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South Sudan’s first birthday will be a sad one

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Nearly three months after rebels overran Bentiu and killed several hundred civilians in a mosque, the South Sudanese town close to some of the country’s biggest oilfields is still a wreck. The dead are now buried in mass graves and government troops have regained control of the mucky streets. Rebels remain nearby and fighting flares up occasionally. The killers, who had been stirred up by agitators on local radio, are still in the vicinity. The smell of death lingers in the air. Most of Bentiu’s residents remain in the bush, scared away by boyish gunmen, some of them too short in stature to fit into uniforms. Looted public buildings are shells. The offices of the Red Cross are strewn with paper and shards of glass. An alarm bell rings incessantly.

Six months after a civil war broke out, peace deals continue to come and go. The last one signed by the country’s president, Salva Kiir, and the rebel leader, Riek Machar, was on June 10, after they met face to face in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, and agreed to form a transitional government within 60 days. It was their fourth deal this year. Each collapsed within days.

Neighbouring governments have threatened harsh sanctions, with vital supplies cut off, if the two men do not come to terms. Both sides are running short of cash. Oil production, the government’s main source of revenue, has dropped by between a third and a half. The president is said to have borrowed $200 million from oil firms but still cannot meet his wage bill.

Machar, until last year the vice-president, is even shorter of cash. He is said to run his rebel forces from a plastic chair in a tented bush camp. His wife cooks freshly caught fish while he talks on a satellite telephone to his rebel commanders, occasionally consulting a copy of the American army’s counterinsurgency manual.

The rift between the two men has cost at least 10,000 lives; one million-plus people have fled their homes. Almost four million, it is reported, are at risk of starvation. Cholera is rife. The United Nations shelters 100,000 people in its bases but cannot protect them from attacks. The rump state of Sudan, the new state’s old enemy, is said to have sent arms to the rebels.

South Sudan’s third birthday on July 9 will be a sad affair. Born as a democracy with hopes of a peaceful future after half a century of on-and-off war, the country is not only mired in violence but increasingly repressive. Nhial Bol, editor of The Citizen, a leading newspaper, started a television channel as the sole alternative to the state broadcaster after independence from Sudan. But it has ceased to operate after the government in effect banned balanced reporting. Copies of the Juba Daily, another newspaper, have frequently been impounded. Officials regard interviewing rebels as subversive.

How to rescue the new country?

South Sudan’s biggest problem has long been obvious. The men who won the war that led to independence are tough fighters but poor administrators. They transferred their military leadership from the bush to plush offices, deaf to advice that post-war politics should function on the basis of compromise and tolerance. The new rulers like to say: "My military uniform is still in the closet." Even before the current civil war broke out, violence and rule by fiat were routine. The guerrilla forces never gelled into a regular peacetime army. Ethnic and personal allegiances trumped loyalty to the new institutions. The country is again divided into commanders’ fiefs.

If the military men can be persuaded to retire to barracks, perhaps giving way to international peacekeepers, South Sudan will still need regional devolution. The last three years have shown that a country with only one paved road but many tribes cannot be run by decree. The International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based lobby, has called for a radical restructuring of the state. "Power-sharing will not end the conflict," it argues.

Others say that South Sudan is simply not ready to run itself; foreign trustees should take over for several years, much as they did in Kosovo, East Timor and Sierra Leone after their bloody conflicts. Local officials in South Sudan, about half of whom are said to be illiterate, would have to be trained anew.

The South Sudanese sound less than keen on this. Exhausted, angry, scared and disappointed as they are, almost none of them is ready to give up on the nation state they fought so long and hard to win. The renewed civil war, famine and slaughter have not yet broken their spirit. Samuel Matut Pop, a refugee in Bentiu, said in basic English, "I’m still proud I’m a South Sudanese. I will never go to another country."

Of the thousands of people who have sought refuge at the U.N. compound in Bentiu, few seem bent on vengeance. Roda Nyakuon Mathok, 29, stands in a humid tent, waiting in a long queue for food. Wearing a black T-shirt with the slogan "I love S Sudan", she said: "The only thing I want is peace."

In Juba, South Sudan’s capital, about 500 kilometres south of Bentiu, Paul Almas is sitting on a motorbike, waiting for customers. He is one of about 2.5 million South Sudanese repatriated after an initial peace deal with the north was signed in 2005. Back then, he wanted to study law and become a judge to help build a nation. Lacking money, he started a moto-taxi business, but said his dream is still alive. "Now in South Sudan, there is no law. I hope to change this."

Despite the fighting across swathes of the country, the government has not given up the ghost. In June the ministry of postal services inaugurated its new headquarters. Mobile-telephone networks and Internet access are improving.

Many young people are turning away from traditional tribal culture, which has encouraged ancient rivalry between the Dinka and the Nuer, the country’s two main tribes. Both factions stress tribal loyalty.

But younger people may be turning their backs on it. When he was 16, William Bol Gatkuoth, a rural Nuer, rejected his father’s demand that six horizontal cuts be made on his forehead, a traditional sign of manhood. Gatkuoth, who speaks Dinka and Nuer, insists that without the scars he can work unharmed anywhere in South Sudan. "This is a modern world," he said. "Many people leave aside their tribal issues." A schoolteacher reports that fewer of his male pupils who are Dinka now sport their tribe’s V-shaped cut-marks. Simon Bingo, a local filmmaker, said, "In the cities, it is disappearing."

 

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