Why South Sudanese should Support the New Capital City Project

Published September 15, 2011

Written by Parek Maduot, Published by  The New Sudan Vision (NSV) on 9.14.11

An artist’s impression of the proposed new capital city of South Sudan in Ramchiel, Lakes state

(Washington DC) – The decision of the Council of Ministers to officially authorize the relocation of the capital city from Juba to Ramciel generated considerable debate, much of which is to be expected given the attendant implications of such a major undertaking. Many people lauded the step as an overdue resolution to the protracted discord over land between the central and state governments, and the negative currents generated by dueling charges of land grabbing and discrimination against non-natives. Others saw the decision as egregiously hasty and a huge expense being saddled on an infant state with much more important priorities and challenges ahead. Those were the dominant strains in my humble observation, but there were faint voices here and there also lamenting the loss of the capital to Juba and its people, and others wondering whether people are somehow disregarding the native residents of the newly selected locale in Lakes state in the rush to be done with the standoff in Juba. These are all important viewpoints that should be respected and transparently debated, and I hope channeled in a way that will ultimately help us all arrive at conclusions that are good for our beloved new country.

I am emphatically supportive of the decision of the Council of Ministers, and think that it will be a net gain to our nation if undertaken with great foresight and impeccable planning. Nonetheless, I wished the announcement from the government were comprehensive enough to articulate many other rational reasons for it beyond the impasse with Central Equatoria. In fact, the capital will still be in Juba for the foreseeable future, and whatever difficulties the central government faces in accessing land and facilities will not be shelved indefinitely until the new capital is built. These obstacles will have to be worked out in some conciliatory process that addresses the grievances of the state of Central Equatoria and its citizens, while allowing the central government to carry out its duties and responsibilities within Juba for the time being.

We all know that the idea to build the capital city in Ramciel germinated before the beginning of the CPA interim period, and it was always advanced as an opportunity to build a metropolis that is central to our region, secure from potential attack, and expansive enough to allow for a fully-planned development process. These are very appropriate reasons that were discussed even before the controversies over land grabbing and jurisdiction flared up during the transitional period. While it is true that some people were weary about moving back to Juba as the capital after the CPA because of what they perceived as unmitigated hostilities precipitated by re-division and forced repatriation in the early 1980s, this was not the dominant impetus for the exploration of a different capital city territory.

These other reasons are more salient and should be emphasized going forward, for the sake of our union and to ensure that the huge undertaking that is the building of a city is embraced by everyone as a national project. There are many unfortunate souls among us that like to dwell in what divides us, and this is another opportunity that we should not allow them to hijack as a mark of discord among our people, be they from Equatoria or beyond. It is therefore my hope that the newly formed oversight committee will ensure that the project is framed as a collectively undertaken national endeavor, and not an expression of exasperation with unreasonable people in Juba as some people unwisely want to do.

While the framing and presentation of the project is important as I outlined above, the substance of how the work will be conducted must be rigorously structured to serve these objectives of collective participation. One of the reasons I am very enthusiastic about the decision is because I see it not as a project per se, but as an immense opportunity to build the foundation of a modern state. The capital city project should not be seen as another item in the dossier of the Ministry of Housing or just focused on the immediate physical transformation we want to affect in Ramchiel, but as a tool to address grave deficiencies in our human and physical capital. We have a primitive marketplace that is entirely dependent on imported goods, a non-existent service and industrial sector, a poor banking system, extremely valuable resources that are unexploited, a labor pool that is almost entirely unskilled, and a bloated public sector payroll. A massive public works project like the one we are contemplating can be the stimulus that we need to systematically transform this bleak reality, but we must go about it purposefully.

One of the models that have been used in similar instances when countries have decided to build planned cities is to establish bodies with the requisite statutory and executive powers to execute the project. The Ministerial oversight committee formed by the President is an appropriate mechanism to ensure that the decision is put into reality, and that there is consistent political will and support to move things forward over the years. My hope is that a Permanent Commission or Secretariat will also supplement the Ministerial Committee as an executive body tasked with the daily supervision of the overall project from design to construction to turnover. That body should be staffed with appropriately experienced professionals from different disciplines and backgrounds who will ensure that the process is technically rigorous and appropriately performed. This body will ensure that there is permanence and a robust institutional memory over the long years of the project, even if Ministers are replaced or reassigned.

As I noted before, this project can spur us to greater heights in terms of our human resource capacity. Our government and the bodies tasked with this project should resist the urge to fall for the expatriate turnkey solution, whereby a Chinese or German or whatever foreign conglomerate builds the whole thing for us. I heard some people talk about just letting international firms submit plans for the whole city in some sort of competition and selecting the winning bidder. This would be a calamitous mistake, and represents a dangerous shortcut. Even much smaller projects given to singular firms have resulted in serious delays, immense fraud by monopolistic contractors, long lasting legal proceedings, and unsatisfactory clients. Instead, we need a phased process, whereby our government, with the advice of indigenous technical advisors, competes reputable firms in small portions of the job over the duration of the project and based on their specific competencies. We don’t need a goliath of a contractor building the whole thing, failing to deliver, and most ominously, poisoning our relations with their home governments once the disputes flare up. We also need a statutory requirement that all unskilled and semi-skilled labor be South Sudanese, and a generous portion of the technical personnel be reserved for our technicians who need exposure and training throughout the period of the project.

Finally, something must be said about the role of our universities and schools in this big project. Almost all the universities and vocational colleges can immensely benefit and contribute to this project, because it will be long and extensive. The University of Juba and its sister institutions should not sit idly waiting to be invited, but they should instead incorporate this project into their academic planning, and explore ways they can extend the expertise of their faculty and students to the oversight committee and any other bodies that are formed to carry out this project. The Diaspora is also another major repository of untapped South Sudanese expertise, and they should be vigorously asked to participate in whatever form can be worked out. Most importantly, we should all visualize this new city as our collective dream for a new metropolis, one that that will compliment the great city of Juba and link all our people in one big central meeting place.

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