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South Sudan's Runaway Government Needs Urgent Reform

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A new spirit has besieged the world's newest country. Its president, Salva Kiir Mayardit , in recent days, has decreed the unimaginable into reality.

He has removed 35 generals and major generals from the army and put them in a 'reserve list' and catapulted less senior officers into the top brass.

Few could have predicted such a major shake-up would come so soon over a year after independence, particularly as many of the affected commanders are some decorated heroes of the country's long war of liberation. And so their removal has unnerved some who don't get the method behind the order.

We're yet to understand what has gotten into Salva Kiir and whether he has finally gone bold or rogue?

For South Sudanese, the air seems expectant with promise of Juba's version of the 'winds of change.' Of what consequences, we still don't know.

What's certain is that masses are screaming 'reform, reform, and reform!'

Michael Deng*, a foot soldier with South Sudan's military was one of hundreds of South Sudanese who thronged the streets of Juba in the wee hours of the morning of independence to greet the milestone.

On that historic eve, the country was pregnant with hope of a lifetime dream about to come to fruition.

Deafening honking of cars, women's exhilarating ululations and youth's "Yes, yes to separation!" chants buoyed the sleepy capital.

Deng had his Kalashnikov strapped around his shoulder. He'd been assigned to provide protection to celebrants but doubled up as a citizen.

I found him rehearsing "God Bless South Sudan," the country's brand new national anthem. I sang along with him, but none of us could recite the lyrics perfectly in those days.

Deng, a veteran of the war of liberation, was elated about the realization of the freedom he fought for. It meant that "I can become well and I can become better and better, forever," he told me.

Forward to today and life in an independent nation remains static for the soldier and millions of his fellow citizens. Abject neglect and endless ethnic conflicts are dampening their high hopes.

The grim situation is exacerbated by de facto economic war with the country's former enemies in Sudan. Outstanding issues on oil and borders are constant triggers of hostility.

The government of the land-locked nation was forced to shut off its oil production last year in a charged dispute with Sudan over transit fees. The move wiped out Juba's entire budget and erased its only source of foreign currency earnings.

The government halved the budgets for most ministries and agencies and cut ten per cent of state grants as part of its austerity measures, in an attempt to minimize the damage (National Bureau of Statistics 2012).

South Sudan, if it is to tackle precipitous challenges of nation building, it must reduce its bloated government.

The post-independence cabinet in 2011 fielded 29 ministries; up from 21 in 2006 or 38.1 per cent increase while the legislature picked up 316 members in 2011, up from 170 or 86 per cent expansion.

The same seismic growth is true across the executive and the judiciary.

The ideal place to start in the quest for meaningful reform is to repeal Mr. Kiir's accommodation policy or 'open-tent' as it's sometimes called.

The policy was conceived before independence to absolve and absorb militias and political foes into the government and army to clear internal hurdles on the path to nationhood.

The strategy arguably pacified thousands of former warlords and opponents who got top government posts, with minimal regard for competence.

The by-product of the policy is an expanded government that maintains an exorbitant preferential program for a privileged few and tolerates economic backwardness for millions.

'Open-tent' no longer makes sense in an independent South Sudan. Only change does.

While quick fixes are virtually non-existent, three policy options come to mind. These are status quo, modified status quo (compromise), and downsizing (radical option).

The status quo has obviously failed and can't be recycled. South Sudanese are poorer, divided and less secure today than when the policy was first implemented.

Mr. Kiir needs to take the country in a strategically better direction sooner rather than later.

Over a week ago a compromise approach looked palatable as politics is famously the art of the possible. However, the President's sweeping restructuring of the army sets the stage for a dramatic option such as 'downsizing.'

In his first independence anniversary speech last year, Mr. Kiir surprised an unsuspecting nation with these prophetic words: "I must be clear here that the size of our government today in the payroll is very large compared to other countries. In these times of austerity we cannot afford it and therefore we will downsize the government so that money is reserved for development."

To "downsize" is to merge similar ministries, commissions, agencies and eliminate others to save money 'for development'. It also involves retrenching the dormant civil service and unleashing an era of productivity, quality and delivery.

The task will be difficult in absence of functional pension system as several senior administrative positions in the government are filled by folks who have crossed or are nearing retirement age.

Despite these odds, I believe the President's new-found courage to prune the former guerrilla army will not go to waste.

Surely, his sworn 'vehicle with no reverse gear' should speed forward to realize the vision emblazoned in South Sudan's code of arms: 'For justice, liberty and prosperity.'

*The name of the soldier has been changed to protect his identity.