South Sudan independence heroes ‘have lost their way’
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Instead of celebrating the third anniversary of its independence, South Sudan has sunk into a fratricidal war, observers say, with rival political factions spreading death and misery.
Matthew LeRiche, a political science professor at the Memorial University of Newfoundland, stood alongside friends under a blazing sun in the capital of Juba in July 2011 as South Sudan became the world’s youngest country.
“We were optimistic, even if we were aware of the very real dangers to the new nation,” he recently told FRANCE 24 in reference to the threat of war with Sudan to the north, and of internal political confrontations.
Three years on, many of the South Sudanese friends who celebrated their country’s birth alongside LeRiche are lying dead or wounded, and the academic says he is deeply saddened by the “opportunities lost.”
Indeed, instead of establishing the foundations of an independent and stable nation, South Sudanese have suffered months of deadly civil and ethnic strife.
The conflict between President Salva Kiir against his former vice-president Riek Machar has dragged members of the country’s two largest ethnic groups, the Dinka and the Nuer, into violent confrontations. Kiir is a Dinka, while Machar is a Nuer.
Since the war erupted in December, thousands have died and hundreds of thousands have been displaced. Observers say the threat of epidemic and famine could kill millions more.
The ‘happy idiot’
“There is an African proverb that says that when two elephants fight it’s the grass that gets trampled. In South Sudan, this is what is happening,” Ariane Quentier, the spokeswoman for the UN Mission in the Republic of South Sudan, or UNMISS, told FRANCE 24. "It’s the population that is paying the price.”
Quentier said that when Machar broke ranks with Kiir last year, no one imagined the conflict would take on such huge and destructive proportions.
Marc Lavergne, a member of the French National Centre for Scientific Research and an expert on the Horn of Africa region, thinks otherwise. “This is a catastrophe waiting to happen,” Lavergne said in an interview three years ago at the time of South Sudan’s creation. And time, tragically, has proved him right.
The expert says that while he was never optimistic for South Sudan’s fate, he has lost all hope that Kiir and Machar can steer the country toward peace.
“Riek Machar is the world’s living record-holder in terms of genocide and also in terms of intellectual deficiency,” he raged. “As for Salva Kiir, he is a happy idiot and a complete alcoholic.”
“The leaders are living on conquered territory and hope to profit from the South Sudan’s oil wealth,” he added. “Meanwhile, they have done nothing for the country, no roads, no schools, nothing."
Lost in the wilderness
Lavergne ways that while the countryside is in desperate need of infrastructure, Juba has mushroomed overnight into a hub for international aid organisations.
“Bars have cropped up everywhere as international investors have descended on the city. The streets are a stage for a ballet of 4x4s owned by the United Nations and NGOs,” the French researcher said.
According to professor LeRiche, ordinary citizens feel disillusioned or resigned to their sad fate.
“There are some who question the decision of independence. However, most people believe that it was right, despite the current conflict,” he said, adding that the current crisis has been the lowest point for the country since it signed peace accords with Khartoum in 2005.
Lavergne said leaders and soldiers have lost their way: “For 20 years the South Sudanese fought for independence, but above else, for a unified country. Today each side is fighting, but they are not sure for what.”