People took to the streets of the capital Juba Monday to celebrate the first anniversary of South Sudan's independence. But deep concerns remain about the future of the world's newest nation.
South Sudan's first year of independence has been marred by violent internal clashes, border skirmishes with neighboring Sudan, food shortages, the shutdown of its vital oil production in January, a growing refugee crisis and a faltering economy that threatens to halt development. As the nation celebrated its liberation from Sudan after a 22-year civil war that killed an estimated two million people, messages from the international community were somber.
"Looking back, the last year has clearly been a difficult one for the people of South Sudan," Hilde Johnson, the United Nations Secretary General's special representative, told reporters in Juba July 6. "It's been a tough start."
People in South Sudan overwhelmingly voted for independence at a UN-brokered referendum one year ago, though the split from the Sudanese government went ahead before key issues like border demarcation and division of oil revenues had been agreed upon.
Post-independence clashes with the government in Khartoum led to the shut-down of South Sudan's oil facilities in January, stifling the country's principle export and primary source of income.
"Conflict and unresolved issues with Sudan and domestic inter-ethnic tensions have led to increased fighting and economic hardship, which threatens to compromise the very foundations upon which South Sudan's future was to be built," US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said last week.
The euphoria many South Sudanese felt after independence on July 9, 2011, has since given way to a harsh reality. While significant progress has been made, South Sudan remains one of the world's poorest countries, where even the most basic infrastructure, such as roads, electricity and water distribution networks, still needs to be built.
The adult literacy rate stands at 27 percent, secondary school enrollment at six percent, and there is a glaring shortage of skilled professionals. The country has few tarred roads, and in Juba electricity comes from private generators while the hospital is short of staff, medicine and beds. Many patients sleep on the floor in the stifling heat.
On top of it all, famine is quickly taking hold in the fledgling nation. According to the World Food Programme's latest Crop and Food Security Assessment, South Sudan's national cereal deficit for 2012 is estimated at more than 470,000 metric tons - almost half of total consumption requirements for the year.
The World Bank estimates that the percentage of South Sudan's population living in poverty will jump from 51 percent in 2012 to 83 percent in 2013. The ill-equipped country also continues to receive ever-increasing numbers of refugees, fleeing areas in Sudan that are experiencing conflict.
Economically, the only sector spared from budget cuts is the army, which according to Alfred Lokuji, Dean of Rural Development at the University of Juba, gobbles up half the budget. While South Sudanese businessman Tong Albino Akot told the Reuters news agency that the government's new interest in collecting taxes was a positive step, he said his agriculture and import venture was feeling the sting.
"The government tried to explain that there's no money. They're even getting tough on income tax. They're like a wounded lion opening its mouth. You can feel it," Akot said. "There's no dollars. There's no oil so the government doesn't pay [contractors] on time and sometimes not at all."
Mired in confict
Another issue facing South Sudan is security, both externally in the form of near-constant fighting with Sudan over its disputed northern border and internally.
In April, South Sudan's army occupied an oil-producing region also claimed by Sudan, bringing the countries close to war within months of their division. A few months earlier, South Sudan's armed forces failed to prevent cattle raids between warring ethnic groups that killed hundreds of people. And human rights groups say local security forces carry out abuses against civilians with impunity.
But the enormous challenges facing Africa's 54th country haven't dampened the spirits of the fledgling government.
"Together we walk the land of freedom," read a 20-foot billboard near Juba's airport showing South Sudan President Salva Kiir in step beside Vice President Riek Machar.
Leaning back on a plastic garden chair in an unfinished building near Juba airport, student Pater Achuil sipped a glass of milk and listed the ways life had improved since independence.
"We have waited for the flower of freedom," he said in an interview with Reuters. "The difference you can feel here in South Sudan is that ... even the government cannot hassle you [now]."
Moments later, police officers in blue camouflage uniforms brandishing Kalashnikov rifles raided the building, confiscated the shisha water pipes and loaded the chairs onto a truck.
Achuil stood with his friend to the side, baffled. The officer brushed off a question about whether the raid was part of a drive to clean up Juba ahead of celebrations.
"This is not your concern," he said.
bm/msh (AFP, dpa, IPS, Reuters)
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