On July 9, 2011, celebrations erupted as a new nation was born and the people of South Sudan clapped and danced to mark the end of a long and bloody struggle for statehood.
"It was a new dawn and something like a miracle," said Wani Stephen Elias, recalling the joy as revellers waved the nation's new flag on the streets of the capital Juba, celebrating long into the night.
But the optimism that ushered in its hard-fought independence from Sudan evaporated as the country's new leaders went to war in 2013.
From hope to war, dreams to despair, South Sudan's tortured decade has left the young country more fragile than ever, wracked by political instability, violence and hunger.
The brutal conflict lasted five grinding years, costing 380,000 lives, displacing four million and shattering any illusions of a fresh start.
"I've seen the greatest and the darkest of days," said Elias, 31.
The political leaders who opted for war over building their nascent state are still in power today, ruling in a tenuous coalition forged under a peace deal.
The power-sharing arrangement between President Salva Kiir, a former military commander from the Dinka ethnic group, and his deputy Riek Machar, a rebel leader from the Nuer people, has kept fighting between their forces largely at bay since the ceasefire in 2018. But the old foes have violated past truces and progress on this latest "revitalised" deal has drifted, exacerbating mistrust between the pair.
The "unity" government they belatedly formed in February 2020 under great international pressure is weak, while other crucial measures designed to avert another war have not been fulfilled.
The Cabinet on Wednesday announced that there will be no formal celebrations in the country, largely due to Covid-19 infection fears.
The Council of Ministers also postponed the arranged swearing-in of the new transitional Legislature from Friday to a date yet to be announced. Deputy Information minister Baba Medan said that President Kiir would speak to citizens in a televised address on Friday.
Yet Covid-19 is not the only problem that the Kiir administration is facing. South Sudan reels from a biting economic crisis and soaring inflation, an upsurge in armed ethnic violence and its worst hunger since independence.
"South Sudan is clearly at a worse place than it was 10 years ago, which is quite tragic," said Alan Boswell, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group.
The peace agreement outlined a path towards achieving key nation-building milestones derailed by the war, including the creation of a new parliament, constitutional reforms, elections and a unified national army.
But, nearly three years on, few of these have been realised.
The national parliament was only convened in May, with MPs yet to take the oath of office. Confidence in the new assembly is wanting after delays and broken promises. On July 6, President Kiir revoked the appointment of 35 lawmakers to the Revitalised Transitional Legislative Assembly.
Little progress has been made on constitutional reform while promised elections – slated for 2022 but pushed to 2023 – could prove hugely destabilising if arrangements are not made to accommodate the losers.
But Jame David Kolok, executive director of Foundation for Democracy and Accountable Governance, says it’s better late than never, “but we want to see impact."
"We want to see a reduction in corruption. We want to see our budget being monitored. We want to see services being improved. We want to see that security is stabilised, and that there is an environment for dialogue."
Another powder keg is the failure to unite President Kiir and First Vice-President Machar's rival troops into one army – a critical safeguard in the peace accords against future conflict – and bringing stability to lawless swathes of the country.
Both men committed to sending their forces for retraining and graduation, but "very minimal progress" had been made, said Maj-Gen Charles Tai Gituai, interim chairman of the Reconstituted Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission, the body which monitors the implementation of the peace process.
The process has lacked funding and barracks for the troops have suffered critical shortages of food, water and medicine, prompting widespread desertion. Conditions were so bad in some camps that troops starved to death or died of disease.
"It is clear that the unification of forces had stalled, and the conditions in the cantonment sites and training centres have markedly deteriorated," Maj-Gen Gituai said on June 24.
Fighting and famine
The peace process has flatlined as more than eight million South Sudanese – about 66 percent of the entire population – suffer a severe lack of food.
Some face emergency levels of hunger while the most critical 108,000 are "literally at risk of famine this lean season," said Matthew Hollingworth, World Food Programme country director.
A litany of other catastrophes – drought, devastating floods for a second year running, and a record-bad locust plague – have exacerbated the dire conditions in a country dependent on foreign aid to provide the most services to its people.
And though the peace accords paused the worst of the bloodshed between conventional armies, armed conflict between rival ethnic groups has surged in ungoverned areas, exacting a civilian death toll not seen since the war.
Ethnic militias were responsible for more than 80 percent of civilian casualties in 2021, the UN said, as well as abductions and sexual violence.
"The common denominator of all this localised violence is that it's taking place in a failing state," Boswell said.
South Sudan, whose economy is dependent on petrodollars, faces an uncertain future as the oil blocks’ production capacity is in decline while its reserves have dwindled significantly, senior government officials said last week.
Real GDP is expected to grow by 0.1 percent in 2021 and 2.5 percent in 2022. Inflation is expected to drop to 23.3 percent in 2021 due to the easing of containment measures, which will facilitate imports of food and other essentials.
Public financial management reforms and the recovery of global oil prices could reduce the fiscal deficit to 1.2 percent of GDP in 2021, with external borrowing expected to bridge the public financing gap. The current account deficit is expected to fall to 2.3 percent of GDP in 2021.
A breach in the peace accord, oil price fluctuations, and climate change, are the main downside risks to the growth outlook.
The economy depends 98 percent on oil revenues from crude exports to finance its budget, but Awow Daniel Chuang, Under secretary in the Ministry of Petroleum, said the country’s oil blocks’ total production has dropped to 154,000 barrels per day (bpd), from 180,000 bpd two years ago. The current output is less than half of the pre-war optimal production of 350,000 bpd.
