Peace deal sparks investment in southern Sudan

The narrow gravel airstrip in this dusty, desolate town has been a hive of activity since rebel and government leaders signed a historic peace accord officially ending Africa’s longest-running civil war.

Businessmen, aid workers and diplomats have rushed to set up a presence in what is set to become the provisional capital of an autonomous government for southern Sudan.

“We have certainly never seen anything like this size of influx before,” said Terry Light, from Ithaca, New York, one of the first foreign businessmen to set up here 14 years ago. He runs a tent camp next to the airstrip—Rumbek’s version of a luxury hotel.

Light, head of Africa Expeditions, chartered flights to bring in food and supplies to keep up with the rush this week.

Glancing at a polished artillery shell dangling from a chain above the camp’s thatch bar, Light sounded optimistic about the future of his $500 000 investment in the region, devastated by 21 years of fighting.

“The peace is going to bring all kinds of business activity,” he said.

The British and Dutch embassies this week opened a joint liaison office in the sprawling town of scattered thatch huts 900km south of the capital, Khartoum, which the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army has made its headquarters.

“This is really donors’ effort to establish an operational presence in the south to facilitate the implementation of the peace agreement,” Dutch Ambassador Adriaan Kooijmans said at the new brick office on the grounds of Light’s camp.

Not far away, business is booming at Richard Herbert’s new cellphone and construction companies.

The government started to introduce phone services here in the 1980s, but its troops bombed the giant satellite dish after fighting broke out with the SPLA rebels

in 1983.

Now rebel officials, aid workers and others are lining up to buy airtime and use the internet services at Herbert’s Network of the World, which opened its doors in August.

Aid agencies have already booked about half the available space in an office block, which the Kenyan national has started building.

All the activity means new opportunities for Rumbek’s 50 000 population—most of whom survive on far less than $1 a day.

Samuel Makuac spent 18 years working in military communications for the rebels. He is now assistant manager for airtime sales with Network of the World.

“Peace has come, and we are coming back to town for employment—and to enjoy its beauty,” Makuac said.

Herbert’s two companies—whose shareholders include the rebels’ political wing, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement—employ just under 50 people.

They include disabled rebel fighters who now earn about 3 500 Sudanese pounds ($7) a week—a small fortune here—as casual laborers at the construction site.

But the investment so far—just three foreign companies operate in southern Sudan—pales in comparison with the devastation inflicted by the war pitting the Arab Muslim-dominated government in the north against African Christians and animists in the south.

More than two million people were killed.
Hospitals, schools and homes were torched, and fertile farmland infested with land mines.

Foreign donors have pledged hundreds of millions of dollars in aid—but many want to see progress resolving a separate conflict in Sudan’s western Darfur region before releasing the funds.

Other companies are expected to come in after insurgents form their new government in the next six months. But they face daunting challenges.

Vast areas are mined, and the dirt roads that criss-cross the region’s forests, mountains, grasslands and swamps are in acute disrepair.

Satellite dishes, cables, generators, computers, a telecommunications mast and air conditioning units all had to be trucked or flown in from neighbouring countries to set up Herbert’s cellphone company. Technical expertise is scarce, and engineers

also had to be brought in.

Then there was the question of finding a telecommunications company willing to provide switching services for international calls when none recognised the rebel movement as a legitimate authority. A Canadian company finally agreed to provide the critical service. Herbert did not disclose its name.

Insurance companies refuse to cover investments here, but for Herbert, Light and others the business potential was too tempting to ignore.

“We recognised that demand was going to grow, so we stuck our necks out and decided to invest,” Light said. - Sapa-AP

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