South Sudan: What it Means

The country is crying out for investments but people are waiting for peace to come as the war and its unknown consequences still unnerve even the brave

Sanjeev Gupta
Updated: Jan 25, 2014 11:15:36 AM UTC

Image: Shutterstock 

I had written of my trip to Juba six months after South Sudan was carved out of the erstwhile Sudan in February last year. (A Glass Half Full in Juba). The recent turmoil in Sudan again and the peace talks “yet again” now brings me back to this tormented country and its memories flood back.

Allow me to dwell on this country “again” now, but from a point of view dominated by my inherently optimistic belief in the future of a people who still want peace and success. This is a place where the entire country has exactly 16 km of paved road but it is also blessed with abundant arable land, more fertile than you can imagine. It is home to a swampland that houses one of the best collections of wild animals, which even five decades of strife could not damage. The region witnesses a migration that puts the more illustrious Serengeti and Ngorogoro (in Tanzania and Kenya) to shame.

The natural falls of the mighty Nile provide at least five obvious hydro-power projects, capable of supplying power to the entire energy-starved East African community. The opportunities for banks, insurance companies, housing projects, road development, power projects and tourism attractions all abound. The country is crying out for investments but people are waiting for peace to come as the war and its unknown consequences still unnerve even the brave.

The seemingly unfinished business of who takes the oil out and how it is shared is a moot point though. The new country, South Sudan, has the oil fields while the reduced North has the pipeline through which that oil can reach the outside world. Their agreement states that the revenues be shared equally and that, essentially, in one deft process, took the oil out of the hands of the Arabic North into a Western-friendly South.

The South, predictably enough, talks about joining the East African community and discussions are underway to develop a brand new pipeline to connect the oil fields through Kenya to the eastern ports of Africa.

No wonder it made the Northerners a little edgy.

In February 2012, when I went to Juba, war was already brewing yet again with the North over this and boiled over into one soon after.

Last month we see yet another!

Yet the secretary general of the ruling party saw me in his office, gave me a copy of a 30-slide PowerPoint presentation and proudly told me: “This is the presentation our president gave at the White House in September 2011, two months after our independence.”

He told me to move my consulting practice to Juba and bring Indian hotel groups, manufacturers, hospitals and power plant experts to come and invest in South Sudan. He would give them land and rights and he would pay them with oil contracts.
Any takers?

I had dinner at the local hotel, half of which was a non-descript brick and mortar structure and the other, more vibrant, half merely fibre-glass cabins on stilts.

An Indian guy owned it and charged $500 a night. Most of the people staying in the hotel are civil servants and foreign workers, including senior diplomats for whom it is home as the city still tries to finish half-built homes. The return for our Indian hotelier friend must have been in triple digits.

The rooms centered around the bar area, which was a gumpole and thatch structure but had a Bose music system and the best champagnes and cognac to provide much needed succour. Quite clearly, it is the watering hole in town and people from all walks gathered there, some merely having fun while others were engaged in serious discussions.

That evening the crowd had in its midst quite a few UN officials, foreign journalists and locally-based US and UK foreign service diplomats. Strangely, the security was non-existent and people were happy to mingle and introduce themselves and recant their experiences.

Counter intuitive?
I met Charles, a 30-year-old Sudanese war veteran, most of whose life had been spent waging a war in the bush. Scarred, illiterate and bruised but with sharp eyes and an “I don’t give a damn” attitude.

Midway through his conversation, I must have struck a raw chord somewhere and he shouted at me, “Don’t give me that talk about peace and development. I have seen my six-year-old brother being mutilated and my 14-year-old sister being pulled into the harems of Khartoum. What peace are you talking about?”

Clearly the wounds sill run deep and memories are still too raw for the majority of the South Sudanese to actually start trusting and believing.

Not a good omen, I had thought, and subsequent events proved me right, as war broke out, yet again, with the North and is regrettably unlikely to be the last.

Yet, there are examples of true success and triumph under adversity.
Luol Deng, who left this war-torn country and now is a regular star with the Chicago Bulls in the NBA, or Guro Marial, who participated in London 2012 as an independent athlete, bear testimony to faith, endurance and human stamina to rise above itself. These people need to be used as role models to give faith to the future generation that change is possible and the country can prosper.

Now is the time to engage, to make things happen and build brands and presence that, over time, even the mightiest cannot overturn, because they will be intertwined with the fabric of the nation and prove the frontier market success theory yet again.

But it needs gumption, stamina and sweat to tie into the local people’s needs, aspirations and goals and provide them the tools to make change happen. Like everywhere else, the gap between what is possible—the reality—and what people think is possible—the perception—is wide.

Who better than us—energetic, active and spirited people that we Indians are— to start connecting the dots and complete the sentence?

The scope to serve an over 250 million people market in East Africa from Juba exists. Not for the faint hearted, but which empire was ever built by cowards?

The South Sudanese leadership wants business to happen, the world community wants to finance growth and development in this country and the expertise to pull these opportunities out and make them commercial successes resides with emerging market pioneers from India!

Why wait?
Peace will remain elusive in its truest sense, but as the Cold War showed for half a century, an icy cold gust of wind is as good as breezy warmth—if only to keep people sane and focussed on the big issue.

The recent, as of last week, peace accord between North and South Sudan underlines my point.

Fighting will continue and skirmishes will surface, but the sibling war will not blow each other up. It will rather pave a basis for business to flourish and the economies to grow, albeit noisily and with fireworks all the way.

I want to be in on this—what about you?

The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.

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