Peace vow as South Sudan marks independence with little to celebrate

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At midnight on 9 July, 2011, raucous celebrations erupted as the world's newest nation was born and the people of South Sudan cheered the end of a decades-long struggle for statehood from Sudan. But the revelry was short-lived.

President Salva Kiir on Friday pledged not to return South Sudan to war as the country marked 10 years of troubled independence with little to rejoice.

At midnight on 9 July, 2011, raucous celebrations erupted as the world's newest nation was born and the people of South Sudan cheered the end of a decades-long struggle for statehood from Sudan.

But the revelry was short-lived.

Just two years later South Sudan was at war with itself, the task of nation-building forgotten as its liberators tore the country apart, dashing expectations of a glittering future.

Close to 400 000 people would die before a ceasefire was declared in 2018.

But today the country is more fragile than ever, confronting looming starvation, political insecurity, economic ruin and natural calamities.

"I assure you that I will not return you back to war again. Let us work altogether to recover the lost decade and put our country back to the path of development in this new decade," Kiir said in an televised address marking the milestone.

He hailed a "new spirit of dialogue" among political rivals and said the Transitional Government of National Unity would focus on economic reforms and improving security.

READ HERE | 'Just a dream': hope for South Sudan dashed after horror decade

But on Friday, there was none of the jubilation that greeted statehood, with people told to stay at home because of the coronavirus pandemic. Kiir made his speech in front of one of the presidential offices in the capital Juba.

Kiir had warned this week that the cash-strapped state was in no position to celebrate, blaming international sanctions for keeping prosperity out of reach.

The international community has used the anniversary to urge South Sudan's leaders to do more to improve the lot of its 12 million population.

"The journey from war to peace has been a long and difficult one and there is still much to be done so that people can exercise the democratic right they earned a decade ago," Nicholas Haysom, the head of the UN mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), said in a statement.

"We... urge the country's political leaders to seize this opportunity to make the hopes and dreams of a decade ago a reality by securing the sustainable peace needed to enable full recovery and development."

South Sudan still faces many obstacles to achieving that goal.

They include the lack of a unified security force, pervasive insecurity linked to intercommunal conflict and crime driven by poverty.

South Sudan enjoyed immense international goodwill and billions of dollars in support when its people voted overwhelmingly in a 2011 referendum to secede from the north.

But its leaders failed to stem corruption and the new South Sudan was looted rather than rebuilt, as huge sums from its vast oil fields were siphoned off and squandered.

READ | South Sudan president announces new parliament

The political leaders who led South Sudan to independence - and then back to war - are still in power today, ruling in a tenuous coalition forged under a peace deal.

The power-sharing arrangement between Kiir, a former military commander from the Dinka ethnic group, and his deputy Riek Machar, a rebel leader from the Nuer people, has kept fighting between their forces largely at bay since the ceasefire in 2018.

But the old foes have violated past truces and progress on the latest accord has drifted, inflaming distrust between the pair and raising fears of a return to fighting.

The "unity" government they belatedly formed in February 2020 under great international pressure is weak, and safeguards to prevent another war have not been put in place.

'Never too late'

Though the peace accords paused the worst of the bloodshed between conventional armies, armed conflict between rival ethnic groups has surged in ungoverned areas, exacting a civilian death toll not seen since the war.

The political inertia and broken promises also come as South Sudan reels from economic chaos, with soaring inflation and a currency crisis, and faces its worst hunger crisis since independence.

Conflict, drought, floods and a record locust plague have ruined harvests and left 60 percent of the population facing severe food shortages.

Of those, 108 000 are on the very edge of famine, the World Food Programme (WFP) says.

"Despite some lost opportunities, it is never too late to invigorate the peace process so that humanitarian assistance is more effective, and conditions are created where development activities can have broader and greater impact," said Matthew Hollingworth, the WFP's director for South Sudan.

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