Semi-officials in Juba: the growth of a state

This is a small aspect of my paper about the national identity process in Juba, South Sudan, presented on Monday at the 9th Sudan and South Sudan studies international conference in Bonn.

In the passport and identity card issuing offices in Juba town, the queues and waiting applicants crowd the courtyard.  The gates are manned by suited men with a half-working metal detector and some ambiguous ledgers; the security staff are preoccupied with crowd control at the entrances and exits of the photograph and identification offices, holding back the otherwise orderly queues.

Official staff are therefore relatively thin on the ground in this compound, in comparison to the mass of aspiring citizens.  However, this office is at the centre of a sprawling secondary bureaucracy that spreads out around the compound, and has created a form of vicarious officialdom – informal and unsalaried, but part sanctioned (or at least tolerated) and part-integrated into the state process at its centre.

This parasitic (parastatal?) economy includes the semi-officials who are “volunteer” form-fillers, sitting at improvised desks around the compound, with suits and their national ID cards on lanyards around their necks: their IDs are some of the earliest issued, and therefore their professional accreditation as successful and experienced bureaucratic form-fillers.  For a “donation”, these self-made good citizens will complete an application form correctly and carefully for the many less literate or non-English speaking applicants.  In their own words, these semi-officials were initially tolerated as a necessary part of the process in the compound, and now have their own file in the offices – holding an ambiguous position as unofficial officials.

Even less formally, past the cafes that line the outside of the building, the stalls of the other private bureaucrats sell biros, tippex, lanyards, wallets and plastic folder, and a generator powers a row of photocopiers and scanners, for the duplication, lamination and preservation of multiple copies of the documents produced inside the compound.  These semi-officials – whose businesses are fed and tolerated by the state compound – are creating semi-official documents, good copies of originals, and the necessity of these services are a publicly understood (if not state-sanctioned) part of the current process of getting and proving South Sudanese identity.

This extension of the official state is a common feature in South Sudan – more bomas, payams and counties are created and campaigned for every month, and government jobs are coveted.  Working with or for the state in Juba – even semi-officially – is an understood means of access to the various trappings of patronage, respect, social and sometimes political power.  The ever-expanding South Sudanese state is growing its own ambiguous borderlands.


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Filed under Academia, Politics, South Sudan, Sudan

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