South Sudan’s revenue system is overwhelmingly dependent on oil revenues, while ordinary citizens have no say over where their tax money is spent. What can be done to challenge this system that provides for the self-enrichment of the few at the devastating expense of the many?
Matthew Benson describes how overlapping legacies of a revenue system describe South Sudan’s present, but need not provide the template for the country’s future.
This blog post discusses findings shared in a new policy brief by the same author. Access the policy brief
Transitioning from Taxation without Representation in South Sudanflex
Taxation without representation defines South Sudan’s revenue system. The country is overwhelmingly dependent on oil revenues and ordinary citizens have no say over where their money is spent. Neither taxes nor oil revenues contribute to welfare improvements for everyday people. Instead, many essential public services such as healthcare, basic infrastructure and education are contracted out to international NGOs and organisations that are largely funded by wealthy countries. This system can only be said to ‘work’ for those who have privileged access to oil revenues, which are rumoured to dubiously finance things such as expensive houses in neighbouring Kenya and Uganda and beyond. Meanwhile within South Sudan, most of the country’s citizens experience some of the world’s poorest health and education indicators.
So how did we get here and what could be done to challenge this overarching capture of the state for the self-enrichment of the few at the devastating expense of the many? Recent research published by Matthew Benson, who leads LSE IDEAS’ Sudans research in the Conflict and Civicness Research Group, in collaboration with South Sudanese researchers within the Bridge Network examines these kinds of questions. By following the money, the research featured in a new Policy Briefing ‘Taxation and Civicness in South Sudan: Revenue Reforms for a More Inclusive Democracy’, reveals that South Sudan’s revenue system is forged of three overlapping legacies. But while this analysis of the past helps better describe South Sudan’s present, it need not provide the template for the country’s future. The Policy Briefing identifies several areas for reform that are primarily centred around empowering South Sudanese people to peacefully hold their government’s finances to account. This blog first summarises the briefing’s findings and concludes with an overview of policy recommendations:
Taxation, Submission & Forceful Acquisition, 1899-1963
The first timeframe commenced with the British-led colonial occupation of the region that is now South Sudan from 1899 to 1956 and carried over until 1963 when the first civil war began in the country. Surprisingly, rather than pay for government, taxes were used to coercively ‘buy’ or ‘rent’ loyalty from customary authorities such chiefs and sheikhs. This follows a political economic repertoire that the anthropologist Louisa Lombard describes elsewhere in Africa as ‘forceful acquisition’. In sum, the colonial state acquired collaboration from customary authorities through the explicit promotion and expansion of these individuals’ social status, which was rooted in their ability to coercively take taxes from others.
Direct taxes did not fully finance local government administrations and customary authorities had limited incentives to develop public services for their populaces when they personally benefitted from the tax regime. Instead, taxes were an effective tool for the colonial state to consolidate its authority over the vast territory that was difficult to physically access and took 30-years to violently ‘pacify’ through militarised colonial patrols that taxes were a key component of. Local governments subsequently depended on fiscal transfers from the capitol, which is a governance pattern that partially continues into the present.
Taxation, Conflict & Rebel Finance, 1963-2005
During the first civil war against Khartoum-led rule, from 1963 to 1972, Anya-Nya rebels predatorily collected taxes to supplement their guerrilla war effort. The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) adopted similar rebel taxation patterns during the wars for independence that it primarily led from 1983 to 2005, while also working through customary authorities to collect taxes.
Rebel taxes did not meaningfully finance local government civil administrations. Instead, in another overarching governance pattern that continues into contemporary South Sudan, taxes supplemented external finances from regional and international powers from the Anya-Nya years, to the fragmented SPLM/A administration, into the region’s 2011 independence. External finances included military support; additionally, while aid did not directly finance different rebel or state administrations, aid, and the ability to manipulate aid, contributed to the resources available to the SPLM/A.
While seemingly insignificant to the official national budget, taxes supplemented decades of civil wars that contributed to independence. Nor are they a distant memory that is no longer salient to today’s politics. When South Sudan’s current leadership declares that people will simply ‘return to the bush’ if there are no economic opportunities available, this is a tacit reference to the enduring salience of the predatory taxation patterns that rebel movements devised during the country’s civil wars of the 20th century. Taxes were directly linked to Lombard’s notion of forceful acquisition as a political repertoire because the social status of these rebels was directly linked to their ability to take from southern populations in the region.
