Elf mabrouk to the newest country in the world!
I’ve been in Juba for the celebrations, coming up from Kampala on a bus packed to the roof with returning Southerners travelling from Nairobi. Passports of all colours – predominantly USA blue – were produced at the border, but everyone was excited about becoming, finally, South Sudanese.
The week has been relatively tense in Juba, as concrete and tarmac sets slowly in the baking heat, huge numbers of police and soldiers set up road blocks and machine-gun posts all over town in four rings of security, and public transport shut down. Several arrests of foreign journalists meant I persuaded the Ministry of Information to give me a press pass to try to avoid problems with photography.
Flags were everywhere all week, flying from cars and from shouting, laughing men and women on the back of motorbikes and pick-ups, honking and screaming their way around town. I fought a policeman for the best souvenir Garang badge, bought t-shirts, and had people demand their photographs be taken in an array of seriously smart, bizarre or flag-based fashions.
Although technically independence was on Saturday, the idea that this is the birth of the new country – and that Saturday is its birthday – meant that most people in the street (and the Minister of Information) announced that at midnight on Friday night, South Sudan was independent. This meant huge celebrations on Friday, with dancing, truckloads of shouting people and fireworks all over town. The huge clock tower on the main roundabout, which had shown a countdown to independence, reached zero: for many people, the celebrations on Saturday were a birthday party rather than the official start of the country.
Saturday was bright and clear when I walked with thousands of people, in suits and dresses, heels and flags, down to John Garang’s mausoleum grounds, which had been frantically done up with ranked seating for the dignitaries and lines of flag poles. I maneuvred into the press compound despite not having security clearance, as the security – and crowd control – was totally ineffectual. A few scuffles between riot police and people demanding a better view broke out around 10am, when foreign presidents began to arrive.
Zuma arrived in a fabulous convoy of four armoured cars with machine-gun turrets, appropriate given his theme song of Umshini Wami. Bashir arrived flanked with wailing police motorbike outriders, American-style, and prompted a surge of the crowd and some shouting. I managed to get a good view of Kiir, his cowboy hat making him usefully recognisable on the podium, while he was sworn in as President.
It was an emotional day – my face hurt from grinning, and babies were passed around in the heat, water was shared, as everyone congratulated each other. As the flag was raised, and the cheering became overwhelming, a woman near to me fainted and then became hysterical, and I unexpectedly welled up. Despite having very mixed emotions about the future of the South, and thinking of the sadness of my Northern friends, it was an extremely happy and emotional moment.
Among the jubliation and real excitement, people were explicit about their feelings of loss and grief over their dead relatives and friends, the problems facing the new country, and their own concerns about the future: I heard a lot of people say that they expected a lot of change, and I don’t doubt that, as the weeks go on, the new citizens will begin to make some clear demands on their new president. At the moment, though, Juba is full of joy.
With a headache from the sun and impressively burnt, I went out in the evening to the cultural show at Nyakoran and had a dance and a chat with Ugandans, Kenyans and South Sudanese, everyone slightly sloshed and a little delirious from the excitement. The roads were still thick with people at 11, and on my way home, the fireworks started.