(AA) – Since declaring independence from Sudan in 2011, South Sudan has experienced a general upsurge in retail prices ahead of and during every Christmas holiday season.
This year, however, the hikes are exceptional, with the country facing a scarcity of U.S. currency – not to mention deep political polarization.
“Prices this year are much higher than last year,” Betty Akot Salvatore, a customer at Juba’s Konyo Konyo clothing market, told The Anadolu Agency.
She had gone to buy clothes for her son with 800 South Sudanese pounds (about $253). But to her surprise, she could afford only two items.
“I’m surprised. I came with 800 pounds and now I’m left with only 70,” Salvatore said after buying a single pair of pants and a shirt.
“I wonder where we are heading with these prices,” she added, disgruntledly.
At grocery stores, meanwhile, things are no better.
Judith Nasande, who went to the Jebel Market to buy vegetables, complained that prices had increased drastically.
“Last month, we could buy a kilo of onions for 2 pounds. But because of Christmas, the price this month has now risen to 5 pounds,” she told AA.
Despite its enormous agricultural potential, which remains largely untapped, South Sudan depends largely on imported goods – including food commodities – from neighboring countries.
The imports force the world’s youngest nation to rely heavily on U.S. dollars, shortages of which have been cited by retailers as a main reason for price hikes.
“We buy goods at high prices from wholesalers,” grocer Mohamed Ibrahim told AA at the Jebel Market.
“When we ask them, they say the [dollar] exchange rate is high, so what can we do?” Ibrahim noted.
“We charge something a little more in order to make a profit,” he said.
Ibrahim argues that the Christmas season was at least partially responsible for the rise in prices, as everyone wants to buy something new for the holidays.
“This is causing a scarcity in the market,” said the trader.
But Adam Yusuf, a clothing retailer at Jebel Market, disagrees.
“The current increase in prices isn’t related to Christmas,” he told AA.
“The problem is with the custom dues and scarcity of the U.S. dollar, which has led to the depreciation of the South Sudanese pound,” Yusuf insisted.
The dollar shortage appears to have worsened recently, despite several measures adopted by the Central Bank of South Sudan aimed at curbing the problem, including the criminalization of black market currency sales.
While the bank rate for $1 dollar stands at 3.16 pounds, the greenback can fetch as much as 5.5 pounds on the black market.
Dut Dut Yel, deputy secretary-general of the government-run South Sudan Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Agriculture, said that while prices rise every year during the Christmas holiday season, dollar scarcity had aggravated the situation.
“As a new nation, South Sudan relies heavily on imported commodities that need dollars to trade,” he told AA.
“The lack of dollars on our side has affected the business community’s ability to import needed goods and commodities,” Yel explained.
“Besides that, the ongoing conflict in the country has had a negative impact on economic institutions,” he added.
South Sudan has been shaken by violence since December of last year, when President Salva Kiir accused Riek Machar, his sacked vice president, of plotting to overthrow his regime.
Hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese have since been displaced in the fighting between the two rivals, leading to an increasingly dire humanitarian situation countrywide.
In recent months, the warring camps have held on-again, off-again peace talks in Addis Ababa under the auspices of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), an East African regional bloc based in Djibouti.
Yel, meanwhile, insisted that both the government and the Chamber of Commerce were working hard to ensure that needed commodities arrived before the upcoming holidays.
“Between December 14 and 15, more trucks carrying consumer goods and building materials will arrive,” he told AA.
“As a commercial chamber, our aim is to create an environment conducive to the growth of business in South Sudan, with prices that poor South Sudanese can afford,” Yel stressed.