A checkpoint in rural South Sudan. This was set up by the government security forces. Photo by iStock/Getty Images Plus

Through Pear Schouten, Senior Researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies and Ken Mathysen, researcher at the International Peace Information Service (IPIS)

When South Sudan became independent ten years ago, the oil revenues were intended to boost the economy of the world’s youngest country. But shortly thereafter, civil war erupted again, oil prices plummeted and the South Sudanese pound depreciated.

While the elites in Juba split up the remaining oil revenues, local officials, soldiers and rebels have to make do differently. They supplement their missing or deflated salary with decentralized forays into long-distance trade. As a result, the number of checkpoints has nearly doubled since independence in 2011, and checkpoint taxes have increased by 300%. These “transit taxes”, as they are known locally, are mostly illegal. But in the absence of a functioning tax system, and as a legacy of decades of conflict, the “government” has become a finance company, siphoning money from aid and trade. In fact, in practice, every army operation is accompanied by the establishment of a checkpoint to feed the troops. Faced with a gun, transporters can do little but pay.

Over the past two years, we have mapped 319 checkpoints along South Sudan’s major trade routes, of which 253 (79%) were roadblocks and 66 (21%) river checkpoints.

Checkpoints in South Sudan.

Investigating these checkpoints is important as they sit at the heart of South Sudan’s wartime economy. Taxation is closely linked to state formation, and understanding how taxation works in practice therefore offers a unique insight into a country’s political economy. Allowing the security services to engage in systematic illegal taxes is a cheap way for the South Sudanese government to buy loyalty and gain a weak but ubiquitous military presence along the country’s battered road network. But checkpoint taxes raise the price of delivering aid, make life expensive for poor South Sudanese and stifle the domestic market for agricultural products.

The most expensive roads in the world

Government soldiers and civilian authorities control most of the checkpoints along the overland routes. The opposition Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement, led by Riek Machar, controls just over half of the checkpoints along river routes: the White Nile, its tributary El Zeraf, and the Sobat.

On average, a typical checkpoint in South Sudan is manned by six people, sharing three visible weapons, and charges around 48,000 SSP (US$80). However, since vehicles typically travel long distances, the total checkpoint taxes for one trip can be enormous.

Take the White Nile. Barges with around 300 to 400 tons of humanitarian aid or food usually commute between Bor and Renk. For the entire round trip, each barge pays around $211 at each of the 33 checkpoints, totaling a staggering $10,000 for a round trip.

While the checkpoints on the road between Juba and Bentiu average a truck about $21, the entire trip involves passing through 80 checkpoints — meaning a round trip easily costs over $3,000 in checkpoint taxes . This puts transportation in South Sudan among the most expensive in the world, with a price per ton surpassed only by Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Living off the road

On the one hand, checkpoints provide a convenient way for soldiers and officials to supplement their absentee, late, or inflated salaries. A soldier explains: “We should be paid every month. The food we get – you wouldn’t even eat it. We live in poor health. Most of us survive only on the transit taxes we levy on traders.”

Soldiers like him earned a salary that was set at SSP 1500 in 2011 and was worth about $200 at the time. Today, that amount is worth just $3. The first thing the army will do on each mission is set up a checkpoint to provide sustenance. A soldier explains: “I am happy here because the daily income I make here is much better than my salary. On a good day I get $25 while my monthly salary is $3 and it doesn’t even come on time.”

However, a large portion of checkpoint gains are obscurely piped up the chain of command. As one checkpoint commander explained: “We who operate a checkpoint do not consume all informal taxes alone, but pass them on to our own superiors. And that happens weekly or we even visit them in the evenings where they live and give them their jobs.”

As in other Central African countries, checkpoint commanders can retain lucrative posts if they reward their superiors with some of the money, who in turn have to pay their own superiors. In this way, checkpoints are a mechanism to transfer wealth from the commercial sector to political-military elites, a symptom of a predatory war economy.

side effects

A side effect of high checkpoint taxes is that it is not profitable to sell agricultural products such as sorghum over long distances, stifling the domestic economy.

On the other hand, checkpoints are also a form of self-help for local government officials, in a context where the capital does not redistribute the state budget to local government. We found district officials autonomously setting up checkpoints, contrary to Juba’s orders, to increase revenue from trade passing through their district. While understandable, such strategies result in an overall increase in checkpoints and inflated transportation costs.

Another problem is the involvement of humanitarian organizations in the checkpoint economy. The international community funds US$1.4 billion annually in humanitarian assistance and peacekeeping (or 7% of all global humanitarian spending), a significant inflow of resources in a troubled economy. It should come as no surprise that the bulk shipment of humanitarian supplies across the country is a major source of income for checkpoints.

Humanitarian logistics make up a large part of the transport sector in South Sudan, with aid organizations outsourcing food deliveries and other bulk transport to national or regional trucking companies. We found that these subcontractors are systematically taxed at 157 or 49% of all South Sudanese checkpoints.

This means that scarce aid funds are appropriated by soldiers and rebels in South Sudan and end up in the pockets of the military elite. Locals in Juba often say, “Help is the new oil”. Large volumes of humanitarian aid traveling overland can also be a factor driving the checkpoint phenomenon, as they represent stable sources of income as well as food flows that can be used strategically in the struggle for control over people.

In early 2021, the Dinka Jieng Council of Elders, a group campaigning for the rights of the Dinka community, stated that “corruption in South Sudan is the engine of political competition and therefore war,” reflecting both the fragmentation of the elites and the Bodens promotes troops. The long-distance transport of bulk goods and supplies, which represent concentrated wealth due to the volumes involved, is at the heart of South Sudan’s militarized political economy.

Given South Sudan’s long history of conflict, it is likely that checkpoints are an endemic phenomenon and that they will remain an important interface between international trade, aid and conflicting parties in the country.

This article was republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.