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South Sudan's shutdown of embassies could cost it dearly

Waakhe Simon Wudu
June 14, 2019

South Sudan plans to shut down several of its embassies to cut spending. The inclusion of missions in Norway and France may come at a high price for the new nation, with its faltering peace process and stagnant economy.

Salva Kiir and Riek Machar
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/M. Ayene

Juba puts the radical decision down to the dire economic crisis facing the country, which is still engulfed in political uncertainty.

"Administrative measures" have already been taken to close the embassies in France, Norway, Ghana, Kuwait and Italy, Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Mawien Makol told DW. 

"It is finances, basically," Makol said of the reasons behind the move. "Because of the crisis that we are in, we thought about trying to spend wisely and spend within our reach. We are paying these embassies from our resources."

A man holding the South Sudan flag
The people of southern Sudan voted for independence from Sudan in a referendum in January 2011 Image: picture alliance/dpa/M. Messara

Norway paid for peace 

The funding for the embassies, Makol noted, had also included resources to support their post-conflict restructuring.

Norway is a key player in South Sudan and a financial backer of the country's peace process. Grouped with the United States and the United Kingdom as the so-called Troika, it is at the forefront of pressing the country's leaders to reconcile and restore peace and stability.

Read more: US wants to see movement towards unity government in South Sudan

France has been instrumental in United Nations Security Council resolutions on South Sudan. In May 2019, the UN extended an arms embargo on the East-Central African country and imposed sanctions on some officials, in the aftermath of renewed fighting. France has veto power in the world body.

Read more: Extended sanctions and renewed fighting in South Sudan 

Political commentators suggest that the shuttering of South Sudanese embassies abroad would limit the diplomatic space the country has enjoyed so far and result in it becoming more internationally isolated. The move could also damage ties with the countries in question who may feel targeted. That risk is greatest with Norway and France.

Famine as a weapon in South Sudan

France may 'feel humiliated'

James Okuk, a research fellow at the Juba-based think tank Center for Strategic and Policy Studies, warned that the countries where South Sudan's missions have been closed may not be happy with the move.

"France has a lot of control in Francophone countries in Africa and their influence cannot be undermined. France will feel humiliated by the fact that they are the only country with permanent membership of the UN Security Council where Juba decided to close down its embassy," Okuk said.

"France may use its powers in the Security Council to push for what will corner Juba in future and that is not good news for the government."

Norway, Okuk suggests, could "feel betrayed" after having stood behind South Sudan since its struggle for independence from Khartoum. "They spent a lot of money, energy and human resources. They implemented a lot of development capacity building in South Sudan and the money they have invested is huge compared to what they spend in other countries in Africa," he said.

Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Mawien Makol was quick to point out that the plan involving the embassies is fluid. "We are trying to look into this closure now as a temporary measure, at least for now because of this financial situation," he said.

A group of South Sudanese children pictured at a refugee camp in Uganda
Uganda hosts a large number of South Sudanese refugeesImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/B. Curtis

Funds needed to implement peace

The government in Juba has been implementing cost-cutting measures for some time now. In May 2019, it sacked dozens of diplomats at its embassies in countries such as the US and UK who went absent without leave - for months or even years in some instances. At the time Makol denied the sackings had anything to do with saving money.

Foreign Minister Nhial Deng Nhial later hinted of embassy closures due to financial challenges.

When South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in July 2011, this marked an end to Africa's longest civil war. The ensuing peace was short-lived, however. Armed conflict erupted between forces loyal to the first president, Salva Kiir and his deputy Riek Machar in December 2013. The conflict has cost nearly 400,000 lives and displaced some two million people – one in four South Sudanese – displaced within the country and abroad.

Read more:  Who will gain from South Sudan's expanded oil production?

The former arch-rivals, Kiir and Machar (who is due to return as vice-president) have yet to implement the power-sharing deal they signed in August 2018. The deal is expected to kick in six months behind schedule at the end of 2019, as the two leaders express concern over some of the terms and warn that the oil-rich country simply can't come up with the money needed for its implementation.