‘A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance’-said Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru when India gained independence.
On the 9th of July South Sudan a particularly restive part of Africa kept its tryst with that destiny. When President Salva Kiir Mayardit took oath as the first President of the Republic of South Sudan and the flag was unfurled- with the Speaker conducting the proceedings- the new nation not only gratefully savoured its first moments of independence but also remembered with sadness the spilt blood of the two million and more who sacrificed their lives for this very moment in time. Among the euphoria of the moment tears rolled down the cheeks of many that day.
The journey to nation hood has not been an easy one for South Sudan. It has been both long and arduous. Accompanied by bloodshed and violence it is the progeny of a conflict that was almost medieval in its brutality. The Sudan one of the largest and naturally endowed countries in Africa has always been historically but reluctantly entwined with Turkey and Egypt till the advent of the British in the 19th century. It was then jointly governed by Egypt and Britain with the south under the British. In 1946 the north and south were merged as a part of a British Middle East strategy. The southerners were not consulted. They were Christians, a minority and feared the influence of the culturally Arabic North. Internal tensions heightened when Sudan achieved independence in 1956 and the north –Khartoum- reneged on its commitment of creating a semi-autonomous federal government in South Sudan. Southern Sudan where all the oil fields were- only the pipelines were in the north- were vital for Khartoum’s economic growth. The south felt neglected and rose in rebellion.
And so the first rebel group of the south Anyanya 1 was born. Seventeen years of strife followed. In 1972 a precarious peace was brokered with the ‘Addis Ababa Agreement’. But it was an uneasy truce and conflict broke out again in 1983 with the Anyanya 2 now in the forefront. As Khartoum continued to brutally alienate the south the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement was founded. A conflict within the conflict (SPLM>Ananya) also led to more bloodletting. SPLM finally emerged victorious. But since then as before South Sudan has seen more years of bloodshed than peace. Its ethnic diversity being vast it would take another twenty two years of brutal violence (Millions killed, displaced and murdered) before a semblance of internal tribal unity could be achieved and the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement hammered out with an obstructive Khartoum. South Sudan could now choose to break away or stay- after a Referendum .It technically ended the civil war but sporadic battles still continued .The Referendum held in January 2011 saw a successful cent percent turnout for secession from the north. And hence this moment in history.
Despite being bedevilled by Khartoum’s inflammatory acts (recent capture of Abeyi and bombing of Kordofan) as it were and still tormented by rebellions and breakaway factions all across the south the leaders of the SPLM have steadfastly refused to be provoked. The ten states of the south that had opted to secede at the referendum held in Jan 2011 will now form the new nation of South Sudan. Juba a town on the White Nile-where we are and have been for the past few months- is to be the new capital.
While the north boasts of new dams and miles of metalled highways the south has barely seventy fifty miles of tarred roads. There is no proper housing or any kind of permanent infrastructure anywhere. There is stark poverty. But the south is hoping to cash in on its oil for development. Instead of sharing oil revenues they want to pay Khartoum a transit fee for using its pipelines till they build their own. Result- a lot of angry heartburn in Khartoum. China, a good friend of Khartoum and responsible for all existing pipelines and transit facilities is fast becoming a friend of Juba’s too. From restaurants to ‘made in china’ gadgets their presence is everywhere. With international money pouring in nation-building should be no problem unless corruption raises its ugly head but demands for commissions, Hummers and Range Rovers rattling past already indicate it has.
1500 heads of state and VIPs and more were there to attend the celebrations. And so Juba was given a much needed facelift before D-day. Grass roofed mud shanties and wreckages of tanks and trucks-all relics of the civil war- that line the tracks that pass for roads were removed and swept. The Dr John Garang mausoleum where the father of the SPLM is buried was spruced up for the swearing in and the grounds in front of it rid of all signs of habitation. Awnings were put up and flags flutter in the morning sun. For weeks before the day everywhere you could see volunteers in brand new uniforms out on the streets with brooms and brushes while public movement was curtailed .Even the bullet ridden stadium nearby was being given a new coat of paint. Containers and porta cabins that pass for homes and offices were giving way to more sturdy structures and the many quaint riverside camps that dot the Nile bank were being given a makeover including our home in Juba- the indolent Oasis Camp (porta cabins). The Konyo- Konyo, Jebel and Custom markets-rustic versions of Delhi’s INA market which were overflowing with international goods were closed for the day and the bodo bodos –motorcycle taxis- and public buses were banned while all hotels were chock a block with expected guests. Juba international airport which is housed in a large shed was closed to commercial traffic for the week .On that day the mausoleum grounds were awash with faces which portrayed joy, sadness and relief in turns. That they had lived to see this moment was perhaps something they had perhaps never dreamed of. And I for one will never forget the day that saw the birth of a nation. A moment that saw us shed a tear as well when the new flag was hoisted proudly amidst an august gathering of international heavy weights. India was represented by our vice President.
And as the international guests wing their way back home the Sudanese to a man will remember not only the violence of the past but also the action of President Basher (wanted by the criminal court of Justice) of the erstwhile unified Sudan who albeit brutally reluctant gave in finally and brought an end to decades of a cruel civil war. Fittingly he was the guest of honour that day.