Cash-strapped South Sudan can no longer issue passports after its German technology provider shut down its system because the country failed to pay its bills, the government has said.
South Sudan’s economy has been ruined by a civil war, now in its fourth year. Its main income is from its oil reserves but fighting has slashed production to less than a third of pre-war levels.
Public money is tight and civil servants and soldiers go unpaid for months, and hyperinflation has rendered its currency almost worthless.
South Sudan’s passports and national identification server has been blocked by its host, German company Muhlbauer, after the government failed to pay an annual software license fee of around $500,000, a government official said.
Deputy Finance Minister Mou Ambrose Thiik told Reuters on Tuesday that the government would make the payment early next week. “We are working on it,” he said.
The world’s youngest nation, which gained independence in 2011, is now unable to issue passports nor national identification cards.
The company, whose website says it specialises in smart card and ePassport technology, declined to comment when contacted by Reuters on Friday.
An investigation last year by the U.S. group Sentry found South Sudan’s leaders and their families have profited from the conflict, amassing wealth, at times illegally.
At the national passports and immigration office in the capital Juba, a notice read: “Our technical team is working to solve the problem and will notify next week. Sorry for inconveniences.”
An employee at the office said the server had been switched off since last week.
Thiik, the minister, said he believed the government had signed the contract with Muhlbauer without competent legal advice.
“Once we pay this we going to see how we are going to resolve this because we should not continue to pay for something that we should have owned”, he said, referring to the software used to process passport data.
In a sign of the fiscal strains on the government, President Salva Kiir on Friday said he had directed the foreign ministry to reduce the number of diplomats serving abroad, citing the state of the economy.
Staff in some embassies have not been paid for four to five months, said foreign affairs ministry spokesman Mawien Makol. (Additional reporting by Maria Sheahan in Berlin; Editing by Maggie Fick and Raissa Kasolowsky)