South Sudan raised the flag of its new nation for the first time today, as thousands of South Sudanese citizens and dozens of international dignitaries swarmed the new country capital of Juba to celebrate the country’s birth.
South Sudan became the world’s newest country with a raucous street party at midnight. At a packed midday ceremony, the speaker of parliament read a proclamation of independence as the flag of Sudan was lowered and the flag of South Sudan was raised, sparking wild cheers from the crowd.
“Hallelujah!” one resident yelled, as other wiped away tears.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, former US Secretary of State Colin Powell and dozens of other world leaders were in attendance under a blazing sun as South Sudan President Salva Kiir hosted the noon-hour ceremony. Sudan President Omar al-Bashir, a deeply unpopular man in Juba, arrived to a mixture of boos and surprised murmurs.
“Wow, this is a great day for me because it’s a day that reflects the suffering that all southerners have had for almost 50 years,” said David Aleu, a 24-year-old medical student.
Thousands of South Sudan residents thronged the celebration area, and organisers soon learned they did not have enough seats for all the visiting heads of state and other VIPs. The heat was strong enough that Red Cross workers attended to many people who fainted.
“We’re overwhelmed. We did not know that the whole world was going to join us in our celebration,” the ceremony’s announcer said.
The black African tribes of South Sudan and the mainly Arab north battled two civil wars over more than five decades, and some two million died in the latest war, from 1983-2005. It culminated in a 2005 peace deal that led to today’s independence declaration.
Thousands of South Sudanese poured into the ceremonial arena when gates opened. Traditional dancers drummed in the streets as residents waved tiny flags. Activists from the western Sudan region of Darfur, which has suffered heavy violence the past decades, held up a sign that said “Bashir is wanted dead or alive”. Mr Bashir has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes in Darfur.
“We came to say welcome to our brothers from the south. We came also to remind the world that the problem in Darfur is continuing,” said Nimir Mohammed.
The leader of the US delegation, Susan Rice, the American ambassador to the UN, was expected to send greetings from the world’s oldest democracy to the world’s newest state.
China – which has a big interest in Sudan’s oil – sent a delegation. Uganda President Yoweri Museveni – South Sudan’s southern neighbour – was among the many African leaders.
South Sudan is expected to become the 193rd country recognised by the United Nations next week and the 54th UN member state in Africa.
Though today is a day of celebration, residents of South Sudan must soon face many challenges. Their country is oil-rich but is one of the poorest and least-developed on Earth. Unresolved problems between the south and its former foe to the north could mean new conflict along the new international border, advocates and diplomats warn.
Violence has broken out in the contested border region of Abyei in recent weeks, and fighting is ongoing in Southern Kordofan, a state that lies in Sudan - not South Sudan – but which has many residents loyal to the south. The 1,300-mile north-south border is disputed in five areas, several of which are being illegally occupied by either northern or southern troops.
The young government faces the huge challenge of reforming its bloated and often predatory army, diversifying its oil-based economy, and deciding how political power will be distributed among the dozens of ethnic and military factions. It must also begin delivering basic needs such as education, health services, water and electricity to its more than eight million citizens.
While South Sudan is now expected to control of more than 75% of what was Sudan’s daily oil production, it has no refineries and southern oil must flow through the north’s pipelines to reach market.
But for today, at least, those problems lay on the back burner. Smiles, singing and dancing instead took precedence.
Adut Monica Joseph waited for the ceremony with her sister and uncle as world leaders arrived.
She said she looked forward to a day when women in South Sudan don’t face the hardships they have in recent decades. The risk to the mother of death during child birth is extremely high in the poor and underdeveloped rural south.
“I’m very grateful to see many people from other countries,” said the 22-year-old. “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.”