March 10, 2005
RUMBEK, Sudan — Nailed to a huge shade tree on the edge of a dusty square is a paper help-wanted sign that seeks judges. The surrounding city is cratered with trenches and strewn with the litter of war, but its residents imagine a future with grand, new skyscrapers sprouting from the earth.
Last month, the Arab-dominated central government and southern rebels signed an agreement to end a 21-year civil war that killed an estimated 2 million people. Rumbek, with a handful of low-rise stone buildings left from colonial times, has been designated the capital of southern Sudan. In six years, after a referendum, the region could become an independent country.
But as the help-wanted sign suggests, southern Sudan is desperately short of just about everything it takes to make a country — not only laws and judges, but paved roads, teachers, doctors, schools, hospitals, water and electricity.
Africa's largest country in area, Sudan is a strife-torn product of colonial rule. Sudanese have been fighting each other in one form or another for all but 11 years since 1955, a year before independence from British-Egyptian control. With the signing of the peace agreement, they suddenly face new questions.
Can the country stay glued together by choice? If southerners opt for independence instead, can rebel leaders transform themselves into a government? And can they possibly satisfy the expectations of their people?
Southern Sudan has one of the world's lowest life expectancies at 42 years. It has the lowest rate of primary school completion and the highest proportion of children under age 5 suffering from wasting disease or malnutrition. Ninety percent of its people earn less than $1 a day.
There is almost no infrastructure in the region, where about 7.5 million of Sudan's 39 million people live. Red dirt roads undulate through deep holes, and the few cars bouncing over them are four-wheel-drives belonging to humanitarian agencies and a handful of rebels turned government officials.
After years of civil war, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, the political wing of the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army, is the south's main political force.
Southerners have long chafed at what they regard as neglect and discrimination by the central government in Khartoum. Shortly after the civil war began, the government imposed Islamic law, or Sharia, across the country, which became a focal point for the anger of southerners, who are primarily animists or Christians.
Resentment against the central government is so deep in the south, many people believe that only overwhelming incompetence by their new administration would push southerners to vote for unity in six years.
If the south does vote for independence, some fear it will spark more instability and discontent in other parts of Sudan. As the north-south peace deal inched toward completion, rebels in Darfur, in western Sudan, rose up two years ago, complaining of discrimination and lack of services.
Reprisals by government-backed Arab militias, known to rebel supporters as the janjaweed, sparked one of the world's worst humanitarian disasters last year.
Many southerners worry that Khartoum will never let them break free. But amid the deprivation, people are optimistic — so much that some say their expectations are dangerously inflated.
On the outskirts of Rumbek, local people in their round turkuls, or huts of mud and stick, are watching heavy equipment roll out a wide, flat road of red dirt.
To many, the road being built by the World Food Program crystallizes their expectations of new hospitals, schools, social services and running water.
"I think these things will be done in three months," said Mary Acholl, 27, a mother of three who lives beside the new road. "We don't expect any delay. As you can see now, this road is already in place, and the peace deal was only signed the other day.
"The most important thing is water. The reason we are all dirty is not because we want to be. It's because there's not enough water."
Others have grander visions.
"In a few years' time, we expect to see skyscrapers here," said Gum Baak, who was making the long walk home along the new road, wearing a wool hat in the sweltering sun. He was born sometime in the mid-1940s. "In a few years' time we expect to see our children driving on these roads, not just foreigners."
Under the peace deal, southern Sudan will get half of the country's oil revenue, estimated to be as much as $50 million a month. But Peter Mutua, UNICEF resident project officer in Rumbek, said the money would probably not be enough to build the required infrastructure, certainly not at the rate the populace expected.
"If people get disenchanted, we'll slip back into instability and that would undermine the [peace] process," he said. "These [next] six months are very crucial because they set the tone for the six years."
Pressure for services will grow with the return of refugees. An estimated 4 million people are scattered elsewhere in Sudan and another 600,000 are outside its borders. Tens of thousands are expected to come home in the next few months. It is predicted that two-thirds of them might eventually return, boosting the region's population to about 10 million.
"The services will not match the demand with the number of people we are expecting," said Kau Nak, commissioner for Rumbek's central district and a former rebel commander.
"Roads are the most important priority, followed by offices," Nak said. "We were a guerrilla movement. Now we have become a government. We must move away from sitting under trees and go into offices. And in the offices we need so many things. The world was not waiting for us while we were at war. There are computers, communications. We need all these things immediately for the machinery of government to work."
Under the power-sharing arrangement, the south will be largely autonomous. A north-south border will be established. A new constitution is to be written and elections for a national assembly will be held, with southerners getting 30% of the seats and northerners 70%.
Southerners will get tens of thousands of jobs in the central government and in their autonomous region, an enormous challenge for rebels who were little more than schoolboys when they took up arms. Neglect of education is one of the most serious problems in the region, which has one of the world's highest rates of illiteracy.
There will be a northern army, a southern army and a joint national army. In the war, the rebels controlled much of the countryside while government forces controlled the main towns. National troops garrisoned in towns are likely to remain for at least a couple of years.
Nak warned that unless the south's new officials learned how to efficiently manage resources, the region could repeat the mistakes of other African countries, where large oil revenue never trickled down to the general population.
The demands for services are starkest in rural areas, particularly in the arid northern reaches of Bahr el Ghazal province, where most of the returnees are arriving and food prices are high because of drought and crop failures. There are few wells, and some women must make round trips of as long as six hours to get water, not including time waiting at the well.
Humanitarian agencies are predicting hunger in coming months, and the World Food Program is preparing to increase food drops from the air. The United States, which has provided $1.3 billion in aid to Sudan since 1983, has promised to support the north-south peace deal with an increase in aid for the promotion of democracy, disarmament, demobilization of fighters and infrastructure.
Laws and a court system must be created. Southern Sudan has about 40 written laws. Its courts are a jumble of tribal custom and British common law.
In a dusty corner of Rumbek's main square, a crowd of people gathered under a huge mango tree recently for a court hearing based on tribal customs. The only ones with rickety wooden chairs were the judges, who were tribal chiefs. Others sat in the dirt. Instead of a microphone, there was a man whose job was to loudly repeat everything that was said.
The traditional courts reach deeply into the lives of ordinary people, dealing with offenses such as adultery, divorce and theft. They even handle some murder cases. Traditionally it is possible for the family of a killer to offer a daughter to compensate the bereaved family.
Bullen Panchal, deputy chief justice of the Court of Appeal in southern Sudan, said the shortage of judges was so acute that courts were seeking out anyone with a decent education.
Panchal said that if Khartoum's Arab rulers didn't "realize that we are all Sudanese and Sudan belongs to us, then Sudan is in danger of disintegrating. If a southern Sudanese could become president of Sudan or an easterner or westerner could become chief justice, then we'll have a greater Sudan, a diverse Sudan."
For Nak, the district commissioner, it depends on whether his movement can meet the high expectations of the people. "If we deliver what we promised, the people of the south will vote for separation. If we few don't deliver what we have promised, they will vote for unity."