The newest country on earth, South Sudan, is now formally in existence. The celebrations were joyful and
orderly. No ‘What ifs?’ arose to spoil the occasion: no unforeseen incident occurred to mar the
celebrations. Significantly, Sudan, our northern neighbour from whom the south seceded, became the first
country formally to recognise South Sudan as an independent nation.
It is hard to capture the spirit and excitement of such an occasion. Perhaps the banner shown in one photo
taken in Juba, ‘Free at Last’, with the men carrying replicas of parts of the statue of liberty, sums up what
independence mean to the South Sudanese people. Ninety-nine percent voted for independence and that has
been delivered. Hopefully, the years of war are behind the people of this new nation but there are many
challenges ahead. The Secretary General of the United nations, Ban Ki-moon, who was present in Juba for
the independence celebrations summed up the reality in these words:
‘Nationhood has come at steep cost: a staggering number of lives lost and people displaced in
a 21-year civil war that ended only in 2005. When the assembled presidents and prime
ministers board their official planes to return home, the challenges that remain will be daunting
indeed. On the day of its birth, South Sudan will rank near the bottom of all recognized human
development indices. The statistics are truly humbling. It has the world’s highest maternal
mortality rate. Estimates of illiteracy among the female population exceed 80 percent. More
than half of its people must feed, clothe and shelter themselves on less than a dollar a day.
Critical issues of poverty, insecurity and lack of infrastructure must all be addressed by a
relatively new government with little experience and only embryonic institutions. I came to
appreciate the sheer scale of these challenges, for myself, when I first visited South Sudan in
2007 – an area of 620,000 square kilometers with less than 100 kilometers of paved road.…
At the same time, South Sudan has remarkable potential. With substantial oil reserves, huge
amounts of arable land and the Nile flowing through its centre, South Sudan could grow into a
prosperous, self-sustaining nation capable of providing security, services and employment for
its population. Alone, South Sudan cannot meet these challenges nor realize its potential.
Doing so will require partnership — a full (and on-going) engagement with the international
community and, most especially, South Sudan’s neighbours. First and foremost, the new
leaders of South Sudan should reach out to their counter-parts in Khartoum. Strong, peaceful
relations with the North are essential…..
Finally, South Sudan must reach out to its own people. It must find strength in diversity and
build institutions that represent the full constellation of its broad geographic and ethnic
communities. The basics of any modern, democratic state must be guaranteed: free
expression, full political rights, inclusive institutions that extend benefits to citizens of rural
areas as well as regions affected by conflict.
The main celebrations were held in the capital, Juba. A strong military presence was obvious but the mood
was exultant. Sister Margaret Sheehan, shown in one of the photos, tells me that the celebratory mass of
thanskgiving she attended the next day, lasted for three hours. I am attaching some photos taken in Juba by
Anne Carthy, who is visiting South Sudan from our SSS Rome office, and some taken in Malakal by Sr
Ninet – where there was less formality and more emphasis on tribal traditions.
I never thought I would see peace come to Northern Ireland, the Cold War end nor the Berlin Wall come
down. I know I never even thought much about Sudan until I came here. There has been much prayer, talk
and action to reach South Sudan Independence Day but, as I was taught as a boy, ‘More things are wrought
by prayer than this world dreams of’. Peace in Sudan is a dream come true. The major campaign of praying
for peace, which I believe helped carry us to this point, was instigated by one of the principal architects of
Solidarity with South Sudan, Sr Cathy Arata, a diminutive figure but one blessed with the power of vision,
prayer and determined effort. It is a privilege to be part of SSS accompanying the people of this new nation
on their journey forward.