Sudan: Juba is South's capital in the making

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.

The transformation is also limited. Southern Sudan is as big as Texas yet has only a few miles of paved roads. Juba is representative of nothing except itself. The accelerated development of this city has not been visited on the rest of the new country but ends abruptly where the new tarred roads crumble into dirt and rocks at the city limits.

Outside the capital-to-be roads are bone-jarring wrecks that disappear altogether when the rains come. Drive just a few hours outside Juba and people farm subsistence amounts from the soil or live itinerant lives with their cattle, a staggering number are armed to protect themselves and their resources from raiders or hostile neighboring tribes.

It is also a spectacularly poor country. Aid agencies have a list known as the "Scary Statistics" that summarizes the misery: one in every six women will die during their pregnancy, the same proportion of newborns will die before their first birthdays, 90 percent live on less than $1 a day, 85 percent can neither read nor write.

The new country will need to develop at an unprecedented rate, but at least it has oil: there are an estimated 6 billion barrels in reserves, most of which lies south of the border, daily production is close to half a million barrels bringing in billions of dollars in revenues.

Juba reveals what South Sudan might be, for good or for bad.

If the high-speed transformation of the city is imitated elsewhere, then South Sudan’s future is bright, its people will see what development experts call “the peace dividend” after years of destructive war.

But there is a danger implicit in this new capital, one that is familiar in Sudan. The North-South war was about many things but what links it with the ongoing conflict in Darfur and another rebellion in the east of Sudan is violent reaction to Khartoum’s hoarding of wealth at the center while leaving the peripheries to marginalization and neglect.

The logical conclusion of that policy will be reached when southern Sudanese vote to separate from the North in January. If the southern government in Juba falls into the same trap, Sudan may split still further.