Time/Money = Change

I've spent the last week in and around Juba, the ramshackle capital of southern Sudan. Since 2005, when the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed between the Sudan People's Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M) and the northern government in Khartoum, Juba has exploded as an army of NGO workers and East African businessmen of every stripe has arrived to make the town their base for the reconstruction of 'New Sudan'. The town's population has nearly doubled in three years. Juba's (still mainly unpaved) roads are clogged with a perpetual stream of NGO Land Cruisers; and the banks of the Nile are lined with accommodation camps, filled with overweight, Ray-Banned private military contractors and white 20-something 'development advisers' drinking and dancing to the camp sound systems that blare out across the town on Friday nights.

I know I'm a misanthropic bastard, but there's something very unsettling about seeing the development circus camped out here in full force. I've never been anywhere else where the development 'industry' has dominated the life and economy of a place so completely; and where both its logistical mastery at bringing conveniences to those it chooses, and its entrenched racial and social divides, are so blatantly on show. Before I arrived I'd been told many horror stories about the hardships of life in Juba: the $200-a-night swampy tents, the heat, the flies, the endless logistical breakdowns and complications, the boredom. None of these are true, at least not any more: it is very hot, and very expensive, but as an NGO worker with money I can live extremely comfortably. The wireless internet in my shipping container room is faster than anywhere in Kenya. Meanwhile the dozens of people living under sticks and plastic bags directly next to my container, most of whom likely fled to Juba during the civil war, have never had running water; and they're living under self-constructed plastic shelters because the SPLA bulldozed their huts last week to make way for new buildings (evidently that USAID-sponsored town planning project is going really well). But what does that matter when I can can sit under the mango trees by the Nile with my NGO colleagues, drinking Moonberg lager and browsing Facebook? Man, it sure feels good to be developing stuff.

Town Planning, Juba-Style

This snide sketch is, of course, unfair. The sheer resourcefulness of most of the development organisations here (and private business) is extraordinary – that's why I can drink ice-cold beer and watch Sky News. Many of the development workers I've met are likewise resourceful, committed, thoughtful and talented people (albeit almost entirely white, save for the secretarial staff and security guards). And much of their work takes place elsewhere in southern Sudan, in some of the most deprived and challenging conditions in the world.

But none of the development workers I met in Juba seemed really to have thought about the impact of turning a war-ravaged town into a Western NGO playground whose economy is entirely dominated by the organisations supposed to be 'rebuilding the economy'. (There's a nice short film about Juba, Time/Money = Change, which discusses this far better than I can. I've shamelessly stolen its title for this post).

The political truce on which this playground is built is also supremely fragile. More on this later: but sitting in Juba drinking cold beer it's very easy to believe, as southern Sudan's international donors seem to do, that what they are engaged in is post-conflict development. Speaking to officials from the SPLA and the (SPLA-dominated) Government of Southern Sudan, though, it becomes quite clear that southern Sudan isn't at all in a post-conflict situation. It's in a ceasefire phase, which elements within the Government and SPLA evidently regard as a lull: a period of regrouping and re-consolidation of forces, not of peacetime rebuilding.

The SPLA's new (Dyncorp-built) interim headquarters seems emblematic of southern Sudan's current situation. SPLA IGHQ is a grid of smart pre-fab buildings several kilometres out of town, dusty bedding plants standing between pimped-up, tinted-window SPLA Land Cruisers and broken military vehicles. For all the new ministry buildings in town, it's clear that this is the real political centre of the Government. A massive, half-completed statue of John Garang, the SPLA's iconic leader who was killed in a plane crash in 2005, stands in the centre of the compound, its raised arm sticking out of the top of wonky plywood scaffolding. The SPLA's been installed here for at least 18 months now, but in most of the offices I visited it seemed like they'd just moved in. Boxes of paperwork stood between smart new computers without any power, draped with velveteen soft furnishings and SPLA flags. The whole base, meanwhile, is surrounded by ramshackle encampments of soldiers in tents, tukuls and shipping containers. Soldiers with nowhere to go, and nothing to do.

It's very hard, though, not to like the SPLA. This is my first real encounter with a secular liberation movement - most of them were finished by the time I hit my teens, and we were left with impenetrable religious fundamentalism and dried-up European Trotskyism. Nearly four years after the Sudan ceasefire, the spirit of a government formed not from professional politicians, but from the eccentric, under-resourced leaders of a twenty year bush war, is still infectious. There's even something entrancing about the military mythologising on which Southern Sudan's official political culture is based. Everyone has an extraordinary story to tell from the war, and before long you're caught up in it too. I was told about how one year, at the end of months of brutal fighting against heavily armoured Government of Sudan forces, SPLA soldiers were called to attend the SPLM's national convention; how they walked for seventy days across the length of Sudan to attend their party's convention; spent sleepless days and nights debating fine points of constitutional law for the country they were yet to found; then walked thirty days back to take part in the siege of Juba. Like other liberation movements, commanding this vast, illiterate tribal army is a cadre of over-educated political dreamers that you don't encounter in more 'mature' governments. For twenty years they've lived simultaneously in two worlds: the bush bases of southern Sudan; and the universities and conference tables of Europe. One SPLA officer I met talked about leaving the front-line in the 1990s for the cloisters of Queen Elizabeth House at Oxford; and having submitted his Masters' thesis in a balmy Oxford June, flew straight back to Sudan to command an attack against a Government tank column.

For all its flaws - the brutality of its child-soldier-recruiting, landmine-sowing civil war; its tribal fractures; its failure to transform itself from a military organisation into a civilian government - I can entirely understand the magnetism of this movement on which the 'New Sudan' has been precariously founded: the intoxication of the ambition to remake a country with a rag-tag guerilla army fighting an impossible war against an immovable enemy. They country they got from the war though, with its air-conditioned Land Cruiser convoys, mine-infected roads, starving villages and bulldozed tukuls, can't be what they dreamed about.

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