World’s youngest nation marks tenth independence anniversary amid great peril
Kampala, Uganda | IAN KATUSIIME |War. Peace agreements. Refugees. UPDF. Those are some of the buzzwords that have been synonymous with South Sudan in the last ten years since it broke away from Sudan in 2011. On July 9, South Sudan marked its tenth anniversary as the newest nation in the world.
When South Sudan attained independence, it added another puzzle to the Great Lakes region; a complex geographical area that involves Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya and Democratic Republic of Congo, renowned for its upheavals and intrigues.
“As a young person and a South Sudanese national, the tenth independence anniversary brings mixed feelings,” Steve Eliaz says.
He says he celebrates the independence anniversary as a way to recognise the sovereignty of the Republic of South Sudan after several years of liberation struggle.
The second positive note, Eliaz says, is the anniversary being celebrated amidst the implementation of the revitalised peace agreement and however slow the implementation, he is hopeful that the parties to the agreement will eventually implement it.
“On a negative feeling, the anniversary comes at a time when the country has got millions of her people as refugees in the neighboring East African countries,” he says ruefully, “Some fellow country mates still live at protection of civilian sites as internally displaced persons.”
On the country’s tenth anniversary, the negative news reel about it is hard to miss as its citizens grapple with a range of humanitarian challenges. The occasional fighting in South Sudan has claimed an estimated 500, 000 lives and displaced an estimated 2 million people. Fleeing South Sudanese make up the bulk of the million refugees living in Bidi Bidi refugee settlement in Yumbe district in the West Nile sub region of Uganda.
A report published by UNICEF ahead of the milestone said that 4.5 million children which is two-thirds of the people below 18 in South Sudan, are in desperate need of support.
“The hope and optimism that children and families in South Sudan felt at the birth of their country in 2011 have slowly turned to desperation and hopelessness,” said Henrietta Fore, the UNICEF Executive Director.
The road to independence for South Sudan started in January 2005 when the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) led by John Garang successfully negotiated self-determination through the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) with the National Congress Party in the north under Omar El Bashir. Sudan had been at war with its southern region for 21 years.
The CPA gave the territory then known as southern Sudan semi-autonomy. A study by International Refugee Rights Initiative (IRRI) indicated that South Sudanese citizens regard the CPA signed in 2005 as the “only successful peace agreement for South Sudan” in the country’s long catalogue of peace agreements.
Then tragedy struck. In July 2005, Garang, the charismatic leader of the people of southern Sudan was killed in a chopper crash shortly after flying over the Ugandan border heading back home. He was from a meeting with President Yoweri Museveni at State House Entebbe.
To some South Sudanese, this was an ominous development. After the death of Garang, Salva Kiir and Riek Machar became leader and deputy respectively until the day of self-determination six years later. Museveni has since remained a constant factor in the politics of the country dividing opinion on his role and influence.
From the day South Sudan attained independence, it has been a baby of the international community. Its neighbours meeting under the auspices of Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD); an eight member bloc to resolve its crises, the UN dispatching aid and peacekeepers, and a host of peace agreements brokered by international players to deal with the outbreaks of violence emanating from the country’s political contestations.
Independence a mistake?
Some of the country’s leading thinkers and experts have pondered on the question of whether independence was the right route to take in spite of oppression under Sudan before 2011. “Instead, they (Kiir and Machar) have turned freedom into bondage, making independence a huge disappointment for the people of South Sudan.
“This leads to soul-searching questions: Was independence a mistake for southerners? Was freedom a wrong choice to end up in bondage to their own leaders?” asked Jacob Chol, a Senior Reader of Politics, University of Juba, in a 2016 essay titled ‘South Sudan leaders have tarnished the dreams of independence for their people’.
Chol is the founder and Executive Director of the Centre for Democracy and International Analysis (CDIA), a research and an academic think-tank based in South Sudan.
Sr. Bakhita Francis, a member of the Missionary Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate Conception who currently works for the Yambio-Tombura Diocese in Yambio, South Sudan thinks the challenges exist because the country did not address the trauma from the 21-year civil war with Sudan.
“Since there was no trauma healing, the people are still living in the civil war, which is why killing, arbitrary and forced disappearances are still seen as the only way to solve problems. In a way, South Sudanese were not well-prepared for the separation from Sudan.”
Organising elections has also been posited as one of the solutions to the instability in the young nation. “…There should be a greater focus on organising elections so that South Sudanese challengers from other political parties including Kiir and Machar can seek a fresh mandate from South Sudanese citizens,” Chol advised.
It is an idea Museveni too mooted while at an African Union summit in Rwanda alongside then UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon in 2016. “Votes will force them into alliances. Democracy will compel them to work together.” Museveni was reacting to the UN boss who had proposed an arms embargo to stem the unfettered violence wrecking the country.