South Sudan's moment has arrived

Though today Juba will ring with the sounds of church bells, ululating and singing; domestic and foreign elements threaten to silence the celebration in the months to come.
A schoolgirl waves a South Sudanese flag as students practise their routine for independence celebrations in Juba.
A schoolgirl waves a South Sudanese flag as students practise their routine for independence celebrations in Juba.

Juba // Outside South Sudan's legislature building yesterday, Peter Nhial joined with fellow army veterans to sing songs celebrating the formation of the world's newest country.

As he sang, his dark green trouser leg hung empty where his leg once was - a reminder of the decades of sacrifice suffered by the people who this morning woke up in a state finally separated from the north.

"We are singing the song of our struggle," said Mr Nhial, 39, whose leg was amputated after he was shot in 1991 during South Sudan's war of independence. "It says that we have fought and poured our blood for the country. We are so happy because today is the day we have what we are fighting for."

Other survivors of the two-decade conflict that left more than 2.5 million people dead, banged their crutches together in time with the beat and waved their arms in the air. Celebrations in Juba, the capital of one of the world's poorest and least-developed nations, were in full swing. They held a sign that read "Finally Happy Independence Day" and waved the flag of the new South Sudan.

Ninety-eight per cent of southerners voted for separation from the north in the January referendum that was the culmination of the peace agreement that ended the conflict in 2005.

The new country will be the 193rd member of the United Nations. Late last week, South Sudan's legislative assembly passed a transitional constitution, clearing "the last hurdle for the birth of our new nation", said the information minister, Barnaba Marial.

More than 100 war veterans, widows and orphans, will march in independence celebrations today in Juba. The usually rubbish-strewn streets have been swept clean and central reservations have beenplanted with flowers in preparation for the visitors who arrived for the events. More than 2,000 dignitaries are expected for the festivities, including the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, the US ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, and 30 African heads of state.

The civil war, which began in 1983, was fought between the largely Christian and animist south and the majority Muslim north for the right to self-determination. Today, the day southerners have longed for, has arrived.

In a church car park in Juba last week, a group of 120 women in red shirts practised marching for today's parade.

"From 1993 up until now we were praying to God to give us our independence. We prayed Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday from morning to night, from 7am to 6pm," said Tabitha Athieng, 42. She will march along with 120 other women from the Episcopal Church of Sudan who met during the war to pray for separation.

"This is a time of thanksgiving," Ms Athieng said.

Though today Juba will ring with the sounds of church bells, ululating and singing; domestic and foreign elements threaten to silence the celebration in the months to come.

On May 19, southern soldiers attacked northern troops in Abeyi, a disputed border region rich with oil, triggering an invasion by the Sudanese Armed Forces. Then in early June, at least 70,000 people were displaced and an unknown number killed when the Sudanese army tried to disarm Southern-allied militias in the northern state of South Kordofan.

The north and south agreed to a demilitarised zone and an Ethiopian peace-keeping force for Abeyi. But last Thursday, Sudanese President Omar Al Bashir repudiated the agreement the two parties had signed to work towards peace in South Kordofan.

Questions about the demarcation of the border and the sharing of oil revenues remain undecided and there is fear in some quarters that the clashes along the border are a prelude to a more wide-ranging conflict.

Even if the south can avoid war with the north, there are still numerous internal challenges to overcome. This year has been Sudan's most violent since the end of the civil war. Already this year, 2,300 people have been killed, according to the UN.

Many of those deaths were the result of violence within the south rather than between the north and south. Since the referendum in January, militia have rebelled in Jonglei and Unity states, resulting in hundreds of deaths and the displacement of many others.

Rival tribal leaders in the south, who fought the Sudan Peoples' Liberation Army, the rebel group of the political movement that led the drive to independence, have been paid off or given grand titles to maintain their support, said Alex Vines, of the international affairs think-tank Chatham House in a recent brief on Sudan.

"This is not a sustainable long-term strategy. Disgruntled commanders in the south have already rebelled against the government in Juba and this trend may well continue," he said.

Cattle-rustling between tribes is also perennial problem in South Sudan killing hundreds each year.

The South also faces some of the worst development indicators in the world. The country, roughly the size of France, has only about 50 kilometres of paved road. A woman is more likely to die in childbirth here than anywhere else in the world and four out of five adults cannot read or write.

But today, Southern Sudanese will wrap themselves in the nation's new flag and proudly march into Juba's John Garang memorial, a tribute built for the man considered the father of the independence movement. As Mr Nhial, the war veteran, said: "We want to show the world that what we have been fighting for all these years has become a reality."

Published: July 9, 2011 04:00 AM


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