Coming into Sudan’s Juba

Is the former garrison town ready for the task of administering a Texas-sized region of some 8 million people? The chal

There is not much drama as the Kenya Airways Embraer jet prepares to land in Juba after an hour and a half flight from Nairobi.
Considering its status as the latest frontier town for a hoard of NGO employees, get-rich-quick businessmen and journalists, one almost expected something out of the ordinary. Like, for instance, the corkscrew landing manoeuvre adopted by pilots while landing in Baghdad when the city was still a place visited only by the aforementioned folk.
Instead, all you get to see is the pleasant site of the White Nile. You notice more trees on the western side of the river after the hardscrabble landscape of eastern Africa through much of the journey.
For reasons unknown or primordial, the very sight of plentiful water and greenery comes as a sign of hope. Of a place much better than what you heard and read about.
As the plane taxied its way to the terminal building after landing on a very basic runway, plenty of UN planes heave into view. The lone fire-fighting truck also has UN markings.
Not much surprise there.
The reality of the place hits you at passport control, or what passes for one. It is a desk manned by two clerks who check either your Sudanese visa pasted in your passport or the impressive-looking entry permit with hologram issued by the Government of South Sudan [GOSS]. The GOSS permit issued by the “embassy” in Nairobi was an indicator how far southern Sudan has distanced itself from the north even before the January 9 referendum to decide the secession or unity question. Posters extolling the virtues of separation were pasted all over the place.
The work-in-progress nature of the place meant that the immigration clerks were not bothered to check the World Health Organisation issued Yellow Fever vaccination cards that our team had agonised about before coming. And passengers entered their details themselves in a register. You could write whatever you pleased.
The next desk was customs inspection. You opened your baggage and after a cursory check, the bored-looking woman marked them “ok” with chalk. Our checked-in baggage arrived by then and was unloaded straight from the trolley. The urge to take pictures of the place was curbed by the uniformed police present.
And if you ever wondered where old airport trolleys from the developed world end up once discarded, you have the answer now. Trolleys with old BAA and Heathrow markings await you inside Juba airport. Outside, a swarm of white SUVs with the markings of every possible global NGO await.  
Our next hurdle was much bigger than anticipated. Our nearly 300 kg of camera equipment had to be taken into an office in the town for inspection. A policeman came along to make sure we did not play truant.
The ride into town soon turned bumpy and dusty after we quickly ran out of tarmac.
The likely capital of a likely new country is a shantytown like any other in Africa. With very few buildings, most of the hotels, aid compounds and even some government offices are housed in prefabricated units and shipping containers.
“Go with an open mind to Juba,” our resident Sudan expert in Doha advised.
But it is hard to prevent doubts quickly forming from what we have seen so far. Is the former garrison town ready for the task of administering a Texas-sized region of some 8 million people? The challenges that await it and the country it would govern are indeed immense.

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