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Investors Filtering Into Southern Sudan

Following the recent signing of a peace agreement to end more than two decades of war in Sudan, investment is quickly making its way into the southern town of Rumbek, which is seen as a mixed blessing.

Businessman Emanuel Bojo stands in his shop filled with household goods in Rumbek's noisy market, he takes a moment to reflect on what peace means for his five-year-old business.

"There is improvement now. The road maintenance and whatever is getting better, so that one is due to the peace accord. We, the Sudanese, who were outside, they are most of them here in Rumbek," he said.

He says he has more customers now that people who escaped the war are returning to Rumbek, and he thinks that the improved roads brought about by foreign investment will make his business travels more efficient.

The Sudanese government and the south's main rebel group, the Sudan Peoples' Liberation Movement signed a peace accord in January. Since then investors have been filtering into Rumbek, an isolated town that, until a few years ago, contained little more than grass huts.

Lynn Lury is manager of AFEX Rumbek hotel next to the airport. She says, until about a month ago, virtually all of her guests were aid workers delivering relief supplies and services to people suffering from the war.

"A lot of businessmen have started to come in. We have had people from Korea, China, Japan, Kenya, UK, all over. It is like a blank sheet of paper, you can start from the beginning. There is a lot of potential in south Sudan. It is starting from scratch, so if you get it right and everything goes according to plan, people will make a lot of money here," she noted.

Ms. Lury says some of the businesses investors are talking about setting up include a water bottling plant, grocery stores, security firms, telecommunications, and hotels.

Among the crumbling, bombed-out ruins of offices and homes are huge satellite dishes transmitting a wireless telephone and data network, a business owned by foreign and Sudan Peoples' Liberation Movement shareholders.

A Kenyan-registered company, Civicon Ltd., was contracted recently by the World Food Program (WFP) to refurbish and expand Rumbek's runway. Close to the airport is a tent that serves as the offices of Bunson Travel Service and East African Safari Air Express, both headquartered in Kenya.

The Nile Commercial Bank was launched a year ago and is laying the groundwork to offer full banking services. Operations manager Samson Ephraim tells VOA of the bank's 356 shareholders, 348 are Sudanese.

Mr. Ephraim says this is the first time in Rumbek that southerners can access banking institutions to help them develop and become independent.

"You can have access to loans of big magnitude so that you, in turn, can be able to do things which you cannot be able to do by yourself," he explained. "You pay $100 today, and you get about one-thousand or two-thousand tomorrow so that you buy one grinding mill for yourself and family. So, by installing that grinding mill, the proceeds come back to the bank and after one year, the grinding mill becomes yours."

But the war left Rumbek desperately poor. There are food shortages, many families cannot afford school fees, prices are high compared to Uganda and Kenya, and the town lacks electricity and running water.

Fernando Colombo of the Comboni Missionaries says he thinks not enough is being done to ensure investment benefits Rumbek's poor.

"There is money, so there are projects," he said. "It is not bad, but you see, this may not reach the poor people. They [investors] are focused on the project, not on the people. They finish the project, they go. This is a business mentality, but unless you involve the people in the grassroots, it will not last much. For example, the road - you have to think of the maintenance because there is not a fund for the maintenance. After one year, what is happening?"

Many in the Sudan Peoples' Liberation Movement feel investors are jumping the gun by coming to the south before the proper legislative framework and structures are in place.

The former rebel group, the Sudanese government, and others are drafting an interim constitution that gives the south its own administration with certain powers and responsibilities.

Sudan Peoples' Liberation Movement Chairman John Garang says creating an enabling business environment for investment in the south is a big priority.

"There has to be an investment authority, which we have not even put in place," he said. "It is part of that governance infrastructure, and in that investment authority will [be the] necessary rules, regulations, procedures and so forth. There may be a requirement, for example, that a foreign investor needs a southern Sudanese to go into joint-venture business with him or with her."

Mr. Garang added, "For the last 22 years I have been looking for guns and ammunition to fight the war. Now I will be looking for markets to sell the products of my people."