When the pan-Africanist writer Walter Rodney wanted to show how Europe underdeveloped Africa, he thought about roads. In colonies, he wrote, “all roads and railways led down to the sea”.
They were built to extract gold or manganese or coffee or cotton. They were built to make business possible for the timber companies, trading companies and agricultural concession firms, and for white settlers…. [They] had a clear geographical distribution according to the extent to which particular regions needed to be opened up to import/export activities. Where exports were not available, roads and railways had no place. The only slight exception is that certain roads and railways were built to move troops and make conquest and oppression easier.
The emblematic infrastructure of beneficent empire, Rodney argued, only went where value could be extracted, or occasionally where violence was to be done.
That he saw the latter as an exception to the rule suggests that Rodney spent less time than some of his Marxian predecessors and contemporaries considering whether economic extraction and military objectives might be, or become, the same thing. Over the last five weeks, and for the next two years, Stockholm’s District Court is considering whether senior executives of one economic extractor, the Swedish oil company Lundin Oil, were complicit in ‘conquest and oppression’, as Rodney put it. Or — in the flattened post-Cold-War language of international law – whether they aided and abetted the employment of an unlawful method of warfare. It is expected to be the longest trial in Swedish legal history. And those in the Stockholm courtroom are also thinking about a road.
This is the road that they are thinking about. A north-south spine running 150 kilometres down the centre of the region where much of the Sudans’ oil is found, and where Nuer politician-commanders have since the early 1990s intermittently mobilised a shifting tapestry of communities and armed groups, playing and played by larger regional and international conflicts. Some backed by the northern Sudanese government in Khartoum; some by the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM), then rebels against the government, and since 2011 the armed forces of independent South Sudan; many flipping between the two. A region which Khartoum in 1994 renamed, with no little irony, Wilayah al-Wahda: Unity State.
Lundin Oil built this road between 2000 and 2001, at what became the geographical and temporal epicentre of the second Sudanese civil war. It starts in Rubkhona, the riparian twin of the city of Bentiu, where in the early 2000s a government-owned airfield allowed NGOs to deliver food to people displaced by the fighting — when the government permitted their aircraft to land — and where Lundin Oil located its main logistics base. It crosses the Bahr al Ghazal river to Bentiu over a metal pontoon bridge, named (like so many bridges) jisr al-salaam – Peace Bridge. Then it scythes southeast in kilometres-long straight lines to the Thar Jath oil site, where Lundin started exploratory drilling in April 1999. From Thar Jath it runs on southwards – not to the sea, which is still over two thousand kilometres away – but nonetheless to a port, as Walter Rodney might have expected. The oil itself would be taken northwards in pipelines separate to the road, but diesel and other supplies for the oil operations could be offloaded at the river port of Adok, at the road’s southern end, from barges coming up the White Nile from Juba and Uganda beyond.
The logistical feat is undeniable: it is difficult to think of another road in South Sudan that anyone has managed to build so fast, so far, and in such conditions. Intended as an ‘all-weather’ road, it promised to open the entire region even during the wet season, when little north-south movement had previously been possible except in boats across the Sudd.
(Though supposedly ‘all-weather’, this road isn’t tarmacked: like almost all long-distance trunk roads in South Sudan it is surfaced with murram, a gravelly, friable laterite that can be laid quickly in the dry season, and repaired relatively cheaply. Murram resists the rain for a while, but in places, under hard use, it often dissolves into a viscous mud, mixing with the black cotton soil underneath, which gathers into dinner-plates around your shoes when you walk across it. When I was driven down this road in May 2014, at the start of the rainy season, there were sections where trucks and Land Cruisers – those with less skilful drivers – were poking out of the metres-deep mud like fishing boats, where they would stay until they could be hauled out when the road dried in October).
Swedish prosecutors allege that across oil concession Block 5A — the area that this road bisects — in five waves of fighting from 1999 to 2003, the Sudanese military and allied militias murdered civilians, indiscriminately bombed villages, forcibly displaced thousands of people, and committed other crimes. And they argue that through decisions and agreements made with the Sudanese government, Lundin Oil’s then-chairman Ian Lundin, and its former CEO Alexandre Schneiter, were complicit in these crimes.
