Africa: South Sudan’s New Finance Minister Braving ‘Ghosts’ and Crocodiles

A South Sudan minister has set out to eliminate ‘ghost workers’ from public payroll and vowed not to pay out a mountain of claims worth millions of dollars until the invoices are verified.

But things do not work like that. Dr Barnaba Bak Chol’s determination to push ahead with the reforms and transformation of South Sudan’s limping economy is simmering discontent among some powerful individuals who benefit from the schemes.

Yet coming as the country prepares for its first general elections in December, there is a feeling that it could all be a ruse by the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement party – whose leader President Salva Kiir says he will be on the ballot in the long-delayed elections.

Appointed finance and planning minister last August, Bak immediately declared it was the “right time” for economic transformation.

“If we unite and eliminate corruption, and equitably share our national resources, we can be one of the strongest economies,” he said.

It all sounded like a diaper dream in a nation Transparency International’s corruption perception index gave a measly 13 percent in 2022 – only better than Somalia that scored 10.

Here is a restive nation where the gun is might and the youngest minister to ever assume the powerful docket of Finance and Planning Minister was talking of fighting ghosts, forensic audit and scrutiny of invoices.

But then Bak started walking the talk. He kicked out security organs that were involved in collecting illicit fees at the border town of Nimule, saying the levies were way too many and “much painful to importers and consumers”.

A typical South Sudan border post has customs, trade ministry, bureau of standards, and state revenue authority picking what belongs to Caesar.

But there would also be police’s CID and traffic – all licking their fingers at the sight of goods in transit.

“There are so many collections at the border point, so I have taken the bold decision… we will have only four institutions at the border collecting taxes as authorised by the law,” he said.

The minister’s bold stance has been akin to testing the depth of the river with both feet. In taking away mussels from the mouths of those who have been munching the public turkey, Bak has picked up a quarrel with a crocodile when his legs are still in the water.

“These people have been doing this for years, they have done this under every other past minister and no one has dared touch them,” said a source in the South Sudan finance ministry.

But South Sudanese civil rights crusader and president of the East African Civil Society Organisation’s Forum, Edmund Yakani, believes it is all rhetoric in action.

“It is going to be very hard for the finance minister to carry comprehensive and concrete finance reforms in the ministry or the finance sector,” Yakani said.

He said the reforms cannot work out because the whole system of finance and planning in South Sudan is not clean and low-level civil servants are deeply embedded in the corruption.

In their 2023 report, the U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre, said corruption in South Sudan is systemic across all levels of government and pervades nearly every economic sector.

“Perpetrators enjoy widespread impunity,” the report said.

But Bak has moved to address overstaffing at the finance ministry. He has instituted screening and downsizing to enhance efficiency.

“Restructuring is essential for optimal functionality. The screening process and subsequent capacity building are crucial steps in this direction,” he said.

Sickening turnover

As well the crocodiles in the murky waters he is trying to drain, Bak holds a docket that has arguably the worst turnover in the history of public office anywhere in the world.

Since independence in July 2011, President Kiir has appointed 11 finance ministers.

There had been three more between 2005 – when the nation signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended decades of liberation war – and independence.

Only two-time finance minister Salvatore Garang Mabiordit has served for two years when he took over on March 12, 2018, until his sacking on March 12, 2020.

Gabriel Changson Chang suffered the ignominy of being dropped even before he had completed his welcome party on July 2, 2007.

He had been appointed in March.

“Even as we speak now a former finance minister is lobbying to be reappointed to finance,” a source said.

In South Sudan, the finance ministry controls the economy, making it the centre of power and wealth. To be a finance minister means having all the resources at your disposal, with the revenue authority and the petroleum corporation, as well as the central bank, all under the ministry.

That boon is its bane, too. It is like a dining table where you are invited, you eat, wash your hands and leave. There is no hanging around to pick your teeth because someone else will be washing their hands to eat.

Dr John Akech, vice chancellor of the University of Juba, was candid during Bak’s welcome at the ministry, telling the party to give the new minister just one year and “if he achieves anything, that’s when can celebrate”.

Prof Akech has worked closely with Bak, who until his appointment was an assistant professor at the School of Business and Management at the University of Juba, for several years.

“The ministry of finance is a machine that roll around bringing people happily in and spitting them out there,” Akech said.

Last year, the National Assembly had to suspend debate on the budget when Finance minister Dier Tong Ngor was fired.

The attrition bleeds the economy. For many ministers, like Prof Akech described, it becomes more about picking whatever you can lay your hands on before you are kicked in the next morning.

A finance minister hardly gets past the first circle of planning, or implementation of a project agreed upon with a development partner. The defenestration is quick and unforgiving.

Presidential Decree

Bak said he would introduce an economic emergency intervention plan. He said it was a policy intended to fix the foreign exchange market by providing essential goods to lower inflation, and also to accelerate the implementation of public management financial reforms.

“We must first have an efficient revenue mobilisation and an effective financial management system,” said the former controller of accounts and director of finance in the Office of the President between 2008 and 2012.

Faced with crocodiles with himself in the swamp to drain, Bak secured a golden seal of backing – at least on paper.

On January 25, Kiir issued a Presidential Decree to the Ministries of Finance and Planning, and Public Service to implement a National Payment System.

“The National Payment System shall include screening of pay sheets, production of financial identification cards and other procedures deemed necessary to ensure the salaries of civil servants and members of the SSPDF and other organised forces are paid on time and that ghost names are removed from the national payroll,” he said.

Under the biometric system, electronic payroll ID will be used by every public servant to draw salary.

Several efforts in the last decade to implement the system – backed by the World Bank and donor agencies – have failed.

For instance, on March 2, 2022, the World Bank approved $34 million in International Development Association grant to support a five-year Public Financial Management and Institutional Strengthening Project in South Sudan.

Indication is that powerful persons live in the million-dollar industry of ghost workers and frustrate any efforts geared at cleansing the public payroll.