Two years ago, amid high hopes, South Sudan gained independence. But corruption, rights abuses, and friction over oil with its northern neighbor, suggest it is letting fresh opportunities slip by.
On the eve of South Sudan's second birthday, people in Juba are busy dumping tarmac in potholes. They are shoving fresh plants in the beds dividing the roads where freshly painted railings have sprung up.
Some residents say that the tarmac and concrete in what was bush just years back shows how far the country has come. Decades of war with Sudan and centuries-old neglect have made it one of the most underdeveloped places on earth.
It ranks in the world's bottom five percent for infant mortality and illiteracy, has the highest maternal mortality rate in the world yet institutions such as the World Bank have found it hard to class it as poor.
This is because its major oil earnings should take South Sudan's per capita income above the poverty threshold.
But after two years of nationhood, others are criticizing the fledgling government, made up of various rebel movements, of failing to manage the economy and relations with Sudan, deliver basic services or allow dissenting voices.
South Sudan split from Sudan on July 9, 2011, after its people voted overwhelmingly for independence in a referendum six months earlier, part of a 2005 peace deal that ended one of Africa's longest civil wars.
Onyoti Adigo Nyikwec is the leader of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement-Democratic Change (SPLM-DC), the main opposition party. His party was against the shutting down of oil production in January 2012, as it accounted for 98 percent of the government's revenue and there seemed to be no alternative plan.
He said that rampant corruption that led President Salva Kiir to ask 75 past and present officials to return $4 billion of stolen money last year makes the oil switch off negligible for the majority. "Whether there was oil or no oil, the government was not doing anything for the benefit of the people of South Sudan," Nyikwec said.
But government officials are starting to realize that they will be accountable to the people in elections in 2015.
"Now everyone knows that they are not doing anything, they are not giving service delivery to the community, then they are in hot water. And that is why now, within the ruling party, there's a lot of wrangling, with members trying to point out others' failings to deflect from their collective inaction," Nyikwec said.
President Salva Kiir recently stripped his deputy Riek Machar of any real power, suspended two ministers and has relieved two governors by decrees read on state television that seemed to come out of the blue.
Many South Sudanese believe that his actions are politically motivated moves ahead of a convention of his ruling SPLM party that has been stalled since Machar announced his intentions to run for the chairmanship.
South Sudan's youth may face a bleak future as some observers fear the country could become a failed state
Civil society activist Edmond Yakani says that progress seen during the last tumultuous two years is largely due to private sector investment, which so far has been limited to operators prepared to take high risks.
Numerous non-governmental organizations have started healthcare and educational services almost from scratch. This has led to a bizarre spread in NGO-speak, especially the words "implement" and "capacity" for "do" and "can" among the general population. People's blurring of distinctions of whether foreign aid workers or national leaders look after essential services is a near-abrogation of a state that spends almost half its budget on a bloated army and surveillance force.
Rape, torture, beatings and killings
Meanwhile, Yakani complained that the ruling party has hampered vital projects such as reconciliation and a constitutional review needed to heal a war-weary nation. In the last year, South Sudan's human rights record has also been blighted. The litany of abuses included security forces gunning down around 10 unarmed protesters in Wau, the government expelling a UN Human Rights worker without reason and a string of rape, torture, beatings and killings on an ethnic minority in Jonglei state.
South Sudanese President Salva Kiir has been told by the UN that the last two years were "very difficult"
South Sudan also dropped 13 places in the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index after the assassination of political commentator Isaiah Abraham, who received death threats warning him to stop writing days before he was shot execution style in front of his home.
When Yakani called on the government to investigate, he also received threats warning him that he would "drink his own blood" unless he shut up.
"...pasting the situation of Sudan in South Sudan"
He said that rather than responding to the public's wishes, the political elite and security elements behind various factions or personalities would rather echo Sudan's methods of cracking down on criticism to serve their own needs, clans and business cliques.
"The feel any political change may hold them vulnerable, and that's why whoever brings up public concerns, public issues to the light, should be shut down," he said. "It is just like we are pasting the situation of Sudan in South Sudan, in which we have been struggling for the past 50 years, as we don't believe in such a society. We are calling for democratic society but what we are now experiencing is that the space of democracy is really reducing and becoming too narrow," Yakani said.
Aid agencies looted
The reduction in political space has already spawned a major rebellion in Jonglei state. In that area, fighters associated with the Murle ethnic group have been clashing with government forces for over a year after a violent disarmament campaign, a lack of political representation and dearth of services.
Recently, the army even looted aid agencies such as Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) and UN stores after charities had to pull out for security reasons, leaving the Murle without any healthcare. Yakani fears that if the government does not step up to the plate in the next few years, South Sudan could easily slide towards Somalia's level of lawlesnness, with armed groups used to fighting over resources turning to organized banditry.
Government praises its own efforts
But South Sudan's Minister of Information Barnaba Marial Benjamin described the work of the government over the last two years as "tremendous."
He lauded the establishment of government institutions, the passing of laws and the diversification of the economy from oil to taxation that has included international charities.
He said that faced with Sudan's "provocation" over oil sharing that almost brought the two sides back to war, the country has shown itself committed to peace, and is trying to tackle graft. "When there is corruption in a country you use the institutions thatare available, and the institutions are there, legal steps are being taken. I think this is the normal way any civilized country can do things. There is so much corruption in Europe and America and everywhere but what do you do," he said.
He denied the ubiquity of luxury government cars clogging the country's streets but said that with such poor roads, they were "cost-effective" while brushing off rights abuses by claiming that the new nation had signed more rights treaties than any other African Union member.