Juba Spruces Up

Juba -- the town destined to be the capital of the new nation of South Sudan -- is in the midst of sprucing itself up before the independence celebration on July 9. Every hotel room has been requisitioned for visiting dignitaries -- some 40 heads of state are expected. At the airport, a construction crane towers over a new building. Freshly painted lines have been added to the paved streets. But real nation-building and modernization can't be effected in a few short weeks. And the Sudanese army's incursions into contested areas threaten to unravel the South's long-awaited chance at peace.

When the independence party is over, South Sudan will be among the poorest nations on earth. The visible signs of economic development in Juba such as paved roads and new hotels and restaurants hide a society in desperate need of health care, education, infrastructure and investment. More than half of South Sudan's population is below the age of 18. Eighty percent of the population is dependent on humanitarian organizations (like mine) for health care services. The International Rescue Committee serves hundreds of thousands of southern Sudanese through 30 primary health care facilities, a network of nearly 2,000 community volunteers and four mobile clinics.

These dismal indicators mean that the new government will have its hands full. But the government is barely ready to govern. Thirty-two ministries have been established, but half of all ministry jobs go unfilled. I'm told only 5% of government workers have a high school education. Experts suggest it will be years before the government can deliver services to its people.

The South does have its friends. Many Americans -- ranging from conservative Christians who sided with the South during the years of Civil War to students and faith groups that spoke out against atrocities in Darfur -- have taken an interest in the country over the past several years. The George W. Bush administration helped bring about the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005 that led to six years of transition. The Obama Administration has continued to focus on the situation in Sudan, particularly during last January's referendum when southerners voted to split from the North. Other countries -- notably Norway and Britain -- are committed to supporting the peace agreement and China is heavily involved in road building. A diaspora of Sudanese around the world send home remittances. And oil is another source of revenue, although cooperation with the North is mandatory if the oil drilled in the South is to be refined and shipped out of the region.

The relationship with the North is the wild card that could ruin the South's bid for independence. The Khartoum Government is reluctant to let go and in recent days has launched a series of violent confrontations -- directly, or via militias that act as proxy forces -- in contested areas between North and South. Sudanese armed forces have taken military control over the Abyei area and triggered the displacement of tens of thousands of its residents. The United Nations reports that two of the three main supply routes from the North to the South have been blocked. What can't be negotiated peacefully between the two regions of Sudan may be settled by force.

Oddly, here in Juba there is little sign that fighting is taking place a five days' march away. Instead, there is a new fence being painted around the president's residence. Southerners are returning from the North to restart their lives. It is hard to see evidence of it, but everyone knows so much could go wrong: a populace in great need, a weak government, dependence on aid donors that could lose interest, unruly militia groups and the threat of Khartoum's troops.

On July 9th, South Sudan will have the world's attention. Fingers crossed it can keep it.