Developers head to southern Sudan

Five years after emerging from civil war, investment floods into Juba - the likely new capital if the south votes for independence.

John Lokire breaks rocks at a quarry outside of Juba, Sudan. The quarry produces building material that is fuelling Juba’s boom. MATT BROWN/THE NATIONAL
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JUBA, Sudan // High up in the Jebel Kujur hills on the outskirts of town, steep canyon walls echo with the loud ring of metal striking granite. "Ping! Ping!" That is the sound of development here in southern Sudan.

Dozens of men wielding heavy sledge hammers chip away at the mountainside while women place the smaller rocks into neat piles. The material is loaded on to lorries and ferried into town where it will become the foundation for office buildings, embassies, houses and roads. A deep scar cuts through the hillside where much of the rock has already been extracted. The workers in this quarry are literally moving the mountain into Juba and fuelling the boom that is sweeping this city.

"They come and take the rocks and make buildings," said Peter Osuman, 16, who breaks rocks to pay for school. "This is how we make money from the mountain." Juba, the administrative centre of southern Sudan, is not the sleepy, war-torn town that it was five years ago. A half-decade of stability, massive foreign investment and the prospect that it could become the world's newest national capital have driven development.

The town sprawls across a dusty plain between the Nile River and the Jebel Kujur hills. Signs of progress are everywhere from the cranes constructing the new airport terminal to the crews paving another kilometre of road to the shiny new hotels teeming with aid workers and diplomats. In 2005, Juba was just emerging from a bloody 20-year civil war between the northern government troops and southern rebels. The town had been cut off from the rest of the country during most of the war and was a crumbling shell when the southern rebels finally took control as part of a peace deal that ended the war.

"In 2005, Juba was a skeleton," said John Paguir, the undersecretary for trade in the government of southern Sudan. "When we arrived, we found four cars in the whole town. We came with the hope that we could develop the land." But the NGOs and businesses that could provide the foreign investment needed for development were still too scared to relocate to Juba. Once the anti-personnel mines that littered the surrounding area were cleaned up and the peace deal appeared to hold, foreigners began to trickle into town.

"It used to be a desperately quiet place. There was no power," said a western consultant who has lived in Juba for five years and did not want to be named. "Once NGOs were confident it wasn't going to blow up again, they started moving back in. That's when development really started." The population of Juba ballooned from 150,000 in 2005 to nearly two million today. Refugees living in Kenya and Uganda flooded the town as well as other Africans looking for business opportunities. Western expatriates and the Chinese soon followed looking to develop southern Sudan in return for some of the region's oil.

"We have a lot of untapped resources that China is interested in," Mr Paguir said. "If China becomes a custodian of development in southern Sudan, we have no problem with that." Next year southerners will vote in a referendum on independence from the rest of Sudan. If that happens, Juba will become a world capital. Many countries are hedging their bets that the south will vote to secede and have opened diplomatic posts in Juba that can be turned into fully-fledged embassies.

But all of this development is not necessarily helping the Sudanese, who remain among the poorest in the world. The oil money has yet to improve the quality of life for the average citizen and most of the jobs created by foreign investment go to the thousands of better educated Kenyans and Ugandans who have descended upon Juba. Many of the drivers, hotel workers and shop owners are from Kenya or Uganda. Newton Kilonzo, a Kenyan, has lived in Juba for three years. He originally came to work as a chef in a hotel that catered to western expatriates. He now runs a tea shop and serves up Kenyan food to the Kenyan community.

"I heard that there was so much business in Juba," he said. "When I first came to Juba, it was not good. You could find people shooting guns in the streets. I was fearing for my life. Now, things are very cool. Business in southern Sudan is good." New branches of Kenya Commercial Bank have opened in Juba as well as a handful of brick and mortar hotels - something unheard of five years ago. Back then the only places to stay in Juba were in portable housing units or tents that cost US$100 (Dh370) per night.

"Obviously now with the peace looking like it is going to be sustained, people are taking risks in southern Sudan," said Alan Igambi, the general manager of the recently opened Quality Hotel in Juba. "This is one of the first hotels built out of stone. We no longer need temporary structures."