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Wheels only inches above the runway, the old plane shuddered and accelerated sharply, and we began climbing back into the sky over Juba, the capital of South Sudan. Looking down, I saw the turret of what I hoped was an unmanned anti-aircraft gun poking out of the grass. We had barely cleared the airport when the plane began to bank dramatically, and we slid into a tight u-turn over the Nile River. When we leveled off we were again on approach, this time from the opposite direction. The brush surrounding this end of the runway was free of heavy artillery, but festooned with the unmistakable charred remains of a plane that hadn’t made it.
I wondered if I should have taken the road. Much had changed since the 2005 peace accord brought a halt to the twenty-one-year war between North and South Sudan, a conflict in which over two million people died and four million more had been displaced, and the once-mined and dilapidated dirt roads from neighboring Uganda and Kenya were now passable. The peace had also led to a growing number of commercial flights between Juba and regional cities, and I had chosen this option—in retrospect, perhaps a bit too hastily.
Earlier that November morning, I had boarded my flight in Nairobi. We had flown northwest over the Great Rift Valley and cut across the green mountains of Uganda; as we descended through the clouds I had caught my first glimpse of South Sudan. It is one of the least developed regions in the world, with less than ten miles of paved roads across its 227,000 square miles—an area nearly one-and-a-half times the size of California—and as I peered out, I had seen nothing but dry red earth dotted with occasional clusters of mud huts. There were no roads, no vehicles, and no buildings. The only indication that we were nearing Juba, South Sudan’s urban center, had been a slight increase in the number of huts and the appearance of a few dirt roads.
Facing this barren landscape, it was hard not to be awed by the magnitude of the human and infrastructural development challenge facing the young government of South Sudan. The former rebels had assumed responsibility for a population estimated by the UN Population Fund to be anywhere between 7.5 and 9.7 million, of which as many as a third were believed to be displaced. In an age when “nation-building” had come to mean something done by outsiders, the Southern rebel movement had refashioned itself into a civilian government. It was trying simultaneously to build its own administrative structures, provide basic public services, and facilitate economic development, all while contending with the threat still posed by the North.
I was on my way to Juba to explore what this process meant on the ground, as rebel soldiers became government bureaucrats, battle-worn citizens awaited the promised benefits of peace, and a bombed-out garrison town became their first capital. Was it possible to build a government and develop a nation out of little more than dirt and determination? And could it be done while the threat of renewed war hung overhead?
In the days leading up to my trip, this threat had become ever more real as a political crisis between Juba and Khartoum escalated. Just a few days before my flight, the South had publicly accused the North of “mobilizing for war,” and there was mounting concern that the peace deal might be about to collapse. If it did, it would have devastating consequences for the South Sudanese and for an already highly troubled region. I was anxious to get on the ground.
Defying expectations and apparent past precedent, we landed safely and rolled to a stop beside a line of white UN planes. I walked across the tarmac into the one-room arrivals terminal, a chamber that was bare but for a long table in the center and a dozen battered black armchairs lining the back wall. Two men in uniform sat behind the table and as I approached, one pushed a Dickensian ledger towards me. I wrote down my vitals—name, passport number, nationality, and so on—while the second officer examined my documents. I was a bit nervous; my Travel Permit listed my nationality as “AEMRICAN” and misprinted some of my passport details—but he was unperturbed. He stamped my passport and turned to the passenger behind me.
Across the room, my bag had been passed through an opening in the wall and deposited on the floor. I picked it up and presented it to a third officer behind the same long desk who, looking intensely bored, glanced inside and slapped a sticker on its side. I walked to the exit, had my sticker verified by a man in civilian clothes, and stepped outside, dazed, into a dirt parking lot. I was facing a line of parked SUVs, nearly all white with “UN” stenciled on their doors and hoods. Behind them was a short line of small billboards. One advertised the “New York Hotel and Discotheque: Coming Soon!” and another the “Summer Palace Business Hotel: Life is a status!”
The remnants of war—the dilapidated airport, the nascent immigration authority, the armada of UN aircraft and vehicles, the hints of a burgeoning hospitality industry, the fact that mere life itself qualified as “status”—all reflected today’s South Sudan. My “Travel Permit” was particularly telling; I had entered South Sudan not with a visa from a Sudanese Embassy, but a square piece of cardboard affixed with my photo, a stamp, and a silver star sticker that had been issued with few questions by the Nairobi office of the government of South Sudan. It was reportedly only recently that the Juba authorities had begun also accepting official Khartoum-issued visas.
