South Sudan Searches for National Unity by Means of a City
For some South Sudanese, a new capital could signify a means of finding a multi-ethnic common ground; for others, it is merely a continuation of ongoing ethnic strife.
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On July 9, 2011, tens of thousands of people flocked to Juba’s Freedom Square, dancing and waving flags for the inauguration of the world’s newest country, South Sudan. The historic ceremony in a city desig-nated as the new nation’s capital also created Africa’s sixteenth landlocked state and the world’s poorest country. Though accused of having overlooked decades of civil war in Southern Sudan, the international com-munity, represented by United Nations Secretary Gen-eral Ban Ki-moon and others, bore witness to the birth of a new nation that it had formally approved.1 Celebra-tions lasted little longer than the stays of the interna-tional guests, as the nascent country needed to shift the focus to itself. With independence confirmed, South Sudan’s leaders were forced to address internal conflicts once ignored for the sake of a united front in opposi-tion to the Sudanese government in Khartoum. South Sudan was now a country, but tensions among its ethnic groups threatened to unravel what had been gained. No more than two weeks after the inauguration, South Sudan’s political leaders announced one of their first proposals toward domestic unity: the construction of a new, seemingly clean-slate capital city. Juba, it was announced, would serve only as a provisional capital until the new city, called Ramciel, was completed.

Currently South Sudan’s richest and largest city, Juba sits on the White Nile about one hundred kilo-meters downstream from the Ugandan border and more than one thousand kilometers upstream from Khartoum, now the capital of another nation. Easily described as South Sudan’s most advanced city in terms of infrastructure and amenities, Juba functions not only as the capital but also as the place to do business in South Sudan. Most international banks and organiza-tions that do work in the new country, including the United Nations, have their national bases here. Juba nevertheless struggles to provide basic modern infra-structure, remaining only a mark higher than the rest of South Sudan’s towns and villages. Permanent con-struction is usually reserved for government ministries, and tarmac roads remain scarce. Running water and electricity are not always assured.

“The historic ceremony in a city designated as the new nation’s capital also created Africa’s sixteenth landlocked state and the world’s poorest country.”

In recent history, Juba’s identity has been continu-ously juggled. During the joint British-Egyptian rule of Sudan, the city was the capital of Equatoria, one of three Southern provinces.2 The city was able to prosper to some degree thanks to trade along the White Nile. Nation-making, however, would keep the city unsettled. Even prior to Sudan’s independence from Britain and Egypt in 1956, the Southern provinces harbored violent resistance to the North. Sudan, in other words, endured civil war even before its brief union. Rather than becom-ing the hub of the South’s rebellion, Juba was occupied by Khartoum’s military as the launching ground for offensives against the Southern rebels, who made their camps outside the cities.

In 1972 the first civil war ended, and by means of the armistice, Juba became the capital of the autono-mous Southern region. With the start of the second civil war in 1983, Juba was reoccupied by Khartoum’s forces. To resist the North, Dr. John Garang de Mabior, a member of Southern Sudan’s largest ethnic group, the Dinka, had brought together many Southern Sudanese ethnicities (as well as some Northerners) under a united rebel force, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). The prolonged second civil war would not end until 2005, when Southern Sudan gained increased autono-my as part of the peace agreement. It was understood that Garang would continue to lead Southern Sudan toward either peaceful unity with the North or full independence, depending on the outcome of the self-determination vote slated for January 2011. But Garang’s plans were thwarted when, two weeks after assuming the position of First Vice President of Sudan and President of Southern Sudan, he died in a helicop-ter crash. His aspirations for Southern Sudan, however, continue to mold the new country. The inauguration festivities in 2011 took place in clear view of the mau-soleum where Garang rests, but Garang had distanced himself long ago from the city, leading to his support for a new capital city.


Redivision Revisited?

Juba’s difficulties as a national capital for South Sudan have roots in ethnically based land allocation decisions made by the Khartoum government prior to the second civil war. In 1982 the Sudanese president, Jaafar Nime-iri,3 issued one of his most infamous divide-and-conquer policies. What came to be known as “Kokora” was the redivision of Southern Sudan into three distinct regions – Equatoria, Bahr el Ghazal, and Upper Nile – each of which was to have a separate administration and to answer directly to Khartoum. Although promoted as bringing political rule closer to the people, the policy, in practice, rendered Southern Sudan a splintered region. Local rule meant that the Southern Sudanese had “to return to their home areas, forcing many non-Equatorians out of Juba.”4 People from outside Juba, namely those not of the Bari ethnic group, were ban-ished to areas of Southern Sudan that offered, at best, limited modern infrastructure and employment oppor-tunities. Any ethnic mixing that had occurred before Kokora was constrained by a policy that highlighted ethnic differences and gave an economic bias toward the Juba-based Bari.

