Ugandan traders who claim to have lost property in South Sudan will have to wait a while longer as South Sudan must first compile its own report prior to paying off the claims amounting to about $60m.
Ugandan traders working in South Sudan last year tabled their claims before the Trade Disputes Arbitration Committee following a petition from private individuals, NGOs and companies operating in the new country to the Ministry of Trade last year citing delayed payments for goods and services, torture, death, harassment.
However, the South Sudan government did not give their side of the story on the complaints. Uganda continues to wait for a verification report from South Sudan to devise a way forward, according to a ministry official.
"South Sudan did not participate in these findings so we are waiting for their report," said Steven Kamukama, a senior commercial officer in the Ministry of Trade. "As soon as we get it, it will go to the disputes committee. There is commitment from South Sudan so we cannot push them to work faster."
The Trade ministry formed a trade disputes committee, which compiled the claims, verified them and came up with a report considering two categories of claimants - those with supporting documents and those without. All the claims amount to more than $59.5 million, which the traders want the Sudanese to pay, though it could go down.
However, another group of dealers in produce had also petitioned the Ministry of Finance and South Sudan was said to be committed to compensate the dealers with over $41 million.
However, the Head of Mission for South Sudan in Uganda James Ernest Ongee, could not be reached for a comment as he was reportedly out of office for the whole week.
Trade between Uganda and South Sudan was paralyzed for some time in June when Ugandan and Kenyan truck drivers and traders, among others, protested harassment at the hands of South Sudan security forces.
The protestors blocked the Gulu-Juba highway at Elegu border post inside Uganda, bringing business to a standstill. The South Sudanese security forces were accused of confiscating property, mistreating traders and unlawfully arresting them.
Besides harassment and mistreatment, the Ugandans accused South Sudanese of breaching contracts as well as indiscriminately and illegally impounding their merchandise. South Sudanese, have on their part, accused Ugandans of dishonest business practices and arrogance.
Recently, Kampala City Traders Association (KACITA) said the Ministry of Trade had compiled a list of more than 100 Ugandans claiming compensation from the government of South Sudan for harassment, confiscation of goods and property, failure of the government to pay for goods and services provided and in some cases, injuries and loss of life for which they wanted compensation.
The row forced the counterpart ministers to meet at a bilateral level while the Inspector General of Police General Kale Kayihura also visited his counterpart in South Sudan to forge a way forward.
Issa Ssekitto, the KACITA publicist, said the emergency of the recent strikes and the visit of Kayihura had improved the situation. He feared that another protest could arise if the South Sudan government doesn't sort out the pending payment issue quickly.
"The recent strikes and the IGP visit in South Sudan caused some change but it is not over yet and if the payment is not sorted out yet, there is something heating," he warned.
The fruits from those meetings brought out four resolutions, which include a joint patrol from South Sudan and Uganda, removing six road blocks, South Sudan government to work on wrong elements and Uganda to generate a list of Ugandans in South Sudan prisons.
After the ministers' meeting with traders, the case brought other sectors on board and they formed a committee having foreign affairs, traders, security, private sector and transport.
However, Ugandan traders described the economic environment in South Sudan as unpredictable though it had slightly improved since Kayihura's visit.
Uganda has become South Sudan's biggest trading partners since 2008 with estimates putting imports from Uganda at close to $600 million annually. In 2008, Uganda's exports to South Sudan reportedly grew by 181% from about $92 m in 2006 to 258 m two years later. In 2009, Uganda was top exporter to South Sudan, which led to the signing of a memorandum of understanding aimed at improving trade relations between the two neighboring nations in February 2010. Currently, an estimated 150,000 Ugandan traders are believed to be involved in several business-related activities in South Sudan with the majority dealing in general merchandise, produce and in the construction industry.
According to traders, the situation is improving but both governments must act for it to normalise.
"We agreed and they have locked the traffic office in Nimule but still many people come and claim to be security operatives yet they are not," said Ismail Patrick, a truck driver on the Juba route. "They arrested me and the only thing which saved me was that I can speak a little Arabic."
He said the South Sudan authorities have been confiscating number plates from trucks and forcing drivers to 250 Sudan pounds about Shs 137,500 to get them back.
Apparently, the intervention of the IGP and the memorandum of understanding they signed seem to have played a role in coiling tempers but the situation is still tense.
"It is now three weeks and there is a change, I think they fear now, since Kayihura went there some road blocks have been removed but the situation is tense because sometimes they come [to attack us]," said Okidi Patrick, an employee of Baby Coach bus company.
The Ugandan Parliamentary Committee on Trade is scheduled to visit South Sudan soon, according to the committee chairman Stephen Kasaija and they are engaging the minister of Trade Amelia Kyambadde who has been on the ground on the matter.
It appears the government at first did not want to engage the South Sudanese government at the highest level yet the trick worked for the Kenyans who were also in a similar situation.
"We have to know the fate of who lost property and other things so we are going there as a committee," Kasaija said, adding that the traders' petition was being handled by the committee.
But all indications show that South Sudan is keen on maintaining a good relationship with her most important neighbor for economic, social and political reasons.