Despite the Erupting Violence, Indian Businessmen Are Choosing to Stay Back in South Sudan

By Rajiv Golla | 8 August 2016

At peak afternoon on 14 July 2016, a dark grey C-17 aircraft, a bullseye in the Indian tricolour emblazoned on its fuselage, sat on the tarmac of the international airport in Juba, the capital of South Sudan. Standing outside the hatch were some of the most prominent businessmen of the city—hoteliers, commodity traders and landlords, among others—chatting with the members of the flight crew. A few minutes later, an order came from the tower, clearing the flight for takeoff. The businessmen stepped back from the door. As the engines whirred, they turned and walked back towards Juba.

The flight was one of two aircrafts sent to Juba as part of Operation Sankat Mochan, a rescue operation launched by India’s ministry of external affairs to evacuate Indian citizens trapped in South Sudan. But of the 550 Indians reportedly living in Juba, only 156 chose to take a seat. The second plane was almost entirely empty, save for 11 people. The rest refused to leave.

The evacuation was prompted by events of the week preceding it: in Juba, hundreds were killed during clashes between government troops and rebel forces, loyal to the South Sudanese president, Salva Kiir, and the vice president, Riek Machar, respectively. This was the second outbreak of violence in three years. The clashes stemmed from a bitter and intermittent rivalry between Kiir and Machar that had been ongoing since long before South Sudan became independent, in 2011. This time, assassinations of rebel officials set off a series of retaliatory attacks, culminating in a firefight at the president’s palace on 8 July. Though a ceasefire was declared on 11 July, much of the city remains displaced in churches and bush camps, including Riik, whose whereabouts are unknown.

“What can you do? This is South Sudan,” Champak Tank told me. Tank is an Indian and the head of Dynamic Construction, a company he founded when he moved to Juba in 2006. He was earlier in Kenya, heading a garment factory, and is one of a number of Indian businessmen that moved to South Sudan in the mid 2000s. In 2005, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, or CPA, ended a 50-year civil war between Sudan and an insurgent south, paving the way for the creation of an independent South Sudan. Tank, and many others like him, moved from other parts of East Africa to Juba, a to-be capital with hardly any infrastructure, and brimming with business opportunities. The companies they eventually set up—construction, drilling, hotels and the like—played an essential role in the growth of the country, even after it achieved independent nationhood in 2011. And now, though the nation seems to be on the brink of a civil war, they are reluctant to leave.

Before they moved to Juba, many Indian businessmen cut their teeth in countries such as Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda. In the 1990s, for Indian businessmen, the draw of East Africa was strong: the countries in the region had established Indian communities, flexible economies, workable infrastructures, and—following India’s economic liberalisation in the 1990s—less competition.

Kuber D, an Indian who runs a restaurant on the outskirts of Juba, had earlier set up a business in Goma, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). He told me that during the Second Congo War, in 1998, he was held hostage in his home as rebel forces looted his stock. Other Indians I met last year during a visit to South Sudan narrated similar experiences. A commodity trader I met in a hotel told me how he was once assaulted while taking photographs in a market in Mogadishu, in Somalia; another businessman recounted how he had driven lorries through the rebel-held jungles in the DRC. Most of the people I spoke to seemed to find these risks exciting, and part of the challenge of making it in a new country. “We chase the money. We don’t care if we die,” one commodity trader said, “We’ll be born again anyway, right?”

Living in these countries also gave these Indians a chance to learn the ways of doing business in African markets—where, not unlike India, they had to know whose palms to grease, which rules to bend, and how to get around working with governments notorious for reneging on their promises of payment. But compared to much of central and east Africa, South Sudan was magnitudes less developed and had been a battlefield for the better part of the previous century. Even with their experience, for these Indians, moving their jobs and businesses to Juba was a leap of faith.

At the time they moved there, Kuber told me, the city contained only a few brick structures. The rest was largely tukuls—thatched huts. The infrastructure that now stands—roads, markets, even government offices and courthouses—was scant. Many of the people I spoke to said there no power or water. “We were spending $100 a night to sleep in tents, but we didn’t mind,” Kuber told me.

Part of the allure of Juba was the presence of various non-governmental organisations from the United States or Northern Europe, which had large budgets and could contract businesses in the city. It was “a new market,” said Reddy, an Indian water driller who had previously worked in Tanzania. Sandal Raj, who also works in the drilling business, said he brought his business to Juba because he “saw the opportunity there was with aid groups.” “Even during the oil crash, we were fine,” he told me. “There were still good dollars coming in.”