The prosecution’s causal argument — the unity they claim between war, atrocity and extraction – has striking scope and scale. Lundin Oil, they argue, aided and abetted these crimes not so much by providing money, vehicles, guns, or practical assistance to the Sudanese military and their allies – the usual legal terrain of complicity in war crimes — but at a more strategic level. The prosecution’s case encompasses, and indeed recites, the entire history of the war in Unity State from 1997 onwards. In that year the Khartoum Agreement bound a friable assemblage of Upper Nile rebel groups to the government, and against the SPLA, in return for promising positions for their commanders, and oil revenues for their region. In the same year, Lundin joined a consortium of Malaysian, Sudanese and Indian companies to drill for oil across 30,000 square kilometres of the region. The prosecutors argue that from that point on, the war in Unity State was not just the setting for oil exploration and extraction. It was, they argue, a war substantially for oil exploration and extraction: an oil war in which Lundin and other executives allegedly extracted a sequence of agreements from Sudanese ministers and officials that Khartoum’s forces would protect and secure the area for the exploration and extraction activities of Lundin’s consortium; while Lundin would build roads into and between the prospective oil fields, some not then under government control. Prosecutors aim to show that in making these agreements, Ian Lundin and Alexandre Schneiter knew that unlawful forms of warfare would result in the area they were insisting the government must secure. Lundin and Schneiter deny any such knowledge or intention. They challenge the sequence and facts of the alleged war crimes themselves. And they counter that the war in Block 5A was driven by local and national politics that couldn’t have been influenced by the logistical needs of a mid-sized oil company. Over the next two years, therefore, the court will effectively adjudicate not just what these two men did and knew, but the competing narratives of ‘oil war’ in South Sudan, first opened up two decades ago by the fieldwork of Jemera Rone, Julie Flint, and the nameless Sudanese researchers with whom they worked.
Here is not the place to pre-empt that adjudication – if indeed it is possible to reduce the braid of alliances amongst different Nuer commanders in this period, woven between the Sudanese government and the SPLM, to the kinds of explanatory poles that causal explanations in courts require: oilfield clearance, tribal politics, mercenary patrimonialism. But the road will loom large in whatever the court determines. Both incentive and instrumentality, the road that Lundin Oil pushed southwards from Thar Jath to rebel-held Leer in 2002 — as well as a shorter spur west to Nhialdiu, the heartland of rebel commander Peter Gatdet — undoubtedly made possible the Sudanese Army’s mechanised offensives into those areas, whether or not those offensives were motivated by the desire to clear the area for the oil companies. The war may or may not have been an oil war, but the oil road certainly became the war.
Roads and railways have always been potent totems for apologists of empire, and for the public relations teams of post-colonial multinationals. Perhaps this is because they are so amenable to measurement. Unlike ‘rule of law’ or ‘culture’ – and in the absence of modern macroeconomic statistics – kilometres of new road or railway could serve as an incontrovertible quantitative measure of the benefits that colonies supposedly derived from their subjection – or, after decolonisation, that ‘communities’ would enjoy thanks to the upending of their economic and spatial lives.
Even for more sceptical liberal observers of empire, measuring roads and railways fitted with what Rodney called the “balance sheet” approach: the idea that one might appraise colonialism through a kind of historical sum to determine whether its overall effects were positive or negative. Literacy minus torture plus electrification equals X. (Fifty years on, supposedly nuanced portrayals of empire continue to imagine that the various terms of such an equation are commensurate. On the BBC’s ‘Learning Zone’ website for schools, Jeremy Paxman’s earnest assessment of the British Empire opens with this mind-bending sentence: “the Empire brought blood and tears and dispossession to millions of people, but it also brought roads and railways and education.”)
