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Alcohol a Growing Problem in South Sudan

One year ago, a peace deal between Sudan's northern Islamist government and southern rebels turned Juba city into the capital of a new autonomous southern Sudan. Locals say the biggest changes are social freedom and increased trade. Freedom and trade have also brought cheap beer that has flooded the city's markets, and led to an increase in social problems.

It is barely noon, but the music is blaring in a small tin-roofed shack in Juba's Custom Market. There is no electricity in Juba city this day and even government offices are darkened; but there is power here. The shop owners have a generator.

They need electricity to keep their stocks of beer cold, and the beer business is steady. Cheap Ugandan brew is sold to everyone, even to young boys and men who are clearly inebriated.

With the opening of a trade road between Juba and Yei in the south, Ugandan beer flooded into the city. Before, suppliers say, the price of beer could be as high as $6 per bottle. Now it is about $1.

This is freedom say southerners, who lived under Islamic law called Sharia imposed by the northern government in 1983. Sharia forbade the consumption of alcohol. But with the signing of a peace deal in January between southern rebels and the northern government, a tacit agreement was made not to prosecute those who drink.

Juba is more fun now, say residents, but drunkenness has led to a variety of social problems. On any given afternoon drunk men and boys stumble down streets. Some of them are aggressive; many of them are looking for a fight.

Juba County Commissioner Peter Jerkis says his citizenry is largely traumatized by years of war. He says alcohol and trauma are a dangerous mix. "This war made many people traumatized, mentally sick," said Mr. Jerkis. "And so they do not behave the way expected. We need to come out with counseling programs so they know that war is over. We are in peace, what they are doing is not good."

Now, southern Sudanese have to determine how to clamp down on drunkenness without stopping the fun.

One thing is certain, says Mr. Jerkis, Southern Sudanese are not about to give up their hard-won freedom. "We are on our way to correct the situation," he added. "But we are not going to prevent the coming of alcohol to Juba town. We are not applying Sharia law here. But they need to be regulated. We do not want that kind of consumption. At least we have to say there are times to take alcohol, in the evening after work. And then also we will have to regulate it to the extent that children will not take (it)."

But for kids here, alcohol is an escape from bad memories and boredom.

Pitia Wani, Director of Education for Equatoria State, says alcohol is affecting his schools. "Most of our disciplinary problems in secondary schools have been students getting drunk," he said. "Most of our secondary schools are surrounded by displaced people, and these internally displaced live on selling alcohol. Most of our students during breakfast time run for a quick glass or two glasses of beer, and most of the time they come drunk to classes."

Mr. Wani says a law needs to be passed forbidding children under the age of 18 from drinking.

Most residents are well aware that there is a problem with alcohol in Juba. Local government officials say they are trying to start counseling programs and the city's priests now talk of the dangers of alcohol in their sermons.

On a Sunday after church, men and women flock to a wholesale beer supplier in Juba to buy crates of beer for $20. The store is being run by two young men who are barely in their 20s. Mogga James says he will do great business, but he says he does not drink. Asked why not he laughs, and says he is young. He has his future to think about.

That attitude is not shared by all in Juba. Many residents are still used to living one day at a time, as they did during the long civil war.