The NGOs also allowed the business owners to reduce their dependence on the new government for business. Tank’s company landed a plum contract with UNAID, and later built some courthouses across the country. Before he came to Juba in 2007, Bose Reddy, Manohar’s brother, had been working in marketing department at in a printing firm in Tanzania. Bose wanted to start his own company, and moved to South Sudan. His press, Universal Printers Company, is now the largest in the city, and is responsible for printing most of the newspapers in town. During a meeting at his office in June, Bose told me that he, too, preferred working with NGOs that were often in the region to work on peace implementation or education. “I have government tenders that haven’t been paid in six years,” he said, pointing at a stack of papers on an adjacent table.

Within a few years after 2005, Juba had changed completely. The city took on some trappings of urbanity: swanky hotels, high-speed internet, online banking systems, and luxury automobiles. As word of these business successes spread back home, many Indians began moving to South Sudan to take up jobs with their countrymen’s firms. “For Indians that did not get good marks, you can come here and become big,” Bose told me proudly. A cook who works at Kuber’s restaurant and hails from Chennai, echoed Bose. “South Sudan is perfect for lazy Indians. Half the work, twice the pay,” he said.

Bose also told me about philanthropic projects the Indian community started. “The survival of Indians here depends entirely on what we’re doing for the people,” he said. Cognizant of their role as outsiders, Indians in South Sudan set about putting up schools, toilets and clinics to prove their committment to development of the nation. I saw many news clippings of blood drives and clinics hung on the walls of many of their offices—beside their photos with the President.

According to Tank, life in Juba was good for several years after the businesses took off. An Indian Association, formed by the immigrants living in Juba, held regular events for the city’s south Asians. “We used to go out every night to eat together, late into the night,” said Tank, who heads the organisation. “You could stay out and you were safe.” Kuber D told me how, all through the early days of independence, business was booming even for a small entrepreneur like himself. “All the UN officers would come eat with us. We had military generals coming and spending hundreds of dollars a week,” he said.

Then, in 2013, the war hit. Prior to the signing of the CPA in 2005, Kiir and Machar, belonging to different ethnic communities, were both high ranking officials in the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). They had come into conflict over a splinter group Machar had formed in 1991 and dissolved in 2002, before rejoining the SPLA. In 2005, when the SPLA became the governing force in South Sudan, Kiir was installed as President, with Machar as his deputy.

For a couple of years, their relationship seemed to hold. But things came to a head in 2013, when Kiir removed Machar from his post as vice president. In December that year, over a matter of a few days, unknown thousands of civilians were killed in Juba by the president’s forces. That time around, the Indian embassy took nearly two weeks to arrange an evacuation flight. The onset of war forced many Indians to leave. Almost overnight, a community of about two thousand became a few hundred.

For the next year-and-a half, a civil war spread through the nation, fractured along ethnic lines: the Dinka, led by Kiir, and the Nuer, led by Machar, both of whom wanted to gain control over South Sudan’s oil fields and state capitals. The war wreaked havoc on the fragile new nation. Millions of South Sudanese were rendered homeless and forced to hide-out at UN camps, which swelled to five or six times their capacity. The civilian population was subjected to rape and targeted killings, and by May 2015, over 4 million people were reportedly unable to obtain enough food. Finally, in August 2015, the two leaders signed a peace deal reinstating Machar as vice-president. But the let-up in the violence came to an end last month.

“Now things are different,” Kuber told me, as he stood overlooking the empty courtyard of his restaurant. “The UN staff is too scared to come and I get few customers. I’m running this just to give these few workers something of a livelihood.” he said. Though Kuber stuck it out through the 2013 unrest, he decided to leave this time around. He was in Chennai when I spoke to him in late July, and intended to go back only to close up the restaurant.

With the South Sudanese Pound losing several points to the US dollar almost daily, the situation has become untenable. Sanjay Patel, the director of Jit Mart, the largest supermarket in Juba, bemoaned the circumstances. Patel had been working with Jit Mart in Tanzania, and brought the franchise with him to Juba when he came, in 2006. “By the time it goes from the shelf to sale, I’m losing money on everything. The floating currency is worse than the war,” he said. Even so, he sent off his friends at the airport last week, electing instead to stay back.

At the moment, it appears that most of the Indians who left South Sudan were those that had come here for jobs. “The life is in Africa,” Patel told me. “I don’t think I will ever return to India.” “There’s too much to lose here,” Manohar said, while talking of his family’s businesses and assets. “Even during the 2013 war, we just moved everything into the compound and waited, we never left.”

The most recent bout of violence may be the straw to break the camel’s back. On 26 July, after a 48-hour ultimatum, the president replaced Machar, who had refused to return to Juba unless an international body brokered peace. The United Nations has approved resolutions to keep troops in South Sudan and though Kiir has staged public rallies against intervention, the rebel forces welcomed the move. The question now, then, is just how much longer these businessmen can hold out. When the next evacuation flight takes off from Juba, how many of those seats will be filled, and what will be the state of the country they leave behind?

Rajiv Golla is a freelance writer covering sub-Saharan conflict, founder of ReadContra, and contributor to Roads & Kingdoms.

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