The arrangement reflected the political ambiguity of South Sudan today. Under the terms of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Accord (CPA), Sudan effectively became a loose confederation of “one country, two systems.” The new government of South Sudan was given near total autonomy to manage their affairs while remaining formally a part of the Republic of Sudan. The president of South Sudan—who assumed the office by virtue of his position as head of the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Movement and Army (SPLM/A)—was to serve simultaneously as the First Vice-President of Sudan. In Khartoum, the SPLM joined the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) to form a Government of National Unity.
It’s an arrangement that will likely prove short lived. The latest installment of the North-South war began in 1984, when Southerners, who are predominantly Christian, took up arms against a Khartoum government that had imposed strict Islamic law across the entire country. The initial Southern goal was reform and greater representation in Khartoum—to create what their charismatic leader John Garang called a “New Sudan”—but as the conflict wore on, there were increasing calls for southern secession. The Peace Accord reflected this, and promised the South a referendum on independence in 2011.
In these interim years, both sides are committed to making unity “attractive” to Southerners, but after decades of oppression by and war with Khartoum, this will be a hard sell. A focus group study—the closest thing to a public opinion poll in South Sudan—was conducted by the National Democratic Institute in 2007 and found public support for independence to be “overwhelming.” Salva Kiir Mayardit, who succeeded Garang as president of South Sudan after he was killed in a 2005 helicopter crash, is also believed to favor independence.
Indeed, the only scenario in which Southerners might be persuaded to change their minds hinges on the successful conduct of national elections now scheduled for April 2010. If the SPLM is allowed to compete nationally and if the elections are free and fair, it is conceivable that Southerners might decide they would benefit from remaining within the union—particularly in the unlikely event that a Southerner assumed the Presidency in Khartoum. But with the NCP widely expected to circumvent an election it would almost certainly lose, Southerners will almost certainly proclaim their independence within the next two years—through a vote if given the chance or, if not, through a unilateral declaration.
Driving into town from the airport that morning, I could see that South Sudan was already a sovereign state in everything but name. I passed the headquarters of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), the South’s own military force, while a short drive further down the road were the ministries for everything from Education to Health to Agriculture. The South boasts a separate legislature, as well as a judiciary independent from that in the North. Although foreign affairs remain the purview of the “national” ministry, the South nonetheless operates a “Ministry of Regional Cooperation” that maintains nine missions in foreign capitals (including Washington DC).
In one critical way, however, the South remains dependent on the North: under the terms of the Peace Accord, Khartoum controls all of Sudan’s considerable oil resources. It is required to give the South half of all revenues earned from southern fields, which amounts to more than $1 billion per year, but the transfers vary considerably from month to month. The vast majority of this money goes to pay government salaries, with the remainder of the government’s budget covered by foreign donors, who at the time of the CPA pledged a total of $4.5 billion to the South’s reconstruction and development and deployed a small army of international aid agencies and development organizations to help spend it.
There are more than 10,000 UN peacekeepers in the South, but even they may not be enough to keep the CPA intact.
The oil revenue sharing system is fraught with problems, beginning with frequent delays in transfers and Juba’s inability to ensure it receives its fair share. But it is particularly contentious because of the disputed North-South border, around which much of Sudan’s oil is concentrated. The CPA created an international commission to determine the boundary, but the NCP rejected the original ruling. In May 2008 fighting broke out between Southern and Northern troops in the border town of Abyei, killing dozens and displacing an estimated 50,000 civilians. Subsequent international mediation produced a new border demarcation to which both sides have agreed, but tensions in the area remain high.
In an attempt to maintain this fragile peace, there are more than 10,000 UN peacekeepers in the South, but even they may not be enough to keep the CPA intact. In the weeks before I arrived, a sudden political crisis revealed the peace’s continued vulnerability. For months, the government of South Sudan had complained that Khartoum was dragging its heels on key CPA obligations; it was particularly aggrieved by Khartoum’s rejection of the border commission ruling, its tardy transfers of oil revenues, and its failure to withdraw troops from the South according to schedule.
To protest this intransigence, the SPLM abruptly withdrew its ministers from the Government of National Unity. Relations between Juba and Khartoum steadily deteriorated, and in the following month Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir delivered a fiery speech to the People’s Defense Force, a Northern militia originally founded to fight the South, calling on them to “open their training camps and to gather mujahideen . . . to be ready for anything.”
