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After independence, what next for South Sudan?

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After independence, what next for South Sudan?

Building a new nation amidst dire poverty and the scars of war
From Africa Renewal: 
UN Photo / Paul Banks
South Sudan's independence day festivities: "We must get to work right away," said President Salva Kiir.Celebrants arriving in Juba for South Sudan's independence day festivities: "We must get to work right away," said President Salva Kiir.
Photograph: UN Photo / Paul Banks

With a roaring cheer the people of South Sudan welcomed the newest nation in the world. A sea of people waved flags in a blur of colour as the south's flag was hoisted high into the air on 9 July, marking the historic moment of formal independence from former civil war enemies in the north. Couples embraced and men cried as the new national anthem was sung for the first time ever.

"Today is the most important day for the people of South Sudan, the proclamation of whose birth and emergence as a member of the community of world nations you have just witnessed," said President Salva Kiir, speaking in front of a giant crowd. "It is a day which will be forever engraved on our hearts and minds.… We have waited 56 years for this day. It is a dream that has come true."

But the party is over, and now the hard work begins. "Let us celebrate today, but we must get to work right away," President Kiir added. Achieving that dream will be no easy task. The new nation, an area about the size of Spain and Portugal combined, is left in ruins by decades of war.

"We have suffered so much over many long years of fighting," said former child soldier turned student Mabior David. "Our baby nation has a long way to go," he added. "But if we can be left in peace, I'm hopeful we will manage."


Sudan's wars were the longest running conflict in Africa: two rounds of civil war spanning nearly 40 years, fought over ideology, religion, ethnicity, resources, land and oil. The last round, from 1983 to 2005, left some 2 million people dead and 4 million displaced from their homes.

Some in the south fought for separation. Others wanted Sudan to remain united, aiming to change a ruling regime in Khartoum that they said marginalized the majority. But the rebels also fought amongst themselves, in bitter internecine battles as bloody and as bitter as those fought against government forces.

A referendum on independence was set as part of a 2005 peace deal. When it came this January, almost 99 per cent of southerners who voted in the poll chose to split Africa's largest country into two.

Southerners hope that the wars are now over. But formal independence will not solve overnight the massive problems left by such a long war.

"There are enormous expectations, but also enormous challenges ahead," said Joe Feeney, who heads the UN Development Programme in South Sudan. "The people of South Sudan have suffered enormously. [The war] left a scar that is not only physical, in the infrastructure, but a scar has been left on the people."

Six nations share a border with South Sudan, which has fewer than 100 kilometres of tarmac roads. "The vast majority of the country remains inaccessible during the rainy season," added Mr. Feeney. "Jonglei state, just one of the 10 states in the south, is twice the size of my country, Ireland, and it has no paved roads."

Statistics are shocking. South Sudan has lucrative oil reserves, but remains one of the most impoverished and least developed countries in the world. The UN's World Food Programme said it helped feed about half the population last year, or some 4 million people.

The UN issues a list of "scary statistics" for visiting journalists: South Sudan has the lowest routine immunization coverage rate in the world. A 15-year-old girl has a higher chance of dying in childbirth than completing school. One out of seven women who become pregnant in the south will probably die from pregnancy-related causes.

Away from the celebrations in the capital, Juba, people had little time to party for independence. Much of their lives are taken up with day-to-day survival. "The acid test of success will be what changes the people out in the states will see in their lives as a result of independence," Mr. Feeney said.

"All of Sudan, not just the south, will face major challenges," warns Oxfam, the UK-based aid agency. "It will need long-term support from the international community if there is to be lasting peace and development."

In Africa's newest — and one of its poorest — nations, one out of seven women dies from pregnancy-related causes.In Africa's newest — and one of its poorest — nations, one out of seven women dies from pregnancy-related causes.
UN Photo / Fred Noy

Trappings of a state

Football and basketball teams have been made, passports ordered, a national anthem written and sung. "Having our own team play under the South Sudanese flag is something we have waited for," says Rudolf Andrea, secretary of the South Sudan Football Association. "It is something I never thought would be possible, to show the world we are truly a new nation."

But creating a viable nation will take more work than the symbolic trappings of state alone. The introduction of a new separate currency for the south is just one step, with other major hurdles ahead for the fledgling economy.

