In-depth: Living with the LRA: The Juba Peace Initiative
UGANDA: Boom time in Gulu
A man sits on top of a Sudan bound truck in Gulu
GULU, 16 October 2007 (IRIN) - Two years ago Gulu was a war town. Every morning the people would wake up to the sound of hundreds of children making their way back home after a night seeking refuge from the Lord’s Resistance Army in the town’s shelters. In the evening, buses would race up from Kampala to make the city limits before nightfall.
But Gulu is changing fast. With peace talks progressing in Juba, capital of Southern Sudan, its air of desolation is fast being replaced by a hustle and bustle as energetic as that of any Ugandan market town. Developers are competing to get their buildings up, with a string of new constructions set to break the three-storey mark - skyscraper territory in downtown Gulu.
Its band of motley but charming bicycle taxis has been replaced by motorcycle boda-bodas. The streets are full of traffic and the first jam can be only months away.
The streets near the bus park provide an inkling of what is fuelling the boom. Tall Sudanese sit sipping their sodas next to their trucks. Around the corner, traders scramble aboard an impossibly loaded truck as their driver finally bounds out of the customs post.
Hundreds of trucks are braving the pot-holed road north, taking their wares to Southern Sudan, a country enjoying the sort of rejuvenation only possible when an oil boom combines with peace after civil war.
Market prices have shot up as traders destined for the border buy up produce. Just as northern Ugandans are once again starting to sow their seeds, farmers’ harvests are suddenly worth a lot more. Market power
While government and agencies bicker about livelihood projects and empowering returnees, it is likely that the biggest project of all has nothing to do with aid or charity – it is Southern Sudan, which savvy returnees are already realising can do more than any number of workshops.
|The first money I made was US$400 in 16 hours. I was so excited...In the camp you are lucky to get 5,000 Uganda shillings [$3] |
Simon Peter Akena decided to try his luck and hitched a ride with a truck up from his home in Pabbo, northern Uganda’s biggest displacement camp, to Juba. He started finding casual building work and is now running government contracts. "The first money I made was US$400 in 16 hours. I was so excited," he remembers, having returned to Pabbo for a break with his family. "In the camp you are lucky to get 5,000 Ugandan shillings [$3].
"Now I have contracts pending for $60,000 - you can really make yourself in South Sudan."
Akena hit the jackpot but for any number of entrepreneurial young Ugandans the returns are worth the trip north. Susan Abio has also just returned from Nimule, the closest town to the border, where she sells maize, sorghum and cassava. "The money is a lot more than you can ever earn here, so many of my friends are going," the 25-year-old says. "I can earn $100 a day - so I’ll definitely be going back."
But riches come at a price and Ugandans returning from Sudan are full of stories of the difficulties they have suffered in a land where the gun is king.
Rashid Olanga, 32, spent several months trading and driving in South Sudan but says the brutality of life north of the border made him happy to get back to Kitgum. "If anyone has a problem he just goes and gets his gun," he says, shaking his head. "A friend of mine was shot by an SPLA soldier because he said he had no money when the guy asked for a beer. He came back with his AK-47. What they admire, they take." Sudanese moving in
Sudanese are also coming in increasing numbers to buy goods in Uganda.
Denis Ogwal is riding the wave at his Aganadiro "Beauty Shop" in Kitgum. It is more of a wholesaler, stacked high with everything from cooking oil to cassava flour, although Ogwal insists the Sudanese are starting to develop a taste for his body lotion.
"Half of our business is now with the Sudanese," he says watching the hustle and bustle of Kitgum town from his shop. "We’ve tripled earnings on last year. In a day we can bank 10 million shillings [$5,700] - sometimes more than 20m a day. And that’s down to the Sudanese.
Photo: Euan Denholm/IRIN
|Owiny Lakaragic has returned to his land at Omungubi from Acet camp in eastern Gulu District|
"These people don’t bargain, they just open their wallets. Ten come in at a time so if one bargains, another will jump in and pay. If you cheat them, they don’t mind. They have increased the prices themselves because they want to leave so fast."
There are uglier aspects to the new money pouring in. "They are buying a lot of women here. One woman here in Kitgum just stole 25m shillings [$14,250] from a Sudanese guy she met at a bar - it caused a real scandal - and now the girls are targeting them."
The cross-border demand has also driven up prices. Sam Nambasi stands over piles of beans and fruit on his stall in Kitgum market and says his customers complain all the time about prices."They can go up every 24 hours - but this is the market price - I sympathise with them, but what can you do?"
He says red beans have gone up by 50 percent on the year and sugar by almost the same, from 1,400 shillings/kg (80 cents) to 2,000 ($1.15). A bunch of bananas, which used to cost 100 shillings, now goes for 2,000 shillings a bunch.
