Independence Vote First Step For Southern Sudan

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Southern Sudanese rally on the streets of the southern capital Juba, Dec. 9, 2010 i

Southern Sudanese rally on the streets of the southern capital, Juba, on Dec. 9, marking the one-month countdown until a landmark independence referendum is due. The vote could see Sudan's autonomous and mostly Christian south break away from the predominantly Arab and Muslim north. Peter Martell/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Peter Martell/Getty Images
Southern Sudanese rally on the streets of the southern capital Juba, Dec. 9, 2010

Southern Sudanese rally on the streets of the southern capital, Juba, on Dec. 9, marking the one-month countdown until a landmark independence referendum is due. The vote could see Sudan's autonomous and mostly Christian south break away from the predominantly Arab and Muslim north.

Peter Martell/Getty Images

The mood in Juba, the capital of Southern Sudan, is boisterous these days. Marching bands and sound trucks roam the streets, urging people to vote for independence.

Millions of people in Southern Sudan will begin voting Sunday on whether to split Africa's largest country in two and establish the world's next nation. But the week of polling may be the easy part.  If Southern Sudan votes for independence — as expected — huge challenges lie ahead.

Southern Sudan is nearly the size of Texas, but has hardly any paved roads. Corruption is rampant and illiteracy hovers around 60 percent.

A visit to the University of Juba, Southern Sudan's premier school, illustrates how far the region has to go. The courtyard on one dorm is littered with trash, windows are broken and goats mill about munching on rotting food.

Southern Sudan's University of Juba is the region's leading school, but facilities -- like this dorm -- are decrepit. i

Southern Sudan's University of Juba is the region's leading school, but facilities -- like this dorm -- are decrepit. Frank Langfitt/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Frank Langfitt/NPR
Southern Sudan's University of Juba is the region's leading school, but facilities -- like this dorm -- are decrepit.

Southern Sudan's University of Juba is the region's leading school, but facilities -- like this dorm -- are decrepit.

Frank Langfitt/NPR

Inside, conditions are no better. Students pack 15 to a room, sleeping beneath mosquito nets on bunk beds. The dorm has no water, so students haul it in buckets from a tanker truck a football field away.

"The number of students is very high," says William Simon, 24, who is studying finance in hopes of getting a job at a bank. "Most of them are sharing beds. Others are sleeping outside. Some people have left the university because the conditions are very bad. People are scrambling for food."

The Rev. Milton Lado, the school's acting deputy academic secretary, agrees.

"It's terrible, it's terrible," he says, "but as time goes on, we hope things will improve."

Lado traces the university's dreadful conditions to Sudan's two-decade civil war. Shelling by Northern Sudan forced the school to close in 1989. When it reopened following a peace agreement six years ago, thousands flooded back to a campus designed for just 600.

Lado says the school can't afford to expand, and he's hoping for help from foreign organizations.

"Once the referendum is over, we expect some good Samaritans to come in and assist the university," he says.

Another problem in Southern Sudan is the roads. Before 2007, there were no paved roads in Southern Sudan, according to the government. Today, there are many in Juba, but highways across the region are still dirt or gravel.

Philip Waiwai, who handles road maintenance for the government, says many rural roads wash out in the rainy season, including the 375-mile route from Juba, the capital, to Malakol, another major city of 1 million.

"From the end of May to November, you can't use that road," Waiwai says. "You fly, you use charter planes to go to Juba. It's like not being able to drive from New York to Chicago five months of the year."

Waiwai has high hopes for Southern Sudan's transport system. In the next couple of months, his department will begin construction on an asphalt highway to the Ugandan border, but he says the government has to generate more money to build more roads — and keep it out of the hands of crooked officials.

"We have to have a system where the taxes collected are transparently used for development, not to go into some individual pockets," he says. "We suspect corruption is still very high."

Like most places ravaged by war, Southern Sudan doesn't have strong institutions to fight corruption or build roads or schools. For a newly independent nation, it will take time to build them.

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