Image: Sidewalk in Juba
Pete Muller  /  AP
Residents walk past burning garbage on a newly constructed sidewalk in Juba, southern Sudan. In eight months, Juba will probably become the capital of the world's newest country, and one of its poorest and least educated.
updated 5/13/2010 6:30:08 PM ET 2010-05-13T22:30:08

Some aid workers live in shipping containers in this stifling hot city, while residents on the outskirts dwell in mud huts. Trash fills the streets — most of which are unpaved — and fresh produce is a luxury.

In eight months, Juba will probably become the capital of the world's newest country, and one of its poorest and least educated.

Most observers expect that voters in southern Sudan will vote for independence in a referendum to be held in January, but their seat of government, landlocked deep inside Africa, will start off with little going for it.

"There are no good hospitals, no proper schools, because most of the teachers are facing problems with their salaries," said Kur Lual Kur, one of only a handful of lawyers in Juba.

Like much of Sudan, Juba is hot and dusty. It is nothing like Khartoum, Sudan's modern capital, a large city with high-rise buildings.

A year ago there was only a mile or two of pavement in all of Juba, and even now all but its central streets are rough dirt roads.

The antiquated airport is so small that crowds struggle to squeeze out the door. A new terminal is being built but has been a work in progress for years.

Many rural residents live in mud huts with thatch-grass roofs. International aid workers who don't live in shipping containers cram into small houses that rent for thousands of dollars a month.

With the influx of aid money, a handful of Western-style restaurants have opened up, though a pizza and beer may cost $25.

Mired in conflict
Many years of war and poverty have kept southern Sudan in a decrepit state. The United Nations estimates that more than 90 percent of people in southern Sudan live on less than $1 a day. The literacy rate is 15 percent. Life expectancy is 42 years.

Two decades of war between the predominantly Arab and Muslim north and rebels in the Christian-animist south killed at least 2 million people before a 2005 peace agreement was reached. The conflict is separate from the fighting to the west in Darfur, which has claimed an estimated 300,000 lives and displaced some 2.7 million people since 2003.

Salva Kiir, the south's president, said during his April election campaign to remain as the south's regional leader that southerners' lives have improved dramatically since the accord. The government says 8,000 new business have been created since 2005, including 200 new hotels, six water bottling plants and five mobile telephone companies.

"No amount of intimidations can drag us back to war," Kiir said. But a new report from the International Crisis Group warned that if either side reneges on the agreement to hold a referendum, "a return to conflict is likely and would undoubtedly affect the region and draw in some of its militaries." The south intends to carve out a new nation, either peacefully through a vote or — if denied a referendum — through the force of arms, experts say.

As political leaders negotiate final details before the independence referendum, the people of southern Sudan are enduring rising hunger and tribal violence that has reportedly killed dozens over the last month. Children in the southeastern town of Akobo are skeletal and being kept alive by aid workers.

‘We can be a strong state’
Breaking away from Sudan will leave the south's leaders with many new tasks: establishing a new currency, transforming a regional army into a national one, opening diplomatic missions, even choosing an official name for the nation. No one is even sure how many people live in southern Sudan; the U.N. estimates the populace at between 8 million and 13 million.

Determining the new country's oil rights will be a major challenge. Sudan is heavily dependent on oil exports — the south especially so — and the home of its oil reserves, Upper Nile state, is right where north and south will be divided.

Oil rights, water rights and border demarcation must be agreed upon with Sudan's ruling National Congress Party in Khartoum. The party is led by President Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted for war crimes at the International Criminal Court in the Hague and is no pushover. If the issues aren't worked out, Juba could revert to a garrison war town.

Kiir won re-election last month with 93 percent of the vote, a result many observers think was likely legitimate. But after a new country is born, southerners will no longer have opposition to Khartoum as a common rallying issue.

Image: Juba, southern Sudan
Pete Muller  /  AP
Downtown Juba in southern Sudan.
Zach Vertin, an analyst with the International Crisis Group, said the new nation would have to "prepare, once the common denominator of self-determination is gone, to overcome regional and ethnic politics."

U.S. National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair said earlier this year that among African and Asia countries at risk of an outbreak in violence, "a new mass killing or genocide is most likely to occur in southern Sudan."

Medelena Michael, a tea seller in Juba who is from a minority tribe, worries that the new government will not treat all southerners equally.

"I want to be independent but I don't know what will happen on that day," she said.

Juba is expanding. More roads are being built as leaders prepare for a new nation. But Kur, the lawyer, said the south needs to ferret out corruption, establish good relations with the north and put in place leaders to propel the south forward.

"We have petroleum, water," Kur said. "We can be a strong state in Africa ... if we can have good leadership."

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