Juba, SOUTH SUDAN — South Sudan became the world’s newest nation and effectively one of the poorest on Saturday, but for at least today this grim fact did little to spoil the party in the streets of Juba.
Scores of ecstatic southerners waving flags of the new Republic of South Sudan, honked horns, danced in the streets to the steady beat of drums and chanted “oye, oye” in celebration in the south’s capital city.
“We’re very happy today,” said a beaming George, sporting a T-shirt that read: “Free at Last!”
“Finally we are free! We have our own country,” said Lillian, shouting happily to make herself heard over the din.
Southerners voted in a Jan. 9 referendum for independence from the north.
A digital screen that in the days leading up to independence displayed a countdown clock in a traffic circle in the city was the epicenter of the celebrations. Police and security personnel kept a watchful eye as a boisterous crowd celebrated around them.
South Sudan remains the scene of widespread conflict and southern officials have warned that rebels may attempt to disrupt the independence celebrations.
A formal independence ceremony will be held at the memorial to John Garang, the first president of the Government of Southern Sudan, on Saturday morning.
Delegations from around the world will be attending. The U.S. delegation is led by Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and includes former Secretary of State Colin Powell.
The speaker of the South Sudan Legislative Assembly, James Wani Igga, will read out the proclamation of independence. This will be followed by the lowering of Sudan’s national flag and raising of the new flag of South Sudan.
Besides United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir will also attend and speak at the event.
Gen. al-Bashir has been indicted by the International Criminal Court on allegations of war crimes in Sudan’s western province of Darfur. Gen. Bashir denies the charges.
Noting Gen. Bashir’s presence at the event, an international human rights group said visiting delegations should not use the opportunity to meet the Sudanese leader.
“As South Sudan celebrates its independence, foreign guests at the ceremony shouldn’t forget that one of the attendees – President al-Bashir — is a fugitive from justice,” said Balkees Jarrah, international justice counsel at Human Rights Watch.
“Any contact with al-Bashir, who is subject to two ICC arrest warrants would send a terrible message to victims in Darfur: that their suffering isn’t reason enough to avoid hobnobbing with their alleged abuser,” he added.
The Washington Times reported earlier this week that southern officials have prepared a special seating plan for the ceremony that is intended to prevent Gen. Bashir from coming face to face with representatives of governments that have been calling for his arrest.
The government in Khartoum was the first to officially recognize the south as a new nation.
“The Republic of Sudan announces that it recognizes the Republic of South Sudan as an independent state, according to the borders existing on January 1, 1956,” Sudan’s Minister of Presidential Affairs Bakri Hassan Saleh said in a statement broadcast on state television on Friday night.
The United Nations Security Council, meanwhile, extended the mandate of its peacekeeping force for South Sudan on Friday.
The council approved the deployment of up to 7,000 military personnel and 900 international police.
The U.N. has had a peacekeeping force monitoring implementation of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended two decades of north-south civil war. Its mandate expired on Saturday.
The government in Khartoum had opposed any extension for the peacekeeping mission saying it wants all U.N. troops out.