Rodney ridiculed this accounting of empire. But his famous 1972 book on underdevelopment also sought to overturn “balance sheet” assessments on their own terms, by showing how assets that appeared to weigh heavy on the ‘credit’ side of the balance sheet might in fact be deeply devalued. Rodney looked at the same infrastructure that enthused empire’s supporters, and told his readers to be attentive to space. To look at not just how long the roads were, but where they went. To think in two dimensions rather than one:
Means of communication were not constructed in the colonial period so that Africans could visit their friends. More important still, there were not laid down to facilitate internal trade in African commodities. There were no roads connecting different colonies and different parts of the same colony in a manner that made sense with regard to Africa’s needs and development.
We could go further. In South Sudan, roads might cross the balance sheet altogether from the credit to the debit side. Not only have roads not been planned according to the needs of the people who live near them: but proximity to a road might, in some seasons, be a source of terror and death.
The SPLM’s leaders may have been battle-hardened on Lundin’s roads, and found refuges in the spaces in-between. But when finally they gained a measure of self-rule in the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, they too embraced the road uncomplicatedly as the engine of South Sudan’s peace dividend.
We don’t know for certain whether Dr John Garang, the SPLM’s founder and leader, ever read Walter Rodney’s 1972 book. With oil discoveries and capitalist terror still decades off, southern Sudan figures in Rodney’s book as one of those post-colonial zones largely without roads or other icons of colonial development:
Within individual countries, considerable regional variations existed, depending on the degree to which different parts of a country were integrated into the capitalist money economy. Thus, the northern part of Kenya or the South of Sudan had little to offer the colonialists, and such a zone was simply ignored by the colonising power with regard to roads, schools, hospitals and so on.
Some of Garang’s biographers have called Rodney his “mentor” during the year that Garang spent during 1969-70 at the University of Dar es Salaam, where Rodney was then teaching. It’s hard to believe that they wouldn’t at least have met at the Sunday morning meetings of the University Students’ African Revolutionary Front, to which Garang belonged, and in whose journal Rodney published.
Likewise the opening chapters of the SPLM’s first manifesto in 1983, though they reflect wider socialist and pan-Africanist currents of the 1970s, do seem to echo with Rodney’s posthumous voice when they describe the “origins of liberation movements in the underdeveloped areas of Sudan”, and warn about “neo-colonialism” borne by a “bourgeois bureaucratic elite” returning from independence negotiations in London and Paris with the “instruments of independence locked up in their brief-cases to be greeted at airports with great joy and expectation by the masses.”
Nonetheless as the SPLM’s commanders returned to Juba from their own negotiations in Sudan and Kenya in 2005, they seem to have thought little about whether the plans in their briefcases, and in those of the politicians and consultants who lined their new ministries’ corridors, might also bring new foreign extraction and violence. Three years earlier, the SPLM and its sympathisers had painted the oil companies’ road-building as a tool of the Sudanese military, opening the way for tanks and horse-mounted murahalin to attack the towns and villages they controlled. Now they talked about the paltry mileage of metalled roads in Southern Sudan as proof of Khartoum’s longstanding discrimination against the south – the empty economic geography that Walter Rodney describes. Roadbuilding, funded by foreign donors and carried out by foreign companies, was to be the key to prosperity in the new south. Southern Sudan’s prodigious shortage of tarmac became a staple of almost every donor briefing and news report, the standard conversion rate being “60km of tarmacked road” in “a country the size of France”. (In the development imaginary, every violent and abandoned territory is customarily “the size of France”: genocide-wracked Darfur, Islamist-controlled northern Mali, the Iraq-Syria caliphate of the Islamic State).
The Bush administration in Washington, its evangelical base having long supported the SPLM’s fight against Islamists in Khartoum, now rolled out its first major post-peace aid package: the Sudan Infrastructure Services Project (SISP), a 700 million dollar programme promising to benefit southern Sudanese and Darfurian skills, sanitation, markets and electrification, but in which the vast majority of money was spent on hard-surfacing the 192km road from Juba south to the Ugandan border at Nimule.