Nimeiri’s policy was not successful in preventing Southern Sudan’s many ethnic groups from uniting in opposition to the North. Rather than return to their home regions as required by Kokora, many Southerners ousted from Juba joined the rebel forces. In contrast, the Bari people and others whose ethnic origins were in and around Juba were permitted by law to prosper from a monopoly on Juba’s urban opportunity. The Bari’s advantage stoked resentment among the other ethnic groups, thus adding an anti-Bari disposition to the developing rebel movement. While Nimeiri’s Ko-kora policy did not prevent a Southern rebellion, it nevertheless instilled bitter wrangles among the South-ern Sudanese and, according to Mark Otwari Odufa, a columnist for a local paper, laid the foundation for today’s “unnecessary search for the capital of South Sudan.”5

“Releasing the nation’s future from ethnic tensions has become the chief reason for Ramciel’s champions to push for a politically and ethnically neutral site.”

The ethnic groups of Equatoria, which included the Bari, found Kokora beneficial for more than just protected access to Juba’s relative wealth. In principle, the policy also protected Equatorians beyond the city’s limits who found their farming areas and grazing fields threatened by cattle belonging to other ethnic groups, principally the Dinka. Aside from their encroaching cattle, the Dinka were feared for their domination

of Southern Sudanese politics. This ethnic tension also helps explain why the Bari and other peoples of Equatoria were at first hesitant to join the rebellion, which to some seemed “bent on the destruction of  the ‘Equatoria Region’ in order to impose Dinka hegemony.”6 For many, this fear stemmed from abuses committed by some elements within the rebel move-ment during the civil war. Nonetheless, people from Equatoria gradually turned against the Khartoum re-gime and lent support to the rebels as a result of more aggressive and unpopular policies, particularly the im-position of Sharia law. For the sake of the Southern Sudan rebellion, these ethnic differences were set aside, temporarily.


Land Grabbing in Juba

After the war ended in 2005 and the rebel movement began to take the form of a government, the SPLA’s senior commanders, many of whom hailed from the Dinka region, convened in Juba to form the Govern-ment of Southern Sudan (GoSS). Ethnic confrontations began almost immediately, as development prospects fueled land speculation in the city. The situation was only exacerbated by a rapid population increase and a weak, unprepared land regulatory system. In 2005 some estimates had put Juba’s population at 250,000; by 2010 it had at least doubled to between 500,000 and 600,000.7 People displaced during the fighting returned to the city to reclaim property, which in some cases had been ille-gally occupied by others. Foreigners seeking economic opportunities also began to lay their claims in Juba. In February 2009, the Southern Sudan Legislative Assem-bly passed the Land Act, which revoked existing prop-erty laws, but the new law has not provided adequate clarity about land administration and ownership regu-lation.8 Confusion only encouraged more fraud and forced takeovers of land, or land grabbing. The result has been a city that many believe cannot handle the urban implications of being a national capital.

Land disputes have undermined peaceful relations among Juba’s residents and recalled memories of past injustices. Jacob Lupai, a frequent political commen-tator from Greater Equatoria, warns that “land grabbing could undermine national cohesion.”9 Although no accurate figures exist, land grabbing is a significant concern for Juba’s main local ethnic group, the Bari, who had the most to lose in the new country’s height-ened interest in their provincial city. The Bari worried about losing their land and viewed the national govern-ment as unhelpful in protecting their interests. Lupai accuses the national government of “absolute deafening silence in the face of criminal land grabbing.”10 He claims that landowners are threatened with death by “land grabbers in uniform.” Officials for the provincial government have claimed that 80 percent of land grab-bing was being committed by soldiers.11 With the major-ity of soldiers coming from the Dinka and the other larger tribes, the accusation implies an ethnic underpin-ning to the skirmishes.

