Juba: Post-independence impressions of the world's newest capital

The scramble is on for opportunities in Juba, South Sudan.


The scramble is on for opportunities in Juba, South Sudan.


It’s time to celebrate a fine achievement with East Africa’s favourite beer, trumpets one Times Square-proportioned billboard. On the very next corner another is “celebrating the New Shining Star of Africa” in bold, foot-high white script.

 Kenyan beer companies and pan-African telecommunications conglomerates certainly don’t have to be told that Juba, the world’s newest capital city, is a boomtown.

They, along with a host of other companies, businessman, workers, opportunists, NGOs and journalists have been pouring into the South Sudan capital since the nation’s independence was famously declared from Sudan back in July.

Juba would be an easy place to sleep through the 40-plus degree days (marinated as they are with oppressive double-figure humidity) under one of the city’s seemingly infinite White-Nile-nourished mango trees – but there is the weighty business of nation-building to be done.  

Make no mistake about it there is a lot of work to do: political and administration systems to be forged, including the writing of a constitution, and infrastructure to be built in a country internationally renowned for having next to none of either of these.  

Epic challenges for South Sudan’s politicians, yes, but the challenges for the people are equally formidable. If I’ve learned anything from travelling through Africa, it is that the population of South Sudan shouldn’t necessarily leave all of the nation-building to its government. Despite open pledges to stamp out corruption and nepotism by ‘new’ African governments, the reality often gets lost in the stampede for power.

Three months after independence the streets of Juba, dirt and freshly laid asphalt alike, teem with industriousness, radiating even more energy than the tropical African sun that beats down constantly in this near-equatorial settlement.

The clatter of micro-industries rises with the birds and clangs on until after dark. And it doesn’t necessarily take Sunday off either.  

On the muddy streets outside my guesthouse, a team of no-shirted men re-forge the scrappiest of metal into small stoves for sale.

A large dirt expanse behind it acts as an impromptu mechanics yard, full of lashed-together lorries, tractors and mini-buses incrementally quenching Juba’s thirst for transport and commerce.

Small lakes flank and invade both road-side enterprises; the wet season disinterested in the new capital’s advance.

It’s difficult to locate the centre of this city, whose population is estimated somewhere between 500,000 and two million. Juba’s personality is that of a reluctant capital, like a sprawling country town awkwardly accepting the first signs of adolescence.

If you drive through the nascent business district and around the government ministries area, you will be met by wide, paved, tree-lined, semi-policed roads, as much showpieces as they are functioning arterials, certainly exceptions to the rule.

Along side are decadent fountains and road-side projects such as recycling bins. People don’t seem to know what to do with the empty bins. Two or three streets away, on the uneven dirt roads, plastic bottles mount up and choke waterways.

These flashy garnishes are restricted to the small government administration area of the capital, a place littered with decadent statements, including the ostentatious presidential building.

Along the city’s main street an energetic market of money changers (two blocks long) will scrap for your business. They can calculate US dollar/South Sudan pound transactions in their heads in a second; hesitate here and they’ve lost the sale.

Corner stores bulge with processed food, building products, pre-assembled furniture and electrical goods, many of the latter hailing from China. And just because you buy a phone with ‘Samsung’ on it here, doesn’t mean you’re actually buying a Samsung.  

A few blocks away, pre-fabricated hotels have sprung up en masse, catering to the influx of foreign NGO and aid workers that have inevitably flocked to Juba. Certainly no wonders of modern architecture, buildings such as the New York Hotel add an atmosphere of Wild West-style impermanence; and most locals would like to think that the relief effort will leave just as quickly as it came.  

Around the car parks of the hotels, the cliché white Toyota Landcruisers of the UN, Unicef, USAID et al. gather, as though wildlife around a watering hole, a cup of coffee and strong Wi-Fi connection their primary requirements.

Certainly Juba has attracted more than its fair share of international ‘interest’, a fact not lost on the locals. Restaurant owners in Juba are usually Ethiopian, as are the prostitutes that frequent them at night; the taxi drivers are often Kenyan; business owners (including the above-mentioned scrap-to-stove merchant) may be Ugandan; and, of course, aid workers are predominately North American or European.  

The highway into town (from Uganda), formerly unsealed and barely drivable in the rainy season, is now fast becoming akin to European standards. However, a Turkish company won the contract to build it; on the roadside Turkish engineers call the shots, with South Sudanese labourers doing the spine-liquefying hard slog.  

On the surface, like much of Africa, the story of post-independence Juba reads like a tale of two cities – unfortunately both of them are expensive places to live.

The shanty towns on the city’s outskirts, ramshackle sheds, like urban birds’ nests cobbled together from rice sacks, branches and scrap metals, don’t suffer from the same power cuts as the rest of the city because they have no power at all. Running water and sewerage is also yet to make it to these parts of town.

But it’s early days here and Juba has the advantage of a population still intoxicated and motivated by its freshly brewed autonomy.

Not even the decision to relocate the capital to a more central location (Ramciel) in 5 to 8 years time can derail the spirit here.

Initially I was a little disappointed when I wandered over to the city’s Garang memorial, the spot where independence was signed. Save for a few soldiers it was almost deserted. No T-shirt sellers, no old men debating the country’s political future, just a statue and an empty stadium.

 Strolling through Cairo’s Tahrir Square a couple of months after Egypt’s revolution, the untapped passion was palpable. But this isn’t a revolution like those in north Africa, this is a country formed by a referendum vote and now comes the hard part: rolling up your sleeves, getting your hands dirty and fighting for the opportunities that a dusty boomtown (country) can offer.   

Let’s just hope that the new government will defy the African stereotype and keep up with the will and trajectory of its people.

Steve Madgwick