A failed state before it's born? Inside the capital of the world's next nation

As South Sudan heads for independence, Daniel Howden discovers a disturbing disparity between hope and reality

Juba's main landmark is making itself redundant. A digital clocktower that sprouts from the city's central roundabout counts down the remaining days, minutes and hours of the five years from the peace deal that ended the civil war to the referendum on secession. On Sunday the display will reach zero and the south of Sudan will begin voting in a process expected to create a new country and put the defunct clock at the centre of the world's newest capital city.

There is little doubt that the result will be an overwhelming vote in favour of splitting Africa's largest country in two. What is less clear is what kind of country is being delivered. South Sudan's moment of choice is happening amid a popular atmosphere of impossible expectation and its legion of doubters believe the globe's first "pre-failed state" is being ushered into existence.

Every major city needs a mythology and Juba's is writ large across the cityscape. Each of the roads emanating from the central roundabout is dominated by the same billboard. It calls on voters to "honour the sacrifice" of the 2.5 million who died in Sudan's 22-year civil war. A white strip underneath makes it clear what this means, showing a voter's thumbprint next to the words "dignity" and "separation".

Away from the high rhetoric, the emerging capital offers a more messy and realistic insight into what's in store as a previously isolated and largely pre-modern swathe of Africa embarks on an unprecedented experiment in internationally-sponsored state building. The picture is a disjointed one, in which after five years of relative autonomy much of the elite still live and work in tents or converted shipping containers and a South Sudanese girl is more likely to die in childbirth than finish school.

It's a city in which the Hummer recreational vehicles of the nouveaux riche throng the dust roads, foreign security contractors play by the poolside of a mountain lodge, and international aid workers dine on octopus salad on the terrace of a popular Greek restaurant. The new lords of Juba have already retreated behind high walls and razor wire.

Salva Kiir Mayardit, South Sudan's presumptive president and current head of the interim Government, is not one of the container dwellers. His presidential residence is the largest of the concrete palaces that have mushroomed on a hill near the main United Nations compound. The team that worked on its recent refurbishment ahead of a reception for UN staff, Western diplomats and VIPs including the actor George Clooney, were sent to Dubai with more than a million dollars in cash to pick up furniture that struck the right note of opulence. They came back, according to one witness, with chandeliers and a wooden throne.

The man who is supposed to be the closest that Juba has to a king is Dennis Daramola – a rotund 54-year-old with a gold-braided cap and a carved walking stick. He is the paramount chief of the Bari people and customary law dictates that all land belongs to its traditional inhabitants, which in the case of Juba means the Bari.

Presiding over his ramshackle customary court where suitors come to settle everything from debts to marriage disputes, he's happy to admit that "this land thing has made me a big man in Juba." These days his "court" is inundated with cases of land grabbing. The chief relays these complaints to the Government but worries they are not listening as "big interests" exploit the legal vacuum to take what they want.

"We are the indigenous and we should benefit as well, otherwise there will be trouble," he warns. Estimates of the number of people living in Juba have reached 800,000, a four-fold increase on its wartime population. Already huge disparities scar the dream of independence and a fresh start. For thousands of young girls drawn to the prospective capital the journey ends at Gumbo business centre.

What looks like a collection of small shacks and roadside stalls across the Juba bridge from the main city, is in fact one of the largest of a new and expanding set of industrial-scale brothels. Gumbo's entrance is marked by a mango tree where lodge owners play chess with customers. Inside, as many as 600 girls, some as young as 13 years old, are housed in something akin to a giant cattle-shed. A series of corrugated iron barns each centred around a bar houses girls in individual cells the size of a single bed with a curtain for privacy.

Sex here is sold in "shots" or "rounds", depending on how long customers spend with the girls. A shot is about £2 while a round can cost up to £5.

One of the girls tried living rough in Juba but decided to come to Gumbo after being gang raped several times. "If I'm going to be raped I may as well be paid for it," she said.