The money went first to the US engineering company Louis Berger Group (LBG) – on the basis of a task order which, auditors later found, did not define any deliverables, in violation of US law. LBG’s percentage fee gave them an incentive to allow the direct costs of the road to balloon from $80m to over $160m. As the auditors drily noted:
The [USAID] contracting officer who was involved [alone] in awarding the task order said he could not recall why it did not define all of the services to be provided. The omission was even more questionable because before the task order went into effect, [Louis Berger Group] estimated that the Juba-Nimule road would cost approximately $80 million (including a 4 percent fee for LBG)—a good indication that the $250 million task order would include substantially more work than the road. By going over budget on the road…LBG received the same fee without having to undertake any other infrastructure projects in South Sudan.
No-one seemed to have their eye on the torrent of money now flowing into southern Sudan to replace murram with tarmac. USAID officials building their field careers cycled in and out of the ‘hardship’ posting of Juba, with its riverside tents, Tusker beers and Friday night parties at the Bedouin bar. A succession of nine different USAID officers oversaw the project over five years, a turnover with which Louis Berger Group declared itself wholly satisfied: “High turnover does not preclude consistent coverage”, one Louis Berger official told auditors. “The official said he did not have problems with a contract he managed between LBG and USAID/Iraq in which 27 contracting officers were involved over a 3-year period.” (This statement was made in 2011, the year in which Louis Berger Group’s chairman was indicted for conspiring to defraud USAID of billions of dollars by padding its Iraq contracts. He pleaded guilty in 2015, and was sentenced to 12 months of home confinement and a $4.5m dollar fine: not an enormous hardship, perhaps, for a 79 year old who was paid over $40m for his company shares as part of his severance package. He still runs a boutique investment firm in Miami Beach).
It is easy to see this migration of aid officials and engineering contractors between the twin oil-aid-war complexes in Iraq and southern Sudan as a uniquely western way of extracting careers and profits from the disorder of the 21st century’s first decade. But some of the Sudanese players too had moved along shadow circuits of international solidarity, war and extraction. Take Peter Gatdet, the Unity State commander whose forces had first been the target of the Khartoum government’s 2002 offensive down the road that Lundin built towards Gatdet’s Nhialdiu headquarters, and who had then switched allegiance to Khartoum. Having been amongst the road’s first victims, Swedish prosecutors claim, Gatdet’s forces then allegedly helped to guard the second phase of the roadbuilding in 2002-3. Like the aid officials and engineers who would replace Lundin’s roadbuilders after the 2005 Peace Agreement, Gatdet too had a history in the Persian Gulf. During his time in the Sudanese Armed Forces in the early 1980s, he had fought in Iraq in a troop contingent that various ‘Arab’ countries sent to support Saddam Hussein’s forces against Iran. The experience earned Gatdet the nickname ‘Jundi Iraq’.
Immediately after independence in 2011, it wasn’t uncommon to find other veterans from a different Iraq war in the ranks of the SPLM’s army. Gatdet’s adjutant, who arranged interviews with peripatetic researchers like me in the 2010s, was a lieutenant whose family was also from Unity State, but who had grown up in the American mid-west, a refugee from the 1990s fighting in southern Sudan. Thirty years Gatdet’s junior, he had, like his commander, served a term of duty near the oilfields of Basra – this time in the US Army, during its 2003 invasion — before returning to South Sudan after independence.
In other ways too, wartime oil-industry road-building and peacetime aid-industry road-building both relied on actors bridging the economic and the military. In Unity State in 2003 this had been clear: Lundin’s blandly named “Health, Security, Environment” personnel were partly seconded, prosecutors claim, from the Sudanese government’s Petroleum Security militia, operating alongside members of Unity State’s SSIM and SSUM armed groups under the command of Gatdet and others. In 2008 there would be no such obvious embarrassments. As Louis Berger Group and its Turkish and Sudanese subcontractors got to work on the road heading south from Juba, USAID contracted a South African-registered private security company to secure their staff and manage their assets. Nonetheless just north of Juba, at their new Bilpham headquarters, the SPLA had already hired this South African company on a different contract, to train over four thousand of its soldiers in command and counter-insurgency.
