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Posted on on July 19th, 2010
by Pincas Jawetz (

South Sudan’s road to independence.

By Barney Jopson

Published: March 20 2010

Thomas Bakata on his bike and wielding a gun in south  Sudan
Second lieutenant Thomas Bakata…

Barely an hour into a journey that was about to get longer and second lieutenant Thomas Bakata’s Chinese motorbike was handling as it usually does on the route from Juba to Yei: like a bucking bronco. It jerked and jolted over sandy ridges and stony pits as the rabbit-ear flaps on his green hat flailed in the wind, and the Wellington boots trussed to boxes on the back wriggled to get free.

On Bakata’s number plate was a flag belonging to a land-locked country-in-waiting at the rawest end of Africa’s ­wilderness spectrum. This is south Sudan, and the dirt track its lifeline to civilisation – a road so rough that drivers say taking it more than three times a week will scramble your ­internal organs.

Bakata, a regular traveller, lurched around another bend and squinted through his counterfeit Ray-Bans: a rope-and-streamer roadblock had been thrown up. He sighed and applied the brake, bringing the Senke 125cc to a halt. “How long will we wait here?” he asked, showing off a gap between his front teeth. The answer was 30 minutes, time enough to talk. “This land of ours,” he told me, “we have been many years fighting. Some of our fathers fought, so we have been fighting too.” He became a soldier 20 years ago, joining the then-guerrilla ranks of the Sudan People’s ­Liberation Army (SPLA) six years into the second phase of Africa’s longest civil war. The marginalised south was rebelling against a brutal Arab-led regime in Khartoum – the latest in a succession – and the bullets and flames of a scorched-earth campaign had arrived in Bakata’s village. He was 18 years old.

It was a war that killed two million people – equivalent to 20-25 per cent of the region’s population today – either in raids or battles, or through the hunger and disease that spread around them. The road where Bakata had stopped was a key fighting ground in the mid-1990s, when Juba was a garrison town controlled by Khartoum and surrounded by the SPLA. That is how the path and its hinterland came to be peppered with landmines – and why Bakata’s journey had been delayed. On the other side of the ­barrier, personnel from MineWolf Systems, a Swiss-­German demining company, clomped forward in suits that were half-astronaut, half-­beekeeper, clearing the last vestiges of the civil war from beneath the soil.

The conflict began in late 1955, a few months before Sudan gained independence from colonial Britain, and was passed down through generations. It was in part about race and religion, about the people of the south asserting that they were different from but equal to northerners. This came in the face of racist Islamist campaigns to impose Arab culture, Islam and sharia law across Sudan. Most southerners are Christian or have traditional beliefs that imbue the natural world with spiritual power. “We worship the ostrich, but we consider it like Jesus, like a ­mediator,” one man explained. “It is not a God itself.”

There were also issues of poverty and injustice: there are huge disparities in income and living standards within Sudan and a key reason, beyond the effects of the war, is the economic exploitation of the south by the north, which came to be symbolized by northern slave-raiding. “It’s Sudan: it means ‘the black people’,” says Bakata. “We are the real Sudanese. Those who are brown, they came like the Arabs. They came from the north to sit with us and we the black people got annoyed because there was no ­development. If you go to Khartoum, you see lots of things.”

Strapped over Bakata’s shoulder was the same Kalashnikov rifle he was given when he joined the liberation struggle, its butt chipped and scratched. “It is working okay,” he said, “because we don’t use it anyhow. It is only for protection. Last time was when we were fighting.” In 2005, after three years of intense negotiations and international pressure, the war ended with a peace deal between the SPLA and the Khartoum regime of president Omar al-Bashir. The deal gave the south partial autonomy and provided for a six-year interim period in which attempts would be made to heal the north-south rift through a more equitable distribution of power and resources. That has not succeeded. “The Arabs, we are over with them,” Bakata said dismissively. Instead, attention has shifted to the peace deal’s get-out clause: a referendum on southern self-determination due next January in which an ­overwhelming majority of southerners are expected to vote for secession.

It’s possible the referendum will be delayed; it’s possible Khartoum will choose to fight another war rather than let the south go; it’s possible the international community will get last-minute jitters over the rupture and try to thwart it. If none of that happens, south Sudan will become the world’s newest country as early as next July (following a six-month transitional period). But what kind of country? Plenty of places have been rebuilt after devastating wars, but nowhere has a nation-state been built from nothing in six years. “This is still bare-bones stuff,” said one British aid worker. “You’re looking at society before civilisation.”

