South Sudan′s eve of anniversary shootout | Africa | DW | 08.07.2016
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South Sudan's eve of anniversary shootout

A potentially explosive confrontation on the streets of Juba is stoking tensions ahead of the fifth anniversary of South Sudan's independence from Sudan. Independence celebrations have long since been cancelled.

Five South Sudanese government soldiers were killed in a shootout on Thursday night between opposing army factions.

A convoy of soldiers loyal to former rebel leader and sitting First Vice President Riek Machar opened fire on a checkpoint in the capital Juba manned by troops from President Salva Kiir's faction.

A spokesman for Kiir's faction, Lui Ruai Koang, said "they returned fire, but it was limited."

Nyarji Roman, a spokesman for Machar, said two of their soldiers had been injured. The leadership of both forces had ordered them to return to their barracks so that an investigation into the incident could be started, he added.

Forces loyal to Kiir and Machar are still trying to extricate themselves from a brutal two year civil war.

Building destroyed in South Sudan's civil war

The 2015 peace deal has so far failed to stop the violence in South Sudan

A DW correspondent said pedestrians and vehicles were moving as usual in the capital on Friday but "the civilian population is in fear" because tension between the forces of both parties seems to be persisting.

The flare-up in tension comes almost exactly five years after South Sudan ceded from Sudan, following decades of struggle, to become an independent state. But official celebrations for the anniversary, which falls on Saturday, have long since been cancelled. In June, the government said the sum usually spent on celebrations, 10 million South Sudanese pounds ($450,000, 406,000 euros), would be better spent elsewhere.

South Sudan is suffering from a shortage of food, a depreciating currency, an imploding economy, and as Thursday's incident has underlined, regular outbursts of violence.

Money needed elsewhere

The cancellation of the independence celebrations has, however, left some South Sudanese frustrated. "It is a disgrace for our country," one South Sudanese citizen, Michael Atit, told DW, "not only because the celebrations have been cancelled because of a shortage of funds, but because reports of the economic crisis and the internal conflict are spreading a bad image of our country abroad."

Long line of displaced people against a parched landscape

THe UN refugee agency says 1.7 million people have been internally displaced in South Sudan

Civil rights activist Bidali Aligo Samson believes the decision to cancel the celebrations was justified. "The government has to spend the money it has wisely," he told DW. The money would indeed be better spent elsewhere. One could, for example, pay civil servants who haven't received any wages or salaries for four months. "Money is also needed in the education sector," he added.

South Sudan descended into strife just two years after gaining independence. A power struggle between President Salva Kiir and Vice President Riek Machar escalated into a civil war in which tens of thousands lost their lives. The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, says around two and a half million people have been forced to flee their homes of whom 1.7 million have been displaced internally. Some 900,000 have sought refuge in neighboring countries.

'Rocky and challenging'

In August 2015, the warring factions agreed to a peace deal under which rebel leader Riek Machar would return to his old job as vice president. The deal, which envisaged a ceasefire and the formation of a government of national unity, raised hopes among South Sudanese that some semblance of stability was about to be restored to their young and fragile nation. But the fighting between the respective supporters of Kiir and Machar continued unabated.

"Five years of independence has been rocky and challenging in terms of how civilians are treated," Nyagoah Tut from the rights group Amnesty International told DW. The consequences of the civil war for human rights were catastrophic. "None of the parties in the 2013 conflict can claim innocence. We have documented atrocities committed by both sides," she said.

Kiir and Machar shaking hands

Opposing army factions of Salva Kiir (left) and Riek Machar are meant to hold joint patrols to keep the peace in Juba

Even after the formation of the government of national unity, Amnesty has continued to voice grave concerns about police brutality, arbitrary arrests, torture and executions in South Sudan.

The economic upturn many hoped the peace deal would set in motion has failed to materialize. Hospitals are starved of electricity, hundreds of schools have been closed or destroyed. The national currency - the Sudanese pound - has depreciated by 90 percent this year.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) said South Sudan's economy is in ruins and inflation is running at 300 percent. Central bank reserves to cover imports "have dwindled to a few days," the IMF added.

Many South Sudanese doubt their government's ability to resuscitate the stricken economy. "We are still waiting for a stop to be put to suffering of the population, " said one man in Juba who asked to remain anonymous. "If the economy doesn't start to stabilize, then it will be because the parties don't trust one another.

Amnesty's Nyagoah Tut said the international community needs to ensure that there is "concerted pressure" on the parties to ensure they implement the peace agreement. It was also up to the international community to make sure that "accountability for the crimes that have been committed in this conflict is actually realized."

Daniel Pelz in Berlin and Waakhe Simon Wudu in Juba contributed to this report.

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