A Night Out on the Town of Juba

Image: Flickr, UNMISS
Image: Flickr, UNMISS

The plane banks and a dive towards the Juba airport brings a flat green landscape dotted with rocky hills into view.

Some say that Juba is at the centre of the world. Whether this is true or not, I do not know. But soon after my arrival I am to learn that this town is a space where worlds happen to collide. In Juba, you find a vast spectrum of people from Ugandan-trained engineers, waitresses and chefs; to eager young Kenyan businessmen and women venturing forth into a densely contested political space; to corporate types desirous to enter a ministry and ink a lucrative deal. There are the bluehelmeted UN troops, shielded behind the windows of Toyota Land Cruisers; to the American and European NGOs, multilateral organisations, and church groups; and the phalanx’s of diplomats carrying themselves gracefully through the heat and mud and mosquitoes.

When night creeps in on the banks of the Nile, music grows louder, and people talk about neighbourhoods like Atlabara (meaning “comes out” in Arabic) and Rujadmafi (meaning “no man”) that carry the memory of civil war.

During the war, I am told, all men were either Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) fighters, involuntary conscripts in the North’s army, or exiles fleeing into an unsure dawn. Thus the neighbourhood, Atlabara, speaks silently of all the men who vanished. Regardless of the relentless memories of a war that ended with the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2005, the outskirts of Juba show signs of a burgeoning local economy.

People drawn back here since the end of the war speak about the dividends of peace and the luxury of not being woken up at odd hours by artillery, door-to-door searches, and aerial bombardment.

Within a day or two I make some friends who feel it their duty to show me that all and sundry, being locals and internationals alike, like to have a jol. Our night kicks off at Havana club which is, during daylight hours, a quiet and somewhat inconspicuous place. By eight o’clock Havana club fills up with hard partying people looking for meaning at the end of a bottle of beer.

As the crowd thickens I notice a slightly discreet sign on a door not too far from the bar. For a moment it strikes me as so strange that I comment on it to my Cameroonian comrade. He replies between sips of beer: “No my friend, your eyes aren’t deceiving you, Juba is the only place in the world where you can say that the British Consulate shares two toilets with a bar called Havana.”

We exchange several crazy ideas about reasons why the Brits would decide to house their Consulate at a bar, but give up. In a continuous fit of laughter he whisks me away to another friend’s place somewhere on the other side of town. We cruise down all three (the only three, that is) tarred streets in town, just for the sheer luxury thereof. The other streets are a complicated meander of mud pools. On the way we pop into the well-frequented Juba Bridge Hotel.

Here an Eritrean man hires Ethiopian dancers to entertain his guests. Forgotten, for a moment are memories of war between the brotherly rivals of Ethiopia and Eritrea. Here at Juba Bridge Hotel I learn three important lessons. The first one is that politics is a continuation of war by verbal means. Secondly, I glean from stories about people still left homeless by the civil war, that war is the result of alchemy, where language is turned into bullets and projectiles to prevent opponents from speaking their version of the truth. But towering above this conversation are the Ethiopian dancers. They are true democrats that make the whole audience equal in the admiration of their quivering hips.

Between all of this I am called on to explain the intricacies of former South African President Thabo Mbeki’s mediation effort in the post-referendum negotiations between the National Congress Party (NCP) and Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM).

At stake in the negotiations are issues like border demarcations, financial arrangements, legal quagmires, citizenship rights, and related questions pertaining to the possibility of an independent Southern Sudan. Someone interjects that millions of Southerners still live in the North, and what are they to do when the South goes independent? Will they be given citizenship in the South or North?

Someone else worries that the minority Muslims in Southern Sudan will be sidelined and subjugated. The night thus heats up with debates all around as I try to explain that Mbeki’s job, as chair of the African Union High Level Implementation Panel, basically entails a form of political engineering. He has to unscramble the messy political omelette of strained relations and distrust that plague North-South relations. We discuss rumours that a confederal arrangement may be in the offing that will allow for an open North-South border and enable close cooperation to manage critical political economic relations.

