By Okech Francis
Victims of this month’s robberies blame armed men in uniforms. The country is suffering from hunger and monetary crisis caused by civil war. When three rifle-toting men in army uniforms barged into Silvano Pitia’s supplies store this month; he became the latest victim of a crime wave that’s rocking South Sudan’s war-weary, hunger-stricken capital.
“They told me that if I didn’t make them happy that night I would visit heaven or hell,” said Pitia, who was charging mobile phones and laptops for customers at his store in Juba, the capital, until the armed men seized the devices and about 200,000 South Sudanese pounds ($1,590) in cash. One gunman said they had the right to steal from the city’s inhabitants because the government hadn’t paid them, the 43-year-old shopkeeper recalled.
The Aug. 12 theft was part of a surge in crime in Juba, a city of an estimated 500,000 people where armed robberies have claimed at least 53 lives this month and are almost twice as common as in July, according to the local Community Empowerment for Progress Organization, which collates figures. Authorities say they’re investigating claims that soldiers are mainly responsible and blame economic upheaval linked to the almost four-year civil war that’s caused prices to soar.
Further bloodshed in the capital, the site of periodic eruptions of violence since the conflict began in December 2013, would imperil attempts to revive an economy that has sub-Saharan Africa’s third-biggest oil reserves. Juba hosts a United Nations peacekeeping mission to which the U.S. and China contribute troops as well as international aid agencies fighting hunger that threatens half of South Sudan’s 12 million people. The country seceded from Sudan in 2011.
‘Worsening Daily.’ The rise in crime has been fueled by an “economic crisis that keeps on worsening daily” and the “absence of rule of law,” CEPO’s executive director, Edmund Yakani, said by email. Radio Miraya, a UN-backed local broadcaster, reported Wednesday that thieves had broken into the Juba Christian Center and stolen more than $30,000.
The war, in which tens of thousands of people have been killed, has decimated agriculture and sparked widespread food shortages, while reduced oil production and lower prices slashed government income. The International Monetary Fund said in March the economy was set to contract 10.5 percent in the 2016-17 financial year, while annual inflation was 115 percent in July, slowing from 362 percent the month before. Judges and university lecturers have staged strikes after they weren’t paid.
Police spokesman Daniel Justin Buolo acknowledged this month’s rise in crime, but said there was no cause for alarm. He said a combined army-police force inaugurated last week will secure Juba while a new law-enforcement body including former rebel fighters is trained. Many security personnel have already been arrested, he said, without elaborating.
The army has received “some complaints” from civilians about robberies by men in uniform and investigations are underway, according to military spokesman Lul Ruai Koang. The issue of soldiers’ pay being delayed is also being probed, he said by phone, declining to give details.
Such pledges bring little comfort to Richard Sebit, who in February opened a small store in a Juba suburb to sell soap, sugar and cooking oil after his work in the construction industry dried up. On the night of Aug. 15, gunmen in army uniforms broke in and demanded food and then seized about $1,000 in cash, he said in an interview.
The 34-year-old can’t afford more stock and said he won’t even report the robbery because the police will demand payment to investigate.
“All this is just a waste of more money,” he said.