South Sudan: 'independence is not as beautiful as we thought'
Author: Andrew Green | The Guardian
Date: 9 July 2013
In January 2011, Lorna Merekaje was an official observer at the referendum in which more than 98% of southern Sudanese voted to sever their ties with Sudan. She remembers the fireworks and parties that lasted until dawn when South Sudan officially became the world's newest country on 9 July of that year.
Two years later and Merekaje, who now heads a local organisation working to improve governance, says: "The excitement is gone." People have come to realise, she reflects, that "independence is not as beautiful as we thought".
As South Sudan began to confront the challenge of running a country without enough schools, hospitals or roads, the unity that had underpinned the referendum and declaration of independence dissolved.
More than 2,000 mothers die for every 100,000 live births and 75 of every 1,000 babies will not survive to their first birthday, according to a humanitarian update. Last year, the UN treated 90,000 children for acute malnutrition.
Agricultural production has yet to take off. And there are few roads to transport produce. A $225m US-funded highway means Juba now has access to neighbouring Uganda and, by extension, the rest of east Africa. But once lorry drivers reach the capital, they encounter potholed and – during the rainy season – impassable roads to other areas of South Sudan.
The government has proposed paving more roads and providing communal farming equipment, but, like many plans, they are on hold because of austerity measures. The budget shrank after the government turned off oil production and, with it, 98% of the state's revenue in January 2012. Landlocked South Sudan refused to pay the fees Khartoum demanded to use its pipeline. After protracted negotiations, the oil came back on in April, but austerity measures will continue until the end of this year.
The country's scarce resources have been stretched further by the return of nearly 2 million people who fled during decades of fighting, while rebel groups – not least David Yau Yau's forces in Jonglei state – have displaced hundreds of thousands of people.
But there has been progress. Though infant mortality is high, it has dropped since 2006 (pdf), when 102 out of every 1,000 babies died before the age of one. The World Bank reported last year that a child in South Sudan has a 60% chance of getting some education, up from 40% a decade ago. And at the mid-year review of the country's consolidated appeal in June – a call for donor support from more than 100 UN and humanitarian groups – the organisers were able to revise down the number of people who will not have enough to eat this year by 500,000, to 4.1 million. The country has an estimated population of 11 million.
International donors have already met more than half of this year's $1.05bn appeal. Overall, the US has committed $169.7m this year, followed by the European commission with $79.7m and the UK with $60.8m.
Toby Lanzer, the UN humanitarian co-ordinator in South Sudan, says the combination of a good harvest and the slowing pace of new returnees means "life in South Sudan is more stable and secure than at any stage since independence".
But more donations will not solve South Sudan's biggest problem, Merekaje says. After decades of war, South Sudanese are prepared to go without, but what they want from the ruling Sudan People's Liberation Movement – and not the donors – is a vision to bring the country together again.
An initiative to do that has begun, says Zacharia Diing Akol, director of training at the Sudd Institute, a local thinktank. Leaders have been discussing a national reconciliation process.
Akol says surveys conducted by the institute found people across South Sudan were almost unanimously in favour of the idea. President Salva Kiir this year named a group of religious leaders to head a committee for national healing, peace and reconciliation. The archbishop of the Episcopal Church of Sudan, Daniel Deng Bul, who chairs the committee, says the process will be based "on spiritual values". The group's first major activity was a national day of prayer on Sunday.
A model for reconciliation – and whether punitive action will be taken against people who confess to violent acts, or whether they will be forgiven – has yet to be agreed. Bul says committee members would let people decide through community-based meetings.
How the committee proceeds is critical, according to Akol. "If it is done well, it has the potential to bring the country together," he says. "If it is done poorly, it has the potential to backlash and make it difficult for a national initiative to succeed."
Despite the disappointments and the discord, there is still a sense that independence was the right move.
Mabior Dhieu, 29, simply plans to enjoy the day's celebrations. Dhieu, a former fighter for the Sudan People's Liberation Army, which he joined at the age of 11, is unemployed but optimistic that "there is another generation coming up" that will have opportunities he did not.
Dhieu cast his mind back two years. As the clock approached midnight on 8 July, he stepped into a church and "prayed up to morning. I prayed for our nation, for our independence. I didn't believe we could get it."
Now that South Sudan is free, says Dhieu, it is their job to figure out "how to grow up like other nations in the world".
The article was originally posted on The Guardian on July 9, 2013