In public comments made in recent weeks, the United States special envoy to Sudan, Andrew Natsios has called southern Sudan a potential breadbasket for Africa. He’s also expressed confidence in the ability of the south to control corruption.
Southern Sudan emerged in 2005 from a two-decade war that had pitted the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) against the northern government of Sudan in Khartoum. According to human rights groups, the conflict killed more than 2 million people, and left hundreds of thousands displaced.
Natsios said in Washington DC recently that southern Sudan’s leaders were struggling to implement good governance practices, and that there appeared to be substance to allegations that some donor funds that had been allocated to development in the region had been misappropriated.
“Are there people who’ve tried to enrich themselves? There appears to be some evidence of that,” Natsios said, before qualifying his statement by saying that the corruption that had happened in the south was not “wide-scale” and that it could be dealt with rapidly by putting the necessary “systems” and “institutions” in place. He revealed that the leadership of southern Sudan had requested “technical help” from the international community to launch a fight against graft.
“Corruption is a problem in many developing countries where a lot of money is moving through the system, and the systems aren’t there to control abuse,” Natsios added. “I know many of the southern leaders; I’ve known them for many years. I believe that they care about their people. You know, some countries I go to - there’s a kleptocracy; the elites are rapacious, corrupt and predatory. That is not true in southern Sudan.”
The envoy lauded Sudan’s Vice-President and SPLM/A leader, Salva Kiir, as a “man of integrity”. It was ironic, Natsios said, that President Omar al-Bashir’s government in the north was using the allegations and “rumors” of graft in the south to regularly attack the SPLM administration – yet the Khartoum administration was itself ranked by international anti-graft groups as one of the most corrupt in the world.
Natsios remained optimistic that southern Sudan would in the future emerge as an area of great economic importance to Africa.
“The biggest thing that’s changed for the south is that all the food prices are dropping in the cities because there’s no war. And the merchants are pouring in from Nairobi and Uganda. There were only a hundred businesses in Yei (one of the most important towns in southern Sudan) when I visited there five years ago. Four years later, there are 1 800 small businesses. People in the south are very entrepreneurial.”
While the envoy attached great importance to the development of health and education in southern Sudan, he emphasized that the greatest priority for the region should be the building of roads.
“We’re finding out that the roads system is most important, because that is what’s causing the economy to begin to boom now,” Natsios enthused. “It’s one of the richest agricultural areas in Africa! Southern Sudan could feed all of Africa. Its extremely rich soils; there are 10 or 20 million … head of cattle in the south.”
With most people in southern Sudan being farmers or herders, agriculture is of primary importance to the area. Natsios was convinced that, with the introduction of modern agricultural technology, southern Sudan would one day be transformed from a place of perennial famine, to a continental breadbasket.