A bitter 'happy birthday' for warring South Sudan

The world's newest nation turned three yesterday with little of the earlier euphoria. An outgoing UN official slammed the nation's leaders for wasting 'all the goodwill.'

Andreea Campeanu
South Sudan's President Salva Kiir prays at the John Garang Memorial in Juba during events marking the third anniversary of South Sudan's independence.

South Sudan marked its third anniversary of independence amid a civil war that has killed thousands of people and displaced more than 1 million. So the birthday mood in the world's newest nation does not resemble the complete jubilation of recent years. 

In the capital of Juba yesterday, independence celebrations were large – but the pride on display was sharply mixed with ambivalence and disappointment. The festivities stood in stark contrast with the hope a year ago of a bright future for an oil- and water-rich land, and the widely shared sense now that the country’s leaders have failed.

The public sentiment was articulated by "Fox," a man draped head to toe in South Sudanese flags: “Today I’m happy…[but] I’m crying from this war.... I feel fifty-fifty.”

South Sudan was born July 9, 2011, after decades of brutal insurgency against the north. But the promise of peace and two years of euphoria over independence went sideways last Dec. 15, when the military split, mostly along tribal lines, following a power struggle between President Salva Kiir, a Dinka, and his former vice president Riek Machar, a Nuer.

What ensued has been a war shocking for its violence against civilians and sheer aggression.  Both sides have committed crimes against humanity, including rape and executions motivated by ethnicity during battles that have leveled whole towns.  More than 100,000 people shelter in UN bases where despite awful conditions – in one northern camp, three children die per day from disease and malnutrition – people are too afraid to return to their homes.

Indeed, humanitarian agencies are warning of a famine that could take the lives of 50,000, many of them children, since violence has kept farmers from their fields. Outbreaks of cholera have been reported. And new tensions in previously stable regions are threatening to spill into violence, something that would open fresh fronts in the crisis.

In Juba yesterday, Hilde Johnson, the outgoing UN head in South Sudan, used the anniversary to bluntly blame the leadership of both Mr. Kiir and Mr. Machar: “After decades of sacrifice and suffering you got your freedom," Ms. Johnson said. "You got self-determination and independence. And then you turn on each other, and wasted all the goodwill and opportunities you enjoyed.”

That sentiment was echoed by others. “There’s no reason to celebrate,” said Nyajuac Par, a Nuer mother of three, boiling tea under a plastic shelter in a crowded camp where some 20,000 people displaced by fighting live in a UN camp.  “In 2011 I was happy, but not anymore.”

“When the [South Sudan] flag was raised [in Juba in 2011], the reason my husband died for became true,” says war widow Nyanong Kurth, who lost her husband back in the 1980s in the civil war with the north.  “What he died for was for the nation.  Now he’s died for something else.” 

Along main roads, hundreds of national flags whipped in the wind and signs declared “One Nation, One People.”  But only heavily armed military trucks and dignitaries’ convoys could drive along those same streets as all other civilians had to walk for security reasons.

Even so, thousands gathered in a field by the grave of late independence hero John Garang.  There were performances by traditional dancers bedecked in ostrich feathers and beads.  A sharply dressed honor guard stood for Mr. Kiir’s speech, rotating new soldiers every few minutes to replace colleagues who fainted in the sweltering midday heat.

The crowd cheered when helicopters trailing the national flag flew by, the only aircraft in the sky because the government grounded all flights including humanitarian relief planes, to the consternation of aid groups.

The roots of South Sudan’s conflict are complex, but they boil down to a failure of the leadership, says Augustino Ting Mayai, research director at the Sudd Institute, a Juba think tank.

“We have fundamental issues of governance, that include corruption, lack of political will, lack of accountability, lack of security, lack of development, lack of delivery of services,” he told the Monitor in Juba.  “This has nothing to do with what we fought for.  This has to do with elites, fighting to capture the state.”

“I’m not happy with the government.  I’m not happy with the rebels either,” says Mr. Mayai.  “I lost eight family members to this violence, and I think both sides are responsible."

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