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South Sudan: Xenophobia Emerges Amidst Local Unemployment

As frustrations grow over a lack of employment and opportunities, successful foreign entrepreneurs are proving to be easy scapegoats.
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An outdoor market in Juba, South Sudan. Photograph by United to End Genocide.

Juba, South Sudan:

It wasn’t the fire in Juba’s Konyo Konyo market last March that took Robert Ongua’s goods. Like most Ugandans peddling goods at the market in South Sudan’s capital, Ongua’s makeshift stall is far from the intersecting roads that fix the market’s main entrance. When fire erupted near the front of the market and the shouts of alarm sounded therefore, he had enough time to gather the pile of shoes he had imported from his home country and dash for safety.

It was then that police officers stopped him, demanding to see the import documents he had left behind in his hurry. When he couldn’t produce them, the officers seized the shoes. He doesn’t expect them to be returned.

“I’m here with nothing,” he says. “When I see the situation like this, it’s a bit hard. I’m planning to go back [to Uganda].”

As Ongua tells his story, other Ugandan traders gather around, chiming in, eager to tell of the time their own goods were stolen. Or of the time they were beaten by security officers or customers angry about their prices. They say they are victims of a creeping – and sometimes violent – xenophobia. South Sudanese citizens are angry, claiming that foreigners are making money in the newly-independent country they didn’t fight to free, while so many of those who did fight for independence are struggling to get by.

“They say foreigners have come to steal their money,” says Miriam Amin Hamza, who arrived from Kampala earlier this year. As she talks, a customer steps on the pile of shoes she is selling, scattering them in the dust.

Scapegoats for struggles

In a city dotted with posters reminding South Sudanese that it was their martyrs who died to give them a better life, Ongua, Hamza and other low-level foreign traders are obvious scapegoats for locals trying to understand why life is so difficult. It relies on a deeply oversimplified explanation of the country’s myriad of problems, but the harassment of outsiders serves as an escape valve for people’s growing frustration with the lack of opportunities.

While the government hasn’t started keeping official unemployment records, the groups of young men whiling away their days by the side of the road speaks to the absence of ready-made positions.

That doesn’t mean, however, that there isn’t plenty of money to be made in Juba and across South Sudan. There is a lack of nearly everything from food to construction supplies, but many of those trying to tackle those gaps are Ugandans like Ongua and Hamza, as well as Kenyans, Ethiopians and Eritreans who are often helped by financing and supplies from their home countries. The sense that non-natives are succeeding while South Sudanese are scraping to survive fuels a sense of antipathy.

And this antagonism against natives is further heightened by the common belief that many South Sudanese who fled to Kenya and Uganda during the country’s struggle were not well-treated. “Everybody knows somebody who was harassed,” says John Ashworth, a consultant who has spent much of the last few decades of his life in South Sudan.

After years of conflict, South Sudan is also contending with a “culture of violence,” he explains, and this has perhaps contributed to the impulse to lash out against foreigners “accused of taking jobs”.

Expectations and unemployment

In reality, the challenges facing South Sudanese citizens looking for employment run a lot deeper. Few of the country’s industries are well-developed and the economy is struggling. Furthermore, many South Sudanese simply lack the capital necessary to get businesses going, while others lack the skills to compete for employment as there was very little training available during the war. Returnees from Sudan, educated in an Arabic system, also have an added linguistic problem of adjusting to the English language-dominated South Sudan.

The South Sudanese “don’t feel okay”, says Moi Emmanuel, 26, who returned to Juba last year after spending most of his life in northern Uganda, “that anger is there.” Emmanuel finished high school and got a certificate in public administration while in Uganda. Since he returned to South Sudan, he has sent out at least a hundred job applications but to no avail.

Before the country gained independence last July, Emmanuel says, there was an expectation that things wouldn’t be this way. There was a belief that jobs would be plentiful – and not low-level jobs working as hotel maids or shopkeepers, but well-paid, white-collar positions.

But that hope was unrealistic. The country hasn’t had time to develop industries, or even build an agricultural sector large enough to feed the country.

Emmanuel’s solution to finding work has thus been to emulate foreigners: “They start searching for jobs door-to-door, gate-to-gate. South Sudanese don’t do it. That’s what I fail to understand,” he explains.

Opening up

Unlike many South Sudanese, Emmanuel harbours no resentment against foreigners coming to South Sudan to look for work. According to Ashworth, it could be “the work of more than two or three years” to get everyone in the country to feel the same way.

But South Sudan might need to expedite that process. South Sudan has a pending bid to join the East African Community (EAC). Earlier this month, the leaders of the five member-countries of the EAC postponed their decision regarding South Sudan to later in the year. If ultimately accepted, the new country would join a common market with Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda, which could prove beneficial to South Sudan’s economy. Joining the EAC would also, however, enable freer movement capital and labour between countries.

With its abundance of arable land and potential for growth, the country would see more – not less – foreign workers competing for jobs.

Andrew Green reported from South Sudan on a fellowship from the International Reporting Project.

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