James W. Cousins is an Untapped Cities correspondent working in South Sudan. Please note that this piece is a retrospective written in June 2012. He blogs about his experience in South Sudan at Seasons of Migration.
Juba may be a national capital but this is an urban centre in its infancy, birthed of conflict – our compound still has a bomb shelter, now put to use storing breakfast cereal – and institutional poverty. There are few tarmac roads, all of them lined with litter and semi-permanent structures, while scaffolding-clad building projects are common, each seemingly unfamiliar with safety standards as metal skeletons wave in the wind. In September 2011, two months after independence, the government announced that they were moving the capital to Ramciel, in Lakes state, a place described by the Sudan Tribune as “almost no man’s land.” And so Juba’s fate, too, appears uncertain. For now, NGOs wait and continue to operate out of shipping containers as air conditioned hotels spring up around them. This may not be our makeshift home for much longer.
A standard road in Juba
Alighting in the sticky heat of mid morning, Juba was coated with the surreal sheen of the overtired. Perhaps this was why the threat of deportation summarily issued by the guard at border control seemed amusing above all else. Welcome to South Sudan. We had been warned about the constantly shifting entry requirements and it soon transpired that I was lacking a crucial form which was required for entry but which definitely didn’t exist the week before. After an hour and a half of shuttling back and forth across the arrivals-hall-cum-baggage-reclaim-cum-customs where one’s suitability for entry into the world’s newest nation is determined, I was eventually granted a reprieve.
This is NGO country, that much is clear already. I counted at least four organisations represented at arrivals, in addition to several nationalities of UNMISS (UN Mission in South Sudan) troops. Tourists were notable by their absence. Loading a year’s worth of antimalarials and sunscreen into the Land Cruiser and clambering in after, I ticked off one khawaja – westerner/white person – cliché. No doubt there are many more to come.
It is rapidly apparent, however, what a complex and unpredictable environment this is. A leaked World Bank report had forecast that the country would be bankrupt within six weeks of its formation, in June 2012, as a result of the government’s decision to stop all oil production following a dispute with Sudan over revenues. As oil counts for ninety-odd percent of South Sudan’s GDP this was an unusual move indeed; the report essentially accused the government of gross incompetence and has apparently ruffled all manner of official feathers.
Hotel Juba in 1936
It was in this climate of piqued pride and mutual suspicion that the Northern and Southern governments headed to Addis Ababa for peace talks; the last round of negotiations resulted in open hostilities and bombings in the border region in 2012. Amidst this ongoing uncertainty donors are being particularly slow in signing off strategies or committing funds to projects. Our programme is far from immune from these pressures; there is a lot of work to be done. Due to staffing needs and the onset of the rainy season, during which the implementation of projects slows dramatically at our field sites, I am to stay in Juba for a couple of months, most likely to work on funding proposals and various donor-focused pieces of work. It will become clear in time, no doubt. For now, however, I will continue with the briefings and inductions and try not to panic about the scale of the task ahead.
A final observation. Having stumbled sleepily through my first day I joined a few of my colleagues for a run in the UN compound. The contrast between the industrial scale of the UN and everything else in South Sudan is striking – UNMISS seems an unintentionally apt acronym, such is the disconnect. It is immediately apparent why the UN can never be an agile organisation, and conversely why, when the machine grinds into gear and leverages its considerable resources, it has such potential to effect change.
Marked by paradox, like so much of South Sudan. This should be interesting.
You can read how James’ experience unfolded in South Sudan at Seasons of Migration.