The arrival and departure areas at Juba International airport are large tents through which hot air blows all day long. The degree of chaos differs depending on the number of planes arriving or taking off at a point. With many parts of the country under rebel control, road journeys are less and less possible, so scores of operators offer light planes to ferry people. The tents are full of people…arriving, waiting, lugging food, kids and elders often sitting on baggage (there are only a few bent and buckled seats). The scene hasn’t changed much from the time I first travelled to South Sudan a month after it became the world’s newest nation.
In July 2011, South Sudan was in a state of euphoria. After decades of conflict with the north, it was finally free. And it sat on oil reserves that accounted for 85 per cent of undivided Sudan’s production. With other mineral resources (iron ore, copper) and the potential of vast areas that could be irrigated by the Nile and its many tributaries, there was cause for optimism. The government wanted to offer a peace dividend in the form of a cash transfer to each family with children below age five. I was part of a team invited to help with designing a system to do this. We made our plans. We consulted Kenyan banks that had designed and operated the world’s first mobile money transfer system, the M-Pesa. We drew up the outline of a civil registration system that could function from the grassroots. But all the plans went up in smoke. Conflict took only a few months coming. Sudanese forces occupied oil fields in the South, and war broke out.