July 9, 2011 2:03 am

South Sudan celebrates its arrival

After decades of civil war with its northern counterpart and a January referendum in which its 8m inhabitants voted overwhelmingly to secede, South Sudan was born with a midnight candlelit vigil.

For days, teams in the capital, Juba, have been preparing for the big day – filling in potholes, erecting new buildings and arranging practice dances, rallies and parades.

Workers were painting street furniture late on the eve of independence, in anticipation of the arrival of 30 heads of state, many more dignitaries and a country of their own to run. The few vehicles that still travel the roads, amid tight security, stream the bold colours of the new flag in the wind.

Timeline

1956: Sudan gains independence from British and Egyptian rule with the north and south of the country already at war.

1972: The Addis Ababa peace agreement is signed and the Southern Sudan Autonomous Region is formed.

1983: President Jaafar Numeiri abolishes the SSAR and Islamic law is imposed. Civil war begins between the government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, led by John Garang.

2005: An agreement is signed by the SPLA and the Khartoum government, after more than two million die during the civil war. The deal promises a referendum on independence for South Sudan after six years.

July 2005: John Garang is sworn in as vice-president of Sudan.

August 2005: Mr Garang is killed in a helicopter crash. His death prompts riots in Khartoum. Salva Kiir succeeds as leader of the south.

January 9 2011: More than 98 per cent of South Sudanese vote in favour of independence from the north.

May 2011: Fighting breaks out in oil-rich region of Abyei, which is then occupied by northern troops, and in northern states of Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile where there are significant populations that sympathise with the south.

May 31 2011: Both sides accept the principle of an Ethiopian-UN peacekeeping force in Abyei to be demilitarised and jointly monitored and patrolled.

July 9 2011: The Republic of South Sudan declares its independence.

Other last-minute activities have been frantic. In a matter of days the parliament charged through bills that might usually take months of earnest discussion. MPs voted everything from a nationality and citizenship act to a new constitution into law.

The government has also giddily set about assembling the paraphernalia of a new state: a new anthem, a new flag, a new coat of arms and a new currency that will arrive next week, but has lost none of its old fighting spirit.

“Never again shall South Sudanese be oppressed for their political outlook,” said President Salva Kiir Mayardit in a statement, calling on his people to “put the long and sorry history of war, hardship and loss behind them”.

The memory of more than 2m people who died in two long stretches of civil war, which predated independence from the Egyptians and British in 1956, is omnipresent.

The new anthem, which rings out from mobile phones across Juba, entreats people to salute “our martyrs whose blood cemented our national foundation”. Bold black capitals announce on billboards “we were oppressed and now free together”, while others acknowledge the debt to both “bullets and ballots”.

On Friday afternoon, groups gathered at the town’s countdown-to-independence clock.

The country has a heady task ahead of it to build up education and health systems, retrench its unwieldy army and attract investment beyond its oil sector, which provides 98 per cent of revenues.

As independence has dawned, seven separate militias were already fighting ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement forces.

At a recent rally, former combatants pleaded for a new and more peaceful beginning. John Junub, 35, an army musician who drove tanks during the war, says there are now better ways bring the militias into line.

“I came from the rebels to the government: we will bring these militias in slowly through talking,” he said at a rally in the days leading up to Saturday’s celebrations. “A better life will come automatically with independence,” he added, reflecting popular expectations of a rapid turnround in fortunes once the South is freed from domination by distant Khartoum.

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