Last week South Sudan announced that it was giving all immigrant workers a month within which to leave their jobs for the locals.
According to the notice companies and Non-governmental organisations were directed in the meantime, to advertise all the positions that were due to fall vacant by the 15th of October.
As we were still trying to wrap our minds around this announcement the government did a quick about face and said the earlier communication misrepresented the official position. The new position is only seeking to take the non-specialised, menial jobs back from immigrant workers and pass them on to their own citizens.
In the same week our southern neighbour Rwanda, which has the most liberal immigrant worker policies in the region, had its leader President Paul Kagame saying,
"The foundation of all our efforts is good governance, which for us means a relentless focus on delivering the results that citizens want. Building a competitive, modern economy requires smart investments in human capital, and productive knowledge. After all, real wealth is in the head, not in the ground"
Given this perspective it easy to see why Rwanda sees no contradiction between attracting foreign talent and delivering results for its citizens. Of course one can expect that even in Rwanda they will parcel out only the jobs they themselves cannot do. And as their own citizens understudy their foreign bosses it is realistic to expect that they will rise to fill even these jobs.
The South Sudanese are within their rights to do whatever they want with their country. But oftentimes such sweeping proclamations are political statements made to play to a gallery and not necessarily good for the long term benefit of the country.
With oil flowing less copiously than it was two years ago, Juba is under pressure to not only keep the general population happy but to appease supporters and foes alike.
"Expelling foreign nationals who have been fanning feelings of xenophobia by charging around in four wheel drives, living a lifestyle way out of the reach of most locals and generally seeming to be plucking the ripe fruit from right under their noses, can score some much needed political points...
The quick turnaround only serves to placate fears temporarily, but one can expect that whenever tensions erupt it will be a trump card played with disturbing frequency.
After decades of civil war one cannot blame South Sudan for its incoherence, a product of its lack of institutional and human capacity. This is all the more reason, like Rwanda whose middle class was decimated by the genocide, for them to be eager to import the human resource to fill in the gaping holes in its numbers.
Politicians don’t like free movement of people because then they cannot exert influence over them. However good economics suggests that the free movement of people is not only good for trade but for technology transfer or put more simply the exchange of knowledge for greater efficiency.
There is a reason for example that the Eurasia region developed almost in parallel than say Africa where there were pockets of civilisation in north, west, east and southern Africa but no real connections between them.
Because of the alignment of Europe and Asia for east to west, climate was more or less uniform so agricultural practices could be shared from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The similarities in their produce meant shortages could be mitigated by surpluses from across the world using trade if need be, since tastes were similar. Of course other things were then shared, with each innovation building on the previous and being pollinated by advances from elsewhere and voila we have the foundations of word dominance.
Africa aligned from north to south just could not replicate these benefits and hence its relative backwardness.
The point is, while immigrant labour is an easy political target, hobbling it is often bad economics.
And South Sudan, which is thrice the size of Uganda but with barely a 100 km of tarmac road, is in desperate need of some good economic thinking.
The people in charge in Juba need to come fast to the realisation that people are what make the difference.
You can choose to use nationality over competence as a criteria for recruitment and it might for a while keep your people happy, but it will come around to bite you when your government is unable “to deliver the results that your citizens want.”
The pressure on government must be overwhelming but this is where leadership comes into play. Juba needs to pander less to political expediency and more and more to the bigger picture, the long term view, if it is to have a chance of lifting the war torn country into the 21st century.