Six months after South Sudan gained independence, the same challenges remain

(Richard Nield)

On 9th January, South Sudan will celebrate six months of independence form the north. But the problems faced by the new country are still mounting

In early 2011 I devoted two months to covering the referendum on the independence of South Sudan from the north and the government’s efforts to set up the apparatus for the new state.

The referendum vote returned an overwhelming result in favour of independence, and the Republic of South Sudan was formally created on 9th July 2011. Voting was considered free and fair by international organisations, who were involved in monitoring the polls.

 (Richard Nield)

The excitement among South Sudanese at the prospect of independence was palpable. When the interim results of the referendum were announced by President Salva Kiir, they were followed by joyous celebrations in John Garang park.

South Sudan independence celebrations, John Garang Memorial Park, 30 January 2011
from Richard Nield on Vimeo.

In the lead up to the referendum, hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese returned to the country from the north. In Juba, thousands returned by cramped cargo boat on a two-week-long journey up the Nile from the northern town of Kosti.

On arrival in Juba, they had to camp among their possessions while they awaited onward transport to their tribal lands.

Returnees to South Sudan from the north make temporary camp on the banks of the Nile at Juba having made the week-long journey from Kosti. (Richard Nield)

In Unity state, returnees who had journeyed for weeks by road from the north found on their arrival at Bentiu that security issues and weather conditions left them unable to make the onward journey to their homelands in Mayom county.

Forced to shelter in a primary school, when I met them they told me that their food rations from the World Food Programme (WFP) had long run out. The next day, I heard from senior NGO representatives in the town that WFP staff had been threatened by the frustrated and hungry returnees.

South Sudanese returnees seek temporary refuge in a primary school in Bentiu, Unity state, on their way back to their tribal lands. They had travelled for days, across the border from north Sudan, ahead of the separation of north and south Sudan on 9 July 2011. Due to heavy rains and local fighting, they had already waited for more than three weeks for onward transport to Mayom county. When I met them, food supplies provided by the World Food Programme had run out. The next day, WFP aid workers were attacked by returnees desperate for food. Just a few yards away within sight of the school was a WFP food depot with grain for delivery to the returnees' destination, but in an effort to encourage the flow of returnees, WFP policy dictated that food supplies were initially provided for only a few days. (Richard Nield)

Coping with the continued flow of returnees is just one of a huge number of challenges still faced by South Sudan. A failed state from the moment it was created, the country is confronted with issues ranging from an almost total lack of infrastructure to conflict with the north.

Fighting in the border region of the two Sudans has severely hampered the early months of the south’s new life. Critically, there is still no agreement on how the revenues from oil resources, which are largely located in the south but have to be exported via Port Sudan in the north, are to be divided.

Khartoum has meanwhile stoked conflict in the border states of Abyei, South Kordofan and Blue Nile state, all of which have populations that identify themselves with South Sudan to a greater or lesser degree.

Abyei was supposed to have a referendum on its own future alongside the vote for separation in January 2011, but a failure to agree who was eligible to vote meant that the polls never went ahead.

(Richard Nield)

Popular consultations were held in Blue Nile state and South Kordofan, but there was never any confidence that these would be any more than a fig leaf for the north’s desire to stamp its own authority and identity on these states.

The violence and reports of genocide that have followed in the two states have unfortunately shown these fears to have been well-founded.

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Richard Nield is a freelance journalist, photographer and filmmaker covering the Middle East and Africa. In 10 years covering the region, he has been published and broadcast by clients including the BBC, Reuters, Al Jazeera, The Economist, The Financial Times, The Independent and Foreign Policy magazine. He has reported from throughout the region, including Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, South Sudan, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.