Written by Sophie Ibbotson and Max Lovell-Hoare
At the meeting points of the Central Equatoria, Jonglei and Lakes states, about 110km north of Juba, is the somewhat unprepossessing settlement of Ramciel, a scattering of huts in the midst of a swamp. Although its location may be central, there is currently little else to recommend it: no tarmac roads link Ramciel to South Sudan’s existing cities, the absence of a bridge across the Nile cuts it off from much of the country, and the Vice President’s plans to establish an international airport and free trade zone nearby are as yet little more than pipe dreams.
Still, in a decade’s time it could all look rather different because there are serious discussions underway about the prospect of relocating South Sudan’s capital here from Juba. John Garang first identified Ramciel as his preferred site in the early 2000s, and in 2011 the federal cabinet confirmed that a planned city would indeed be built here. Although there is optimism in South Sudan that the construction of a new capital will bring much-needed work and money, this seems increasingly unlikely as initial surveying and construction tenders have already been won by Chinese and Korean companies.
Whether Garang’s dream of a capital at Ramciel is realised or not depends on a number of factors, including whether the Korean surveyors find the land suitable for supporting a city of this size. Opponents of the plan often cite the low-lying, swampy terrain as an inhibiting factor to large-scale construction, and issues of land ownership (and, in particular, land grabbing) are likely to be a source of tension, as they have been in Juba.
Surely the greatest stumbling block, however, is money. Even by the government’s own calculations, the creation of a new capital from scratch will cost tens of billions of dollars, money the country could scarce afford even before the 2012 squeeze on oil export revenues. Attracting investment for a project of this scale is likely to be challenging in the extreme, and foreign governments are unlikely to provide loans unless ministers in Juba can prove the move is economically and politically expedient rather than simply an act of political vanity.