A week before I flew to Juba, Salva Kiir returned from a visit to the United States. He met first with his senior leadership and then drove to the tomb of John Garang in central Juba. Crowds lined the streets, and a police band sang, “We shall never, never . . . never surrender.” Diplomats feared the worst, but on this sacred ground and before his troops, Kiir vowed, “The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement is committed to peace . . . The SPLM under my leadership will not and shall not take people back to war.” A new war had been averted—but North-South relations were as tense as they had been at any point since the signing of the CPA.
As I began to explore Juba, I came quickly to see the magnitude of challenges facing South Sudan as it sought to build both a government and its capital. During the war, Juba had been a central Northern garrison into which Khartoum funneled men and material, and as the war dragged on, Juba was subject to heavy Southern artillery barrages that damaged or destroyed most of the few buildings that had once stood. When the guns quieted, Juba was left with just a couple of potholed paved roads and a handful of crumbling concrete buildings.
It had grown rapidly since the SPLM named it their capital in late 2005, inundated with a flood of SPLM cadres, Southern returnees, and international aid workers. From around 65,000 people in 2005, the town’s population is now estimated to be somewhere between 250,000 and one million residents. Its expansion is taking place with only the barest of supervision, and the town’s infrastructure is only beginning to catch up.
Just four years ago, a senior government official estimated, there were perhaps ten cars in Juba. Today, the red dirt roads are crowded with growing numbers of cheap Chinese motorbikes, hulking SUVs, and overloaded trucks, along with scattered packs of goats, cows, and donkeys. In the weeks before I arrived the government had launched a laborious effort to pave the central thoroughfares, forcing most of Juba’s growing traffic onto even smaller roads, confusing drivers and worsening the clouds of red dust which had settled over town. With new commercial destinations sprouting up in isolated corners of town, SUV trails were being blazed around people’s huts and across dirt fields to provide access.
In the war’s aftermath, standard road rules had yet to emerge as a priority. Rumors of local regulations were spread by word-of-mouth; the week I arrived, it was being whispered that vehicles approaching intersections were now expected to use their signals when turning and to flash their hazard lights if plowing straight ahead. While out walking, I came across traffic policemen manning major intersections for what must have been the first time. Dressed in bright white uniforms, they stood not in the intersection but under trees by the roadside, almost entirely out of sight. Standing rigid, looking miserable, they occasionally dipped a gloved hand as though to signal the traffic. The drivers, entirely oblivious of this new authority figure, drove on undeterred, hazard lights blinking.
Along the largest of these roads were a near constant series of construction projects, the bulk of which were offices and the occasional commercial enterprise. There were still few solid residences to go around, although there was a short string of dilapidated mansions that lined a road near my compound and served as the official residences of senior ministers. The situation was of little concern to the vast majority of locals living in huts, but it was of great interest to the expatriate development workers, most of whom lived, as I did, in safari-style tents raised within a dozen or so walled compounds. The most notable exception to this housing crunch were the blessed residents of the compound of the US Agency for International Development, which boasted one of Juba’s two pools (the other belonged to the Norwegian Embassy, which invited the local Nordic community over for a swim each weekend).
Between the peace and the foreigners, Juba was experiencing an economic boom like never before. Available at its two markets was anything that could be trucked in from Uganda or Kenya—clothes, beer, electronics, toiletries, household goods, traditional medicines, and more. There was also a second parallel economy that had formed around the foreign community and its generous hazard pay. Most visible were the tented compounds, run by foreign companies and able to charge upwards of $100 per night for a safari tent with little more than a cot and a fan. There were also a dozen restaurants and bars, offering expatriates living in one of the world’s least developed towns the chance to sip glasses of fresh orange juice (ten dollars), enjoy slices of fresh apple pie (twenty dollars), and dig into homemade pizzas (twenty-five dollars). An old family mansion had been refurbished and unveiled as a “boutique hotel,” and, by providing simple but comfortable rooms with big beds, air conditioning, and hot water, was charging upwards of $300 a night and enjoying full occupancy. Like most of the lucrative enterprises targeted towards the expatriate community, the hotel was owned by foreign investors and staffed predominantly by Kenyan or Ethiopian employees. There was growing frustration within the government that so much of the enormous sums being spent by the expat community was going straight into the pockets of other foreigners and out of the country.
