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Sudan Tribune

Plural news and views on Sudan

Foreign merchants chase opportunity in South Sudan

Feb 25, 2007 (JUBA) — The shirtless 12-year-old grabbed the cast iron wheel with both hands and threw his body downward. Greasy gears turned, and the old diesel pump chuckled to life and started pushing Nile River water into Viola Saonko’s white Isuzu tanker truck.

In a few minutes, the 700-liter tank was full. Saonko paid 1,000 dinars — around $5 — hitched up her black cotton dress and climbed into the cab. The truck drove up a baked mud road, past rows of rusting armored personnel carriers and into the town of Juba.

An hour later, the water was pumped into the black plastic tank of a local family’s brick-walled compound. Saonko, a Ugandan school principal, pocketed 10,500 dinars, a 950 percent windfall, and turned back to the Nile for a refill.

“In Kampala (Uganda’s capital, 300 miles south), you have to steal if you want to make $100 a day,” she said with a laugh. “Here I get twice that.”

After decades of civil war between the African south and Arab-dominated north, people, dollars and goods are flowing back into Juba, a city of 250,000 inhabitants and the administrative capital of southern Sudan.

Officials say it’s just the beginning, that the south’s vast natural gifts — unexplored oil fields, rich soil for agriculture, giant teak forests, untapped fish stocks and herds of cattle will turn the semiautonomous south from an economic dead zone into a regional power.

The economic transformation was made possible by a landmark peace agreement in 2005 between north and south that ended a religious-themed war.

Southerners are mostly Christian and animists who fought to secede and against forced Islamization of their society. Under the terms of the pact that ended a 20-year civil war with the northern government, southerners are running their own affairs for the first time and will probably vote to secede in 2011, analysts predict.

But for now, they are building a state from scratch.

“With the oil potential we have, we can develop our potential in agriculture and livestock and make use of our resources properly,” said Riek Machar, a former warlord who is vice president of the southern government.

The early gains and rosy forecasts, however, depend on the success of a fragile peace and a government composed of mostly inexperienced former rebels.

Southern leaders had expected peace to draw thousands of skilled exiles home from the United States and Europe, but few have opted to leave lives of comfort and achievement to gamble on their impoverished homeland. Most former exiles in Sudan have well-paying jobs with the United Nations or international aid organizations, not the cash-strapped southern government.

“What we give them here are peanuts,” Machar said.

Indeed, living in Sudan is no picnic.

The United Nations estimates that Sudan has the highest rate of HIV infection in North Africa, and some 7.5 million contract malaria annually.

Juba has just a few miles of paved streets, housing and plumbing are primitive, and there have been recurring attacks by rogue militias and robbers on roads and villages outside town. On Dec. 14, 150 soldiers rioted in Juba over unpaid wages, killing at least two people.

During the war between the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army and the Arab-dominated government, Juba was a northern-controlled garrison town. Goods came from Khartoum, Sudan’s capital 1,000 miles away, on military barges and aircraft. Crates of Coca-Cola sometimes shared cargo space with guns and ammunition.

Arab military officers controlled the trade and reaped huge profits, a source of lasting bitterness.

“It was not our food, African food. It was Jallaba food, lentils and what have you, so much of it rotten, you have to pick out the insects,” said Grace Okello, a Juba lay worker at a local church who used a local term meaning “trader” to describe Arab northerners.

With peace came aid and trade, mostly from Uganda, Kenya and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The United Nations and a host of humanitarian and development groups landed with a dollar-heavy thud in Juba and other major towns, driving the cost of housing well beyond local means.

“For 15 years, our rent was just under $100,” a month said one resident. “Then the landlord said he needed $3,000.”

Currently, most expatriates live in tented camps run by foreign companies and their local partners, which charge rents between $150 and $250 a night.

Merchants from neighboring countries have poured into southern Sudan, braving gunmen, land mines and roads pockmarked with craters. Markets carry Ugandan beer, bottled water, tomatoes and fresh fish. Food prices have plunged by half compared with before the peace agreement — even as the cost of fresh produce in Kampala more than doubled.

The ubiquitous Toyota Land Cruisers and Hilux pickups favored by aid organizations and the southern military now share the road with a growing number of $600 Chinese Goldenboy motorcycles, courtesy of French-speaking merchants from Congo.

“I make 500 (dinars) a day,” about $2.50, said a teenage motorcycle taxi driver, lounging on his Goldenboy with a dozen speed-demon colleagues outside the Konyo-Konyo vegetable market. Plastic wrap still clung to the motorcycle’s seat and rearview mirror. “It’s good wages, yeah.”

The shift in economic power from north to south has created tension in Juba’s main marketplace.

“The Arab traders are angry,” said Philip Arika, a shopkeeper. “Most have gone back (north). Those who remain are angry. Since the opening of (the border with) Uganda, they can’t compete.”

In a possible illustration of such tension, the bodies of two Arab merchants were found in November on a dry mountainside south of Juba. Their execution-style deaths remain unsolved.

Also in November, the Khartoum government sought to increase import duties at two of the three main border crossings to Uganda, a move southerners interpreted as an attempted lifeline to embattled Arab traders.

While local economic power has shifted from Arab to black African hands, those hands are seldom Sudanese. In hundreds of stalls and shops at the bustling Konyo-Konyo market, many venders are foreigners — mostly Ugandans. Cut off from the world during decades of warfare, lacking basic education or commerce, many southerners are spectators to their region’s economic revival.

“Sudanese don’t want to work,” said Yusuf Senyonjo, a Ugandan taxi driver in Juba “And if they work they want to be paid immediately — they can’t wait a week. The language they know is the gun. Some of them can work as cattle keepers, and some in government. But almost none of them do business.”

“Business is good if you have capital,” Saonko, the Ugandan school principal, said, as her $10,000 water truck bounced its way back to the Nile. “If you don’t have capital, it can only be quite bad.”

(The San Francisco Chronicle)