Can hope and freedom triumph over corruption and poverty in Sudan?

The Times of London
Juba and Rajaf, Southern Sudan

Susan Poni and her daughter Doki. She gave birth in silence without medication on the floor of her mud-walled home(Jack Hill for The Times)
Susan Poni and her daughter Doki. She gave birth in silence without medication on the floor of her mud-walled home
(Jack Hill for The Times)

Decades of war and generations of deliberate neglect have left Southern Sudan as one of the poorest and least developed regions in the world, with experts warning that it may be decades before the world’s newest state can stand on its own feet. As polls close today after a week-long referendum on independence for the south, there is little doubt that voters will choose separation from the north. Voting to be a separate state, however, is not the same as becoming a viable one.

“This is state-building from scratch,” said Alex Vines, the head of the Africa programme at London’s Chatham House think-tank. “It is a long-term project and it will be decades before we see a successful, sustainable state emerge,” he said.

An independent Southern Sudan will be one of the world’s poorest countries. About 85 per cent of the population is illiterate. “This is a country that is desperately poor, landlocked, extraordinarily reliant on oil and will have tense relations with the north — all of which raises questions about the viability of the state,” said Philippe de Pontet, the Africa director at Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy.

Donor countries such as Britain and the US — which played key roles in securing the 2005 peace agreement that ended 22 years of civil war, paving the way for this week’s referendum — say that they are committed to Southern Sudan and are expected to increase foreign aid and investment. China is also building alliances with the southern government.

The Wild West boomtown of Juba offers a glimpse of the future. Restaurants and hotels are springing up all over this rapidly expanding equatorial town on the banks of the Nile. Trade is brisk and boisterous; streets are busy. But in between the new buildings are shanty-like huts made of mud and grass and older rust-roofed buildings that are crumbling into the dust, showing the gulf between the past and future.

“Khartoum did not do anything for us. Much of what you see around here was built by the British before they left,” said Daniel Wani, a senior civil servant and former government minister, referring to the colonial years that ended with Sudan gaining its independence from Britain in 1956.

Mr Wani said that six years of peace had brought a boom that will accelerate with independence. “Building on our stability, Juba can change very fast. With peace nothing can stop us,” he said.

Juba, however, is not a microcosm of Southern Sudan, and the growth has neither spread far nor deep. Tarred roads stop abruptly at the city limits, and the network of lanes and alleys that connects the newly paved roads are rutted and lined with rubbish and puddles of festering water. In regional towns, development is scant. Roads are made of dirt, shops are sparsely stocked, markets sell little piles of cassava dug from nearby fields or windfall mangoes. Electricity and piped water are rare, and torrential seasonal rains regularly cut off entire regions bigger than France, washing away mud roads and airstrips.

“There are no roads. They are building from nothing, and large chunks of the country are inaccessible for parts of the year,” said Joanna Michler, an aid worker with Save The Children.

Yet it is estimated that the government of Southern Sudan has earned perhaps as much as £1.3 billion in oil revenues every year since the 2005 peace agreement. “They have sufficient money, but they lack the capacity to spend it well,” said one analyst.

Corruption is rife and perhaps a third of the oil windfall has been spent on the army. “There is concern because while you do have highly competent individuals they are very thinly spread, and the institutions are incredibly weak,” said Mr Vines.

The vast majority of Sudan’s estimated six billion barrels of oil is in the south, and although it’s the basis of the economy it is a finite resource. Analysts say that the economy must diversify or fall foul of the “resource curse” that afflicts many other African economies.

Agricultural land is one of its underexploited resources. Sudan’s population is around nine million people, but it is possible to fly for hours across the landscape without seeing a settlement.

So far, the biggest investment in Southern Sudan outside the oil and telecoms sectors is a £30 million brewery opened by SAB Miller in May 2009, which provides 150,000 bottles of beer a day for local consumption.

“Until we started building here, these guys hadn’t seen anything industrial before,” said Ian Alsworth-Elvey, the venture’s South African managing director. Among the grass huts that surround it on the outskirts of Juba, the brewery does indeed look alien.

As northern Arab traders dominate the economies of border towns, so foreigners dominate Juba’s booming economy. Among the town’s motorbike-taxi drivers, market traders, car-hire companies, hotel owners and workers it is rare to find a Sudanese.

Rather Kenyans, Ugandans and others foreigners are making the money: Southern Sudan benefits little from foreign businesses, and immigrant staff repatriate their profits abroad.

“The majority of those in the private sector here are foreigners,” said Melody Atil, a former World Bank official who now runs an organisation called Peace Dividend that help local entrepreneurs to build businesses.

According to her research, there are 1.7 million people of working age in Southern Sudan, but 90 per cent of the potential workforce is unemployed and by far the biggest employer is the Government.

“Hardly anything is produced in southern Sudan, everything is imported,” said Ms Atil. “The market, right now, is government procurement and the aid industry.”

Alone and in silence: the reality of birth
For eight hours Susan Poni clenched her teeth and sweated in silence while labour pains tormented her body as she knelt alone on the floor of her mud-walled house. After her child called Doki, a bright-eyed baby girl, emerged on to a pile of blankets, Mrs Poni woke her husband, who fetched a neighbour to cut and tie the umbilical cord.

For the vast majority of mothers in Southern Sudan — perhaps 90 per cent — this is the reality of birth. Labour is expected to be endured quietly and alone, without a midwife or medication. It is also why Southern Sudan is the most dangerous place to be pregnant or a new mother. One in seven women who become pregnant will die before or during birth. Doki’s chances are little better: one in seven children will die before reaching their fifth birthday. A 15-year-old girl is more likely to die giving birth than she is to finish her education.

In the village of Rajaf, south of Juba, there is one health clinic run by Sudanaid, a local Catholic organisation, to serve more than a thousand households. “We lack the manpower to run maternal health programmes,” said Felix Lodiyong, a medical assistant and the most senior staff member. If complications arise then he refers mothers to Juba hospital, which has eight maternity ward beds and two rudimentary delivery rooms, containing chairs with stirrups. It deals with between ten and fifteen births a day.

“Five years ago this hospital was just buildings with dirty, smelly wards,” said Mergani Abdallah, a consultant in charge of obstetrics and gynaecology. “Our main problem now is lack of midwives.”

There are only 100 trained midwives in Southern Sudan, serving nearly nine million people.

Among the new mothers in Juba’s hospital was Monica Michael. Lying next to the exhausted 18-year-old was her daughter, just nine hours old. and unnamed as yet, in keeping with local tradition. So what does Ms Michael want for her daughter’s future? She said: “I hope that in our new country my daughter will grow up in peace and get an education.”

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