In December 2013 the SPLA went to war once again with its internal enemies. Lundin’s road would be at the centre of this new war too. Lundin Oil itself was long gone: it sold its interest in the consortium in 2004. Nonetheless the new civil war had many of the same players, shuffled round by South Sudan’s independence. The SPLA, the former rebels, were now the government army. Riek Machar, whose SSDF had in the 1990s allied with the Khartoum government against the SPLA, and then switched allegiance to hold the area from his hometown of Leer to Adok port on behalf of the SPLA, was now leading a rebellion across the same terrain, against the SPLM and the government in Juba. Peter Gatdet, having been enticed in and out of the SPLA by Juba, Khartoum and his own political calculations several times since the early 2000s, was once again allied with Machar, but this time against the SPLA, and was again ensconced in Nhialdiu while he coordinated his forces’ operations across the Block 5A area and eastwards into Jonglei State.
Though seated in different positions, these old men once again moved their pieces up and down the road that Lundin had built. Was this too an oil war? Certainly Riek Machar’s rebel forces had grand ambitions to restart oil production in their areas and fund their rebellion from oil sales, though it’s unclear who would have bought the oil. They may even have tried to establish financial infrastructure and foreign backing to do so. In April 2015 Machar issued an announcement that the rebels had established a “National Oil Company, the Sudd Oil Company”, to resume oil production in rebel-held areas. More political theatre than business plan — though six months later, unnoticed at the time, a ‘Sudd Oil Company Ltd’ was indeed registered in Hong Kong. Its director was a European IT professional who was a long-term associate of the South Sudanese politician Machar had named as the ‘Executive Director’ of the rebel oil company, and its shareholder was briefly a lawyer who had previously been a director of a mid-sized European oil exploration company which had South Sudanese exploration interests.
But there is no indication that this European oil company was itself involved in Machar’s plan. And on the ground, rebel oil exports looked like a fantasy. Driving down the Lundin road in May 2014, myself and colleagues found the oil site at Thar Jath wrecked. Inside and around the compound, Gatdet’s forces had fought government troops and allied Darfuri rebels. Under a metal-coloured sky the consortium’s filing cabinets, papers and office furniture lay scattered between looted containers and emptied ammunition crates. Company staff had fled, the oilwells were closed, the wellheads filled with water.
One thing, though, was clear: not just the oil site, but the entire length of Lundin’s road, was empty. Along this corridor of fighting, towns and settlements changed hands repeatedly over the first months of 2014 as huge levée-en-masse armies, tens of thousands strong, swept up and down the road — mainly on foot after most of the SPLA’s T-72 tanks shed their tracks and were abandoned. Several weeks after the latest offensive, driving over 200 kilometres from rebel-held Leer to the frontline south of Bentiu and back, we saw perhaps ten people on or near the road.
Just being an unknown presence on the road made us a potential threat too. On one occasion, close to the frontline itself, we were intercepted by a rebel patrol which appeared, it seemed, from nowhere out of the plain through which the road cut. We couldn’t initially distinguish which side they were on – and vice-versa – leading to a tense ten minutes while they lined us up to decipher our intentions. (My former colleague Jérôme Tubiana has written more about that encounter, and much else that happened on that road trip, along with his charcteristically beautiful phootgraphs).
As in 2003, the intensity of the fighting along the road may or may not have been motivated by the oil prize at its centre, but the road was nonetheless where the war was fought, and it was a dangerous place for any South Sudanese to be.
