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Sudan: Juba is South's capital in the making

City rises from the plains of South Sudan.

Editor's note: "Divided they stand" is a three-part series on Sudan, covering the lead-up to January's referendum vote on the South's independence, the divisions that already split the country in two and the rise of Juba, South Sudan's capital in the making.

JUBA, Sudan — Recently, an electronic signboard appeared in the middle of Juba. It looks like a box on a stick and, from all four sides, its red dot matrix display counts down the minutes to the day that this town might become the world’s newest capital city.

On Jan. 9, southern Sudan's people are to vote in a referendum on independence. They are expected to overwhelmingly vote for independence, putting an end to decades of what they see as oppression by the North.

Juba, this former garrison town on the banks of the White Nile in southern Sudan, will be the new country’s new capital.

Few foreigners like visiting Juba. It is an arduous place: hot, expensive and ugly in the way that unplanned boomtowns tend to be, but it is undoubtedly booming.

In the months after the war ended in 2005, Juba was a ruin. The only paved road was so potholed that the dirt tracks were a smoother ride. Nor were there were many vehicles: one United Nations worker who has been in Juba from then until now liked to say that, in 2005, there was so little traffic you could have slept on the road at night.

Not anymore. SUVs roll along the freshly tarred two-lane roads that steam in the heat after the rain. Sometimes there are traffic jams. Most of the 4x4s are still emblazoned with the logos of humanitarian organizations or bear the license plates of government departments, but a growing number are privately owned.

And there are a handful of Hummers, proof that some entrepreneurs have made money more quickly than they know how to sensibly spend it.

The Shariah law imposed by the North meant there was no alcohol to be had in Juba during the war but soon after the 2005 peace deal enterprising men on bicycles used to bring in beer from Yei, a town more than 100 miles away (the roads were mined so motor vehicles did not make the journey).

Today there is a state-of-the-art brewery on Juba’s outskirts providing the burgeoning city with its booze.

Riverside restaurants serve fresh fish hauled from the Nile that snakes past Juba as a fast-flowing artery, still powerful before losing momentum in the swamps of the Sudd to the north. There are a series of pizza places that manage to get their crusts just the right thickness and crispiness, and diners run by Ethiopian and Eritreans. There are busy bars and jumping nightclubs.

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Perhaps the clearest indication of the irony that Juba represents is the sheer cost of accommodation in this, one of the world’s poorest countries. The near complete lack of manufacturing and infrastructure in southern Sudan means that even a basic air-conditioned metal container with a bed, toilet and little else asks $100 a night and can go for as much as $185. Such soaring cost for so little comfort makes Juba’s luxury boutique hotel, where a room can set you back $350 a night, look like pretty good value.

At the once-sleepy airport dozens of flights arrive every day disgorging scores of foreigners: aid workers and election monitors, businessmen and oil executives, diplomats and government advisors.

The transformation of Juba is far from complete. In between the new buildings that drip condensation from the air conditioning units are huts made from mud and grass and ramshackle old bungalows with crumbling sides and rusting roofs. Cows and donkeys amble oblivious along the new roads, rubbish collects in ditches and beneath fences, most people walk or ride bicycles.