Checkpoint economy: the political economy of checkpoints in South Sudan, ten years after independence

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Ten years after independence, the world’s youngest country is home to an entrenched political economy of conflict premised on checkpoint taxation. Humanitarian aid is not exempt, reveals a major new mapping report by DIIS and IPIS.

When South Sudan became independent ten years ago, oil revenues were supposed to fuel the economy of the world’s newest country. But two years later in 2013, oil prices plummeted, the South Sudanese pound deflated, and civil war resumed. While elites in Juba split the remaining oil revenues, ground-level civil servants, soldiers and rebels have to get by in other ways. They complement their absent or deflated salary through decentralized predation on long-distance trade. As a result, since independence in 2011, the number of checkpoints has nearly doubled while checkpoint taxes have increased 300%.

Over the past two years, we have mapped 319 checkpoints along major trade routes in South Sudan, of which 253 (79%) are roadblocks and 66 (21%) river checkpoints. Government soldiers and civil authorities control most of the checkpoints along overland routes, while the SPLA/M in opposition, led by Riek Machar, controls slightly more than half of the checkpoints along river routes: the White Nile, its branch the El Zeraf, and the Sobat.

An interactive webmap visualizes all these checkpoints and provides as some primary data that we collected per checkpoint, including the operators, taxation levels, and waiting times. Furthermore, a set of filters (e.g. per route and per operator) allows the user produce some graphics and statistics per route, per operator, etc.

Based on averages, a typical checkpoint in South Sudan is manned by 6 people, and levies about SSP 48,000 (USD 80). But as vehicles typically travel long distances, total checkpoint taxes for a trip can be enormous. Take the White Nile. Barges typically shuttle between Bor and Renk carrying humanitarian aid or foodstuff, and for the entire return journey each barge will pay about 211 at each of the 33 checkpoints, totaling a stunning USD 10,000 for a round trip. Similarly, while checkpoints on the road between Juba and Bentiu on average charge a truck about USD 21, the total journey involves passing 80 checkpoints—meaning a return journey easily costs over 3,000 USD in checkpoint taxes. This makes transport in South Sudan amongst the most expensive in the world, only rivalled by Afghanistan and the DR Congo.

IPIS and DIIS developed a detailed analytical report presenting the results of the research, including a wide range of statistics, graphs, and maps. Furthermore, the report provides an analysis on the drivers and impacts of the phenomenon of checkpoints in South Sudan. For those, who would like to have a brief overview of the findings and analysis, we advise to consult the ‘summary report’.

The report reveals the implication of humanitarian organizations in the checkpoint economy. Humanitarian logistics makes up a big part of the transport sector in South Sudan, with aid agencies outsourcing food deliveries and other bulk transport to national or regional trucking companies. We found that these subcontractors are systematically taxed at 157 or 49% of all South Sudanese checkpoints. This means that scarce aid money is appropriated by South Sudan’s soldiers and rebels, ending up in the pockets of military elites.

This report is the third checkpoint mapping report produced by DIIS and IPIS. You can find their report on the DR Congo here, and on the Central African Republic here.