South Sudan has been at war for over two years after a political row between President Salva Kiir and his deputy Riek Machar escalated. South Sudanese are still waiting for the formation of a transitional government, which it is hoped, will finally usher in peace as part of a peace deal in August last year.
South Sudan applied to join the EAC in November 2011, four months after seceding from Sudan, but its application was declined because of the country’s institutional weakness.
In March, however, EAC heads of state approved the admission of the new country, even though its economy is in tatters due to the civil war.
After signing the treaty in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, President Kiir said that conflict resolution and upholding peace in his country was his biggest commitment.
The outlook remains uncertain as Riek Machar, opposition leader and the designated deputy head, has postponed his arrival to the South Sudanese capital, delaying the creation of a new government, a key first step towards peace.
Kiir outlined hopes that his country would rise to the economic levels of other the EAC member states. “We accept this challenge of competitive open market through hard work and commitment. Tied with necessary reforms, South Sudan will raise to the occasion,” he said.
Opposition leader of the Democratic Change party Lam Akol, however, criticised the process.
“It is wrong for him [the President] to sign before the parliament could have approved it,” Lam told the Niles. “We cannot join common market when you do not have exports,” Lam added, referring to the economy which has shrunk drastically following widespread insecurity in many parts of the country.
Analysts argue that the country is still largely dependent on oil and has yet to expand other promising sectors, including agriculture. Amb. Mawien Makol, a spokesman in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, welcomed the step: “As country and new country, it is important for us to join the bloc […], it will help the economy, education and on a political level.”
Meanwhile, many South Sudanese doubted the wisdom of the deal: “The decision taken by the leadership at this critical time is a move against the will of South Sudanese people,” said Deng Akech, a Juba resident.
Others said the citizens should be invited to vote on the decision and should, at least, have been fully informed about what joining the bloc entails.
“The leadership could have sensitised its citizens for more than five years before the President signed it,” said Wani Michael.
But some, including Akol Daniel, welcomed the move: “South Sudan stands to benefit from the East African Community by harmonising government programmes, political, economic, education and structures to those of the other bloc members.”
The bloc has a combined population of at least 162 million people and a gross domestic product of US$ 147.5 billion, excluding South Sudan. It aspires to adopt a single currency and create a political federation.
Being admitted to the regional body means that South Sudan could reap economic benefits, including freer movement of labour and capital and, in principal, free trade. It will join the other members as they move to increase economic and political integration.
However, its membership comes against a backdrop of South Sudan’s stalled development due to the conflict. Fledgling economic and infrastructure projects, which began after independence, have been halted amid clashes and uncertainty.
Meanwhile, industries like agriculture have been hurt as many people have fled their land because of the violence which has killed tens of thousands of South Sudanese and displaced more than 2.4 million people.