South Sudan joined the East African Community (EAC) this week when EAC heads of state approved the country's application at a summit in Tanzania. South Sudan becomes the sixth member of the economic bloc, along with Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi.
Some South Sudanese have expressed reservations about the country’s EAC membership, given the country's ongoing instability as tries to wind down a 27-month civil war.
South Sudan’s Foreign Minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin insists that his country will benefit from joining the EAC. Speaking to VOA Thursday from the Tanzanian town of Arusha, Marial says there are no reasons for South Sudan not to join the economic bloc.
‘’You know we are members of the U.N., we are members of IGAD, we are members of Northern Corridor, we are members of Great Lakes Region. So why can’t we become members of the East African Community?‘’ Marial asks.
South Sudan applied to join the economic bloc in 2011 when the country gained its independence from Sudan.
An EAC member country is expected to adhere to principles of good governance, democracy, the rule of law and observance of human rights and social justice. South Sudan has struggled with all these issues since the outbreak of the war in December 2013.
In January, a U.N. Panel of Experts report said both President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar should be held accountable for human rights abuses committed by government troops and rebel forces during two years of fighting.
However, Marial insists South Sudan has met all the conditions for joining the EAC. He says his country has been trading and contributing to the building the economies of East African countries for many years.
‘’This will enhance our trade, it will enhance our cultural relationship [and] educational system. There are a lot of benefits that South Sudan can be able to gain by becoming a member within a bigger family,’’ he says.
The South Sudanese top diplomat said an estimated 70,000 South Sudanese students are studying in Kenya and Uganda, adding that there are strong historical connection between South Sudan and the East African countries.
The application of strife-torn Somalia, which submitted a request to join the Community three years ago, was not yet given the green light. According to sources at the summit, the EAC still wants to assess Somalia's readiness to join the bloc.
Citizens of countries within the EAC can travel to all the countries without applying or paying for visa. Marial says South Sudanese will enjoy what he calls ‘’sovereign equality’’ with all member countries.
‘’There are countries that come to our country without visa. South Sudan will be treated the same. It is a mutual benefits. In diplomacy, that is mutual benefits between countries,’’ Marial said.
He said the EAC will give South Sudan time to upgrade its border custom systems to meet the requirement of member countries. Marial said Rwanda and Burundi were given enough time to improve their systems when the two countries joined the East African Community in July 2007.
Opposition to EAC membership
The leader of the minority in South Sudan’s parliament, Onyoti Adigo Nyikwec, opposed the country's bid to join the EAC, saying South Sudan has nothing to offer the bloc.
Marial disagrees with the Democratic Change Party lawmaker. He said his country stands to gain from EAC membership.
‘’I am sure those doubting Thomases [will] learn along the line that there are certain benefits that will accrue out of this membership and it takes time for those doubting Thomases to see the light at the end of the tunnel,’’ he explained.
Marial said income generated by visa fees at South Sudan's embassies in the East African countries will not drop drastically.
He denied allegations that South Sudan’s embassies overseas have survived on that income since the economic crisis that hit as a result of the civil war.
Most employees of South Sudan’s embassies have not received their salaries since December. ‘’This is a temporary issue being rectified by the government," Marial said. "...Yes there is a delay in process in terms of the transfer of money to some of these embassies. But it is being rectified."
Marial said his government will pay its diplomats very soon, though he declined to give specific dates.