South Sudan, world’s newest nation, is instantly one of the most troubled
The countdown clock ran out, the flag ascended over the fledgling capital and a new nation born from Africa’s longest civil war and the deaths of 2 million people joined the world.
The mood in Juba was euphoric Saturday as the Republic of South Sudan formally declared its independence from the north, its bitter antagonist for generations. For the day, at least, a people weary of conflict were willing to ignore that their nation came into being as one the world’s most troubled states.
Dozens of heads of state gathered outside the mausoleum of southern war hero John Garang at a massive ceremony featuring marching soldiers. Thousands of Sudanese crammed into the parade grounds, singing and cheering.
The man sworn in as South Sudan’s first president, Salva Kiir, stood alongside his old nemesis, northern President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of war crimes in the western region of Darfur. Bashir’s presence was a powerful sign that he has acceded to the partition, however grudgingly.
It would not exactly be true to say the country is starting from scratch, because it has been building the rudiments of a functioning government since the 2005 peace deal that made independence possible. But nationhood comes fraught with outsized problems.
The country, roughly the size of France, has profound poverty, the highest incidence of maternal death in the world and one of the lowest rates of elementary school enrollment. More than 90% of the population survives on less than a dollar a day, and nearly one in five people are chronically hungry, according to the United Nations. Only about a third of the population has access to safe drinking water, and only a fourth is literate, the U.N. says.
There are also concerns about the new country’s leaders, most of them former rebel fighters united by a foe that, on peace declarations at least, no longer exists.
And devilish issues remain unresolved. Mostly Christian and animist South Sudan says the Arab Muslim north is fomenting insurgencies in its territory. Both claim the oil-rich Abyei region, and they have not decided how to divide their abundant oil revenue: The south has the oil and the north has the pipelines to carry it to market.
With independence, the question of exactly what each side will demand, and will be prepared to risk, is expected to come into sharper focus.
“In a way, the poker game has just begun,” said R. Barrie Walkley, the U.S. consul general in Juba, South Sudan’s capital. The United States, which helped broker the peace deal, gives South Sudan $300 million a year in development funds and $150 million in food aid, and is financing the building of the country’s first paved highway, which will run from the capital to the border with Uganda at a cost of $225 million.
How responsibly the Juba government will spend donor money “is obviously a big concern,” Walkley said. “If you talk to the man on the street here, there is the perception that there is corruption at the highest levels.”
Although the government has an anticorruption commission, he said, it lacks prosecutorial powers.
U.S. investment here has been discouraged by sanctions against Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, but with independence, South Sudan breaks free of them. USAID will hold a conference this year to give potential American investors a sense of the business landscape.
“There are opportunities here,” and the agricultural potential is enormous, Walkley said. “It should be the breadbasket of this part of Africa.”
Nhial Bol, owner and editor of the Citizen, a 5,000-circulation daily newspaper with the motto “Fighting Corruption and Dictatorship Everyday,” believes the leadership of South Sudan wasn’t prepared for independence when voters overwhelmingly approved it in January. What used to unite the men now running the country was their battle against the north, he said, “but they don’t have one vision for the nation.”
Bol said he has been arrested and detained three times in the last four years — most recently last month — after criticizing officials for corruption and mismanagement.
“People like our leaders have not been challenged in their life,” Bol said. Most were once rebel fighters in the bush, and rank brought absolute authority, he said.
In that environment, “you can just choose to claim somebody’s life, and nobody can challenge you,” Bol said. “Now, if you ask, ‘What did you do with the money?’ he won’t like it.”
Recently, he has published critical articles detailing the funneling of large amounts of money to the army without a proper paper trail. “There is no accounting,” Bol said. “The corruption here is very high because the culture of war has been institutionalized.”
For a sobering vision of South Sudan’s potential future, go to Cathy Groenendijk’s center for at-risk girls in Juba. For four years, she has been taking in slum kids whose parents are dead or unable to care for them. Many of them fall prey to sexual abuse and prostitution.
On a recent day, a group of young girls played a game of Candy Land and sang the words “I am not for sale,” over and over.
“One of the biggest problems for all children is they have a lot of time,” said Groenendijk, who is Ugandan. “They don’t have anything to do and they become so angry.”
For many, she said, their only skill is home-brewing alcohol with sugar and scavenged scraps of bread. Children roam in the Juba Cemetery, a large field where the gravestones are overgrown with shoulder-high brush and which people use as a public toilet.
“This is the only open space for children,” Groenendijk said. Part of what afflicts the new country, she said, is the disintegration of the traditional African family in which orphans were nurtured by the extended family rather than abandoned. A baby whose mother is an alcoholic was recently brought to her for care. In the past, she said, “that would never, never happen.”
As jubilation sweeps the country, she hopes the government will make its young a priority. “Otherwise, they will lose a whole generation of children,” Groenendijk said. “If they don’t do anything about these kids, every single house will have to have razor wire.”
Independence is unlikely to bring great dividends to many in Juba, including the women who work in the sprawl of tin-shack, mud-courtyard brothels lining the road that crosses the White Nile toward Uganda. Not long ago there was a larger brothel complex near the river, but the government destroyed much of it, pushing business down the road and making it only slightly less visible.
Many of the brothels are divided by the nationality of the immigrants who work in them, with Kenyans, Ugandans, Ethiopians and Congolese apparently the most common. On a recent day, some of them seemed puzzled at the mention of independence, so little did it seem to matter.
Eva Gulu, 28, a Ugandan, said she works in the brothel to feed her children. “Of course I don’t tell my mother,” she said. “If she asks, ‘What are you doing in Sudan?’ I say, ‘Mom, I’m working in a bar.’”
Customers have been few, even with the influx of out-of-town visitors, and the birth of the nation seems to make her uncertain existence even more precarious. What if the government bulldozes her place of business?
“We don’t know what’s going to happen,” Gulu said, pointing to the sky and explaining that it was in God’s hands.
In Khartoum, hundreds reacted to the south’s independence by swarming into the streets and chanting, “Allahu akbar” — God is great — in solidarity with Bashir.
Shopkeeper Bahar Abakar described the south’s secession as “very shameful” and said he blamed the West. Other northerners expressed happiness, saying it makes Sudan a Muslim country.
Amina Mohammed, a mother, said she was glad her sons would not have to go to war. “We have waited for this day for a long time,” she said.
In Juba, where people had been celebrating before dawn, the ecstatic mood lasted well into the night.
Emma Alex Jada, 22, one of the many policemen who had guarded the crowds at the independence ceremony, had changed into his civilian clothes and was running through the streets, waving the flag of South Sudan and singing the national anthem in his biggest voice.
“I’m very happy. I’m very, very happy,” he said. “I have a newborn child: my country.”
Special correspondent Alsanosi Ahmed contributed to this report from Khartoum.
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