JUBA, Sudan — As world capitals go, this surely would rank among the more modest. No grand boulevards; only a few two-lane roads. No commanding monuments; only some grim government buildings rising from dirt lots that turn to muck when it rains.
Nothing, however, captures the unassuming air of Juba better than the warm equatorial wind that blows through the city, sweeping across muddy fields and grassy pastures, and deposits into the face of the unwitting visitor that distinctive scent of informality: cow manure.
Juba is a work in progress, but as the capital of Sudan's semiautonomous south its profile could soon increase dramatically. On Jan. 9, the Texas-sized region of some 8 million people is scheduled to hold a referendum on whether to secede from northern Sudan.
If voters choose independence — and polls suggest that they overwhelmingly will — this former garrison town would become the capital city of the world's newest nation.
The challenges that await it are immense. After decades of conflict and neglect, southern Sudan today looks much as it did in the 19th century: a landlocked tropical expanse in the heart of East Africa, with few roads, barely functioning schools and hospitals, only a handful of capable civil servants and, apart from some promising oil fields, hardly any industry.
Nearly every southerner has mentally circled the referendum date, which was included in a 2005 peace agreement brokered by the United States that ended a two-decade, north-south civil war that left nearly 2 million people dead, according to estimates. The former southern rebels, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, are now the south's fledgling ruling party, and perhaps the best thing they have going for them is the patience of their long-suffering people.
"We southerners have to be honest: Our government is still like a small child," said Veronica Leone, a 35-year-old shopkeeper in Juba, who said she'd vote for secession. "It is not yet even crawling. It is only taking baby steps. But we hope that it can make things better for us slowly."
Development experts say that perhaps no country in the last half-century has come into existence needing so much help from the outside world. The United States alone funnels more than $300 million annually into the territory, which has become a testing ground for an array of foreign aid programs that have shown varying degrees of success.
While its oil industry has attracted investors from China and a host of other nations, for now the south splits oil revenues with the north, which controls access to pipelines and the port. Since 2006, oil has provided southern Sudan about $2.1 billion a year, more than 98 percent of its entire budget, according to the Overseas Development Institute, a British research center.
The revenue has allowed the south to construct some government buildings and basic infrastructure. Half of it, however, goes to pay government salaries, including those of some 140,000 soldiers.
Experts say that there's little alternative in a society so decimated by war. Southern Sudan doesn't even have a treasury, so paychecks are disbursed as stacks of bills in brown paper bags, a practice that inevitably fuels corruption.
"In the broader sense, yes, it's a welfare scheme," acknowledged a Western diplomat in Juba who wasn't allowed to be quoted by name. "But I'm not sure I'd want to see 140,000 ... (soldiers) with guns disarmed two months before the election. It does maintain a semblance of stability."
For all that money, there's still no public water supply. Relief agencies and churches provide 80 percent of health services, humanitarian officials say. The only electricity comes from the ceaseless drone of diesel generators. Nearly everything that's for sale in Juba is trucked in from hundreds of miles away in Uganda and Kenya, with prices to match.
And Juba is fortunate; travel even a few miles outside the capital and any signs of development vanish into scrub, brush and cow pastures. In Abyei, a strategic town near the north-south border, 350 miles northwest of Juba, the pitch-black ribbon of an asphalt road recently built with public funds seems so incongruous against miles of earth that locals derisively call it "the necktie."
"Especially in the peripheral areas, the legitimacy of the state needs to be established," said Sara Pantuliano, a researcher at the Overseas Development Institute. "That's the biggest challenge they have: not just building bridges and roads, but really creating a presence outside of Juba."
The government and its Western backers have each had setbacks. Earlier this year, the World Bank was criticized for failing to spend nearly two-thirds of a $524 million redevelopment fund that was supposed to build 100 schools, among other projects. U.N. figures show that only one in 50 southern Sudanese children completes primary school.
Bank officials blamed logistical and security hurdles, but the outcry fueled a perception that the southern government was ill-equipped to handle major projects. In the end, only about 10 schools were built, and donors redirected much of the unspent money to other areas of the south.
Last year, the finance minister unilaterally issued $3 billion in contracts — more than the territory's entire annual budget — to create a strategic grain reserve with almost no oversight. The scheme collapsed, the minister was fired and the government remains about $1 billion in debt.
U.N. figures place adult literacy at only 15 percent, and diplomats privately refer to "one-man ministries" staffed by civil servants who can barely read or write. It's not uncommon to wander into a government office to find computers unplugged, new chairs still in their plastic wrapping and workers sitting idle.
Nhial Bol, the publisher of The Citizen, an independent newspaper, said that corruption was slowly being rooted out of a government that still viewed itself as a rebel movement fighting a northern enemy. It's neglected to collect taxes, Bol said, in part to avoid sharing revenues with the north.
"They still believe they are rebels, and there is still this idea of impunity," Bol said. "But people are fighting it. The good thing is they have established relations with Western countries and there is outside pressure to change."
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