Africa’s youngest state, South Sudan, this past week marked its eighth Independence anniversary without national celebrations, further casting doubt on the prospects of lasting peace and an economic turnaround.
South Sudan watchers say the conditions in Juba may not allow the formation of a cohesive transitional government by November as envisaged.
But nobody captured the mounting state of despair among the South Sudanese better than President Saliva Kiir.
In a live address to the nation broadcast on radio and television, the president regretted that this was the first time the South Sudanese “observed” rather than conducted full celebrations of Independence.
The country became independent on July 9, 2011.
“It would have been the first time that the government and the opposition celebrated independence together since the war broke out in 2013. It is not just about celebration but the values we attach to the Independence Day,” said President Kiir, citing the hard economic times and delay in implementing security arrangements as the main challenges.
The President apologised for his failures and those of his administration saying that their desire at Independence in 2011 to develop credible governance system for the management of institutions was not realised.
“The result is weak institutions that have made the government unable to deliver services,” he said.
After the September 2018 Revitalised Peace Agreement, the signatories were supposed to form a transitional government on May 12 — after an eight-month pre-transition period — but they later agreed to postpone it for six months because some of the conditions had not been met.
A report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees released on July 9 shows that more than 2.3 million South Sudanese live as refugees in neighbouring countries, while 1.9 million are internally displaced. About 7.7 million — over half the population — remain food insecure.
Fahan Haq, deputy spokesman for the UN Secretary-General, said that the South Sudan Regional Refugee Response Plan needs $1.4 billion, of which only 21 per cent has been received.
While the hostilities have significantly declined since the signing of the revitalised peace agreement, experts say that the issue of security arrangements and lack of regular meetings between President Kiir and rebel leader Dr Riek Machar — to build a working relations and trust — remain major challenges.
David Shearer, head of the UN in South Sudan, said that while the lack of face-to-face meetings between the two leaders remains one of the unresolved issues, the peace agreement has had a positive impact in the past few months.
“Hundreds — or thousands — are alive because of the agreement. Families have started returning home to plant crops, and humanitarian agencies have been able to reach more people in need.
“These are positive signs and an indicator of what can be achieved with total peace,” said Mr Shearer in his message to South Sudan during the observance of Independence Day.
But lack of funds has held back key pre-transition tasks including cantonment, training and the unification of the army.
The economy has been struggling due to a decline in oil production and the decision by major donors not to release funds until they see commitment to the peace process.
This past week, President Kiir conceded that in the past four years, his government has been experiencing serious financial challenges and weak governance institutions that has affected revenue collection with civil servants going for up to six months without pay.
While promising to personally take up the issue of late salaries, President Kiir expressed optimism, saying that the National Revenue Authority had reported increased revenues from non-oil resources. But will this optimism last?
Brian Adeba, deputy director of Policy at the Enough Project, says that the true meaning of independence has eluded South Sudan for the past eight years.
War and corruption have destroyed livelihoods and fostered social disharmony among the people, though there is still much to hope if the leaders are able to strengthen accountability and arrest the runaway corruption.
To arrive at this stage, leaders should muster the political will to implement the provisions of the peace agreement that call for a profound reform of the country’s institutions of accountability, Mr Adeba said.
“The international community must ensure that there is no let up on the financial pressure to hold South Sudanese leaders accountable for their actions and to help counter any ongoing corrupt activities. International pressure should include the use of network sanctions and anti-money laundering measures,” he said.
President Kiir admitted $8 billion had been lost in graft since the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement — that gave the south semi-autonomy — but he is yet to bring to book 75 former ministers and state officials who were fingered on “List of Shame.”
The UN, humanitarian organisations and anti-corruption agencies have produced successive reports that the political class divert oil money to their personal accounts in Kenya, Uganda and other safe havens while the general population continues to suffer.
In March last year, the US slapped 15 South Sudan oil companies with sanctions for allegedly using the proceeds to fund the war.
Also included was the South Sudan Ministry of Petroleum, and state oil firm Nile Petroleum. The Department of Commerce put the companies in its Entity List, which requires that the US and foreign companies doing business with those on the list first obtain a licence.
With four months remaining to the formation of the transitional government, the challenge is whether those who committed war crimes and crimes against humanity will be brought to book as part of national healing.
In April, it emerged that President Kiir had signed a $3.7 million deal with a US consultancy firm to block the Hybrid Court, which is one of the pillars of the agreement.
The contract with Gainful Solutions Inc—a company belonging to former diplomat Michael Ranneberger and Soheil Nazari-Kangarlou—has raised complaints that Juba is trying to subvert sections of the peace deal.