The hard road ahead

Independence for the South may not bring peace, or an end to grinding poverty

The hard road ahead

Photograph by Trevor Snapp

With South Sudan’s recent referendum on independence from the North, which is likely to pass when the preliminary results, expected on Feb. 2, are announced, there has been much talk about how the nascent country, with its overflowing oil wells, could be “the new Middle East.” But the road to prosperity in the region isn’t paved—and it’s not even properly marked.

Juba, the South Sudanese city that is about to become the world’s newest capital, has one million people and one road sign. It directs motorists in two directions: the airport or the “ministries,” a stretch that contains most of South Sudan’s government buildings. If you want to go anywhere else, you’re at the mercy of unregistered teenaged motorcycle drivers who don’t know right from left. They give directions to each other according to the tallest trees and how many traffic circles are in between. Figuring out where to go at night is even worse: there are almost no street lights in the whole city.

This is the place that John Kerry, the head of the U.S. Senate foreign affairs committee, is hailing as “the birth of a new nation.” Most of the people in South Sudan are excited, too. More than three million of them voted in the historic referendum that is expected to turn their region into the newest country in the world. But just because South Sudan is about to claim independence doesn’t mean it’s ready to govern. The inconvenient truth is that the undeveloped city of Juba is the most highly developed part of the state. In an area the size of Manitoba, there are fewer than 100 km of paved roads. Most towns are tiny smatterings of mud huts, teeming with hungry children and bored young people. There’s no central electricity grid, no safe running water and no organized justice system. The medical system is rudimentary and there are just a handful of banks in the whole territory. When it’s born, the new nation of South Sudan is likely to join Zimbabwe at the bottom of the United Nations Human Development Index.

Yet the people of South Sudan seem convinced that this is their time. Around a million residents who fled to North Sudan during decades of civil war are returning home. More than 100,000 more are coming back from other countries, including Canada. Among them is Cher Agoth, one of the displaced “Lost Boys” who fled Sudan 25 years ago, endured refugee camps and eventually got a ticket to freedom. He studied engineering in Saskatchewan, married a woman there and had two kids. Last September, he came back to South Sudan for the first time since he was a boy. Now, he’s heading up a multi-million-dollar construction project. “The incentive for me to come here is very difficult to say,” says Agoth. “I just have a personal feeling that I can make a difference.”

The odds are stacked against him. Most young people in South Sudan have grown up with no education and, when it comes to work, no positive role models. The region’s illiteracy rate is over 75 per cent. At restaurants, waiters can’t understand the menu or add a simple bill. Their bosses are mostly frustrated Ethiopians, Kenyans and Ugandans who have entered the region to claim management positions that few South Sudanese can fill. For Agoth, the human resources problem is even worse, since he’s looking for highly skilled people. “One of the major challenges is to acquire technical personnel,” he says. He struggles to find tradespeople, electricians and other engineers.

Meanwhile, the threat of further bloodshed continues to loom over the emerging country, which was ravaged by a protracted civil war between the Muslim North and rebels in the South (largely populated by Christians and animists). Around two million people died in the two-decade-long conflict. North Sudan says it will recognize a vote for separation. But there is plenty of evidence that it won’t let the region go easily. There have been clashes in Abyei, a disputed border region rich with oil deposits claimed by both sides. Also, both sides need to negotiate how to share oil revenue—while the black gold is largely in the South, the pipelines and ports are in the North. Juba’s representative for the Sudanese National Congress Party, which rules the country from the North, says he’s upset that the referendum went ahead before both sides agreed on a new map. “If war is going to break out it may be because of the border,” says Steward Budia, chairman of the NCP in Juba.

The southern leadership is clearly preparing for the possibility of another war. Every day, camouflage-coloured helicopters buzz over Juba. Soldiers roar down the White Nile River on military speedboats. Teams of machine-gun-toting soldiers have been posted in every village across the region. Even Agoth can’t deny the dangers represented by the military buildup (the construction project he’s working on is a new army college). “I’m not completely sure the country is stable,” he admits. He told his wife and children to stay in Canada. “Once those issues are resolved,” he says, “my family can join me.”

Despite all the warning signs that more conflict could be just around the corner, South Sudanese people are literally dancing in the streets. Every day, boatloads of returnees come rocking down the White Nile River. The key reason is the oil that people hope will transform their lives. Its discovery in South Sudan is still fresh, so the hope for wealth seems unlimited. Since 2005, the North Sudanese leadership has handed over up to US$10 billion in oil revenues to the South. But the South believes it is owed much more than that. The key problem is that the oil flows in pipelines to the North, and politicians like Budia aren’t anxious to redirect it. “If you don’t demarcate the border, I’ll tell you exactly where the oil belongs,” he says. “The stronger will take the bigger share of it. And if the border is not clear, anything can happen.”

Even if a miracle happens and the North and South agree to a peaceful oil deal, no one knows who will gain. John Kerry is hopeful that South Sudan’s dependency on foreign aid is about to end. But that depends on whether or not oil revenues benefit the whole country, as in Canada, or line the pockets of a few greedy and powerful families, as is the case in Nigeria. At this stage, South Sudan is still so poorly governed that it’s hard to tell what role corruption will play.

Could it eventually be “the new Middle East”? Clearly, some people think so. On the outskirts of Juba, not far from the city’s only road sign, is a compound full of Filipino workers anxious to get started on an ambitious multi-billion-dollar project. A Canadian developer, UAS Canada Inc., is proposing to redesign several South Sudanese cities, each one in the shape of a different African animal. The only thing standing in the way of a green light for the project is a clear sign that Sudan’s warring days are indeed over.

Mabior Atem Mabior, another former “Lost Boy” who, like Agoth, escaped to the Canadian Prairies and then returned, feels that the time to invest in South Sudan is now. His favourite hangout in Juba is one of the many new hotels that now cater to oil-hungry businessmen and cost upwards of US$200 a night. “I believe if you invest your money in Sudan, you’re going to make money,” insists Mabior, who helped create the voters’ list for the referendum. “There is a lot of economic boom here.” If only optimism alone could build a nation.

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