Key to the success of the south will be how the government negotiates with those who still threaten the new country, from outside and within. Ethnic rivalries between multiple groups are exasperated by bitter enmities dating from the war. In the past, the north exploited rivalries by backing splinter militias distrustful of the mainstream southern leadership.

Most of the south pulled together during the war in opposition to forces from the north. But now that separation has taken place, the south must unite and find new bonds and create a nation based on a shared identity.

"Is this nation going to be an inclusive nation?" asked Jok Madut Jok, a South Sudanese academic working in the culture ministry, who is also a history professor at Loyola Marymount University in the US state of California. "Or is it going to exercise the double standard that other countries have gone in for — that you become independent and then go ahead and do the exact things that you had rebelled against?"

Ensuring economic growth

Over 2 million southerners have returned home since the 2005 peace agreement was signed. But a new wave of tens of thousands of families are now travelling from the north to south. Over 300,000 people have returned home since last October, with many more expected still to come.

"We have returned home because we had to leave the north, because our jobs were terminated," said former civil service official Giir Thiik, who spent four weeks on a slow barge to Juba. "There is nothing here for me to do, and my money is little. I'm glad to be back in the south, but truthfully, it is a shock."

Building an economy to construct the new nation and provide jobs will put huge pressure on the government. Up to now, many services have been provided by aid agencies and international partners.

The government budget is based almost entirely on oil revenues, as much as 98 per cent in recent years. But there is also other economic potential. The south is believed to hold large mineral and metal deposits. It has vast areas of potential farmland, forestry and even hydroelectric power from the White Nile River.

But change must reach the people on the streets and in the villages. "We just want to be able to work and make a life for ourselves," says Mary Okech, a widow with six children, who collects rubbish. "The problems are that there are not good jobs for us, and I don't have the money to make a business on my own. I need help for that."

UN peacekeepers in the disputed territory of AbyeiUN peacekeepers in the disputed territory of Abyei after it was looted by forces supporting the Sudanese government in Khartoum.
Photograph: UN Photo / Stuart Price


Stabilizing peace also remains a real concern. The final steps towards Sudan's divorce have been far from easy. Key deals remain to be struck on a variety of issues: sharing the oil proceeds, dividing the US$35 billion debt and demarcating the borders. Both countries have introduced new currencies, a process that is likely to add complications to their struggling and poorly managed economies.

Despite a peaceful referendum for the south, tensions remain high with the north, after months of violence in the border areas. In May, northern troops took over the contested Abyei region, forcing over 110,000 people to flee into the south. Both north and south claim the flashpoint region of grasslands and farms about the size of Lebanon as theirs. A referendum to determine where it will belong has been blocked, and remains a source of tension between the two sides.

A deal has been struck for northern troops to pull out and Ethiopian peacekeepers to replace them. But that deal still does not provide any means for a long-term peaceful solution.

Then in June violence broke out in the northern oil state of Southern Kordofan, between the northern military and former members of the ex-rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army, now the official southern army. The north claims the fighters there are backed by the south, just as the south accuses the north of backing rebels in its territory to destabilize key oil areas along the still undefined north-south border.

Each side rejects the other's accusations. But analysts say they fear there will be no swift solution to the conflict along the border.

Countdown to South Sudan's independence

  • 1820 Egyptian army under Ottoman Turks invade Sudan, the south's official start date of the "191-year struggle."
  • 1955 Torit Mutiny against British colonial rule, followed by an intermittent bush war.
  • 1 January 1956 Independence of Sudan.
  • 1963 Southern separatist Anyanya rebels step up attacks.
  • 1972 Peace agreement signed between Khartoum and Anyanya rebels, giving the south limited autonomy; but the agreement swiftly crumbles.
  • 1983 Southern army officers rebel in Bor, forming the Sudan People's Liberation Army and sparking the start of the second civil war.
  • 9 January 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement signed to end 21 years of war.
  • 9 January 2011 Week-long South Sudan independence referendum held.
  • 7 February 2011 Final results released: almost 99 per cent vote for separation.
  • 9 July 2011 Independence of South Sudan proclaimed.
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