In South Sudan’s capital, a bridge – and a nation – on hold

On its face, the plan was simple. South Sudan’s largest city needed a new bridge, and a Japanese aid agency was going to build one.

It was 2012 when the announcement was made, and the capital of the world’s newest country was growing up and out hungrily: a sudden glut of new huts, new houses, and new hotels poking up from the green flatlands.

“The way the city was growing was unbelievable,” says Justin Tata, the head of the department of architecture and urban planning at the University of Juba. “But the problem was the people came first, then the plans for what to do with them afterwards.”

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Indeed, the bones of the city – its roads and plumbing and power grid – couldn’t keep up with the massive growth spurt. Perhaps most alarmingly, the city had only a single, rickety bridge slung across the Nile River to connect it to the country’s most important highway, a 120-mile artery stretching south to the border with Uganda.  

Every day, a huge portion of the country’s economy rattled over the 45-year-old bridge’s two narrow lanes, as heaving 18-wheelers carried imported goods from the port of Mombasa, in Kenya, into the growing capital city. Traffic snarled at both ends of the bridge as vehicles waited hours to cross.

“Bridges are the main gate for our development,” says Roman Marghani Lukak, the regional director for roads and bridges. He meant that metaphorically, but as the trucks packed with grains, medicine, building materials, and books queued up, it seemed true in an almost alarmingly literal sense, too.

South Sudan, after all, has one of the most lopsided economies in the world. Oil accounts for roughly 99 percent of its exports. The country imports nearly everything else it needs – from food and medicine to building materials and cars – at enormous cost through neighboring countries. In no small part because of its wobbly infrastructure, the price of importing goods is about three times the regional average, driving up prices for people with little money to pay.

Five years after the first promise of a new bridge, however, the project remains unfinished, its construction now indefinitely on hold. And like the overgrown remains of factories on Juba’s outskirts or the rotting piles of uncollected garbage lining many city streets, the half-a-bridge stands as a quiet reminder of how civil war has stalled even the most basic attempts at nation-building here – in…

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