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South Sudan: A Hidden Tour Of Juba, The Newest World Capital

As South Sudan declares its independence, its capital city Juba is a complicated and fast- growing metropolis, teeming with prostitutes, adventurers, refugees and NGOs

South Sudan is ravished by poverty, but has oil (babasteve)
South Sudan is ravished by poverty, but has oil (babasteve)
Christophe Châtelot

A rope suspended across the street in Gumbo Market marks the entrance to Juba. A long line of trucks, blurred by the heat and dust, waits at the makeshift border – guarded only by a handful of policemen.

Brazilian chicken, Chinese refrigerators, Kenyan cigarettes, vegetables from Uganda and medicine from India…the cargo heats in the sun. David Grassly, the head of the UN representation in Juba says that in 2005 "beer used to be brought here from Yei by bike, 90 miles south of here, near the Democratic Republic of Congo and former Republic of Zaire." The reason: only bikes could zigzag between the mines left during the second civil war in Sudan (1983-2005).

Six years later, as it declares its independence, South Sudan still imports most basic foodstuffs. Trucks have to drive many miles to provide water to homes that do not have electricity either.

However, the city is growing and so is its population from 200,000 to 1 million in just six years. Juba looks like a city taken straight out of an African western. Makeshift houses made of bricks and sheet metal spring up everywhere. "It's anarchy" says Dennis Daramalo, the king of the Baris tribe. The Baris have been living on the shores of the White Nile the longest, and technically own the land in Juba. "It's anarchy and misery here. I've been to South Africa and Zimbabwe where the traditional chiefs live in palaces," he says enviously. His house is the biggest one in the area but is hardly anything special.

One still needs a vivid imagination to see Juba as a future capital. But that's exactly what it became Saturday, as South Sudan officially declared its independence from the North, after voting the move in a referendum in January.

From now on, Sudan will no longer be the biggest country on the African continent.

The Global Peace Agreement (GPA) signed at an end to the second civil war in 2005 triggered a wave of immigration from the North to the South. Even people who had fled the war slowly returned to South Sudan. NGOs and UN workers also came to Juba; a new Eldorado that became a place of hope and ambition even for people from the neighboring countries.

Anjelina is one of them. Between two games of cards she sells her body to truck drivers and to slightly-drunk soldiers for just a handful of cash. The 22-year-old woman's face is puffy from "Kwete," a local beer made from corn and sorghum. She came here a few months ago from Uganda with her sister. "There was no future there" she said.

But business isn't always good. "It's all right when police close the road, because truck drivers stop," says Gladys, who runs a tobacco and mobile phone shop. "We got here a bit early, before the market opens," she says.

Oil and Asians

The construction of Juba's central market has just begun. It's being built on the other side of the tracks, not far from the new Telecommunications Ministry commissioned by the Chinese. The broad wasteland and its grazing cows with huge horns will soon disappear.

People have come from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Zambia and Lebanon. The youngest generation drive "boda-boda," Chinese taxi- motorcycles, run small shops or construction companies or import computer equipment, cauliflowers, water, toilet paper...a bit of everything since nothing is really produced locally in the oil-rich nation. Some of them make a fortune especially when catering to hotels. More and more tourists come here, spending the night in shipping containers converted into air-conditioned hotel rooms with cable TV and WiFi. The cost: 150 or 200 dollars.

"South Sudan has no industry, no big companies and no qualified work force" says the head of the Peace Dividend cabinet. Some complain about the number of foreigners in Juba. "They've been faster than us," says Diing Manok Ngor. "We only learned how to fight, or we were in exile when they started to come here. Isn't it too late for me?"

After years in exile, Ngor came back from Australia a few months ago to evaluate the local market which he considers competitive in some areas. His dream is to set up his own construction company in a city under construction. However, he has neither capital nor contacts in the Sudan's People Liberation Army - a former guerilla group which has become the country's armed forces.

"The former rebels have money and power to develop a country where 85 percent of the people are illiterate, but that has oil," says Melody Atil, founder of Peace Dividend. Three quarters of Sudan's oil reserves are in the South. The question is whether they will reproduce the North's political model (without the Sharia law), where a small elite controls everything. Atil says, that's exactly what the South needs to avoid if it wants to develop.

However, many analysts question the new country's viability. Some say it's a "pre-failed state," meaning an unfinished dream. "Many things have been done since 2005," says UN worker David Gressly. "The city was in ruins." This after SPLA rebels bombed Juba, a strategic region for the Sudanese army and supplies had to be brought in via planes or protected convoys on the Nile.

He adds that "the South's doesn't have its public services yet. They've only begun dealing with public affairs since the Global Peace Agreement. They're still learning."

Meanwhile, the presidential palace has been rebuilt for thousands of dollars. South Sudan's leader Salvar Kiir has been living in it since 2005. The South Sudanese government is also very proud of having built tarred roads, even though they total only a few dozen kilometers in a country as big as France. Most of them surround oil platforms near Juba platforms run by Asian companies.

Read the original story in French

photo - babasteve

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