In South Sudan's capital, a bridge – and a nation – on hold

When South Sudan declared independence, its tattered infrastructure presented enormous challenges, but also a strange sense of possibility. Now, renewed fighting has stalled attempts at nation-building – in a physical sense as well as a political one.

Ryan Lenora Brown/The Christian Science Monitor
The partially-finished Freedom Bridge crosses the Nile River in Juba, South Sudan. Only a temporary structure was completed before civil war stalled construction in 2016. The final bridge (r.) remains unfinished, with no date in sight for resuming construction: a quiet reminder of how war has stalled even the most basic attempts at nation-building here.

On its face, the plan was simple. South Sudan’s largest city needed a new bridge, and a Japanese aid agency was going to build one.

It was 2012 when the announcement was made, and the capital of the world’s newest country was growing up and out hungrily: a sudden glut of new huts, new houses, and new hotels poking up from the green flatlands.

“The way the city was growing was unbelievable,” says Justin Tata, the head of the department of architecture and urban planning at the University of Juba. “But the problem was the people came first, then the plans for what to do with them afterwards.”

Indeed, the bones of the city – its roads and plumbing and power grid – couldn’t keep up with the massive growth spurt. Perhaps most alarmingly, the city had only a single, rickety bridge slung across the Nile River to connect it to the country’s most important highway, a 120-mile artery stretching south to the border with Uganda.  

Every day, a huge portion of the country’s economy rattled over the 45-year-old bridge’s two narrow lanes, as heaving 18-wheelers carried imported goods from the port of Mombasa, in Kenya, into the growing capital city. Traffic snarled at both ends of the bridge as vehicles waited hours to cross.

“Bridges are the main gate for our development,” says Roman Marghani Lukak, the regional director for roads and bridges. He meant that metaphorically, but as the trucks packed with grains, medicine, building materials, and books queued up, it seemed true in an almost alarmingly literal sense, too.

South Sudan, after all, has one of the most lopsided economies in the world. Oil accounts for roughly 99 percent of its exports. The country imports nearly everything else it needs – from food and medicine to building materials and cars – at enormous cost through neighboring countries. In no small part because of its wobbly infrastructure, the price of importing goods is about three times the regional average, driving up prices for people with little money to pay.

Five years after the first promise of a new bridge, however, the project remains unfinished, its construction now indefinitely on hold. And like the overgrown remains of factories on Juba’s outskirts or the rotting piles of uncollected garbage lining many city streets, the half-a-bridge stands as a quiet reminder of how civil war has stalled even the most basic attempts at nation-building here – in a physical sense as well as a political one.

A new bridge “would be really good for us,” says Bullen Maker Kang, who lives a few hundred yards from the construction site for the new bridge. When the project was first announced, he says he would let his mind run wild with the possibilities of what it could mean. Maybe he would build a small general store to serve the passing truck drivers. Maybe the road to his house, which turned to a deep, impassable lake in the rainy season, would be paved over. With government soldiers patrolling the bridge, maybe the neighborhood’s security would improve, too. But now all those maybe-futures are drifting away. “We just hope every day [construction] will start again.”

A city unshaped

When South Sudan became independent in 2011, it was, in many ways, a shell of a country. Since the 1980s, an estimated 80 percent of its population had been displaced at some point by fighting, and most of those who remained in their homes had long ago gotten used to getting by without – without schools, without clinics, without roads or electricity or bridges.

At independence, the tattered infrastructure presented the new country with enormous challenges, says Mr. Tata, but it also gave it a strange sense of possibility. Here, after all, was an almost entirely blank slate for new developments.

And at first, the city planner in him was optimistic. Juba was nearly a century old, but for most of that time it had been little more than a sleepy provincial town. Indeed, it hadn’t had a bridge at all until the 1970s – residents simply crossed the river by boat.  

So when the population began to boom in the years just before and after independence, Tata says, Juba seemed a new city altogether. And it had the feeling of unset clay – a place that could become anything, depending on how it was molded.

“This is the youngest capital city in the world,” he remembers thinking. “So we have the opportunity to build a capital city better than any that exists in the world so far.”

With that in mind, city planners and humanitarians built Juba its first stop lights, and USAID paved the road to the Ugandan border, cutting travel time to reach it from eight hours to two and a half. Renovations began on the capital’s river port. And the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) announced that it was donating a new bridge to South Sudan’s capital, which it gave a name befitting of its heady historical moment: The Freedom Bridge.

But the opportunity to build a new and better capital city didn’t last long. In December 2013, fighting broke out between the country’s president, Salva Kiir, and his deputy, Riek Machar. Within months, it had escalated into full-blown civil war. Construction on the new bridge halted, and its Japanese engineers went home.

They returned a few months later, only to be driven out again by renewed fighting in the capital in July 2016.

Today, the unassembled pieces of the Freedom Bridge lie across a grassy construction site like giant Lego blocks. A temporary bridge stretches across the river.

When fighting broke out last year and soldiers blocked off the main bridge leading out of the city, thousands of Juba residents broke into the construction site and used it to escape. But most of the time, it stands vacant save for the skeleton crew who still work the site, clearing river debris and making sure the construction equipment doesn’t rust away.

Mr. Lukak, the regional head of roads and bridges, says he is optimistic that the Japanese will return soon. For its part, JICA is a bit cagier. A spokesperson writes in an email that it is “carefully watching the situation in South Sudan [and] collecting and analyzing relevant information.”

But in the diplomatic community here, there are whispers that the project is likely dead for good. Anyway, many wonder, what would be the point of building a bridge only to see it destroyed again by war?  

Tata sometimes asks himself questions like that too. For now, he’s not working on any projects for the city at all. Instead, he’s thrown himself into to teaching South Sudan’s next generation of architects. His small office on the campus of the University of Juba is jammed with their final projects. There are riverside hotels and nongovernmental organization compounds, bridges and roads – flimsy miniatures of a future city he still hopes they’ll someday build.  

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