Salva Kiir. Picture: REUTERS
Salva Kiir. Picture: REUTERS

Torched homes, gutted shopfronts and fields of rotting corn greeted Laker Betty as she returned to the town in South Sudan’s breadbasket she fled in terror a year ago.

She is one of the thousands of civilians tentatively returning to the East African nation after a war that at its height rivalled Syria for the dubious title of the world’s worst conflict, claiming almost 400,000 lives. As President Salva Kiir prepares to welcome rebels into a new government, South Sudan’s pillaged towns and villages show the scale of the challenge in rebuilding even a country endowed with sub-Saharan Africa’s third-biggest oil reserves.

“There is nothing to eat here, the soldiers cleaned up everything,” said Betty, a 30-year-old mother of three whose looted home in Pajok once sported the relative luxuries of a solar-power system, TV and refrigerator. “What they did here in Pajok has reduced us to zero.”

Spared for much of the half-decade civil war that unleashed a refugee crisis, Pajok was overwhelmed by the violence  in April 2017, with soldiers rampaging through its streets and residents racing for shelter in nearby Uganda. What they left behind is little more than ashes and ruins — testimony to a scorched-earth policy waged mostly by pro-government forces.

As many as 125,000 South Sudanese are reported as returning in the past year from neighbours including Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia, according to the UN Refugee Agency, although the organisation has verified only a 10th of that figure. While the influx increased after August’s peace deal, the UN does not yet consider the country safe.

You don’t have to stray far from Pajok to see why. Rebels are camped less than 3km  away, though — unlike in the country’s north — fighting has not been reported since the peace deal. The main insurgent leader, Riek Machar, is due to join South Sudan’s transitional government in May.

The president is seeking to build an inclusive government to help the transition to peace. Machar will be one of five vice-presidents; the cabinet will be expanded to 45 ministers and deputies, and the parliament in the capital Juba will grow to 550 legislators, all for a population of about 13-million.

Big government comes at a price, and much of the cost will come from pumping more oil. South Sudan took three-quarters of the oil reserves when it seceded from Sudan in 2011, but the civil war that uprooted about 4-million people also took a toll on output. BP estimates the country pumped about 40-million barrels in 2017. That figure would have brought slightly more than half the revenue of 2013, the year the war began.

With the government poised to expand — amid a collapse in crude prices — there is likely to be little left for rebuilding public services, according to Marial Awou Yol, dean of the school of economics at the University of Juba.

Amalgamating opposition forces and demobilising others, on top of the government’s running costs, will mean “almost zero development activities”, Yol said. Even so, the picture will improve after the three-year transition. “We forego services today in order to have better and even peaceful services in the future,” he said. — Bloomberg