South Sudan celebrates 10 years of independence – but few rejoice

Friday marks 10 years since South Sudan gained independence to become the world’s youngest nation – yet few citizens are rejoicing.

Over the past 10 years, the oil-rich country has been mired in fighting that killed nearly 400,000 people, engrained corruption and a deteriorating humanitarian crisis, while a fragile peace deal hangs by a thread.

“After 10 years of independence, South Sudan’s population doesn’t have much to celebrate,” said Joshua Craze, a research fellow at the London School for Economics who has worked in South Sudan since 2008. “Those hopeful expectations of life in the new state have only delivered for South Sudan’s elite, which has entrenched itself atop the rest of the country,” he added.

Hopes were high in 2011 when after decades of war with the north, the southern South voted overwhelmingly to secede. Salva Kiir, a former rebel leader, was sworn in as South Sudan’s first president, with Riek Machar, another rebel leader, as his deputy. Many South Sudanese who had fled, returned, while the international community poured millions of dollars into propping up the new government.

“[There were] ululations, celebrations, tears of joy, wails of happiness,” recalled Philips Anyang Ngong, a local human rights lawyer who was at the independence festivities but is distraught at what has happened since.

“We raised the flag but what do we have [to] show today, 10 years later?” he asked. “Continued suffering.”

‘Give up hope’

South Sudan experts say stark warning signs that deep-seated issues were not being addressed were visible early on.

“When South Sudan gained independence, it received great international support but the odds were already against it,” said Nyagoah Tut Pur, a researcher with Human Rights Watch. “The state inherited a legacy of war and underdevelopment from Sudan. The new government was also comprised of former political foes and militias who did not have a united vision for the country. The process of integrating both politically and security-wise was fraught. State institutions and systems of accountability were already weak.”

Indeed, the rifts within the governing party quickly escalated, with Kiir and Machar vying for power. In July 2013, Kiir fired Machar and the entire cabinet, and the ruinous civil war erupted five months later.

Attempts to quell the fighting were futile, countless ceasefires were broken and the first power-sharing agreement in 2015 between Kiir’s government and Machar’s opposition failed. Machar was forced to flee the country on foot when renewed clashes erupted in the capital, Juba, in 2016, expanding the war to the south. A second peace deal signed in 2018 has largely held, with warring parties forming a coalition government last year – and Kiir and Machar trying for a third time to run the country.

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