Conversely, people from other states have accused the Bari of obstructing land sales. The Bari population’s desire to protect its land from price escalation and for-eign ownership has been perceived by outside factions as anti-development and counter to the national unity project. At the same time, Juba’s provincial government and the Bari people do not necessarily want to see Juba lose its capital status. To outside ethnic groups, it seems the Bari want to have it both ways: to control Juba and at the same time to lay claim to the nation’s capital. Releasing the nation’s future from ethnic tensions has become the chief reason for Ramciel’s champions to push for a politically and ethnically neutral site.


No Man’s Land or Just Another Man’s Land?

It is said that before his death Garang had proposed founding a new city, an idea that was approved by the SPLM Leadership Council in 2003.12 Mark Otwari Odufa opines that the late Garang had known that the legacy of Kokora would continue to haunt people in Juba and had therefore wanted to “resolve the problem once and for all by deciding on Ramciel to be the capital of the South Sudan.”13 Ramciel’s backers believed a new city would not be weighed down by a history of war and occupation and could represent the synthesis of South Sudan’s various factions. A city without history, and perhaps one that started to define a South Sudanese history, it seemed, was the only way toward harmony and unity. Garang proposed a site for Ramciel in the Greater Bahr el Ghazal region, close to both Greater Upper Nile and Greater Equatoria regions. In due course, the proposed borders of the designated location were pushed further into the latter regions, allowing the site to be shared by all three regions. The argument was that the capital would belong to and benefit all.

“Backers of Ramciel stress that in stark contrast to Juba, which is riddled with property issues, Ramciel offers a potentially clean slate on which the new country could lay out its national institutions.”

Tellingly, “Ramciel” is derived from two words from the Dinka language (Garang’s mother tongue), ram for “meet” and ciel for “middle”: “a central meeting place.”14 Situated about two hundred kilometers north of Juba, the designated location for Ramciel is said to occupy the geographical center of South Sudan. In a country with only sixty kilometers of paved roads, the site is a several hour drive from Juba and made up of little more than bush.15 Beyond its symbolic qualities, the Ramciel proposal also holds a pragmatic advantage: a seeming abundance of unclaimed, and therefore cheap, land. Backers of Ramciel stress that in stark contrast to Juba, which is riddled with property issues, Ramciel offers a potentially clean slate on which the new country could lay out its national institutions, claiming the site is free of permanent inhabitation.16 Ramciel’s supporters claim the proposal both respects the wishes of Garang, South Sudan’s most revered hero, and offers an outlet for the tense struggles stifling the GoSS. However, other sources indicate that a local people, the Aliab Dinka, already have a name for the designated site: “Kur Anyang.”17 That the area already has a name puts into question the site’s status as un-claimed land.

On September 2, 2011, President Salva Kiir Ma-yardit issued Presidential Order Number 17 to constitute a ministerial committee for a city known as “Ramciel Union.” Chaired by Jemma Nunu Nkumba, the na-tional minister of housing and physical planning, the committee has been tasked with, among other things, defining and demarcating the “borders of Ramciel as the national capital territory which shall fall outside the jurisdiction of Lakes state government.”18 Some foreign countries and their respective companies have been keen to exploit this development opportunity. Among them is South Korea, whose Land and Housing Corporation, a state-owned construction company, signed a memo-randum of understanding with the GoSS to “cooperate broadly” during the course of the construction of the capital.19 The ministerial committee has invited bids for survey and design work for the new capital. Models of a new city have already been presented to a select public and convey the government’s continuing commitment to the Ramciel plan. However, it is not clear whether the majority of South Sudan’s citizens are behind it. Furthermore, there is no commitment yet confirmed from the foreign sponsors who will end up financing Sudan’s approved development projects.

For now, Ramciel “has almost no infrastructure, no towns and only a few seasonal villages.”20 A consult-ing firm, the Balkan Consultancy Service, was hired in 2006 to make a master plan for military headquarters at the proposed location and eventually reported that the area was “swampy and not suitable for proposed development.”21 As a result of the findings, the then GoSS minister of investment proposed another location to the east of Juba, which would have included parts of Greater Bahr el Ghazal and Greater Upper Nile. However, the proposal was flatly rejected by the local Bari community and even by the Central Equatoria government, which had originally supported sharing Juba as a national capital.22 Conceptual models of Ramciel Union have been produced since then and envision large buildings along broad boulevards and vast green malls, but they represent a conceptual plan, an artistic impression to attract investors and minimize negative aspects of the project.23