Back in Pabbo, Akena labels it "the South Sudan effect", and says the price rises can be positive for the north. "It’s good for our lives here – it means we can make more money from small produce. Before a bag of rice would be 80,000 shillings [$46] but now you can get more and that buys you a new bicycle."
Price hikes may be an opportunity for those able make a surplus but can also make life harder for the vulnerable – often widows and landless orphans – unable to grow enough food. Trade potential
Noah Opwonya, chairman of the Gulu branch of the Ugandan Chamber of Commerce, estimates "at least 100 trucks cross the border every day". He says he can see a time when Acholiland once again becomes the "bread basket of Uganda. Upland rice was one of our major crops and with people now going back to the villages I think we can soon be selling it back to the World Food Programme and why not the Middle East and Europe – it’s organic after all!"
Photo: Sven Torfinn/IRIN
|Young children sleeping on the ground at Gulu bus park at the peak of the conflict|
In Gulu, Charles Openy, 32, is trading in crops from local farmers and says his business has gone up by 50 percent since people started going back to the land. "Two years ago there might have been two or three trucks a week - now it’s 10 or 20," he says, overseeing a dozen or so men loading up a truck. "Some go to Kampala, some to Juba, Nimule or Torit. About a third of my business is now with Sudan.
"This is changing our lives. I used to ride a bicycle into the village and now I drive a small truck. There are many more like me. We are free. Now I can pay for all my children to go to school and I’m extending my house. Once peace comes this will get even bigger."
Construction is one of Gulu’s boom areas, with Openy’s neighbour, building merchant Cosmas Oola, reporting he has run out of cement. "We’d sell about 50 bags of cement a day before and now that’s doubled. The factory just can’t give us enough cement to keep them happy.
"Now we can’t meet the demand. There is a boom in hotels and people want bigger houses.
"When they start to make more cement it will go through the roof."
Oola says a year ago he had no business with Sudan but now it makes up 20 percent. "The South Sudanese are starting from nothing. No hospitals, no schools, no shops, no administration blocks. And everything that is being built is coming up from Uganda and Kenya.
"The economy is really changing. When people have money in their pockets they are buying cars, motorbikes; look outside - next year we will even start to get traffic jams!"
|Don't try to change the way people live during their return process. Just let them go home |
Several banks have opened in Gulu, hoping to take advantage of what they see as a big growth market. A huge billboard on the Kampala road announces Barclays’ arrival, which is closely tied to the South Sudan factor, says branch manager Henry Otto. He says he wants traders to bank their money near the deal rather than in Kampala.
Otto also says there is a lot of money coming into the local economy from NGO workers who base their families in northern Uganda while working in Southern Sudan. "There are a lot of people - mainly Ugandan nationals - who have their families here and work in South Sudan. They have good salaries and need to bank." Downsides
But some of the north’s economic boom is beginning to attract controversy, with mounting unease over plans to attract investment into areas that have yet to experience returns from displacement camps. Arguments have broken out in Amuru district, home to some of the north’s most fertile land, over proposals to establish a sugar factory and plantation.
The national government and Kakira Sugar argue that large projects are needed to spur development and start closing the gap with the rest of the country. But others caution that hasty land allocations now could lay the seeds for future strife when people return home and discover their land has been annexed.
Craig Hollingsworth of the Norwegian Refugee Council
cautions that any development plans need to be "conflict sensitive. Don’t try to change the way people live during this return process. Just let them go home," he says, voicing concerns that politicians may be tempted to use the return home as an opportunity to reorganise Acholi society away from traditional subsistence patterns. "If you try to change the manner in which people live you are going to cause trouble."
Opwonya agrees that the government needs to be circumspect with land issues and says he fears some local leaders will take bribes for pushing through investors’ plans. But he also says that living in camps has changed the Acholis’ attitude to business and money.
Photo: Manoocher Deghati/IRIN
|With calm returning to parts of northern Uganda, children have returned to school|
Once a man’s wealth was measured by the size of his herd of cattle but cattle raids and general insecurity stripped Acholiland of its cattle and led to a change in attitudes, he says. "People are now looking to permanent assets," he says. "I am a civil engineer but I didn’t look to building. And then my 800 cows were all looted. Instability meant I had to find new, more secure ways to invest.
"With cows I can employ my uncle and his family but with the same money invested in something concrete I can employ many more people."
Magnificent horned cattle are once again becoming a familiar sight in Acholiland but Opwonya says he expects the Acholi to diversify from subsistence farming increasingly to trade, providing more work for a booming population. "The conflict has changed the way people invest and measure wealth - in this case war opened our eyes."