Petty traders from Uganda, South Sudan’s largest trading partner, crowd into Konyo Konyo market in Juba selling used clothes, vegetables and household wares. Lacking economic prospects at home, they come in the hope of finding better opportunities in Juba’s booming post-war economy.
There are about one million Ugandans living in South Sudan, according to the Kampala City Traders’ Association (KCTA). But life is not easy for the Ugandan traders who supply South Sudan with many essential goods.
On a side road at the market, a Southern Sudanese policeman wearing orange fatigues strikes a passing Ugandan with his rubber whip a few times, seemingly without any provocation. The Ugandan winces and then continues on his way.
Watching the incident from a small Ugandan-owned restaurant in the market, Ugandan migrants say such incidents – and much worse – are not uncommon. They say they have been beaten, arrested without cause and faced a plethora of other forms of harassment by Southern Sudanese security forces.
Hassan has been living in Juba for three years, selling used clothes. He has lost count of the number of times he has been beaten by security forces. “They come and ask you where your immigration [papers] are, and even if you have [them], they take you to the police without any [reason]. They beat you and tell you, ‘Bring money!’”
Just that day, says Hassan, Southern Sudanese police tried to extort money from him. “They beat me and they asked me, ‘Where is your money? Why are you working here, we don’t want you to work here, go back to Uganda.’”
Suing the government
KCTA spokesman Issa Sekkito said he and the Ugandan Ministry of Trade had compiled a list of more than 100 Ugandans claiming compensation from the government of South Sudan for harassment, confiscation of goods and property, failure of the government to pay for goods and services provided and in some cases, injuries and loss of life.
“We talked about people drowned in the River Nile, killing, raping of women, torture… Some people are lame now because of the problems they got. The brutality in some cases left their lives unrecoverable.” Ugandans are seeking US$48 million in compensation from the government, he said.
Elizabeth Majok, Under-Secretary of the Ministry of Commerce in South Sudan, did not deny that such incidents may have occurred. But she said any harassment faced by Ugandan traders was the result of misconduct by individuals, and not institutional or systemic failure.
“You will not rule out one-to-one cases and this can happen even with Southern Sudanese. But if there are thousands of Ugandans and one faces certain incidents, which are isolated, it shouldn’t be [taken] like it is happening to everybody.”
Majok said the Ugandans who came to South Sudan were met with generally favourable business conditions and were not systemically discriminated against. “The whole market is being controlled by foreigners, from retailers to wholesalers to importers – everybody. And there is no discrimination. They are being given licences like locals and being facilitated by the Bank of Southern Sudan,” she said.
But this is not the first time security forces in South Sudan have faced allegations of human rights abuses against civilians. Boutros Biel, head of the South Sudanese Human Rights Society for Advocacy, said he had recorded incidents of killings, rapes, arbitrary arrest and torture.
“Generally, the security [forces’] behaviour is not only problematic to the foreigners but to the nationals themselves,” he said.
Biel said he believed that abuses by security forces stemmed from South Sudan’s history. Many of the security personnel in the new nation were formerly soldiers in the rebel army that fought for liberation from the North. “In the military background in the South, there was no mercy in dealing with your enemies… A person with a gun was more powerful [than a person without],” said Biel, explaining that many in the security forces take advantage of that fact and violate the rights of civilians.
Though human rights violations by security forces in South Sudan may happen to both foreigners and nationals, there is a strong undercurrent of xenophobia against Ugandans, according to Fred Ssenoga, spokesman for Joint Action for Redemption of Ugandan Traders in Sudan.
Ssenoga said that when intervening on behalf of Ugandan traders in Juba he was often met with prejudice. “I go to the police and they say, ‘If you had not come here, would you have faced problems?’… When [Southern Sudanese] see Ugandans participating in [the economy] they think they are taking over their work.”
However, despite this xenophobia and harassment, Ugandan migrants are likely to keep going to South Sudan for the financial rewards. As Hassan, the clothes vendor, said, “I get more money than those who stay [in Uganda]. I have already built a big house in Uganda with the money I have got here.”