The main argument against the Ramciel project is its huge cost, estimated at $10 billion.24 This figure rep-resents almost five times the national government’s $2.3 billion budget for 2011, for which oil sales constituted more than 97 percent of revenues.25 As if South Sudan’s reliance on a single revenue source were not risky enough, the country’s claim to oil profits is threatened by an unresolved row with the Khartoum government, which owns the pipelines that deliver South Sudan’s oil to the export terminal at Sudan’s Red Sea port. Many South Sudanese have been questioning the Ramciel plan through the press. A local journalist, Nhial Bol, perhaps encapsulated popular doubt when he ques-tioned why the government was investing in “luxuries” when the country’s most basic needs, like “education, food, and health services,” are far from being met.26 Costs will accrue not only from building a new city but also from ensuring that Ramciel has the infrastructure to connect it to places where the rest of the country’s population resides.

It is Ramciel’s location, however, that its champions praise. One South Sudanese academic claims that the current capital Juba “is distant from and poorly connec-ted to many parts of the Southern Sudan it purports to administer.”27 In contrast, K.A. Kuyok and other sup-porters argue Ramciel will act as a strong, stabilizing center for the new country. In announcing Ramciel, South Sudan’s leaders were keen to foster national unity as land disputes in Juba, compounded by rapid urbani-zation and speculative land grabbing, were resurrecting old ethnic divisions. Ramciel’s professed vacancy would mean development can happen more smoothly on plen-tiful unclaimed land. The journalist Isaiah Abraham argues that the designated location “is extremely beau-tiful, so large and good, surrounded by all.”28 Supporters of the Ramciel proposal assert that unlike the situation in today’s Juba, Ramciel will provide an escape from the divisive land disputes that have brought development and modernization to a standstill. Ramciel as a tabula rasa, the thinking goes, will allow the government leeway to plan the city in a rational way, such that it becomes an engine of growth as well as a model of development for the whole country.

Still, the call for a clean slate has its own political problems. Divisions among South Sudanese ethnic groups played an important part in the decision to move the capital to Ramciel.” Far from being a peace offering, the Ramciel plan is mired in animosity among ethnic groups. According to Naomi Mitigu, another commen-tator in a local newspaper, two groups driven by “deep-rooted ethnic animosity” have conspired against Juba by means of the Ramciel plan.29 The first group, she claims, were “government civil servants and civil society with a deep-rooted ethnic animosity bordering on xenophobia toward non-Bari speaking South Sudanese citizens.” The second group, she continues, were made up of people close to the President, a Dinka from the Greater Bahr el Ghazal region, who eyed “the fringe benefits associated with the status of being in the prox-imity of the capital city so that these benefits will accrue to their respective ethnicities alone.” The Dinka would benefit from moving the nation’s center geographically closer to their ethnic home.

Ramciel’s ethnic complications go further, as there is no guarantee that the problems witnessed in Juba will not recur in the new capital. Already, land ownership has become a contentious issue in the so-called no man’s land. Debates have become more visible among indigenous peoples who claim the lands cordoned for Ramciel, destabilizing the hope that South Sudan will ever find neutral unclaimed land. While some have asserted that the designated site for Ramciel is a “no man’s land,” the government has issued statements that local inhabitants “welcome” the new capital. Even the question of who might legitimately lay claim to the land goes unanswered, with at least two subdivisions of the Dinka, the Aliab and the Ciec, asserting conflicting rights to the site.30 Claiming to represent the Aliab-Dinka threatened by the Ramciel plan, some members of the group’s diaspora community wrote a letter to President Salva Kiir to oppose the Ramciel plan on the grounds that the local people were not consulted. According to the signees, the whole project would have a catastrophic impact on the agro-pastoralists who graze their animals in the bush designated for the new city.31 Others supporting indigenous rights argue that a new capital might be a good idea, but the rights and well-being of local peoples need to be considered and openly discussed.

In more general terms, the Ramciel plan pushes the ethnic tensions currently surfacing in Juba to a new site, possibly with even more ownership questions at hand. The nation’s search for a release from historical tensions might risk only adding new layers to ethnic strife. For a country that can hardly afford new infrastructural development, let alone provide even basic social ser-vices for its people, the poetic promises of a new city might already be laden with too much meaning.



1 In this article “South Sudan” refers to the country created on July 9, 2011, and “Southern Sudan” refers to the region of Sudan that would be come South Sudan prior to July, 9 2011.