Foremost among this will, of course, be the lifeblood of oil. Thus former President Mbeki has to assist the Sudanese negotiators to find common ground for political relations, and the shape of institutional arrangements to be put in place after the January referendum. At the launch of these talks in Khartoum on 10 July, President Mbeki cautioned that no nation is an island, and that the goal of African unity can be dealt a deadening blow if Sudan is to revert back to conflict.

By now, as midnight begins to appear on the horizon, it is clear that politics just don’t want to leave one alone on a night out on the town of Juba. A guy in his early 20s enquires where I’m from. Upon hearing that I’m South African he congratulates me for the World Cup success, to which I explain I had absolutely nothing to do with it. He forges ahead, nevertheless, and gives me an impromptu speech as to how Southern Sudan should be an independent country, like Australia. But why Australia, I wonder, as we move deeper into the night of Juba town.

I leave it behind me as a rhetorical question. My friends move us further towards the outskirts of town where one has to keep the windows rolled up and, according to someone in the back seat, the sunroof open.

The reason is that it is easy to stick one’s AK47 through the roof and shoot if necessary. Unsure whether this is a joke, and wondering whether someone brought an AK along for the ride, we crash through some interesting scenery. Three guys on a Chinese model 125cc motorbike pass us like a bullet. The person in the middle, who is also the tallest of them all, hangs at a 90-degree angle to the wheel. He is clearly oblivious or in the process of falling into a blissful sleep as his friend at the handlebars ramps through potholes. A wild party town, all of us decide.

The challenge Khartoum and Juba faces at this stage concerns the maintenance of relations of trust. Ninety percent of the government of Southern Sudan’s income derives from oil exports. While thousands of people straddle the North-South border, these social and economic conditions require a solution of a very special kind to be found. And if this solution cannot be found, some commentators argue that a newly independent Southern Sudanese state will be at war with its Northern neighbour.

Can Africa afford this, I wonder, as we discuss the fact that the aftermath of the civil war still simmers in Southern land disputes and armed communities at odds with one another. A fragile Southern state is admittedly trying its best to stabilise its territorial domain, but food shortages and hostilities between local groups claim thousands of lives every year. Will the centre in Juba hold is the question.

The future of Sudan is, therefore, like a night out on the town, a crazy ride into an unknown dawn. A night out on the town of Juba also brings one face to face with a live-wire reality where a mixture of local history, the desire for independence, and international interests in promising oil fields conspire to become a lethal political cocktail.

Somewhere we stop by the side of the road on the banks of the Nile to admire thick undergrowth as we relieve ourselves of excess fluids. We lose two of our friends as they leopard crawl towards the water’s edge to find out whether crocodiles feed at night. Things go strange in a town where the nights are busier than the days and the road we stand on leads towards territory claimed by the mobile horde comprising the Lord’s Resistance Army’s ranks.

In his talk at the launch of the post-referendum negotiations, former President Mbeki noted that Sudan’s history of half a century of internal conflict stems from the structural imbalances inherent in the State. The task negotiators from Juba and Khartoum are currently engaging with is a rather thankless job entailing a re-wiring of the Sudanese state.

What if, someone asks from the darkness on the Nile’s bank, Khartoum does not recognise the results of the referendum and the Southern parliament decides to vote for a unilateral declaration of independence? My friend from Cameroon points to the water and asks what if an independent Southern Sudan claims more water from the Nile to squeeze Egypt’s artery of life?

Many questions remain unanswered, and it is clear that one throw of a switch will not disentangle the webs of social and historical relations that cut across the North-South border. Will the elites on both sides make decisions that will spare Sudan from more bloodshed? Can the state be de- and reconstructed to accommodate all the interests and needs of its inhabitants? It may be true that Sudan has a complicated history filled with conflict, but, at the same time, a shared experience of peace in the past few years has shown that it (peace) can be done.

I scratch my head at the weirdness of this night as I leave all these questions like inconclusive mantras in my head. Like this night out on the town of Juba I suppose the story of Sudan will keep on writing itself with each passing day. It is way past midnight and we lose our friends completely to their leopard crawling expedition. Someone thinks they’re swimming across the river to say howzit to the Russians hidden behind a bright light on the other shore.