During the Fourth Oil and Power Conference held in Juba on June 29-30, Mr Chuang explained that five of the six producing blocks have reached their peak, while the remaining Block 5A has not realised full potential because of production capping.
New data shows that South Sudan’s total proven reserves now stand at one billion barrels, down from 3.5 billion barrels that Juba inherited from Sudan when it became independent.
The upstream slump comes at a time when the global oil price is recovering from the crash it suffered last year, in part due to the Covid-19 impact.
Juba now looks to the yet-to-be-explored blocks to plug its dwindling reserves. Last month, the government launched the first-ever oil and gas licensing round aimed at accelerating exploration — and eventually oil production, if the country strikes oil in the five new blocks.
The upcoming open acreage for the first licensing round are Blocks A2, A5, B1, B4 and D2 ranging between 4,000 square kilometres and 25,000 square kilometres – which are part of the country’s 90 percent unexplored area for oil and gas.
Finance Minister Athian Ding Athian cites mismanagement of oil revenues as an undermining factor of development, adding that “these resources are not properly used”.
He said that the Transitional Government of National Unity will implement reforms to create transparency and accountability in the oil sector.
“It is time that these resources benefited the community,” he said.
Deputy Finance Minister Agok Makur says oil wealth has been misused since independence.
“South Sudan is a not a poor country; we have enough resources but the resources are not properly used. There is lack of proper management,” he told Anadolu news agency last month.
Analysis of oil revenues and budget allocations shows that security and classified expenditure have over the past decade taken the lion’s share, while infrastructure has only become a priority for the government in the past two financial years.
Social sectors such as education and health have rarely been allocated more than five percent each of the resource envelope. Unicef says 70 percent of the children are out of school and two out of every three are in desperate need of humanitarian support.
Child mortality rate is among the highest in the world, with one in every 10 children not expected to reach their fifth birthday. Malnutrition and limited access to education are among the top concerns, considering that 1.4 million are suffering acute malnutrition.
Unicef Executive Director Henrietta Fore said many 10-year-olds in South Sudan have never known peace.
“The hope and optimism children and families felt at birth of their country in 2011 have slowly turned to desperation and hopelessness,” she said, noting that the right to good health, development, nutritious food and clean drinking water has been compromised.
This has been blamed on the cumulative effect of years of conflict, limited essential services, weak governance and Covid-19. In the Human Development Index, South Sudan ranks 185 out of 189.
In a report titled “Respond to Our Cry” released on July 6, Unicef expressed concern that the deepening economic crisis has led to high food insecurity and the recent peace agreement, partially implemented, “has failed to bring about any remedy to the challenges facing children and young people.”
Many areas are still affected by violence and armed conflict. South Sudan remains Africa’s largest refugee crisis, with 3.8 million people displaced inside and outside the country.
"South Sudan is one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world and the most forgotten. At more than 60 per cent, South Sudan has one of the highest percentages of children in need of humanitarian assistance,” said Unicef Chief of Field Operations in South Sudan, Mads Oyen.
Mr Oyen noted that the “humanitarian crisis in South Sudan is a child rights crisis”.
“Two-thirds of children are unable to access even their most basic rights — the right to life, the right to education and the right to a family and protection.”
Limited access to education and high dropout rates have left 2.8 million children out of school – the highest in the world. A 14-month school closure because of the Covid pandemic had pushed an additional two million children out of school. Schools reopened but many children may not return and most girls who dropped out are now mothers. Child marriage is a common problem in South Sudan. Rape and physical assault have also been reported among children.
Children face malaria, pneumonia, preventable diseases and death. Diarrhoea underpins malnutrition and is one of top three causes of child mortality in South Sudan, Unicef said in its report. From late 2020 through the first half of 2021, 313,000 children have been in need of treatment for severe acute malnutrition.
“The minimum standard must at least be to save children from diseases and conditions that we know how to prevent including diarrhoea, malaria, polio and measles. This would at least give them a chance. Too many children live without that in South Sudan,” said Unicef.
Unicef has appealed for $180 million for work in South Sudan. “Donors have made cuts in their budgets for South Sudan or given notice that reductions are just around the corner. The crisis will worsen as we enter the lean season with increased risk of flooding,’’ said Ms Fore.
Widespread poverty is the main reason South Sudan ranks 187th out of 189 countries in the Human Development Index, and explains why life expectancy is 57, compared with the global average of 72.
The World Bank says South Sudan experienced near-hyperinflation because of civil war, which caused a 60-fold increase in the prices of basic goods in an already fragile economy, where most work is self-employment in agriculture.
The country's currency has depreciated nearly 100-fold since independence, and a parallel market for US dollars has developed, with a gap of 100 per cent or more between the parallel and official exchange rates.
Since 2011, non-oil GDP has fallen by 37 percent and household disposable income by 70 per cent.
Outlook for the next decade
Leaders say they have learnt hard lessons, but with the country still largely divided along tribal lines, significant hurdles remain in the way of a lasting peace.
“Tribalism has been a challenge and that’s why the national dialogue has been initiated," said Gen Lul Ruai Koang, the spokesman for the South Sudanese Army. "Our diversity shouldn’t be a source of division. I shouldn’t look at my tribe as the supreme tribe. Every tribe adds to our society," he told The National.
"We now have become peacemakers in the region as we have mediated between the north and different rebels groups and the Sudanese government.”
Only time will tell.
By Julius Barigaba , Kennedy Senelwa and AFP