What of South Sudan’s roads now? The US and other foreign donors finally seem to have fallen out of love with “the authoritative aesthetic of straight lines”, or perhaps simply with the repeated cycle of road funding, groundbreaking, fraud and abandonment. And so, as in Lundin’s time, South Sudan’s roads are once again backed by oil, not aid. Since 2019 an ‘oil for roads’ scheme has become South Sudan’s single largest area of public spending. It dwarfs even USAID’s giant SISP of 2007, consuming 30 percent of the government budget in 2022-23. As Joshua Craze has recently described, this annual $540m stream of oil revenues — nearly twice the amount budgeted for health and education combined — flows into roadbuilding companies’ private accounts without public accounting for contracts or spending, largely under the direction of a company associated with a senior advisor to President Salva Kiir. This adviser’s own roadbuilding company has since 2015 been one of the biggest recipients of state-funded road contracts, their trucks and graders ubiquitous from the streets of Juba to the border roads of Upper Nile.
A decade earlier, unspecified task orders and fraudulent spending garnered Louis Berger Group a $4.5m fine, somewhat outweighed by the further $210m they then received from existing and new USAID contracts. The homegrown system that replaced them in South Sudan has sparked a less forgiving response, though perhaps no more effective. The US Treasury has sanctioned the advisor and his company, prohibiting US nationals, businesses and banks from doing business with them. But the United States’ financial empire is no longer so totalising. South Sudan’s oil revenues, destined for roads real and invented, now cascade through government accounts in banks in Kenya, Uganda and the Gulf, according to UN investigators. These are places – already familiar to the engineers and administrators migrating between different oil-aid-war complexes — whose banking systems are increasingly able to keep transactions away from the all-seeing eye of dollar-correspondent banks in the Southern District of New York.
We are, in these cynical times, accustomed to thinking of development aid as vulnerable to corruption, poorly planned, maladapted to people’s needs. And we’re used to stories of armies and rebel groups manipulating development aid for their own military ends. In South Sudan and perhaps elsewhere, however, these aren’t design flaws. As Stafford Beer famously said, the purpose of a system is what it does. South Sudan’s ruined and ruinously expensive roads have always been an engine of a patrimonial political economy serving the needs of war and economic extraction – which have long been the same thing. At least the managers, engineers and security personnel who actually build the roads recognise this: their transnational careers move between these activities unproblematically, their baseball caps switching easily from the logo of an aid agency, to an oil concessionaire, an engineering firm, a private military company.
‘What would you do instead?’ I’ve been asked by embassy officials in air-conditioned shipping containers, and logistics managers in airport bars. ‘Would you just not build anything, and abandon people?’
I don’t know. I’m not equipped to look into a system as entrenched and complicated as the oil-aid-war complex, and to imagine an alternative. But increasingly I want to answer: ‘yes, perhaps’. And I think often of a walk away from the road, into Rodney’s empty spaces.
Driving back down the Lundin oil road in Unity State in May 2014, away from the front, we arrived back in Leer only to be blocked by the rain, which made both driving and UN helicopter flights impossible for several days.
So we stepped off the road and moved sideways, in Rodney’s schema. We walked out of Leer, in whose “capitalist money economy” a bowl of porridge from air-dropped red sorghum cost 20 South Sudanese pounds that week – about ten dollars, more expensive than breakfast in New York or London – and through the mud and the standing pools to a village three hours away on foot. With nothing more useful to offer, we intended to visit a famous prophet there, though when we arrived she was away. (The memory is acutely embarrassing. An unseemly troop of self-indulgent foreigners, after some local colour, in the midst of a starvation war in which dead children were being laid out on wheelbarrows in front of people’s houses each morning).
Nonetheless every half-hour, as we walked, the countryside seemed to get wetter, hotter, greener. There were some fields of sorghum here, their fronds heavy and brown. People were taking the time – and had the strength and materials — to raise a new roof on a house for a soon-to-be married couple: several days’ construction work, the roofs winched up on ropes by twenty men and women.
Crucially, these zones of comparative resource and safety were not created by the road. They were only possible away from it.