The younger girls are more popular and many carry teddy bears and call their regular clients "boyfriend" in order to drum up custom. But the life expectancy here is short. HIV infection rates among the women over 25 are nearly total.

Gumbo is now part of the thriving service sector in Juba where, according to unpublished research by a local NGO, there are at least six equivalent brothels with more than 2,000 girls.

The would-be capital is often talked about as though it didn't exist prior to the 2005 peace deal. Even the corrugated iron that clads its many stalls, shacks and homes has not yet had time to rust.

But the trading post originally established by Alexandrian Greeks on the White Nile in 1922 does have history; much of it bitter and some of which survives amid the ruins of Juba Hotel.

This once grand accommodation of domed chalets is now a squatters' camp full of charcoal fires, where washing hangs from trees and soldiers play dominoes next to the derelict pool.

In 1947 it was the setting for a historic conference called by Britain to decide on the future of an independent Sudan. Baak Mariak, an historian and middle-aged economics student who camps with a friend in one of the derelict chalets, relishes retelling the city's story. "The southern chiefs determined on the first day to split from the north. But that night they were made drunk and given bags of coins by the northerners... the next day they called for a federation."

Mariak blames that fateful party for everything, including the two civil wars that consumed most of the decades that followed. "The British warned the chiefs that there would be consequences," he says with a rueful smile.

Despite the warnings of the past and the uneven progress made since the end of the war, the majority of Juba's fortune seekers are looking stubbornly forward.

One vision of the future is breaking ground on a twist in the Nile 20 kilometres north of the city. Standing in a clearing in the elephant grass, Frank Cawkwell is surveying what will soon be the "Park Lane of Juba".

"We are standing in the luxury apartments," says the New Zealander, who quit a career in the aid industry to go into business in southern Sudan. As he speaks a bulldozer contracted from the Sudan People's Liberation Movement is churning the grassland into a muddy causeway while a flock of yellow-billed kites wheel above it looking for mice.

The brochure for the development depicts a small slice of the Arab Emirates on the banks of the Nile with sleek white apartments and stainless steel balconies. While it's meant to be a symbol of a world-class future, the Luri River Waterfront is also a sign of how hard foreign investors will find it to navigate the newest capital.

"The most important part of doing business is your local partner," Cawkwell confides. In this case the partner is the son of the influential Vice President and de facto leader of the Nuer tribe, Riek Machar. Despite this heavyweight backing it took two-and-a-half years to buy the plot and earthworks have only just begun. The development may be the ultimate expression of what one leading diplomat calls the "supersized expectations" of future life in an independent South. But like everything else in Juba, progress has been slow and the future remains uncertain.

The background

What is the referendum for?

Sudan was mired for 22 years in a civil war that pitted the Arab and Muslim-dominated north against the predominantly animist and Christian south. In 2005, a comprehensive peace deal ended the fighting and gave a five-year period of grace before allowing the south to vote on possible secession.

What does this mean for Darfur?

The troubled west of Sudan is not part of Sunday's referendum. The Darfur uprising against Khartoum began during the dying throes of the north-south civil war and was not part of the 2005 peace deal.

Separate international negotiations for a settlement for Western Sudan continue while some observers worry that the focus on the southern referendum has robbed momentum from the Darfur issue.

There are also widespread fears that the government of ICC-indicted Omar al-Bashir will launch a fresh crackdown in Darfur if the south votes to secede.

What happens to Sudan's oil?

The majority of Sudan's oil lies to the south but the only pipeline runs through the north.

In the short term, this is likely to mean South Sudan will pay for its independence in the form of punitive contracts to "transport" its share of the oil through northern infrastructure. Optimists believe that oil can bind a divided Sudan in a "shared destiny" as both countries are heavily reliant on oil revenues.

Will there be a new country next week?

No. Voting begins on 9 January and goes on for a week. If more than 60 per cent vote for separation then a six-month transition will begin as the international community oversees the birth of the world's newest country.

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