Reflections on the Independence Celebrations in South Sudan

by Jeff Kaiser:

It’s not everyday you get to hear a declaration of independence read in a new nation. Saturday was a memorable and historic day here in Juba and across South Sudan as the nation officially seceded from the North after 2 bitter wars that lasted over 40 years.

I had incredible access with a press pass and won’t try to cover every moment I was lucky enough to witness (see for photos). But a few thoughts are worth sharing.

First, they pulled it off. In the weeks leading up to this weekend you probably read stories about the violence in the border region with the North and how it was likely to “complicate the South’s independence” or “disrupt plans for the South to declare its independence.” The sense I got here was that almost nothing would have prevented the celebrations from occurring on Saturday and that those lines in news stories were unnecessarily dramatic. But much of the preparation for
the day was left to the last minute, and there was real worry that any number of problems would arise. There was concern the airport wouldn’t be able to handle the number of incoming planes, the venue wouldn’t be complete, the flagpoles wouldn’t be up, etc. But despite a few minor hiccups, the event went smoothly. There were moments of pushing and shoving in the packed crowds but no significant security breaches. It was hot and many people fainted (from the excitement, according to some local papers…) but water was eventually passed around and there were no major injuries as far as I know. The singing and dancing in the streets went well into the night, and people were overjoyed.

President Salva Kiir addresses the new nation as the final speaker of the day. (Kaiser/TYG)

Reactions to Bashir’s presence at the event were mixed. One member of parliament told me yesterday that as the first Arab to recognize the South’s independence Bashir deserves some credit and it was good of him to come and speak. It is difficult for me to understand giving him any credit, other than for the murder of millions of people, especially as he continues killing civilians to this day in the Nuba mountains. But it was really something to see Bashir and Salva Kiir
standing together as the Sudanese flag was lowered and the flag of South Sudan was raised. As Bashir finished his speech many people in the crowd began waving goodbye and chanting “bye bye Bashir.”

Presidents Kiir and Bashir watch the military parade. (Kaiser/TYG)

President Kiir’s speech was easily the best of the day. He addressed a number of major problems facing his new nation, and if he is serious about tackling corruption and playing a role in settling other regional disputes South Sudan will be off to a solid start. He again offered amnesty to any rebel groups or others who have taken up arms against the South, he pledged to work closely with the North in resolving remaining disputes, and he addressed the issue of tribalism,
reminding the crowd that, “you may be a Zande, a Kakwa, a Nuer, a Shilluk, a Dinka, or a Bari, but remember you are a Southern Sudanese first.”

President Salva Kiir and Vice President Riek Machar walk down the red carpet after unveiling the statue of Garang. (Kaiser/TYG)

The celebrations continued in Juba on Sunday and will last throughout the week. The new national football team played a match against the Kenya Tuskers FC (sadly losing 3-1), and the national basketball team will face Uganda later today (with a better chance of winning this one it seems).

The heads of state and other dignitaries have all left; most of the hundreds of foreign journalists will be gone by today or tomorrow; and things will quickly return to normal in Juba. There is a lot of work to be done here, and with independence in the past the government can hopefully begin to tackle the major issues facing the world’s newest nation.

The Red Carpet. (Kaiser/TYG)