Less Pomp on South Sudan’s First Birthday

JUBA, South Sudan – South Sudan’s first year as a nation, marked by a fast deteriorating economy, a return to hostilities with Sudan, and significant inter-communal violence, was expectedly celebrated with less fanfare than its official independence from Sudan last year.

Thousands of South Sudanese gathered on the grounds of the John Garang Memorial Monday morning to celebrate the country’s first birthday, attended by one foreign head of state, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, and African Union chairperson Jean Ping. Despite an invitation to President Omar al-Bashir, Khartoum sent their deputy foreign minister to the event.

Outside of the stands, spectators outfitted in patriotic paraphernalia gathered around pockets of dancers and musicians representing the nation’s different tribes, to the backdrop of “South Sudan Oye!” and the sound of ululating. Celebrations began with cultural events during the weekend leading up to the big day. The night before, South Sudanese careened through the main thoroughfares of Juba, honking, cheering, and waving flags.

Foreign dignitaries, South Sudan government officials, and invited guests sat in stands festooned in red, black, green, blue, white, and, yellow. Below, a parade of South Sudan’s military and security services marched by in formation. The messages from the invited speakers were reflective of the mixed blessings and curses presented by the nation’s first year. The focus was largely on relations—and negotiations—between Sudan and South Sudan.

The last year has been characterized by “conflicts from the outside and conflicts within,” South Sudan President Kiir said. The president’s speech emphasized South Sudan’s commitment to continued dialogue with Sudan, while highlighting the steps that the young nation is taking to move toward economic independence from Sudan, including pursuing alternative pipelines and the building of refineries.

Foreign leaders for the most part urged the two countries toward a deal on the unresolved issues—border disputes, an economic deal involving oil transit fees, and Abyei—that lie between the two countries and led to direct confrontations in March and April this year.

“There is no time for a zero-sum game political struggle or petty squabbles,” said the Ethiopian deputy prime minister. Ethiopia has been a key interlocutor and mediator when relations between the two states have escalated to crisis points.

President Museveni, however, struck a different tone to the appreciation of the South Sudanese crowd in the stands. “You should stand firm and make sure justice is done,” Museveni said, in reference to Khartoum-Juba relations. A deal that is not based on justice, the Ugandan president said, would “create more problems for you in the future.”

In his speech, President Kiir also emphasized the need to tackle corruption, among other state-building challenges. “Freedom is a means to the aspirations for liberty, justice, and prosperity,” he said, warning of the sacrifices the country will have to make to accommodate austerity measures. Earlier this year, the South Sudan government decided to shut down oil flows through Sudan because Khartoum had begun confiscating southern oil and in the absence of a deal between the two countries on processing and transit fees. Oil money made up 98 percent of South Sudan’s revenues.

Despite the “doom and gloom” surrounding the one-year anniversary, “a lot has been achieved,” the head of the U.N. peacekeeping mission, Hilde Johnson, said. “Your trademark has been to never given up. (…) Your trademark has been resilience in the face of challenges,” she said.

One marker of progress could be found in the minutiae of the day, in particular, the level organization of this year’s ceremony. Water bottles and snacks were in ready supply for the audience while barricades prevented the crowds from surging forward, in sharp contrast to festivities the year before during which the combination of marathon speeches and the blazing heat caused many among the audience to faint from dehydration and heat stroke.

“Morning will come,” Kiir said, asking for patience from the international community in his final note. The country is “ready for the long (…) journey ahead, and we ask that you stay by our side,” he said.