Child of war, South Sudan is born; now the struggle begins

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 8, 2011 

JUBA, South Sudan — Thousand of people flooded into the streets of this unlikely riverside boomtown early Saturday to celebrate the birth of the world's newest nation, the Republic of South Sudan — a land of searing poverty, windfall petrodollars and violent strife.

A crescendo of celebratory car horns rose in anticipation until they broke at midnight when joyous mayhem flooded into the streets to mark what may be one of the most grueling climbs to statehood that any nation has endured: a 50-year civil war that cost more than 2 million lives, tore families apart and sent hundreds of thousands into a diaspora around the world.

"I'm so proud," said Lado Patia, a sweating 20-year-old male who grew up in Australia and never stepped foot in his homeland until 3 months ago. "It's unexplainable, a beautiful thing."

Violence is still endemic. More than 100,000 refugees have fled fighting in the Abyei region that both Sudan and South Sudan contest, and the past month has seen a harsh campaign by the Arab-led Sudanese government against African South Sudan sympathizers in the isolated Nuba mountains.

Internal clashes in South Sudan have killed more than 1,800 South Sudanese this year.

But, remarkably, after the weekend's ceremonies and festivities are over, South Sudan's greatest challenge may be the one that still lies ahead: building a nation almost from scratch.

Since the 2005 peace deal between Sudan and the former rebels who now lead South Sudan set independence in motion, roughly $12 billion in oil revenue and $10 billion in foreign aid has poured into this war-torn land. But flying overhead its sprawling savannas and swamps, almost no permanent structures or roads can be seen, leaving one to wonder where all the money has gone.

South Sudan, most of which is low-lying floodplain, still has no finished paved highway. Much of the population remains isolated and unreachable during the six-month rainy season. Adult illiteracy rates may be as high as 90 percent, and child and maternal mortality rates rank it as the worst in the world. Safe drinking water is a rare commodity.

And the government, composed largely of inexperienced former rebels, is likely years away from offering any substantial services on the ground.

All of which means, for the foreseeable years ahead, South Sudan is going to be propped up on foreign life support, dependent on a massive multilateral nation-building project to prevent humanitarian catastrophe or a regionally destabilizing political implosion.

"It's going to have to be a big international effort," said U.S. special envoy to Sudan Princeton Lyman. "This is not going to happen overnight. This is going to be a long, tough struggle."

The U.S. is going to focus heavily on building up an agricultural sector in South Sudan, said Lyman. Others, he said, will lead the way on health services, infrastructure or education initiatives. Everyone plans on pitching in with "capacity building," a popular term here among aid workers to denote training officials on how to do their jobs.

The multibillion-dollar test run conducted so far is an indication of how great and many the challenges are.

The South Sudan government contests the notion that the country is starting from zero, and indeed many of the worst-case scenarios have not come true.

The government under Salva Kiir — who assumed power after the death of the movement's founder, John Garang — defied skeptics by guiding the nation through a successful referendum for independence.

"Looking at how far they have come, it is not a small accomplishment," said Sara Pantuliano, head of the Humanitarian Policy Group at Britain's Overseas Development Institute.

Yet, that same government's record is exactly what concerns some.

"The task of building a new nation requires political skill, competent and accountable government, inclusive decision making, strategic planning, adequate resources, and a compelling national vision that its citizens can buy into," wrote Richard Downie, deputy director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a bipartisan nonprofit based in Washington. "South Sudan lacks nearly all of these prerequisites,"

The influx of aid money so far has carried an equally dubious record. A half-billion-dollar multi-donor pool fund has received especially heavy criticism for its difficulties simply disbursing the money for projects at all.

"The donors have tried, but they just haven't succeeded," said Pantuliano. "One can only hope that the lessons will finally be applied."

Some of their most egregious mistakes have been focusing development in Juba at the expense of everywhere else, under-funding road construction and security support, and instituting cumbersome procedures that stalled actual help, according to Pantuliano.

Others say the aid itself is a problem.

A government propped up by aid risks being "only accountable to foreign donors, not its own people," William Easterly, an economics professor at New York University and author of "The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good," wrote in an email.

The donor community itself, the skeptics point out, is less accountable to those they are trying to assist — poor South Sudanese — than to their own governments and people back home, who have little knowledge of what is going on in places far away that they little understand.

Another hazard is that aid can promote dependency and allow a nation to forego costly investments in its own people. In South Sudan, there's concern the government will spend more money on its military, which with other security services already soaks up nearly half of the official budget.

Still, as the newest nation's citizens flooded into the streets chanting victory slogans in celebration, there were many who expressed hope for the future.

"The South Sudanese have surprised a lot of people getting this far," said Isaac Boyd, the head of programming in South Sudan for U.S.-based Catholic Relief Services. "I wouldn't be surprised if they pull another rabbit out of the hat."

(Boswell is a McClatchy special correspondent. His reporting is supported in part by Humanity United, a California-based foundation that focuses on human rights issues.)

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