Taxation as Fragmented Predation & Limited Representation, 2005-Present
The current political, economic, and social moment emerged with the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) between the Government of Sudan and the SPLM/A. Accurate figures on the amount of oil revenue the Government of South Sudan derives from oil are not publicly available and the full scale of the revenues the country generates from oil is similarly difficult to ascertain without detailed knowledge of the various loans that the country is also suspected to have taken out from a range of global creditors. Even with these gaps, oil is widely believed to underpin most of the South Sudanese government’s finances. For example, South Sudan’s most recent public revenue figures for FY2019/2020 budget state that the country generated one quarter of its total revenue from non-oil revenue sources.
Throughout previous waves of conflicts and the subsequent transition from rebel rule to internationally recognised statehood, customary authorities devised innovative ways to survive decades of political instability, politically motivated violence, and in some instances, environmental degradation. Civil war and neglectful post-2011 governance patterns have shifted the institution of chieftaincy from one that was solely rooted in forceful acquisition towards one that is founded in their ability to both obtain taxes and transparently spend them on public services that are somewhat representative of taxpayer demands. This transformation is especially notable given the broader context in which the South Sudanese delivers few public services and elected officials use the state to self-enrich.
Across research sites, for example, customary authorities collected taxes that communities used to respond to citizens’ demands to redress inequities. This includes redistributing food within the community to ensure food insecure families are aided. Other examples include motivating labour to construct local infrastructure in the form of roads and assisting communities with social functions such as funerals and weddings. The taxes that customary authorities collect consequently represent a potentially transformative source of civicness that could challenge or untangle South Sudan’s coercive political marketplace. Customary authorities’ taxes are consensual and largely voluntary and in so doing so generate and sustain ‘integrity, trust, civility, inclusion and dialogue, and non-violence’, which are tenants of the concept.
Contrary to how the political marketplace might appear to analysts at the centre of government in Juba, the picture that emerges across this project’s six research sites does not adhere to a command-and-control model from Juba to the peripheries. The system is closer to fragmented predation rather than what the scholar Mahmood Mamdani characterises as ‘decentralised despotism’. Above all, ‘business as usual’ suits the country’s governing elite far better than most citizens.
The brief consequently advances three sets of recommendations, which are focused on transparency initiatives that work hand in hand with participatory budgeting, expanding support to customary authorities’ civic taxation practices, and reforming South Sudan’s tax legislation to counter the legacy of revenue’s coercive history in the country:
- Combine Transparency Initiatives with Participatory Budgeting to Subvert South Sudan’s Political Marketplace
Even if taxes contribute a small amount of revenue to the national budget, they hold the political power to catalyse increased citizen engagement with the revenue system Transparency holds the promise that it will enable taxpayers to better hold local governments to account. Lessons can be drawn from tax transparency initiatives in Ethiopia, where local government budgets have been publicized on the sides of motorized tricycle taxis. In South Sudan, given that most of the population has limited literacy, local revenues could be published on radio broadcasts. Additional initiatives include Participatory Expenditure Tracking Surveys (PETS), for which there is a relevant evidence base, including from neighbouring countries in East Africa. Other initiatives include Constituency Development funds that enable citizens to shape the public services that are needed within their region that are primarily managed and delivered through local civil services.
- Expand Customary Authorities’ Civic Taxation Efforts
Customary authorities can be supported through community-based initiatives that expand the representation locally derived taxes provide in the community, including the redistribution of food in the event of localised famines and planning for local community infrastructure needs. Welfare projects that work with customary authorities, potentially but not exclusively through local governments, provide an area to both identify and expand areas where public services can be co-produced by the aid community and public authorities.
- Reform South Sudan’s Tax Legislation to Reflect the Political Economy of Taxation
Rather than technocratic analyses of PFM, which tend to neglect taxation’s political dimensions and privilege revenue raising, a politically oriented, historically sensitive, approach to PMF is desperately needed in South Sudan. Nationally, South Sudan’s tax legislation require innovative reform to prevent revenue centralisation and grant state’s stronger powers to monitor central government finances. Future reforms could include increased provisions for revenue transparency or at minimum more effective adherence to the most recent provision of the Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan (R-ARCSS), which includes a Public Financial Management (PMF) oversight committee.
This blog post discusses findings shared in a new policy brief by the same author.
- Access the policy brief
Matthew Benson is the PeaceRep Research Manager for the Conflict and Civicness Research Group at LSE, and is the Sudans Research Director at LSE IDEAS.