Op-Ed: Can South Sudan Learn from Botswana?

July 8, 2011

Obiageli Ezekwesili Sudan Tribune

As South Sudan prepares to fete independence next July 9, citizens and leaders of Africa’s newest nation must be haunted by one question: how does our country go from being one with one of the worst human indicators in the world to prosperity, avoiding the errors other African countries made after gaining independence 50 years ago?

South Sudan can look for inspiration from many development models, but it will ultimately follow one of its own fashioning. It could help if Africa’s youngest nation emulated an African example.

Botswana was one of the 25 poorest nations in the world, with only 50 university graduates at the time of independence. It is now one of Africa’s richest countries. How did Botswana do it?

“Botswana succeeded partially because it made education, skills training and water development among its top development priorities,” Festus Mogae, former President of Botswana recently told a group of development practitioners. 

Land-locked and economically isolated as a result of sanctions and boycott campaigns against Rhodesia (today’s Zimbabwe) and then apartheid South Africa, Gaborone invested in its most important resource: its people. It created the conditions for citizens to do what they already did best (livestock rearing). A prisoner of geography and geopolitics, Botswana promoted regional integration and trade with its neighbors notwithstanding the difficult context.

According to President Mogae, Botswana’s independence leaders ensured that the country’s traditions of consultation, transparency and accountability were molded into the fabric of the newly-independent country. Botswana then focused on providing security, justice and jobs to its citizens, getting revenue from its abundant natural resources to benefit a majority of them.

Today, South Sudan starts off with more university graduates than Botswana. But unlike Gaborone at independence, Juba needs to rebuild from and reconcile after a brutal war that has cost more than two million lives. The new nation faces daunting challenges, including the lack of basic capacity to handle core functions of the State. While there is no silver bullet for building a newly-independent nation, Juba needs to give priority attention to at least three areas.

First, the new country’s leaders and the political elite must involve citizens early on in devising any development strategies. The approach and process has to be bottom-up, inclusive and consultative; carefully analyzing opportunities and weaknesses, defining the roles of the government, private sector, civil society and ordinary citizens. Leaders can and should provide a clear and shared sense of joint investment if South Sudan is to set a solid foundation for a prosperous future. The elite should not articulate the vision of the nation behind closed doors.

Secondly, South Sudan must foster private sector growth and the emergence of small business, the engine of jobs and wealth creation in any economy. The economic strategy should be broad-based, prioritizing the needs of the population. Africa’s youngest nation urgently needs a diversification strategy that moves it away from a mono-product economy. It needs to explore opportunities, notably in agriculture which is a bigger and more sustainable asset than oil on which Juba currently depends for 98 percent of its revenue. For oil revenue to benefit the majority of South Sudanese requires the EITI++ approach – an approach that goes beyond basic transparency and maximizes the value of oil concessions, monitors compliance with contracts, and ensures not only transparency in the management of oil revenue but also its efficient investment in pro-poor and sustainable development programs. Beyond oil, fixing agriculture offers the best chance for creating jobs, improving incomes and reversing food insecurity. The U.N. estimates that about four million South Sudanese (half of the population) were in need of food assistance this year alone.  Shared and inclusive agricultural growth is essential for improving incomes and ensuring poverty reduction in a country with a 46 percent poverty rate. Neglect of agriculture would create uneven growth, increase inequity and increase the risk of social unrest.

Thirdly, it must build the institutions it needs to guarantee security for its citizens, provide basic social services (health, education, and low-income housing), create jobs and enhance livelihoods, bridge its infrastructure gap, and boost political and trade relations with its neighbors, including the North. The best institutions will be inclusive, paying keen attention to the interests of the most vulnerable - youth, women, children, the elderly, the physically challenged, war victims, internally displaced, returnees, and ex-combatants.

Lastly, South Sudan must resist the temptation to adopt quick-fix, populist solutions, with little chance of sustainability. Yet, the new nation must move with a high sense of urgency, recognizing that the poor and hungry cannot wait generations for solutions to their most urgent problems. As in Botswana after independence, the center of gravity in South Sudan needs to shift from the elite to ordinary citizens. The euphoria of independence must quickly give way to the hard work of security sector, economic and governance reforms with a focus on empowering citizens, especially women, to solve their own problems. It must awaken their creative genius and support their efforts to hold their government and development partners accountable.

Several African countries like Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana and Zambia, at independence, had per capita incomes that exceeded those of East Asian countries including South Korea. Less than half a century later, the average per capita income of sub-Saharan Africa – even after adjusting for differences in purchasing power – was less than one-fourth of East Asia. Leadership matters and with it, the governance and people-friendly development policies that have separated the winners from the losers. For South Sudan, setting up the right institutions, adopting the right and sound policies, and ensuring effective and efficient public investment in the sectors that matter to the poor will help lift the maximum number of its citizens out of poverty and commence the country’s journey to socio-economic transformation. Acting with a sense of urgency can ensure that the attention, care and support South Sudan is getting in the build up to independence on July 9 will last beyond this one news cycle. Nation building takes time, but South Sudan can accelerate this process by taking full advantage of lessons derived from well-known development success stories.

* Ms. Obiageli Ezekwesili is the World Bank Vice President for Africa, a former government minister in Nigeria and a co-founder of the anti-corruption body Transparency International.