As South Sudan turns 1, government turns to citizens to help fund army

July 6, 2012

To mark its first birthday on Monday, the world's youngest nation will celebrate in a bizarre way: It will beg for money from its own people to finance the national army.

As part of its anniversary celebrations, the government of South Sudan is asking each citizen to contribute the equivalent of about 31 cents to help its military. It's a deeply symbolic act, showing how impoverished the government has become, and how crucial the army has become to its future.

It was just a year ago – on July 9, 2011 – that the south finally won its independence from Sudan after decades of civil war and millions of deaths. There was a mood of euphoria as South Sudan became the newest country on the world stage, free at last from Khartoum's oppression.

But the euphoria soon vanished. The first year of its independence has been plagued by disasters, including brutal ethnic clashes, border wars with the north, bombing raids by Khartoum's warplanes, a worsening refugee crisis, corruption scandals, the collapse of oil revenue, and mounting economic turmoil.

Though it was strongly supported by the West, in some ways the southern secession was premature. Its economic survival was dependent on its oil revenue, yet this revenue was entirely in the hands of Khartoum, since all of the oil pipelines from South Sudan went through the north on their way to export terminals on the Red Sea.

Without co-operation from Khartoum, the south's revenue would be jeopardized. And the north-south negotiations were far from settled when South Sudan became independent a year ago.

Those negotiations soon fell apart, and Khartoum began seizing South Sudan's crude oil, claiming it as payment for unpaid transit fees. In retaliation, the south shut down all of its oil production, even though it badly needed the oil money, which accounts for 98 per cent of its state revenue.

The loss of the oil revenue has triggered an economic crisis. Inflation is soaring, food and fuel prices are rising, the national currency has weakened, and the government has been forced into austerity measures, including drastic cuts in spending. Nobody knows whether it can afford to keep paying its civil servants and soldiers – hence the unorthodox fundraising scheme at the anniversary celebrations.

South Sudan remains one of the poorest countries in the world, with one-fifth of its people suffering from chronic hunger. Its rates of maternal mortality and child mortality are among the worst in the world. The average woman in South Sudan has a greater chance of dying in childbirth than of completing her high-school education.

And now the new nation is facing a severe refugee crisis. About 120,000 refugees are crowded into squalid camps in Upper Nile State, near the south's border with Sudan. In one camp, the death rate is nearly double the emergency threshold, according to a report today by Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders).

Heavy rains have flooded the refugee camp, leaving it contaminated by overflowing latrines, while many children sleep in soaked blankets, vulnerable to hypothermia.

"These people have fled terrible violence in Sudan and lost family members during their arduous journeys for safety, and now they are sitting exposed in refugee camps on a flood plain and dying from preventable diseases due to horrific living conditions," said Tara Newell, the MSF emergency coordinator at Jamam refugee camp.

Meanwhile, border clashes and ethnic violence have left thousands of people dead in the past few months. South Sudan's national army has fought at least seven armed opposition groups. More than 1,000 people have been killed in ethnic clashes and cattle raids, which the military was unable to halt, despite plenty of advance warning.

Human rights abuses have remained frequent since the south's independence. A report this week by a rights group, Reporters Without Borders, said the journalists of South Sudan often face detention, beatings, and other forms of violence and intimidation. The government "has yet to embark on a road to civil liberties," the report said.

Corruption is another huge problem. The government has admitted that $4-billion in oil revenue has been stolen by officials. "Many people in South Sudan are suffering and yet some government officials simply care about themselves," said South Sudan president Salva Kiir in a letter to 75 current and former officials, pleading with them to return the stolen money.

As the situation becomes increasingly disastrous, South Sudan's friends in the West are becoming worried. Even its staunchest ally, the United States, is fretting over its fate.

"Conflict and unresolved issues with Sudan, and internal inter-ethnic tensions, have led to increased fighting and economic hardship that threaten to compromise the very foundation on which South Sudan's future is built," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a statement this week.

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