Can South Sudan survive?

The capital is booming, but infrastructure is non-existent and tensions are mounting

Independent—but still troubled

William B. Plowman/Redux

Hands moving nervously, her gaze staring at a nearby table, Sarah Clero Rial still remembers vividly the memories of her troubled past. Rial is Southern Sudanese, now a single mom with three kids and a job in both the United States and her home country; in 1991, she was just a young African girl living in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum, after having barely escaped the civil war that was raging in the south of the country at that time. “Living in the South was really tough. There were continued shortages and a lot of tension, stabbings and shootings. Many people were killed or simply vanished,” she recounts. “When my family decided to move to the North, we took the last train from Wau to Khartoum before the railway was closed.”

But even if moving to the capital saved her life, being a Christian and southerner was never going to be easy in the Islamic and Arab-dominated North. The rebels of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) were fighting against a government whose policies were perceived as pro-Arab and oblivious to the lack of development in the South, and coming from that region meant arousing the suspicion of the Sudanese authorities. One day, Rial’s life changed abruptly and forever: arrested for wearing a traditional African skirt—unacceptable in a city governed by strict sharia-based rules—she was tied up and put on the back of an open police truck. Then she was driven around Khartoum for the whole afternoon, as a warning for whomever might have thoughts of doing the same.

“People were throwing dirt at me, launching all sort of insults. It was really humiliating,” she says. She was eventually released, but deep in her heart, her decision had already been made. “My personal revolution started that very moment,” she says. “I realized that I would have never changed my habits and accept to be a second-class citizen in my own country.”

Today, Rial, who went to the U.S. after university before returning to her country and becoming one of the first women’s rights activists in South Sudan—she operates offices in both Boston and her home country—is about to see her dreams come true. Following the result of the referendum on independence held in the South last January, in accordance with the final Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) signed in 2005 between the two regions, on July 9 South Sudan will become the youngest country in the world. After 22 years of civil war between the Sudanese army and the SPLA that caused more than two million deaths, and a difficult six-year interim period rife with continuing tensions with Khartoum, South Sudanese will finally be the masters of their own destinies. “I still remember the sense of relief and freedom I felt when I cast my vote,” says Rial. “Finally, in a few days I will have my own country.”

Her sense of pride and joy is shared by the vast majority of her fellow citizens. Juba, the makeshift capital of the South, where NGO and UN agency compounds exist side by side with reed shacks in which most of the locals live, has being preparing for the event for weeks. The government is conducting mock parades for independence day, civil servants are rushing to learn the national anthem, and army and police are conducting periodic searches in the capital to rid it of weapons. Juba suffers from a lack of housing, infrastructure and basic services, but long-time residents are quick to point out the progress of the past years. “You should have come in 2007. There was not even one square centimetre of paved road,” explains Cleonice Salvadeo, a nun who works at the local Comboni missionary house.

But if Juba is booming, the whole of South Sudan, with 80 per cent of Sudan’s oil reserves and deposits of gold, iron and copper still to be explored and exploited, might soon become the best place to do business in Africa. The huge quantity of foreign investment being poured into the country reflects the jostling of the main global players (the U.S. and China above all) to become its privileged trading partners. “South Sudan is a virgin area for everything, from farming to tourism,” explains Minister of Information Barnaba Marial. “There will be a special policy with lots of benefits for foreign investors. We are open to anyone willing to become our partner.”

Even with all its potential, though, South Sudan will not be an easy bet for investors. Many sticky issues remain on the table, the main one being the normalization of strained relations with the North. Even if the government led by President Hassan Omar al-Bashir seems to have accepted the inevitable secession of the South, the government in Juba is still accusing Khartoum of supporting militia and rebel groups in the South in order to destabilize the new country. South Sudan is currently facing six internal rebellions, the main ones led by disgruntled former officers of the SPLA who decided to change sides and whose wars have caused hundreds of deaths since the beginning of the year.

Moreover, the Northern government has repeatedly threatened to shut down the oil pipelines passing through its territory if the two countries do not reach an agreement on revenue sharing. But the government in Juba does not take this position seriously. “It’s just a tactic to improve his negotiating position,” Marial says of Bashir. “Khartoum gets 70 per cent of its budget from the oil. If Bashir shuts down the pipeline, he will shoot himself in the foot.” The Northern government has acknowledged that the secession of the South will result in the North losing some 35 per cent of its budget—a figure that many in Juba say is far too low.

But the South depends even more on its oil exports, which account for 98 per cent of current revenues, an imbalance many see as a result of the prolonged war. “The country doesn’t produce anything. Twenty years of war have made everyone depend on relief,” explains Atok Baguoot, a former child soldier now working as a manager for an international company in Juba. “Agriculture has been abandoned, and more and more people are concentrating in cities that can’t meet the rising demand of services and goods.” As a result, Juba is one of the most expensive places to live in Africa. “We have the Nile nearby, but we import vegetables from Kenya and Uganda!” laments one government official working in the agricultural sector, who asked not to be named. “The vast majority of our population is still rural. We should invest 20 per cent of our budget in improving agriculture to have meaningful results, but so far the sector is receiving less than two per cent.”

Not only agriculture is in need of a fix. Infrastructure is for the most part non-existent, and transportation is a constant struggle. Health clinics are mostly funded by foreign donors and can’t cope with the demand for drugs and treatment, and schools are in a poor state given the lack of trained teachers and facilities. “Health is a problem here, but education is pathetic,” says a Ugandan social worker at an international NGO, who asked not to be named for security reasons. “In the countryside you find teachers who are [elementary school] dropouts. What do you expect those kids to learn?”

As a result, the undeniable economic growth taking place in South Sudan is not benefiting most citizens: businesses, hotels and restaurants in Juba are almost all run by foreigners, who prefer to employ expatriates rather than unskilled South Sudanese. Tension is building between locals and the huge number of Ethiopians, Ugandans and Kenyans flooding the country in search of opportunities. “Soldiers continuously search your car or harass you for no reason,” says the Ugandan social worker. “They even feel insulted if you speak to them in English.”

Locals say this is the result of a war mentality difficult to eradicate after so many years of fighting against the North. But after the victory of the SPLA, many among its uneducated ranks have been appointed to top government positions, and their lack of skills hampers development. Many are also corrupt: in 2010, Transparency International ranked Sudan as tied for fourth most corrupt country in the world. “We didn’t fight for this,” says Nul Mayendit, a former SPLA soldier and now the owner of a small company making licence plates. “Can you believe it? In this poor country there are more Hummers than in the whole of Uganda. Sometimes government officers come here with 20 4 x 4s each to register. Where do you think all this money comes from?”

This, then, is the new country of South Sudan: around the size of France, but unable to control its territory and just coming out of a devastating civil war, with enormous natural resources but no infrastructure and still facing the threat of rebel groups and militias. These are ingredients that seem to replicate the story of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the biggest failed state in Africa. Might South Sudan follow the same path? “Absolutely not,” replies Mayendit. Enrolled in the ranks of the SPLA when he was just nine, he took part in the civil war until he was 18, when he got the chance to leave the country and reunite with his family in a refugee camp in Uganda. “Sometimes we were given one grain of maize for lunch. When we were given six, we ate three and kept three. Life was so hard in the bush. We fought for so many years for the liberation of this country that we will not waste this opportunity.”

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.