As South Sudan clears another milestone for independence, its capital booms

South Sudan's capital, Juba, is exploding with new construction, incoming foreign residents and new embassies.

Pete Muller/AP
South Sudanese celebrate the announcement of preliminary referendum results in the southern capital of Juba on Sunday, Jan. 30. Referendum officials indicated that nearly 99 percent of all voters cast ballots in favor of southern independence.

In less than six months, a new nation will be born in a particularly volatile corner of Africa. The capital of this Texas-sized territory is the upstart boomtown of Juba which, like many other institutions in Southern Sudan, is about six years old – as old as the 2005 peace deal that ended more than two decades of conflict between Sudan’s north and south, and that left the south’s already meager pre-war institutions and infrastructure in complete tatters.

Before it started shaping up to be the world’s newest capital, Juba had hung on as a garrison town occupied by the northern Sudanese army for much of the civil war. Evidence of the conflict – bullet holes in the few colonial era relics and rusted tanks on the outskirts of town – are only partially fading into the background as the “new Juba” is built on top of the ruins.

The result across the capital is a hodgepodge – a schizophrenic reality, where barefoot, filthy children live amid heaps of trash in what used to be a cemetery a few hundred feet from prime Nile River-side “cottages” that cost more than $4,000 to rent per month.

These apartments are little more than dressed-up plastic containers, a common sight in Juba. Some American diplomats, the entire staff of the United Nations peacekeeping mission, many aid workers, and government officials alike live and work in the rectangular white plastic structures.

At first glance, these “containers” seem to signal skepticism that the recent years of “fragile peace” will yield permanent, investment-friendly stability. On second thought, one reason for importing thousands of plastic boxes instead of building brick and mortar structures is that getting materials into the South is a daunting endeavor. Import/export business is only just beginning to get easier as more miles of roads are paved and as a US government-funded project forges the south’s first highway, leading to markets in Uganda.

Gaps between rich and poor in urban areas are common the world over. The contrast, however, between the nouveau riche of South Sudan – namely government officials, high-ranking members in the south’s ruling party, and their families – and the everyday South Sudanese mother or tea seller on the street is hard to miss in this small but rapidly growing city, which is becoming conspicuous for its presence of new consulates and soon-to-be embassies popping up around town.

The Japanese opened a “liaison office” in a plastic container on the Japanese government aid agency’s compound last month. Swedish and South African diplomats are seen about town. The US government has built a multi-story, drab concrete building that provide office space for the staff of its newly “surged” mission. The behemoth, constructed in a flurry in the second half of last year, was rendered windowless for security reasons: it was squeezed into an already overcrowded compound and ended up too close to the road.

The Eritrean consulate has operated out of a modest rented office since 2006, shortly after the peace deal was brokered, but a staffer there says they are looking to move out of their space far down a rutted dirt road near one of Juba’s busiest thoroughfares.

Many nations are gearing up to establish their presence here, and private investors are seeing the advantage of getting in relatively early, no matter the upfront costs of doing so. At the Eastern Pearl, the latest in a rash of recently-built hotels, one can feel as though she has just touched down in Beijing. As a young Chinese receptionist drank hot and sour broth in the newly furnished lobby, she said she was one of 15 hotel Chinese staff who moved to Juba a few months ago to staff the latest plastic-walled (think “container” again) hotel in town.

The Eastern Pearl is a greyish blue multiple-story oddity, adorned with sparkling Santa Claus posters and blue and white ceramic urns. The receptionist said it was built in “less than six months” and cost “not more than two million” US dollars to build. Indeed, like many other buildings in Juba, this hotel seems to have sprung up overnight. A deluxe suite is $680 per night, while “business housing” is only $180 – the receptionist did not volunteer the details as to whether the “Chinese massage” advertised on the large sign outside is included with the room.

Juba’s population is fairly diverse, and most everyone has a hustle of some kind. Whether you’re a Uganda “boda boda” (motorcycle taxi driver), a Somali petrol station owner, a Norwegian aid worker, an American journalist or a Congolese sex worker, surviving and attempting to thrive in Juba is not for the faint of heart. As every almost every news story that mentions Juba notes, it’s a dusty place, made worse by increasing smog that traps in hairdryer-hot air during the dry season. During the five-month plus rainy season, it’s a muddy, often smelly, difficult-to-navigate series of swamps and rivers of open sewers.

But part of Juba’s charm is its hustle-or-be hustled spirit. Independence of the South come July is all but guaranteed, but Juba may hold on to its growing reputation as a frontier boomtown for some years to come. There is more to this city than meets the eye from behind the windows of a white 4x4 LandCruiser or from the air-conditioned sterility of a container office put up overnight. From the tin-roofed bars blaring Ethiopian music to the riverside restaurants bold enough to serve snapper imported from the Red Sea or even sushi, Juba is hopping with the excitement of a place on the brink of something. As an official from the commission that organized the independence vote said Sunday when announcing the results of the referendum – a landslide in favor of secession – “Sudan is having labor pains.” Watch out world, Juba is coming out.

Maggie Fick is a Juba-based journalist who blogs here.

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