Little to celebrate as South Sudan turns five

2016-07-08 13:11

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Juba – South Sudan marks five years of independence on Saturday with celebrations cancelled in the face of a deepening hunger crisis and fears the world's youngest country could slide back into war.

Tens of thousands have died in a civil war since December 2013 that has left the economy in ruins, forcing the government to abandon independence celebrations for the first time since secession from Sudan.

The International Crisis Group (ICG) has warned backers of a stalled peace process to act "urgently" to save it "and prevent the country from returning to full-scale combat".

The conflict has triggered a humanitarian crisis with over two million people forced from their homes and almost five million in need of emergency food – over a third of the population.

"Life is as bad as it has ever been in South Sudan," said human rights lawyer David Deng, pointing to soaring inflation, rising attacks by gunmen, hunger and intense distrust between rival forces.

"If this situation isn't salvaged soon, I feel we may be looking at a protracted conflict every bit as bad as the 22-year war" that preceded secession, Deng said.

Prices of goods and services have soared since 2011, with inflation running at almost 300%, and the currency slumping by 90% this year.

"The fact that government does not have money to celebrate the anniversary highlights the magnitude of the economic problem," said James Alic Garang, an economist with the Juba-based Ebony Center think tank.

'Preparing for widespread conflict'

After a 1983-2005 civil war, the country split from Sudan on July 9, 2011, following a referendum six months earlier.

Since then South Sudan has fought a brief war with old enemy Sudan over oil, before turning on itself in a civil war that broke out in December 2013.

Rebel chief Riek Machar returned to the capital in April as part of a peace deal which saw him become vice-president, forging a unity government with President Salva Kiir. Yet fighting continues.

Babikr Yawa, a mother of three, fled fighting last month in the Kajo-Keji district, close to the border with Uganda.

"We are suffering here. There is no food, no good shelter," Yawa said. "What we want is that President Salva Kiir and Riek Machar should end the conflict."

'Epic corruption'

In June, fighting in the town of Wau – now the country's second city after Malakal, Bor and Bentiu were razed during the war – forced some 88 000 people to flee their homes, with almost 20 000 seeking shelter beside a UN base.

The peace deal is simply being ignored, the ICG said. "Formerly warring parties are now flouting it and increasingly preparing for widespread conflict," said the ICG.

"Unless something is done, it is a matter of only a little time before there is a return to war, and the agreement collapses."

The mood on the streets is very far from the celebrations of 2011. Earlier this year UN chief Ban Ki-moon recalled the sense of euphoria, "the pride, the spirit, the hope", when he witnessed the raising of the new country's flag at independence.

Speaking after his last visit in February, Ban spoke instead of how "that hope has been betrayed... by those who put power and profit over people" in a speech citing "massive human rights violations and epic corruption".

'How can we survive?'

The economic collapse is driving unrest and threatening peace, aid workers say.

"A peaceful South Sudan cannot be built without solid foundations," said Oxfam's country chief Zlatko Gegic. "South Sudan's economy is in crisis. Without economic reform, its people will continue to suffer and the fragile peace process will be jeopardised."

A kilogram of sugar that used to cost eight South Sudanese pounds (about R19.36) now costs 30 (about R72.60), while a 50kg bag of white flour that once sold for 180 (about R435.60), now costs 1 200 (about R2 904).

"We are just living in problems and nothing is good," said Etisam Ahmed, sitting in a market on the dusty streets of Juba. "We are just here by God's grace. If you go to the market today and buy something, tomorrow you will find the price has increased. So how can we survive?"

More than 160 000 civilians are living in UN-guarded camps across the country – down from a peak of more than 200 000 at the height of the war – a clear indicator that many feel it is still too dangerous to go home.

South Sudanese say that there is no doubt independence was the right choice, but many are deeply saddened by the turn their nation has taken and are yet to see the benefits of peace.

"I think it will be hard to find a South Sudanese person who regrets independence, despite all that has happened," Deng said.

"That's not to say that independence was the silver bullet that people made it out to be at the time. It is clear now that even without the role of Khartoum there, in terms of destabilising South Sudan, we had our own share of issues that needed to be addressed."

Read more on:    south sudan  |  east africa

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