JUBA, Sudan: In this file photo thousands of Southern Sudanese wave the flag of their new country during a ceremony in the capital Juba to celebrate South Sudan's independence from Sudan. - AFP

JUBA, South Sudan: From hope to war, dreams to despair, South Sudan's tortured decade since independence has left the young country more fragile than ever, wracked by political instability, violence and desperate hunger. At midnight on July 9, 2011, celebrations erupted as the new nation was born and the people of South Sudan clapped and danced to mark the end of a long and bloody struggle for statehood.

"It was a new dawn and something like a miracle," said Wani Stephen Elias, recalling the joy as revelers waved the nation's new flag on the streets of the capital Juba, celebrating long into the night. But the optimism that ushered in its hard-fought independence from Sudan evaporated as the country's new leaders went to war in 2013.

The brutal conflict lasted five grinding years, costing 380,000 lives and displacing four million, shattering any illusions of a fresh start. "I've seen the greatest and the darkest of days," said Elias, 31. The political leaders who opted for war over building their nascent state are still in power today, ruling in a tenuous coalition forged under a peace deal.

The power-sharing arrangement between President Salva Kiir, a former military commander from the Dinka ethnic group, and his deputy Riek Machar, a rebel leader from the Nuer people, has kept fighting between their forces largely at bay since the ceasefire in 2018.

But the old foes have violated past truces and progress on this latest "revitalized" deal has drifted, exacerbating distrust between the pair. The "unity" government they belatedly formed in February 2020 under great international pressure is weak, while other crucial measures designed to avert another war have not been fulfilled.

'Quite tragic'

The political uncertainty comes as South Sudan reels from a biting economic crisis and soaring inflation, an upsurge in armed ethnic violence, and its worst hunger crisis since declaring independence. "South Sudan is clearly at a worse place than it was 10 years ago, which is quite tragic," said Alan Boswell, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group (ICG), a conflict prevention organization. The peace agreement outlined a path towards achieving key nation-building milestones derailed by the war, including the creation of a new parliament, constitutional reform, elections and a unified national army.

But nearly three years on, few have been realized. National parliament was only convened in May, with MPs to take the oath of office on the day of the anniversary on Friday, and confidence in the new assembly is wanting after delays and broken promises. "We are saying better late than never but... we want to see impact," said Jame David Kolok, executive director of Foundation for Democracy and Accountable Governance. "We want to see a reduction in corruption. We want to see our budget being monitored. We want to see services being improved. We want to see that security is stabilized, and that there is an environment for dialogue."

Potential powderkegs

Little progress has been made on constitutional reform while promised elections-slated for 2022 but pushed to 2023 -- could prove hugely destabilizing if arrangements aren't made to accommodate the losers. "If the elections become a showdown between the two main warring parties, this alone could be a recipe to go back to civil war," said Boswell. Another powderkeg is the failure to unite Kiir and Machar's rival troops into one army-a critical safeguard in the peace accords against future conflict, and bringing stability to lawless swathes of the country.

Both men committed to sending their forces for retraining and graduation but "very minimal progress" had been made, said Major General Charles Tai Gituai, the interim chairman of the RJMEC, the body which monitors the implementation of the peace process. The process has lacked funding and barracks for the troops have suffered critical shortages of food, water and medicine, prompting widespread desertion. Conditions were so bad in some camps that troops starved to death or died of disease. "It is clear that the unification of forces had stalled, and the conditions in the cantonment sites and training centers have markedly deteriorated," Gituai said on June 24.

Fighting and famine

The peace process has flatlined as more than seven million South Sudanese-about 60 percent of the entire population-suffer from a severe lack of food. Some face emergency levels of hunger while the most critical 108,000 are "literally at risk of famine this lean season", said Matthew Hollingworth, WFP country director. A litany of other catastrophes-drought, devastating floods for a second year running, and a record-bad locust plague-have exacerbated already dire conditions in a country dependent on foreign aid to provide the most services to its people.

And though the peace accords paused the worst of the bloodshed between conventional armies, armed conflict between rival ethnic groups has surged in ungoverned areas, exacting a civilian death toll not seen since the war. Ethnic militias were responsible for more than 80 percent of civilian casualties in 2021, the UN said, as well as abductions and sexual violence. "The common denominator of all this localized violence is that it's taking place in a failing state," Boswell said. - AFP