Steamrollers began flattening asphalt yesterday on Southern Sudan’s first highway, a stretch of road leading to neighboring Uganda that the region’s president, Salva Kiir, called a “lifeline of the people.”
When finished next year, the 192-kilometer (120-mile) highway from the regional capital, Juba, to Nimule will more than double the length of paved roads in Southern Sudan, a region bigger than France that is due to become independent in July.
The $225 million road project, financed by the U.S. Agency for International Development, will also provide landlocked Southern Sudan a link to Kenya’s port of Mombasa and ease its dependence on northern Sudan. Almost 99 percent of Southern Sudanese voters chose independence in a referendum last month.
“We are not crippled anymore,” Kiir said yesterday at a ceremony marking the start of paving the road. “It is development that we need, and the development starts with these roads.”
Road building will be one of the main priorities for the government of Southern Sudan as it prepares for independence, he said. After almost five decades of war against the north, the region has no steady power supply, large-scale farms or factories, and half of its 8 million people live on less than $1 a day, according to the United Nations.
At independence Southern Sudan will assume control of about three-quarters of Sudan’s current oil production of 490,000 barrels a day, pumped mainly by China National Petroleum Corp., Malaysia’s Petroliam Nasional Bhd. and India’s Oil & Natural Gas Corp. Sudan’s output is the third-biggest in sub-Saharan Africa.
The challenge for Kiir and his ruling party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, will be to use that wealth to transform an economy where 80 percent of the people depend on subsistence agriculture for their livelihood.
With the improvement of the road to Uganda and plans to upgrade routes to Ethiopia and Kenya, the south is moving further away from dependence on the north, said Joseph Lagu, a leader of the first southern rebellion against the north that ended in 1972 and now a presidential adviser in the south.
“We now belong to East Africa, not North Africa,” Lagu said to cheers from the officials gathered for the ceremony.
The war against the north left the region virtually cut off from the rest of the world, with land mines making roads impassable.
“Five years ago, it would have taken you eight hours to drive this road,” the U.S. consul general in Southern Sudan, R. Barrie Walkley, said at the ceremony. “One year from now, it will take you 2½ hours to get from Juba to the Uganda border.”