An aerial view of houses in Juba, south Sudan
Juba, future capital city of an independent southern Sudan

The future capital of any future country is Juba, situated on the Bahr el-Jebel stretch of the White Nile river, a boom town in a region also known as the Wild South. The main unit of construction here is the shipping container; there is no public water supply; electricity comes from personal ­diesel generators; and only last year did the length of its paved roads surpass four miles. Yet it is home to a circus cast of outsiders who have flocked here since 2005: roughshod profiteers, UN drones in pressed shirts, bleeding heart aid workers, insta-fix briefcase consultants. They are attracted by its danger and its desperation and they have given Juba its signature impermanence and incoherence. “There’s this sense that everything arrived ­yesterday and that it’s changing before your eyes,” said one man on the payroll of a European government.

The area is the ancestral home of the Bari people and that’s why you can turn a corner and stumble across a community of tukul mud huts with conical straw roofs, or a team of hammer swingers making one of the region’s few indigenous products: broken rocks. This is the thing about Juba: it’s got bits of the pre-industrial era and it’s got bits of the ­21st-century, but there’s a gap where the western 20th century could have been. So it has mass illiteracy and US aid workers carrying Kindles – but precious few school textbooks. It has inter-tukul rumour mills and a “3.75G” mobile phone network – but no landlines. It has women fetching river water by hand and a few dust-churning Hummers – but no donkey-drawn carts. It also has oil – lots of it. Ninety-eight per cent of its non-aid budget this year comes from crude, so a future country is likely to be the world’s most oil-dependent. It is also headed towards being more dependent than anywhere else on aid agencies: they are estimated to provide 85 per cent of both education and health services in the region. During the war, the south’s main settlements had been garrison towns controlled by Khartoum whose economies were run by white-robed merchants from the north. Those merchants fled after the 2005 peace deal and left an ­economic vacuum that only risk-taking outsiders could fill: Ugandan steel suppliers, a Chinese mineral water trader, Eritrean hotel owners, a ­Canadian farmer, and so on. They got the region working but they have also stoked resentment at profiteering. Indeed, business people told me they were pocketing profit margins of 50, 100 or even 200 per cent. Evan Hadji­michael, a Greek born in Egypt and joint owner of Notos, a Mediterranean ­restaurant that tries to be different by offering “value”, said: “Everyone here tries to make a quick buck. They have an absurd pricing structure.”

Part of that is because no one knows whether national elections scheduled next month or the referendum next January will trigger renewed ­conflict, or whether the tenuous rule of law will protect them from land and tax grabs. Stories circulate of businesses that lost out in disputes with locals who got their way through brute force – for example, KK Security of Kenya, whose operation was violently seized.

Then there are the businesses that signed contracts with the government and ran off with the money. Yar Manoa Majek, a south Sudanese construction entrepreneur and member of the chamber of commerce, fumed about the lack of long-term investment. “Is the profit going to stay here?” she asked me, jabbing her notepad with a pen. “No. Every week, they take the money. Every week, they are sending money out by Western Union. How is that going to benefit the economy?”
. . .

Nestled among rolls of chain-link fencing and ­spaghetti-like stacks of steel cables, Chesta Musoke reclined at a “technology hub” grafted on to the side of a corrugated iron kiosk, reading an old copy of Red ­Pepper, a scandal-sheet from his native Uganda. A laid-back sophisticate, he looked out of place among the ­grizzled traders and truckers who have made Juba’s Mawunna trading centre the drop-off point for goods at the end of the Yei road. But they appreciate him for charging their mobile phone batteries – using a bank of sockets available for two ­Sudanese pounds (60p) a go – and for injecting some cheer into the grim workaday scene by pumping out music from his computer.

He tossed down his newspaper as I approached to chat. When I asked about the locals, he jabbed a finger at a picture on his computer screen of Destiny’s Child, the female R&B group, and told me about the reaction of his archetypal south Sudanese man. “He sees her here and he says he wants to talk to her. Now. Now. He is not yet aware of technology,” he said. “You bring the radio, he listens, then he comes back with money and says he wants to buy the songs inside. He sees the mirror and he wants to pass through it because he sees the traffic moving inside.”