2 The British-Egyptian colonial rule of the Sudan lasted from 1899 to 1956.

3 Jaafar Nimeiri was Sudan’s president from 1969 to 1985.

4 Ellen Martin and Irina Mosel, “City Limits: Urbanisation and Vulnerability in Sudan: Juba Case Study,” Overseas Development Institute, January 2011, 3.

5 Mark Otwari Odufa, “Unnecessary Search For South Sudan’s Capital,” Gurtong Trust – Peace and Media Project, September 22, 2011, l.aspx.

6 P. A. Nyaba, The Politics of the Liberation in South Sudan: An Insider’s View, 2nd ed. (Kampala: Fountains Publishers, 2000), 28.

7 Martin and Mosel, “City Limits,” 4.

8 Ibid., 17.

9 Jacob K. Lupai, “Relocation of South Sudanese capital from Juba to Ramciel,” Sudan Tribune, September 21, 2011,,40205.

10 Ibid.

11 Martin and Mosel, “City Limits,” 19.

12 “Lakes State Community Welcome Relocation of Capital to Ramciel,” Sudan Tribune, September 6, 2011, munity-welcome,4 0065.

13 Mark Otwari Odufa, “Cabinet’s vote to move city to Ramciel has roots in Kokora” New Times (Juba, South Sudan), September 26 to October 3, 2011.

14 Gurtong Trust, “What and Where Is Ramciel? The Proposed Capital of the Republic of South Sudan,” September 8, 2011, Gurtong Trust – Peace and Media Project, Other sources suggest that the name means “place where rhinoceroses gather.” Mark Lacey, “Rebels, Many in Teens, Disarm in Sudan’s South,” New York Times, January 27, 2004.

15 U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, “South Sudan,” The World Factbook, accessed February 5, 2012, od.html.

16 Gurtong Trust, “What and Where Is Ramciel?”

17 “Letter of Aliab-Dinka Diaspora to H.E. Gen. Salva Kiir Mayardit,” The Citizen (Juba), November 28, 2011,

18 “Kiir forms ministerial committee for building of South Sudan’s new capital,” Sudan Tribune, September 7, 2011,,40 081.

19 Julius N. Unma, “Chinese firm wins contract for South Sudan new capital,” Sudan Tribune, October 29, 2011,,40562.

20 “Kiir forms ministerial committee.”

21 Oyay Deng Ajak, “Cabinet Memorandum: Proposal for the Development of the New Capital City of Southern Sudan,” February 2011, 20,

22 “Bari Community Declines to offer land for South Sudan Capital,” Catholic Radio Network, March 21, 2011, y-declines-to-offer-land-for-south-sudan-capital-city&catid=2:south-sudan&Itemid=84.

23 Sudanese news sources reported that the Pan-China Construction Group Company had been selected for design and construction of Ramciel. Government officials subsequently denied Pan-China had been awarded the project. Currently there is no credited author on record for Ramciel’s conceptual master plan. See Ater Garang Ariath, “Minister Dismisses Contract Award to Pan-China Construction,” The Citizen (Juba), November 2, 2011,

24 Joseph Oduha, “Building Ramciel will cost $10 billion, housing Minister Kumba says,” The Pioneer (Juba, South Sudan), September 26 to October 2, 2011.

25 “South Sudan announces budget of $2.3 billion for 2011,” Sudan Tribune, November 15, 2010, ,36947.

26 Nhial Bol, “We need services not capital relocation,” The Citizen, September 28, 2011, ocation.

27 Kuyok Abol Kuyok, “The trouble with Juba,” Sudan Tribune, April 12, 2009,,30856.

28 Abraham, “South Sudan.”

29 Naomi Mitigu, “Juba, victim of double conspiracy,” Juba Post, October 26, 2011, 6.

30 Martin Ajhak, “Location of new South Sudan capital is not a ‘no man’s land,’” Sudan Tribune, September 7, 2011,,40063.

31 “Letter of Aliab-Dinka diaspora.” 
Leben Moro is Acting Director of External Relations and Assistant Professor at University of Juba, South Sudan.
Critical Writing

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Juba, South Sudan's current capital as seen from an airplane. The White Nile is in the background. Photograph by Brian Sokol.
Model of the proposed central business district of Ramciel. Photograph by Brian Sokol.
Model of Ramciel, the proposed capital of South Sudan, in the planning offices at the Ministry of Physical Infrastructure in Juba. Photograph by Brian Sokol.
Aerial view of South Sudan's current capital, Juba. One of the city's major thoroughfares is only partially paved. Photograph by Brian Sokol.
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