Representatives of South Sudan have been banned from taking part in an African Union meeting after their government failed to pay overdue fees totaling more than $9 million.
South Sudan diplomats were caught by surprise last Tuesday when they were asked to leave an AU meeting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
The AU sanctioned South Sudan after it failed to pay annual membership dues for the past three years, according to a June 17 letter to the South Sudan Foreign Affairs Ministry signed by Ambassador James Pitia Morgan, South Sudan's permanent representative to the African Union and to the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa.
"We were barred from participating in the AU meeting as of June 16, 2020," wrote Morgan. He called the scene in Addis Ababa "dramatic and embarrassing" when the chairperson of the meeting stopped the proceedings to inform South Sudan's diplomats that their participation was illegal.
"We should not allow our country to be embarrassed at this regional, continental and international stage," said Morgan, who called South Sudan "a proud nation and proud people."
South Sudan owes the AU slightly more than $9 million, according to Morgan.
Deputy foreign affairs minister Deng Dau Deng blamed the government's years of overdue payments on the current "situation" the country is facing with the COVID-19 pandemic, and noted South Sudan made a partial payment to the AU in late 2019.
"South Sudan was due to pay a commitment of which in December to January, we paid 40 percent of our contribution and membership [fee] to the African Union. We are committed as a country to pay our contribution but it's just delayed because of the situation that we are in," Deng told VOA's South Sudan in Focus.
Deng insisted that South Sudan will be ready to pay what it owes the AU once the coronavirus crisis "normalizes."
South Sudan should avoid using its civil war and the pandemic as excuses to avoid paying its annual dues, said Nhial Tit Mammer, a policy analyst with the Sudd Institute, a think tank in Juba. Mammer believes there will be a larger price to pay when South Sudan is absent from meetings where important, strategic decisions are made by the regional body.
"As it is said; 'If you're not on the table, you're on the menu.' So, if South Sudan is not going to participate in those meetings where important decisions are going to be made then of course it's a huge problem. And it also has implications on our pride as a nation. You know it's embarrassing [and] that in itself is a huge impact too," Mammer told South Sudan in Focus.
It is important to remain a member in good standing of organizations like the African Union, the East African Community and the United Nations, where every member country is treated equally, Mammer said.
"Even if we are in a situation of war we must try, and others will also know that we are trying. Our situation is different but if we default completely, we don't pay anything, this is something else," Mammer told VOA.
Still, Mammer said, the AU could have been a little more lenient with South Sudan given the fact that it recently emerged from a five-and-a-half-year civil war in which hundreds of thousands of people were killed and millions more were displaced.
South Sudan paid 15 percent of the amount it owes the AU, or about $3.5 million last December, according to Deng. The AU should have informed the government earlier that its representatives would be banned from attending all future AU meetings rather than waiting until its delegates were already seated at last week's meeting in Addis Ababa, Deng said.