The long civil war left most of the people frozen in time for 50 years while the rest of the world – including city dwellers in neighbouring ­African countries – raced ahead. Now they have been asked to cover in six years the ground that took the rest of us decades, centuries. “It’s a culture of no exposure to so many things,” says Suzanne Jambo, the garrulous head of external relations for the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, the political wing of the former rebel army, which rules the south. “It’s like baby steps. You have to take people on baby steps.”

The lack of familiarity with the modern world extends to concepts such as work, employment, commerce – even farming. South Sudan oozes fertility, but during mango ­season an overpowering stench assails parts of the region because heaps of the fruit are left rotting where they fall. Meanwhile, expats in Juba drink Ceres-branded mango juice imported from Uganda. “There’s a culture of dependency, a culture of not taking pride in earning your own income,” says Jambo. “It’s a way of thinking. It’s like an entitlement. Do you know? That’s how it is.”

Beyond war itself, such attitudes have their roots in Operation Lifeline Sudan, a food relief effort run by the UN and aid agencies during the conflict; it kept hundreds of thousands of civilians alive, but is now criticised for having pulled them into garrison towns and killed off agriculture and self-reliance. Members of the diaspora returning to south Sudan are helping to counteract this but they are often overpowered by a postwar indigenous economy that can be summarised as “oil revenues in, state salaries out”. South Sudan’s former guerrilla leaders turned public sector employment into a patronage tool, creating a state payroll of more than 300,000, including the army. It is as messy as it is unproductive: there are drivers with no cars, schools with more cleaners than teachers. But via hand-outs given to relatives the salaries probably support up to half the population.

One of the rooms of Juba Teaching  Hospital
Juba Teaching Hospital

The labels have been stuck on the store-room shelves – ampicillin, flagil, septazole – but the spaces above them are empty. The adjustable baby-delivery chairs gleam after a scrub, but some do not work because their screws have fallen out. The amateur midwives are literate and hard-working, but they tend to panic when a labour doesn’t go according to plan. This is the maternity ward in the Juba Teaching Hospital; too often it is also the scene of avoidable tragedy.

“Recognising complications during birth is an issue,” Sake Jemelia, head of the ward, told me. “Most of the mothers die because of that … The community midwives run up and down calling for the doctor. But the doctor is not there and there is no blood to replace what is lost.” South Sudan’s human development indicators are among the worst in the world. The UN spells them out on a list entitled “Scary Statistics”. Under maternal mortality it says: “One out of seven women who become pregnant in ­S Sudan will probably die of pregnancy-related causes.” Babies are only in marginally less danger: 102 die per 1,000 live births. A non-Sudanese doctor who had visited the maternity ward told me: “You see the babies are pulled out like logs, they are convulsing, and you ask the midwife and she doesn’t know ­anything. I just made the sign of the cross. I don’t want to go there again.”

The hospital’s reliance on amateur staff is explained by another statistic on the UN list: there are only 100 certified midwives in the whole of the south Sudan, or roughly one per 100,000 people. The picture for water, sanitation and education – the other basic services – is equally grim. Luka Biong Deng, minister of presidential affairs, said the figures were better than five years ago but had been adversely affected by a decision to focus public spending on roads and buildings. Yet south Sudan has also received just over $2bn in foreign aid since 2005. Why has it made so little difference? The region seems to embody two of aid’s recurring weaknesses: short-termism and a failure to understand local circumstances. “It’s inter-generational change you need in south Sudan,” said Allan Duncan, a former aid worker who, as a KPMG consultant, became the new government’s Mr Fix-it in its early days. “It’s not a five to 10-year time frame. That’s where a lot of people had ­unrealistic ­expectations about what they could achieve.”

Young men doing  carpentry at the Ganji Institute of Vocational Education
The Ganji Institute of Vocational Education

Rather than building the country methodically, he said donors and NGOs had set time horizons that end at next year’s referendum, triggering a rush to launch dozens of over-optimistic and ill-considered projects. “It’s been like an end-of-the-world party,” Duncan told me in his Nairobi office. “2011 became this cliff and everyone knew you’d have to step off it. But no one knew if it was 1ft high or 100ft high. So there’s never been any form of institution-building for 2011 and beyond.”