Despite its dirt roads, crumbling buildings, sporadic cell phone coverage, and scattered access to electricity and clean water, Juba boasted the most advanced development in South Sudan. Outside of Juba and a few other urban centers, there was virtually no modern development and only the loosest of administrative frameworks through which services and resources could be delivered. Most communities continued to live in near-total physical isolation, often in areas still littered with mines. Surveying the situation in 2005, the Minister for Finance predicted that “all of South Sudan will be a construction site for the next six years.”
The development challenges are much greater than lack of infrastructure; the government of South Sudan is trying to serve some of the world’s most desperate people. The vast majority of South Sudanese will spend their lives in rural areas as subsistence farmers, deeply vulnerable to droughts, with an average life expectancy of just forty-two years. More than 75 percent of the rural population lacks access to safe water, with terrible consequences; of the quarter of all Southern children who don’t make it to the age of five, an estimated 48 percent die from water related diseases. Nearly half of all children under the age of five suffer from chronic malnutrition, while at the time of the CPA there was less than one doctor for every 100,000 people in South Sudan. Only 24 percent of adults and 12 percent of women are literate. Complicating any provision of services is the continued fluidity of the population; more than 350,000 refugees and internally displaced returned to their homes across the region during 2007 alone. Major efforts to bring home more refugees have continued, but at least one international refugee organization has publicly called on the government to slow mass returns and focus instead on reintegrating and providing services to those who have already come home.
The government’s ability to address these dire needs is hampered by the lack of qualified staff to be found amongst this impoverished and uneducated population. Its ministries were established in October 2005, but more than a year later some were still operating with less than a dozen employees. To staff this new civil service, the government has turned to returnees, the South Sudanese who left during the fighting and earned degrees abroad of varying quality and relevance, and to former rebels, soldiers-turned-bureaucrats who earned their positions not by their expertise in, say, health services or financial management, but through their military service. Together, these teams of locals, returnees, and ex-soldiers are attempting not just to run a bureaucracy, but to build it from scratch: to propose laws and regulations, determine policies and priorities, establish mechanisms and procedures. And to do it all without working phone lines.
This is where the international assistance comes in, at least in theory—to provide critically needed technical expertise to fill the wide gaps in local knowledge and training. I counted twenty-one UN agencies and seventy-two international NGOs operating in South Sudan, working in sectors ranging from basic infrastructure to good governance, education to mine action. Many provide expert staff to work within the ministries, with varying degrees of success. One technical expert I spoke with had been hired by the UN to advise a government ministry in his field of specialty, but instead found himself helping with more mundane issues, like preparing a schedule for vehicle maintenance.
Walking around Juba, it is impossible to miss the more visible of the government’s achievements—the vibrant market economy with its imports from Uganda and Kenya, the enormous level of international assistance, the small but growing influx of foreign investment, and the steady transformation of the town itself. The government and its international partners have also had some successes in the delivery of public services, as President Kiir noted in detail during an address celebrating the third anniversary of the CPA:
Our Ministry of Education, Science and Technology succeeded in increasing enrollment of pupils by almost three times, from 343,000 in 2005 to over 1 million in 2007. The enrollment of female pupils increased to over 31 percent in 2007. Also, the Ministry of Health managed in 2007 to supply essential medicines to over 1,000 health facilities being managed by over 1,600 health professionals, while over 60,000 treated bed nets were distributed. The Ministry of Cooperatives and Rural Development managed in 2007 to construct about 306 new boreholes and rehabilitated 231 water sources, making the total number of operational water sources in South Sudan about 4,264. Our Ministry of Roads and Transport has de-mined and rehabilitated about 1,862 kilometers of roads in 2007 . . .
It’s an impressive list given the circumstances, and indeed President Kiir is generally respected as both committed and competent by outsiders, and as a strong and able leader by his people. The rest of the Government, however, is much less admired. There are widespread complaints about its questionable competence and excruciatingly slow pace, and there have also been serious allegations of corruption, some of which drove Kiir to sack senior officials—including the Minister of Finance—and to establish a national anti-corruption commission.
Even with the most capable of leadership, it will take years to build a competent administration, identify and enact effective policies, and cultivate a professional civil service able to carry them out. Kiir has urged patience: “South Sudan has never been developed since its creation. It is not really a miracle that I can turn the south to paradise in one day, or in one year. It is not possible.”