Months after the elections in which the South Sudanese overwhelmingly declared their desire to secede from the north, South Sudan has finally become an independent nation. Tens of thousands of the new country’s citizens watched as the flag was raised in the capital, Salva Kiir, the new president, signed the constitution and took his oath of office. Sudan was the first country to recognize South Sudan earlier today, although other world leaders, including President Barack Obama, were quick to follow.
People were excited and joyous, shouting “Hallelujah” as the flag was raised. But analysts predict that once the ecstatic mood wears off, South Sudan will face nearly insurmountable challenges. The country’s independence follows decades of violence with the north, in which an estimated 1.5 million people died. The conflict ended with a peace agreement in 2005, but South Sudan’s challenges are clearly not over. The country is oil-rich but one of the most poorly developed in the world.
In the New York Times, Jeffrey Gettleman succinctly describes the situation: “A majority of its people live on less than a dollar a day. A 15-year-old girl has a higher chance of dying in childbirth than she does of finishing primary school. More than 10 percent of children do not make it to their fifth birthday. About three-quarters of adults cannot read. Only 1 percent of households have a bank account.”
And while people are celebrating independence now, there has already been significant violence in South Sudan in the post-election period. Rebel leaders attack civilians, threaten soldiers, and steal livestock and sometimes even children. Ethnic tensions are the source of many of South Sudan’s issues, and the cash-strapped government is forced to spend vast sums on security measures, even though people are desperate for food to survive.
Even its oil resources are something of a problem; although, according to NPR, South Sudan is expected to control three-quarters of Sudan’s daily oil production, they have no oil refineries and must use the north’s pipelines to sell it. But the international community also seems committed to South Sudan’s future. Yesterday, the United Nations voted to establish a force of 7,000 peacekeepers in the new country.
It will also be telling to see what happens in Sudan, which is primarily Muslim and may go back to Sharia law following the split. Human rights are clearly an issue there, as proven by the ordeal of the jailed Sudanese journalist I wrote about last week, and the United States still lists Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism.
One heartening aspect of South Sudan’s independence, however, is women’s commitment to equal rights. During the elections, many women voiced their dissatisfaction with their place as second-class citizens, and now they may have a chance to change their status.
“I’m very grateful to see many people from other countries,” said one young woman. “I’m appreciating that they have come to celebrate with us. I hope when we have independence we shall have freedom and education for women.”
Let’s hope that equal rights for women – as well as delivering basic needs to its citizens – will be priorities as South Sudan begins to function as an independent state.
Photo from babasteve via flickr.