On the day after independence in South Sudan, the modest clock tower in downtown Juba read “Free at Last,” and the dirt roadsides were littered with countless paper flags bearing the colors of the new republic. Most of the dignitaries in town for Saturday’s big ceremony had flown home, and streets that had been jammed for days — bristling with checkpoints and the machine guns of security forces — were easier to navigate.
But the city was far from quiet Sunday, the second official day of South Sudan’s sovereign existence, as celebrations continued. The national soccer team played Kenya, and families slaughtered goats they had saved for big occasions and invited neighbors to eat.
Jubilation is everywhere, but in Christian churches, liberation from the mostly Muslim Arab north — made possible by a 2005 peace deal — carried a special resonance. At the Episcopal Church of the Sudan, people danced and chanted, “Salva! Salva! Salva!” — invoking Salva Kiir, the country’s first president — and thanked God. At the midday service, the biblical reading was about the Lord delivering his people from bondage to the Promised Land.
“Today is really a different Sunday,” said the Rev. Benjamin Lokio Lemi. “God has brought us back home now.”
He said the regime in Khartoum, the northern capital, had long neglected the Christian south, where children outside the city could still be seen taking classes under the trees because they had no schoolhouses.
In 1993, Lemi said, northern soldiers captured him and gave him the choice between death and conversion to Islam. Pressure from church officials won his release after a month and a half. During the generations-long civil wars between north and south, “almost everybody in the south lost a relative,” Lemi added. But now, “we are telling people to forgive.”
Paul Bonju, a former member of parliament who represented the south in Khartoum, said that when northern President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir ruled both parts of the country, it was common for southerners aspiring to government jobs to drop their Christian names and assume Muslim ones because advancement was otherwise sharply curtailed. “There was marginalization,” Bonju said, “and there was persecution.”
Nearby, as he spoke, scores of South Sudanese were celebrating with traditional tribal dances on a dirt field. A bull had been slaughtered, and men were staking its stretched-out skin to the ground so it could be dried and fashioned into a drum-top in time for celebrations on Monday, a national holiday.
South Sudan, which voted overwhelmingly in January to secede from the north, is one of the world’s most troubled places, with widespread illiteracy, chronic hunger, meager infrastructure, numerous internal rebellions and a host of unresolved disputes with the regime in Khartoum.
The capital saw a frenzy of road-building and construction in the run-up to Saturday’s celebrations, but hotels and restaurants don’t take credit cards, and the streets lack lights. At night, the headlights of cars and motorbikes swim through the saturating smoke of surrounding trash fires.
Taban lo Liyong, a South Sudanese writer and literature professor at the University of Juba, said that with independence it was no longer possible to blame the north for the south’s woes. “From today on, the blame game is off,” he said. “Nobody can use the Arabs as a boogeyman.”
Liyong would like to see Kiir live up to his public pronouncements about crushing corruption, which many consider pervasive.
“The first problem he’s going to face is his tribesmen,” Liyong said of the new president, whose large Dinka ethnic group dominates the government. “A lot of people are excluded from power. Meritocracy has not taken place.”
Liyong stood in the VIP section at the independence ceremony Saturday and watched those wounded in war, some of them missing limbs, go by along with the widows and orphans. He said he wanted to weep but was overcome by anger at the politicians around him, wondering whether they were there to build a working nation or to make themselves rich.
Like many in South Sudan, Liyong credited the United States, and President George W. Bush in particular, with pushing north and south toward the 2005 peace agreement that ended generations of civil war and paved the way for partition. But his concerns now have turned to future aid.
“It was George Bush and the Christian fundamentalists who heard the cry of South Sudan,” he said. “Today is Barack Obama’s day. We don’t know what he is going to do.”