by Steve Paterno and Tong Deng Anei
Connecting South Sudan is a visionary theme by South Sudan National Communication Authority (NCA). Connecting South Sudan simply means connecting South Sudan digitally to be at par globally in bettering government delivery and management of services, improving interactive relationships with businesses and industries, and empowering citizens through access to information. Some of the benefits of connecting South Sudan digitally include a reduction of corruption, increasing transparency, greater convenience, growing revenue, and reduction of cost to consumers in the telecommunication sector.
The NCA has been trying to achieve these goals in many ways, including, holding annual town hall meetings, which bring together all stakeholders with the aim to share achievements, identifying challenges, and find solutions as a way forward in South Sudan.
The brainchild behind this initiative of ‘connecting South Sudan’ is Eng. Napoleon Adok Gai, the boss of NCA. The Director General of NCA, Eng. Gai took the helm of the agency roughly more than two years ago, in 2020. This year, he convened the third annual town hall meeting with three critical topical areas in line with NCA’s mandate: innovation and technology, media, and telecommunication and ICT. This year’s town hall meeting ran from November 28 through 30, 2022.
Innovation and Technology
Due to decades of war, South Sudan is technologically backward, but the young people who attended the town hall meeting gave a gleam of hope for South Sudan, proving that the future is bright. Through their innovation and start-up companies such as Nile Boda, Agoro, Junub Open Space, Alela Technologies, GOGO Play, Shilu Ana, OPEN, Juba University Students, and Tourism Website, they were able to showcase incredible talent, innovation skills, and projected hope. For example, Shilu ANA is a taxi-hailing service that helps users to connect to high-quality taxi services through the Shilu Ana application, which is downloadable and available on both Android and IOS systems. The goal of Shile Ana is to establish a direct connection between drivers and passengers. Agoro is a one-stop online shopping destination with a wide range of products and prices. Agoro Online shop sells items ranging from health and beauty products, fashion, electronics, books, and vehicles to mention but a few with pricing done in South Sudanese pounds. Alela Shop is an E-Commerce website operating in South Sudan and supplying everyday needs.”Alela” is a Juba Arabic word that means “today,” for consumers to get what they order today.
Nevertheless, the challenges remain huge for those talented youth, in order for their innovation and companies to potentially yield practical results in impacting livelihood in bettering South Sudan. Those young people are faced with the absence of infrastructural buildings, the inadequacy of capacity, and a lack of capital for sustainability, including security problems.
In town hall meetings, the government authorities promised to create a conducive environment in support of these talents, while telecommunication companies pledged their support for such talents to thrive. Such synergy between the government and private sectors are necessary for long sustainable development in the telecommunication sector in the country.
Media and Access to Information
Often, South Sudan is depicted among the worst abusers of freedom of the press in the world. The situation is worsened through wrongful social media postings, fake news, and false reporting. In addition, government spokespersons and officials in some cases, issue contradicting statements and press releases.
However, during the discussion in the town hall meeting, the journalists and government authorities reached some agreeable positions. First, the press is the fourth arm of government, which includes the executive, legislature, and judiciary. Therefore, there should not be an antagonistic relationship between the press and other armed forces of the government, for they work for the same purpose: serving the general public.
Through the security sector, represented by spokespersons of South Sudan People’s Defence Force (SSPDF), Major General Lul Ruei emphasized that the organs are for the protection of journalists, especially in coverage of the battle situation. He stressed, however, South Sudan remains a volatile place, where journalists easily fall victim to armed-related scenes. So, to avoid the level of risk, journalists must manoeuvre cautiously in covering stories and closely work with security organs and government media authority to guarantee their protection.
Ephriam Wani, Director General in the Ministry of Parliamentary Affairs, laid out procedures on how journalists should cover proceedings of parliament, without encountering the reported harassment and blockage of covering parliamentary events. He stressed, for example, there are open parliamentary proceedings, closed proceedings, and camera proceedings. In each proceeding, the level of press access to coverage and designation areas within the parliament varies. The problem always occurs due to misunderstandings between the journalists and authorities on particular proceedings and the designation of where journalists are supposed to sit. Commissioner Moyiga Nduru of the Access to Information Commission assured that the public has the right to access government information and accept classified information. However, the work of the commission is hampered due to the absence of infrastructure, logistical constraints, and lack of finance and capacity.
South Sudan is already vulnerable to a set of cyber crimes. Several individuals in the country, including top government officials, and business people, among others, are scammed and impersonated online. There are also security breaches where sensitive government documents are openly shared through social media platforms. These are happening because, as underscored by the Director General of NCA Eng. Gai, stated that many government officials use free e-mail services such as Gmail and Yahoo. Government offices lack proper Local Area Networks (LAN). The few government offices with internet connectivity only use insecure standalone WIFI routers, which connect them to the internet via private service providers. Government institutions use pirated or preloaded software on their device during purchase. Government offices lack websites or official social media platforms. No government office in Juba maintains an official communications telephone line. This applies to state governments as well. Blurred lines exist between personal lines for official business communication. When an individual is appointed to a position of power, their private line becomes their official line, and when they are sacked or redeployed, the number ceases to work. All other electronics from that institution also stop working until a new official who will, in turn, use their private line for official business is appointed. Thus, communication channels are constantly disrupted whenever there is a change in individuals occupying a particular office.
The problem is worrying and cybercrime cases are supposed to worsen with a plan to increase connecting the entire country digitally. The good news is that South Sudan has crafted cybercriminal laws, but that is yet to come in the enforcement phase.
The Status of Telecommunication and ICT
MTN, Zain, and DIGITEL are the three main service phones, including data providers. There are also several internet-based service providers. However, consumers always decry the hiking subscription fees. The general high inflation rate in the country, plus ongoing economic problems are the major reasons for the high rate of subscription fees. In addition, the hosting of internet servers in foreign countries, but not South Sudan. Those are reasons for the additional cost of subscription fees.
Government institutions often communicate sensitive national data which is why most government documents are leaked through social media. For this reason, governments should invest in building their own reliable communication infrastructure that guarantees confidentiality, integrity, availability of information, and secure channels. This also means South Sudan should invest in building its own LAN to reduce the cost of data to local consumers. This should be a priority for the government.
Government spokespersons and officials speaking on behalf of the government should streamline their press releases and statements to show that they are speaking in one voice and they belong to one country. This can better be done, by creating a forum where they share events in updating the citizens.
South Sudan needs to urgently prioritize the adoption and standardization of its use of ICT across government institutions and departments. This would be a relatively easy task to execute. There is a depth of talent among young South Sudanese people who can competently establish a primary computer network in many government ministries and institutions, which are without proper systems.
The situation is very urgent and needs attention.
In conclusion, South Sudan, though a new country, can leap forward in innovation and technological development, but the government and private sector must prioritize investment in the ICT sector.
Challenges are huge. The bad security situation and poor economic situation hinder the infrastructural development, but Eng. Gai, Director General of NCA, in charge of regulating telecommunication in South Sudan remains optimistic, believing that South Sudan can build its own infrastructure and connect the entire country. He shows by example of action, by going even to remote areas to ensure that those areas are connected and promising to build South Sudan’s own LAN.