As South Sudan Cancels Independence Day, What Does It Really Have to Celebrate?
On Friday, South Sudan’s government announced the country would not be celebrating its fifth anniversary of independence. Michael Makuei, minister of information, told reporters the government didn’t want to spend money on lavish ceremonies.
“We need to spend the little that we have on other issues,” he said. And he’s right; South Sudan is facing an economic crisis off the back of a civil war that dragged on for more than two years.
It seems troubled times are set to continue for the world’s youngest nation, which marks its fifth year of independence next month. However, those initial celebrations as a newly formed state seem like a distant memory now – so what does South Sudan have to celebrate five years on?
From conflict to conflict
South Sudan’s journey to becoming an independent state was a painful one. A unified Sudan was Africa’s largest country but a north-south divide carried over from British colonial rule. Civil war broke out between the two halves of the country in 1955.
Half a million people died in the 16-year conflict until a brief spell of peace began in 1972. Tensions still remained, though, and a second civil war engulfed the country from 1983 until 2005.
A peace agreement signed at the end of Sudan’s second civil war would see the country split. Six year’s later South Sudan became the world’s youngest nation but even a border between the newly formed countries couldn’t end tensions.
Disputes across the border have been an issue ever since, with each nation accusing the other of instigating violence. However, it’s a continued fight over natural resources that neither war nor peace has managed to resolve.
Sudan, which became one of Africa’s most oil-rich nations, was now split. The divide left most of the oil-rich regions in South Sudan and almost all of the refineries in a smaller Sudan. Separation hit both economies hard but South Sudan’s struggles were only just beginning.
Civil war a hard habit to break
Even after gaining independence in 2011, South Sudan struggled to maintain peace within its newly formed borders. Before the country could celebrate its second independence day, gun battles became commonplace and travel warnings were placed on the capital.
Already facing an uphill battle economically, South Sudan made it increasingly difficult for international donors to support the country. And conflict wasn’t reserved for the streets. Bitter infighting within the government saw President Salva Kiir sack a hoard of officials, prompting a backlash. Shortly after vice-president Riek Machar was sacked and later accused of staging an attempted coup against Kiir.
Less than two and a half years after becoming an independent state, South Sudan descended into a civil war of its own.
2016: failed peace deals and economic crisis
Fast-forward to the second half of 2016 and South Sudan’s civil war is over – sort of. A peace deal was signed in August last year but did little to end violence between President Kiir and rebel Machar’s forces.
Things do at least look a little more promising now, though. South Sudan’s recently formed transitional government saw Machar return to his former role as vice-president. The mission now is to bring lasting peace to South Sudan but the process will be difficult.
Internal quarrels made an early presence in South Sudan’s transitional government and, in many ways, it’s hard to see what has changed after more than two years of conflict. Kiir remains in charge of a fractured government, Machar is back as his reluctant deputy and you have to question what hundreds of thousands died for.
Little reason to celebrate
As South Sudan’s fifth year of independence approaches, there seems little reason to celebrate. Aside from the economic reasons, cancelling this year’s events feels like a necessary gesture from the government. While it may be too early to condemn South Sudan as a failed state, it’s fair to say its government has failed its people so far.
Expecting citizens to celebrate life as an independent nation at this stage would be asking a lot. At the same time, it’s a gesture the government wasn’t obliged to make. Following Friday’s meeting, it also declared the luxurious lifestyle enjoyed by public officials will be regulated more tightly.
Until now, officials have pocketed large allowances, cruised around in expensive cars and dined at the country’s finest. It adds up to a very public display of rare wealth in a country struggling with widespread poverty. Some will find it hard to praise the government for only regulating this now, of course. But hopefully it proves to be a sign of things to come. Hopefully, it suggests South Sudan will soon have reason to celebrate becoming an independent state.