When Acual Bak left Sudan for newly independent South Sudan in December, she expected the government to provide basic services and allocate her family a plot of land to start a new life.
Almost seven months on, Bak is living in grass hut with a roof made from green tarpaulin at a temporary camp for returnees outside of Aweil, the capital of Northern Bahr el-Ghazal state. She’s one of about 375,000 southerners who the International Organization for Migration says have made the trip from Sudan since October 2010.
The fate of the returnees is one of a series of challenges that have damped the celebratory mood as the world’s newest nation prepares to mark its first year of independence on July 9. Since secession, South Sudan has had to cope with armed conflict with Sudan, an economic crisis sparked by the government’s decision to halt oil production, corruption and ethnic violence. Like most residents, Bak, 26, is waiting for the material benefits of her country’s freedom.
“Life is a bit difficult,” she said in a June 25 interview at the Apada camp. “There are basically no services. There is no proper work, and if you get sick you have to walk all the way to the town to get medication.”
More than half of the country’s population lives below the poverty line, and the nation has some of the lowest education and health levels in the world, according the World Bank. The United Nations says the number of people requiring food aid has doubled to 2.4 million since last year.
South Sudan, which is slightly larger than France and has about 100 miles of paved roads, broke away from Sudan after an overhwelming yes vote in a referendum that was the culmination of a peace agreement in 2005. The accord was intended to end a civil war that lasted for almost 50 years, except for a cease-fire from 1972 to 1983, between the Muslim north and the south, where Christianity and traditional religions dominate. About 2 million people died in the second phase of the conflict.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in a statement read out yesterday at the U.S. Embassy in Juba, the capital, to mark American independence day, said “significant challenges” imperil South Sudan’s future.
“Conflict and unresolved issues with Sudan, and internal inter-ethnic tensions have led to increased fighting and economic hardship that threaten to compromise the very foundation on which South Sudan’s future will be built,” she said.
Even with the difficulties of the first year of freedom from the north, Elizabeth Nyalut Duk, a 15-year-old student, said her newly built school in the village of Amajal in Northern Bahr el-Ghazal state is a sign of progress.
“The separation of South Sudan as a new-born country brings great change to us, and it even gives us a chance to learn in the school that has been constructed,” she said in an interview. “We are an independent country and things that we were requesting from the north are now existing here.”
South Sudan gained independence from Sudan with the expectation that it could kick start development with the revenue it would earn by assuming control of three-quarters of the former united country’s output of 490,000 barrels of oil a day.
China National Petroleum Corp., Malaysia’s Petroliam Nasional Bhd. and India’s ONGC Videsh Ltd. operate most of the oil wells in the two countries.
Much of the oil money has been squandered. President Salva Kiir wrote a letter on May 3 to 75 former and current “senior” government officials requesting that they return a total of $4 billion in stolen government funds.
The sheer breadth of the graft has led some South Sudanese to question the government’s ability to manage the oil wealth.
“It’s a failure because we have not been able to get a hold of corruption,” Alfred Lokuji, dean of Juba University’s College of Community and Rural Development Studies, said in a July 2 interview.
Since January, the revenues dried up.
Disputes with Sudan over transportation fees it would have to pay to ship its crude through its northern neighbor to export markets prompted the south to shut down output. The authorities in Juba accused President Umar al-Bashir’s government in Khartoum of stealing $815 million worth of its crude. Sudan said it was confiscated to pay unpaid fees.
“Even if the oil were flowing, the fundamental problem remains: how to manage it,” Lokuji said.
The shutdown resulted in South Sudan losing 98 percent of its revenue, and annual inflation accelerated to 79.5 percent in May from 29.5 percent the previous month. While the government has pledged to secure loans to shore up its shrinking foreign-exchange reserves, Finance Minister Kosti Manibe Ngai presented an austerity budget in June, reducing spending by 26 percent, and said further cuts may be necessary.
“One year on from the jubilation of independence, South Sudan is buckling under a failing economy, which is pushing essential food and supplies way beyond the reach of ordinary people,” Helen McElhinney, a policy adviser in Juba for aid group Oxfam International, said in a July 4 e-mailed response to questions.
South Sudan has said it’s seeking to build new pipelines to carry its crude through Kenya and Ethiopia. While they may take years to complete, in the short term, a resumption of oil exports may depend on reaching a settlement with Sudan on using its pipelines and port.
African Union-mediated talks between the two countries have failed to yield an agreement on oil and other post-secession issues, including the rights of citizens of both countries on either side of the border and the status of the disputed territory of Abyei and other contested border regions.
Talks broke down in April as a border conflict brought the two countries to the brink of war. Sudanese fighter jets launched air strikes inside South Sudanese territory, while the Southern army occupied and then withdrew from Heglig, a contested area that accounts for half of Sudan’s oil output.
The talks resumed last month in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, after the UN and the African Union demanded that the two countries return to negotiations and settle their differences.
The UN Special Representative to South Sudan, Hilde Johnson, today called the negotiations “absolutely fundamental” to the country’s progress.
“It’s been a tough start and we have seen, and we are still seeing, challenges in the areas of security, the economic situation and now also significant humanitarian challenges,” she told reporters in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital.
Inside South Sudan, ethnic violence claimed hundreds of lives, particularly in Jonglei, an eastern state bordering Ethiopia that is mostly covered by the Block B oil concession in which Total SA holds a 32.5 percent stake.
The UN said more than 1,000 people were killed in Jonglei in 2011, mostly in fighting between the Murle and Lou Nuer ethnic groups. At least 900 people, mostly Murle, were killed in attacks and counterattacks from December to February, according to a report released on May 25 by the UN peacekeeping mission in South Sudan.
“The government was slow to respond in any robust way, and failed to stop the Lou Nuer advancing,” the UN mission said. “Actions taken came too late and insufficient troops were deployed at the critical time.”
Some government officials recognize the disappointments and say that the authorities need to do more to meet the needs of the nation’s people.
“A lot needs to be done in the sense of accountability to our people,” David Ochen Tokuraro, the deputy director of administration and finance for Eastern Equatoria state, said in an interview. “Our people, sometimes they look at our government in a negative manner.”
Nyan Tuch, who has been living in the Apada camp for returnees outside of Aweil since she returned from Sudan about 20 months ago, says she’s confident that conditions will improve.
“Here we are living in a grass thatch house, but we are looking for the government to soon make sure we have better housing,” said Tuch, a 50-year-old mother of five. “And I’m proud. This is my place. Despite the conditions I am in, I have no regret.”