on the roadside to the boys at the car wash parlours. They have one thing in common — making dignified money to meet their basic needs.


Mariak Michael is based in Juba, South Sudan.

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