South Sudan, the world’s youngest country and one of its poorest, marks a decade of independence on Friday but there is little to celebrate in a country crippled by civil war, chronic instability and desperate hunger.
At midnight on July 9, 2011, raucous celebrations erupted as thousands gathered in Juba, the new national capital, to celebrate the birth of a nation. After a decades-long struggle for statehood that had cost millions of lives, South Sudan finally declared its independence from Sudan.
But the promise of a new dawn was short-lived.
Just two years later South Sudan was at war, the task of nation-building forgotten as its liberators tore the country apart, dashing the great expectations of a peaceful and prosperous future.
President Salva Kiir sacked his cabinet and accused his deputy, Riek Machar, of planning a failed coup. South Sudan began another descent into a brutal civil war. Nearly 400,000 people would die and another four million – a third of the population – were displaced before a ceasefire was declared in 2018.
But the country has struggled to heal and is more fragile than ever, confronting looming starvation, political insecurity, economic ruin and natural calamities.
“The first 10 years of this young country’s history have seen much suffering,” said a joint statement from Britain, Norway and the United States.
“We commend the commitment many have shown in working together to build a brighter future, so it is deeply saddening that the promise of peace and prosperity that independence represented remains unfulfilled.”
Kiir is set to address the nation but there are no government events to commemorate the tortured decade that has passed.
The anniversary has been marked only a few times since the great expectations of independence, with the last formal celebrations in 2014.
Friday’s 10-year milestone will be equally as muted, with a fun run in the capital Juba likely to be the only nod to the day.
The government has instructed the public to celebrate in their homes, citing the risk of the coronavirus pandemic.
But Kiir said the cash-strapped state was is no position to celebrate, blaming international sanctions for keeping South Sudan poor and prosperity out of reach.
“People are hungry. Whatever resources that we have can be mobilised for the celebration (but) that would disappoint our people,” he told Kenyan broadcaster Citizen TV on Wednesday.
South Sudan enjoyed immense international goodwill and billions of dollars in financial support when its people voted overwhelmingly in a 2011 referendum to secede from the north.
But its leaders failed to stem corruption, and the new South Sudan was looted rather than rebuilt, as huge sums from its vast oil fields were siphoned off and squandered.
The political leaders who led South Sudan to independence – and then back to war – are still in power today, ruling in a tenuous coalition forged under a peace deal.
The power-sharing arrangement between Kiir, a former military commander from the Dinka ethnic group, and Machar, a rebel leader from the Nuer people, has kept fighting between their forces largely at bay since the ceasefire in 2018.
But the old foes have violated past truces and progress on this latest accord has drifted, exacerbating distrust between the pair and raising fears of a return to fighting.
The “unity” government they belatedly formed in February 2020 under great international pressure is weak, while other crucial measures designed to avert another war have not been fulfilled.
Elections postponed, promises unfulfilled
Though the peace accords paused the worst of the bloodshed between conventional armies, armed conflict between rival ethnic groups has surged in ungoverned areas, exacting a civilian death toll not seen since the war.
Under the latest ceasefire deal, Kiir and Machar pledged to reach key nation-building milestones, including the creation of a new parliament and a unified national army.
But analysts say little progress has been made: the assembly was only convened last May, and attempts to unite troops from rival ethnic camps have stalled.
Elections, planned for next year, have been pushed to 2023.
“If the elections essentially become a showdown between the two main warring parties and it becomes clear that one side’s going to win and one side’s going to lose, that would be a recipe on its own, potentially they may go back to civil war,” warned Alan Boswell from the International Crisis Group.
‘Never too late’
The political inertia and broken promises also come as South Sudan reels from economic chaos, with soaring inflation and a currency crisis, and faces its worst hunger crisis since independence.
Conflict, drought, floods and a record locust plague have combined to ruin harvests and leave 60 percent of South Sudan’s 12 million people facing severe levels of food shortages.
Of those, 108,000 are on the very edge of famine, the World Food Programme (WFP) says.”Despite some lost opportunities, it is never too late to invigorate the peace process so that humanitarian assistance is more effective, and conditions are created where development activities can have broader and greater impact,” said Matthew Hollingworth, country director for WFP.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)