After a long fought struggle, South Sudan became the world’s youngest nation early Saturday. The capital of Juba erupted in celebration with people dancing on the streets. But there are many challenges ahead in the impoverished new nation.
South Sudan became the world's newest nation early Saturday, officially breaking away from Sudan after voting for independence in a referendum under a 2005 peace deal that ended a long and bloody civil war.
In the capital of Juba, jubilant residents took to the streets shortly after midnight local time, banging on jerry cans, dancing, and chanting the name of their new president, Salva Kiir.
Hours earlier, the government of Sudan, based in Khartoum, became the first government to formally recognise the Republic of South Sudan.
Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon are among the international dignitaries attending the celebrations in the capital, Juba.
Independence celebrations Saturday include military parades and colourful street revelry before dozens of visiting world leaders. But when the parties end, South Sudan will face sobering realities.
Despite the 2005 peace agreement between the north and the south, a resurgence of violence near the still contested border between north and south Sudan in June, and the occupation of the oil-rich Abyei region by northern forces, are painful reminders that independence is no guarantee of lasting peace.
The 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) ended more than two decades of civil war between the government of Khartoum in the north and rebels in the south; a war that left an estimated two million people dead. The CPA also paved the way for a referendum on secession, a move that was overwhelmingly approved by southerners in January.
Now, providing better standards of living for citizens is as important a concern for southern leaders as settling disputes with the north.
“Our biggest challenge is managing the expectations of the population,” said Emmanuel LoWilla, a former Sudanese ambassador to France, who now works as a national expert in the office of South Sudan President Salvaa Kiir.
“Some of our priorities are building up health and education infrastructure, and providing food security. We want people to live free of fear,” Lowilla said, while expressing concern about the wide gap between imagined “expectations” and “the reality on the ground”.
According to John Ashworth, a Sudan expert who has worked with the southern church leaders for 28 years, people have yearned for independence for so long that they have come to think of it as the solution to all their problems.
“People don’t realize this is a process,” Ashworth said, adding that besides fulfilling developmental goals, such as education, health and road infrastructure, South Sudan would also experience growing pains as it adopts democratic institutions.
According to Ashworth, improving government transparency will be an issue. The former rebel fighters, including President Kiir, now fill the top posts of the nascent civilian government.
Oil and development
In the week leading up to Independence Day, the government produced radio spots to encourage citizens living in rural areas to join celebrations in nearby towns. Sabri James, 24, who manages a music studio in Juba where the public announcements were recorded, said residents were already drinking and dancing.
Since the 2005 peace agreement, the Government of South Sudan (GoSS) has ruled with limited autonomy and has received a share of revenues from the country’s oil sales to help rebuild its war-devastated region. Progress has been tangible for southerners, in the form of mobile phone networks or the opening of small shops, for example.
They are eager for more and faster development and expect their government to be at the helm of change.
However, despite the festive mood, according to Sabri James, people are angry about high and unpredictable prices of basic food items like rice, meat, beans and maize flower. Petrol, an essential for powering Juba’s ever-present generators, is also horded to inflate its price on the market, he suspects.
Sabri James wants the government to curb food costs, and thinks fixing the price of some commodities and limiting foreign ownership of retail shops would help level prices. “If the government can’t regulate the prices life is going to be very difficult for citizens,” James argued.
The vast majority of Sudan’s known oil reserves are in the south, and the GoSS is counting on them to pay for development projects and diversify the south's economy.
Southern officials say they are not getting 50% of revenues from the north’s oil sales, as the CPA stipulates, but seem confident independence will change that. LoWilla, the presidential advisor, said it was clear that the south would stop pumping its oil north if Khartoum did not respect their revenue-sharing deal.
Back to school
The GoSS has already put in motion a development plan meant to chart the young nation’s course until 2015, and has enlisted the help of the United Nations and other international organizations to help it get there. Education goals are high on the list of priorities, but the challenge is huge.
According to an assessment by the International Institute for Education Planning (IIEP), an organization within UNESCO, over 300,000 southerners who were displaced during the war returned to the region between last October and June of this year. The high number of returnees has placed a burden on existing schools.
The high demand is compounded by the limited capacity of the new education ministry to supply services. According to the IEPP, a meager 13% of teachers are qualified and 40% of the teaching force has only completed primary school education.
Despite the obstacles to fulfill basic schooling for a majority of the population, the GoSS wants to establish eight universities, one for each province of South Sudan, in the next four years. “We advised [the ministry] not to do so,” said IEPP’s director Khalil Mahshi. “I feel quality might be sacrificed and frustration will mount if the government can’t live up to expectations.”
Planning experts like Mahshi are urging southern leaders to build up the capacity and confidence needed to establish realistic development targets. They worry that southerners will try to bite off too much too quickly. But independence - once a distant dream - is finally being embraced in South Sudan.
So as southerners wave their new nation's flag, they are holding the proof of why they should keep high hopes for the future.
Date created : 2011-07-08