Southern Sudan welcomes US electricity project

The power lines, electricity poles and street lamps that now dot the red dirt roads of the Southern Sudanese town of Kapoeta seem out of place next to the rusting tanks and shot-up buildings.

The electrification project, which was funded by U.S. government aid, is one sign that the U.S. is intent on helping bring development and stability to what will soon be Africa's newest country.

The final results from Southern Sudan's January independence referendum were announced Monday, with nearly 99 percent of ballots cast for independence. Southern Sudan is slated to become a new country in July, and it will need all the help it can get.

Southern Sudan President Salva Kiir, in his first comments since the results were announced, said Tuesday that the vote was the "crowning moment of all the sacrifices made during our long struggle."

More than 2 million people died during the nearly two-decade war that ended in 2005.

"It is a glorious day for Africa and the world," Kiir said. "You exercised your inalienable right to self-determination freely, fairly and peacefully."

Decades of civil war between the mainly Christian-animist south and the mainly Muslim north mean most of Southern Sudan has no electricity, roads or other infrastructure, despite the south's oil riches.

In the barren scrubland of Eastern Equatoria state, where the U.S. has just funded the electrification project in Kapoeta, semi-nomadic herders from the Toposa tribe carry spears and automatic rifles for protection and wear leopard skins and feather headdresses for celebrations.

The U.S. Agency for International Development spent $1.1 billion in Sudan and eastern Chad in the 2009 fiscal year. More USAID workers are being sent to Southern Sudan, where most people live on less than $1 day and only 15 percent of the population can read. Quality health care is almost nonexistent.

"The development needs of Southern Sudan are absolutely enormous," Barrie Walkley, the top U.S. diplomat in Southern Sudan, said during last Friday's opening of the electricity project.

U.S. and southern government officials hope electricity will boost the area's economy, improve security and quality of life and attract investors to the area's gold and copper reserves. Herders in this Wild West-like hinterland struggle to keep their cattle alive during the months of near-drought in one of the most arid and bleak expanses in Southern Sudan.

The Kapoeta project is just one of many initiatives USAID has launched in the region. One of its top projects is the funding of a $200 million highway from Uganda to Juba, the southern capital.

Lorna Merekaje, an activist in Juba who led a referendum monitoring group of last month's referendum, said she believes U.S. aid projects are generally positive.

"It is a great support to Southern Sudan but it needs to be managed well because there is a common theme that if people are not careful then we end up only implementing the donor agenda and not the agenda of the people," Merekaje said.

Other USAID programs are designed to improve the skills of southern leaders in areas like budgeting or managing social welfare programs. Many of the south's leaders are former rebels whose decades of fighting means them are more accustomed to planning ambushes than accounting.

The influx of aid money — coupled with Southern Sudan's oil revenues — means "there's a threat and an opportunity at the same time," said James Shikwati, an economist from neighboring Kenya. Funding infrastructure helps improve regional links and provides people with the economic independence to start participating in political life, he said.

"Southern Sudan is likely to have a problem similar to what many countries have experienced: the emergence of an elite class that serves the interests of the donor countries and not the needs of the people. There may also be donors who want to ensure access to the region's natural resources," he said.

Other donors funding projects in Southern Sudan include the E.U. and China — which also has a hand in the region's oil fields — although the U.S. has spent more money in Sudan over the past decade than any other donor. The Kapoeta project took three years and $4 million to complete.

"We are literally and figuratively bringing light to Kapoeta," Walkley said as hundreds of residents danced and drummed last week.

USAID funded the project in Kapoeta because it's a strategic trade center near the border with Kenya. The region's governor, Louis Lobong, praised the U.S. for the help.

"We love the American people for standing with us during our liberation war," said Lobong. He said the project "demonstrates the solidarity and commitment of the American government and its people to support the Sudanese in the development of the new state to be born."


Associated Press writer Pete Muller contributed to this report from Juba, Sudan.