Welcome to Juba! Southern Sudan Prepares for Independence

By Horand Knaup

A new country will come into existence this weekend in Africa. Southern Sudan, rich in oil reserves, is declaring its independence. But an ongoing conflict with the north combined with numerous warlords pursuing their own agendas means that optimism is in short supply.

Photo Gallery: Preparing for Independence in Southern Sudan Photos
DPA

The first impression travelers get when exiting an airplane here is that they've landed at a construction site. The new terminal building is but a skeleton, with Chinese laborers covering vast areas with concrete.

Welcome to Juba, the capital of Southern Sudan! The city still has much to do before United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and up to 40 heads of state and government fly to Juba Airport this coming weekend, an airfield about the size of that in the German town of Paderborn.

On Saturday, July 9, Southern Sudan will proclaim its independence. The move will strip Sudan, Africa's largest country, of a quarter of its area -- and the world will get a new country, the youngest in Africa.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle was already here, in the second half of June, for a two-day visit. He wanted to be prepared when Southern Sudan applies to become the 193rd member of the United Nations, where Germany recently assumed the rotating presidency of the Security Council. He wanted to get a feeling for the new government, how it thinks.

Now he knows. His meeting with Salva Kiir, who was elected the country's president last year with 93 percent of the vote, gave him a taste of what was to come.

Kiir left Westerwelle waiting for over an hour. When he finally arrived to meet his guest, the 60-year-old former guerilla fighter was wearing a black Stetson and patent-leather shoes.

'Democracy Is in our Blood'

What followed was a one-hour discussion full of misunderstandings. Westerwelle called for flexibility on contested issues with the north. In response, Kiir said: "We're very flexible; it is the north that halted transportation to the south." Westerwelle brought up the issue of respecting human rights. Kiir said: "We have been for a long time." Westerwelle called for the establishment of democratic institutions. "We're working on our constitution," Kiir said, "and, incidentally, democracy is in our blood."

Still, the democracy you'll find in Southern Sudan these days leaves plenty to be desired. Journalists are accused of being spies, police officers manning roadblocks act as if they were a law unto themselves, and political life is dominated by Kiir's party, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement. An incident one year ago provides a hint as to the form democracy and human rights here could take. After recruits at a police academy in Rajaf complained about the training methods, the police chief sent a special forces unit into the barracks. The troops beat to death at least six recruits and put dozens in the hospital.

Though the United Nations is supposed to help get the country established, its soldiers and vehicles are routinely blocked from entering contested regions. In May, when northern forces marched into Abyei -- a region rich in natural resources lying along the Kiir River and which is claimed by both the north and the south -- and released a flood of refugees, soldiers from Southern Sudan attacked a UN convoy.

The head of the UN peacekeeping mission in the south is David Gressly, a 54-year-old American with enough grit to have held out in Juba since 2004. Gressly still works out of a mobile office unit parked at the airport. On a large map, he traces the hot spots in the country. He points to Abyei, the fertile region, in the middle of the contested border where UN troops from Ethiopia are providing a buffer between northern and southern adversaries. Then he pulls his finger farther east to South Kordofan, which northern forces have been bombing as part of an effort to force its inhabitants to flee.

Stirring Up Fresh Conflicts

A half dozen warlords, veterans of the war of liberation, are now looking to stir up fresh conflicts. They had laid low until the referendum held in early January because they didn't want to hurt the chances of independence, but they never have been truly integrated. Since February, they're back to raiding villages, assaulting barracks, stealing livestock and laying mines. "There are substantial amounts of weapons in the country," says Gressly. When asked where they are coming from, he adds: "Certainly not from the south."

The government in Khartoum is doing nothing that might contribute to stabilizing the south. And why should it? The north has debts of some $38 billion (€26 billion) and the conflict surrounding the country's oil reserves has not yet been resolved. From the north's perspective, a stable government in Juba is not helpful.

Most of the oil is pumped in the south, but all of the pipelines run through the north on their way to the refineries in Port Sudan, on the Red Sea. The proceeds have long been split, but now, the south is claiming a bigger slice of the earnings.

For months, the two sides have been negotiating in Addis Adaba, the capital of nearby Ethiopia. Omar al-Bashir, the president of the north -- who has a warrant out for his arrest from the International Criminal Court for suspected war crimes in the Darfur region -- is threatening to completely block use of the pipelines. Such a move would spell catastrophe for the south since oil accounts for 98 percent of its livelihood. The two sides are aiming at reaching a deal by late summer to settle the debt issue and the dispute over oil revenues.

Officials in Juba, the future capital of the south, seem unfazed by such quarrels. In the Ministry for Regional Cooperation, State Secretary Majok Guandong raves about the more than 40 embassies scheduled to open around the world by 2013. A clock standing in the city's main intersection counts down the days and hours until July 9. And at the monument to John Garang, a champion of independence, workers are quickly erecting bleachers where guests of honor will sit on Saturday.

Sorting the Trash

Cleaning crews are sweeping up the garbage from the streets of Juba with unusual precision and great zeal. Under normal circumstances, garbage is merely piled up on the side of the street and burned. But now, the city is even adorned with a few dozen garbage cans, and trash is being sorted on the campus of the city's university.

Of course, this is all window dressing. The country's problems -- including rampant corruption and a low productivity -- remain unresolved. Before approving the construction of a 10 kilometer (6.2 mile) paved road, the minister responsible expects to at least receive a new SUV.

The ministries are predominantly led by men who have much more experience cleaning weapons than heading efficient administrations. There is a shortage of everything a functioning state needs: teachers and schools, doctors and hospitals, bridges and roads.

Seventy percent of the employees of the University of Juba are simply gone, having fled to Khartoum. Now, there are only 150 professors, assistants and technicians for a student body of 11,000. "You can't really work under such conditions," says Leben Moro, a political scientist who is one of the few remaining instructors. Moro returned to Juba two years ago after finishing his studies in Cairo. In Egypt, his 10-year-old daughter had been learning English, French and Arabic. But now Moro can't find any schools in Juba in which to enroll her.

Moro, a tall, slender man, has an office on the university campus. Today, like all the offices and stores in the city, his office will remain closed. The police and military have brought all traffic and public activities to a standstill as they conduct a frantic search for weapons.

"We are extremely excited to become independent," Moro says. "That which we have always dreamed about is now coming to pass." Still, he also admits to being nervous, as well, saying he is worried about the "overly high expectations" of his fellow Southern Sudanese. The government, he is convinced, will not be able to fulfill them.

Translated from the German by Josh Ward

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