JUBA, Sudan — An impromptu celebration broke out under the shade of a mahogany tree in the heart of Juba on Wednesday.
Men, their bare chests smeared with dust and some draped from the waist down in faux leopard skin, took turns gyrating in the center of a circle of onlookers. They leapt into the air to the encouragement of ululating women and the beating of drums.
They have much to celebrate.
On Saturday, South Sudan will become the world’s newest nation, with Juba — a dusty town where paved roads are a luxury and most buildings are prefabricated structures — as its capital.
Despite the celebratory mood that pervades the city, southern officials are aware of the challenges that lie ahead.
The conflict raging across most of the south’s 10 states is foremost among their concerns. Southern officials and Western organizations accuse the northern government of Sudanese President Omar Bashir of arming rebels. Others cite tribal rivalry and disenchantment with the government.
Internal Affairs Minister Maj. Gen. Gier Chuang Aluong told journalists that the “enemies” of the state were working to destabilize the south.
“They want to portray South Sudan as a failed state even before takeoff,” he said.
“Tribal conflicts continue to tear us apart on a daily basis,” he added.
Matt Brown, a spokesman for the Enough Project, which advocates against genocide, said there is ample evidence to show that the rebels are backed by Lt. Gen. Bashir’s government in Khartoum, the capital of the nation that will retain the name Sudan.
“Bashir has supported the militias before - the Janjaweed in Darfur and the Misseriya in Abyei. This has his stamp all over it,” he said.
Meanwhile, a satellite monitoring group said Khartoum has amassed a large convoy of troops, vehicles and artillery in Kadugli, the capital of Southern Kordofan, a state near the southern border that has been the scene of recent violence. The U.S.-based Satellite Sentinel Project is monitoring security-related developments along the internal border between the north and the south.
A Western official, who spoke on background citing the sensitive nature of the issue, said northerners as well as southerners are responsible for waging retribution attacks against each other in Southern Kordofan.
The government in Khartoum has denied United Nations humanitarian agencies access to parts of Southern Kordofan that have been affected by the violence.
Valerie Amos, U.N. Emergency Relief coordinator, expressed concern for the humanitarian situation in the state.
“All parties to the conflict are exhibiting total disregard for civilians, who are being killed, injured, terrorized and displaced by repeated attacks, including aerial bombardments,” she said.
Gen. Bashir is under indictment by The Hague-based International Criminal Court on charges of involvement in war crimes in Sudan’s western province of Darfur. But he will be attending the independence celebrations in Juba on Saturday.
In a referendum in January, southerners voted overwhelmingly to secede from the north.
However, many post-referendum issues still need to be worked out between north and south Sudan. Prominent among them are the fate of the oil-rich region of Abyei that straddles the border and is claimed by both sides, and the sharing of oil revenue. Most of the oil fields are in the south, but the pipelines that pump the oil to the Red Sea port of Port Sudan are all in the north.
Officials from the north and the south are engaged in intense discussions in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, to resolve these outstanding issues, southern officials told The Washington Times.
“These post-referendum issues will become post-independence issues,” Barnaba Marial Benjamin, the south’s minister of information, said in an interview.
Acknowledging the tremendous challenges faced by the south, he said: “South Sudan is bigger than Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi combined. It has been destroyed over 50 years of war, and so it is a real ground zero, and to have a ground zero of this size means that there are many challenges in infrastructure and development.”
Two decades of north-south civil war that ended with the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005 left at least 2 million people dead.
The south’s challenges extend to the new government.
In the legislative assembly on Wednesday, lawmakers open a debate over the transitional constitution.
Government critics, including some in the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), are concerned about the disproportionate powers vested in the office of the president.
Vice President Riek Machar has been a leading critic, citing the authority given to the president to dismiss state governors at whim. Others criticize the power to appoint 66 members of the president’s choosing to the legislative body, which is already dominated by the SPLM.
To some, those powers are ominous portents of one-party dominance on a continent that is no stranger to strongmen.
Assembly Speaker James Wani Igga urged lawmakers to quickly approve the text of the constitution.
“We can’t go to independence without a constitution. Otherwise, we will be seen as a people who cannot govern ourselves,” he told them.
However, Onyoti Nyikwech Adigo, leader of the opposition, warned of the consequences of rushing to embrace what he described as a flawed text.
“The oppressor has no color. Even a black man can be an oppressor, if he goes against the wishes of the people,” he said.
At midnight Friday, as the date switches over to July 9, the joyous sounds of church bells, drums and songs will echo across Juba.
Officials have banned celebratory gunfire, like the shots that punctuated the air after the announcement of the results of the January referendum. Instead, a 21-gun salute will mark the birth of the nation.
“The 9th will be a day of celebration, but come July 10 the fighting will be back on,” Mr. Brown predicted.
Some southern officials share that grim outlook.
“This date is not the end of the road, rather the beginning of challenges,” Gen. Aluong said.
Yet there is much to celebrate in Juba. The airport, a ramshackle building with a single runway that until recently was not equipped with lights, received a new radar system on Wednesday. On Thursday, its first direct flight outside Africa will head to Milan, Italy.