Bentiu, South Sudan
Holding court beneath a neem tree in a walled compound next to a mud hut with a satellite dish, Stephen Taker Riak Dong, the acting governor of Unity State, cheerfully dismisses talk of economic collapse. Bentiu, his state’s administrative capital, is a wreck after 21 months of war. It looks as if a cyclone has scattered its shack-like dwellings. Abandoned vehicles rust in the grass. Herds of looted cattle are guarded by men with AK-47s. Unity once accounted for much of the country’s oil but now produces none. Yet Mr Taker is unperturbed. “We never depend on oilfields. If there are no dollars we don’t mind.” Peace, he says, will solve everything.
But it remains elusive. A deal signed in August by President Salva Kiir and his sacked deputy-turned-rebel leader, Riek Machar, looked like the best chance yet. But then Mr Kiir, to the annoyance of foreign mediators, announced he was redrawing state boundaries and increasing their number from ten to 28, undermining the power-sharing pact. Mr Machar reacted angrily, but so far neither party has dumped the deal, signed under pressure from regional governments and America.
The year after South Sudan’s independence in 2011, a border row between South Sudan and its larger neighbour, the rump state of Sudan, set off a months-long partial shutdown of the oil industry, severely depleting the new state’s cash reserves. And when the civil war in the new country began in December 2013, the oil virtually stopped flowing altogether. A trickle has resumed, but South Sudan’s oil is of low quality. Falling prices and a fixed-payment plan for using the pipelines taking the oil north through Sudan means the government earns only $5 for each of the 150,000 or so barrels a day that are now produced.
The economy is dire. South Sudan’s currency has fallen from an official rate of three pounds to the dollar to 16 on the black market. A schoolteacher who earned $115 a month at independence now gets the equivalent of $25. More worrying is the sullen mood of rank-and-file soldiers, whose monthly pay is now worth only $50.
Meanwhile tens of thousands of South Sudanese have been killed in the past two years and 2m people, a sixth of the population, uprooted; 4m are near starvation. “By any measure the humanitarian situation is as bad as anywhere else in the world—or worse,” says Simon Mansfield of the European Commission in Juba, the capital. Foreign donors have given $1 billion this year. The UN’s World Food Programme spends $1.1m a day on hungry South Sudanese.
But making peace is the sine qua non. Disagreement over how to demilitarise Juba, to allow Mr Machar and his entourage to return in confidence, is a further threat to the August deal. One suggestion is for UN peacekeepers to secure the city, but they are already stretched and widely seen as ineffective. Britain says it will send 300 soldiers to bolster them, but they are to provide only technical support. The ring needs to be held by peacekeepers who are capable of using force—once the two sides have genuinely agreed to make peace. That still seems a distant prospect.