Members of the aid brigade in Juba spend a lot of time blaming one another for what’s gone wrong, but the most popular punchbag is the World Bank, which was chosen to administer a flagship recovery fund into which western governments poured $524m. The bank had little experience of post-conflict zones, it could not attract good staff to Juba, and it applied criteria that were ludicrously stringent in a place as raw as south Sudan. The result: by the end of last year, little more than a third of the money had been spent, leaving donors furious.

Most of the money that has got out has gone to aid agencies. Some of their staff reminded me with pride that they provide the bulk of health services in south Sudan. “We are basically the ministry of health,” said a worker with Médecins Sans Frontières. But others voiced the ­criticisms that come with that. “They set up completely parallel systems and they have reacted very self-righteously when someone in the SPLM tries to control them,” said John Ashworth, a Sudan veteran who heads the Nairobi office of IKV Pax Christi, a Christian campaign group.

Aid agencies get barbs elsewhere in Africa for letting governments ignore their responsibility to provide services to their citizens. But in south Sudan, the international community made the opposite error: it tried to manage too much in partnership with a novice government that knew as little about governing as its people did about farming or computers. One World Bank official told me wearily about “weeks and weeks” that had been lost as the ministry of legal affairs vetted agreements for recovery fund projects. “The concept of general conditions of contracts seemed not to be known,” he said. “Guys were trying to ­negotiate what is force majeure, which the whole world has accepted.”

Duncan, the Mr Fix-it from KPMG, recalled his realisation in 2005 that some of the finance ministry officials who were due to be trained in ­budgets, procurement and auditing would first need remedial maths classes.

Pastor Basil ’Buga Nyama
Pastor Basil ’Buga Nyama, director of the Ganji Institute of Vocational Education

When 2nd Lt Thomas Bakata was joining the struggle, eight-year old Philip Achuoth had already been in a refugee camp for two years. He was another face of the civil war, a Lost Boy: one of thousands who trekked more than 1,000 miles to safety, losing touch with their families and seeing friends picked off by air force bombers and Arab militias, lions and crocodiles, exhaustion and starvation.

“A lot of my colleagues died,” Achuoth told me. “You would see them lying by the path. Or you would say, ‘Wake up, wake up,’ to the one next to you in the morning, you would push him, and he was dead. You would feel like you would be the next.”

Today he is a towering man with a domed forehead framed by an Afro. I met him at a Juba restaurant whose scattershot menu offered rogan josh and pizzas, chicken chow mein and vegetable quesadillas. He didn’t smile once. His earnestness was overpowering and his angst about south Sudan obvious. What bothered him above all was cronyism, corruption and the inaction of the government. “For we who assess development in terms of quality of life, it has not done anything,” he said.

That sentiment is common, and although the former rebels are unlikely to lose power in national elections next month, they are braced to be chastised by the people. The SPLM itself is split along policy lines, between radicals who want to spurn the north after referendum day, pragmatists who see a need to co-operate with it and unionists who still want Sudan to remain as one.

It is also divided between leaders from the south’s largest tribe, the Dinka, and those from the Nuer tribe, notably the vice-president and the army’s deputy commander-in-chief: they both fought against the SPLM in a war within the civil war and they control former militias imperfectly integrated into the southern army. Indeed, the army as a whole is still fragmented into a series of half-reformed guerrilla groups, which are often reviled by the local populations they prey on and not disciplined by an effective command structure.

As for the people themselves, ethnic violence surged last year as more than 2,000 people were killed by rival tribes in disputes over cattle, water and grazing land. The upheaval of the civil war has created lingering suspicions, too – between those who were in garrison towns during the war, those who lived in rebel-held territory and those who fled the country.

What has held the fractious south together in the past five years has been its need to manage Khartoum’s political chicanery, get to the referendum and prepare for the contingency of renewed war. If it becomes independent without conflict, the “Arabs” against whom it has defined itself will be diminished as a common enemy. That is when the south’s internal divisions could come to the fore, threatening the security and cohesion of a place where guns are everywhere and belligerence hangs in the air. It is not the foreigners who will determine its future; that will hinge on the ability of the south Sudanese to find mutual interests and a unified identity.

Achuoth said that, having cheated death and the circling vultures who feasted on fallen Lost Boys during their long march, he now wanted to help other survivors return home. But at the very least, that home must be safe. “This liberation struggle,” he said, “I have seen too much. I want to see a good outcome. I don’t want to see other people experiencing the same, going back to square zero.”

Barney Jopson is the FT’s East Africa correspondent

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