We pallid war-tourists risk, of course, falling into an old fantasy of pastoral self-sufficiency that has animated anti-development thinking for hundreds of years. Both resources and safety are only comparative. Off the road, in the countryside, people were still starving, and hiding, and dying. The wetlands weren’t totally impregnable to government troops, especially after 2015 when they acquired Russian amphibious fighting vehicles – though these were never numerous. And by any ordinary measure of humanitarian resource, this village was a wasteland: unlike in Leer, there were no doctors here, no treated water, no food distributions. But if you were well, and had land, might you not take your chances against disease if you could grow and eat a little here, rather than waiting in town for the next food drop, and the next wave of rebel or government troops to come surging down the road, burn the hospital (troops razed Leer’s hospital to the ground twice in 2014 and 2015), and take up residence again in the same barracks as the last lot?
This truculent ingratitude for the material gifts of economic development makes sense in South Sudan, and perhaps elsewhere, because the essential context of the twin arrival of the state and the market is violence. As Eddie Thomas has written about the last two hundred years of South Sudanese history: the process of communities being connected to jobs, markets and services wasn’t ever a beneficent dividend of peace and security, as district administrators, oil companies and European development ministers would have us believe. In South Sudan it has almost always been war that brought money and markets. Displaced families, their property pillaged, could no longer cultivate and feed themselves, but were forced instead to buy food for money, which in turn required them to commodify their labour – including by seeking the wages of soldiery itself. Consumer markets for food and other essentials in South Sudan, though acknowledged to be brutally inflationary, are sometimes seen as the sign of a rising urban middle class. Thomas shows how, at least initially, they were primarily where the poorest and most dispossessed had to buy their own survival.
And if war is the engine of the money economy’s spread, the practicalities of this process are made possible by the militarised transport infrastructure that has also, in places, driven dispossession. Eddie Thomas has written about this dialectic a thousand miles west and sixty years before Lundin’s oil road — in Bahr el Ghazal State, where a wide, red road built in the 1930s by the British (partly with forced labour) unrolls westwards from the state capital of Wau to the border town of Boro Medina, and on to Raga, south of Darfur. British administrators displaced self-sufficient communities from the remote, copper-rich enclave of Hofrat Al-Nahas, and forced them to live along this road, several hundred miles from their homes, to gain the benefits of motorised transport, connection to the state capital, education, and labour discipline. (This coercion is still inscribed in place names near the road, Thomas records: Jabarona, Sudanese Arabic for ‘they forced us’; Sopo, which means ‘crack of the whip’ in several languages of Banda people forced to live there).
Then, in the 1960s, the Sudanese government mounted a counterinsurgency here against the rebels of the post-independence Anyanya I movement. Villages along this road whose population might harbour rebels that could attack troop movements were cleared, and their inhabitants moved into Wau town itself, an influx of new participants for its housing and food markets. Many never returned. Fifty years later, in December 2011, two colleagues and I drove along this road, from Wau to Raga: still a vital route for the dozens of Sudanese and Libyan trucks we passed daily, carrying goods all the way from North Africa across Darfur to southern Sudan and down to the border with Congo – but also a corridor stubbornly empty of settlements that might benefit from its civilising influence.
No-one should pretend that those raising roofs and growing sorghum at the margins of the Sudd are living a good life, at least as I would understand it. But it isn’t at all clear to me that roads – real, fraudulent, tarmacked or impassable — are making most of these lives any better at all. Of course the billions of dollars pouring into and onto South Sudan’s roads should be better spent. But even if they weren’t – even if the graders and the trucks, the grant managers and baseball-capped engineers — all simply stopped and went home; would things really be any worse? And if they took with them the grant managers and the administrators? The NGOs and the diplomats? The press officers and journalists, the security consultants, the report-writers and peripatetic researchers, the investment advisers and peace agreement negotiators, the mercenaries with guns and those with briefcases? What if we all simply got off the road and went home? To raise our own roofs, perhaps; to grow our own grains; and to wait for the floodwaters that are coming in the next few decades to wash all our roads away.
(All photographs (c) the author unless otherwise attributed: made by author in Unity State and Bahr-el-Ghazal State, South Sudan, 2011 and 2014)