Reporting from Juba, South Sudan — The countdown clock ran out, the flag ascended over the fledgling capital and a new nation born from Africa's longest civil war and the deaths of 2 million people joined the world.
The mood in Juba was euphoric Saturday as the Republic of South Sudan formally declared its independence from the north, its bitter antagonist for generations. For the day, at least, a people weary of conflict were willing to ignore that their nation came into being as one the world's most troubled states.
Dozens of heads of state gathered outside the mausoleum of southern war hero John Garang at a massive ceremony featuring marching soldiers. Thousands of Sudanese crammed into the parade grounds, singing and cheering.
The man sworn in as South Sudan's first president, Salva Kiir, stood alongside his old nemesis, northern President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of war crimes in the western region of Darfur. Bashir's presence was a powerful sign that he has acceded to the partition, however grudgingly.
It would not exactly be true to say the country is starting from scratch, because it has been building the rudiments of a functioning government since the 2005 peace deal that made independence possible. But nationhood comes fraught with outsized problems.
The country, roughly the size of France, has profound poverty, the highest incidence of maternal death in the world and one of the lowest rates of elementary school enrollment. More than 90% of the population survives on less than a dollar a day, and nearly one in five people are chronically hungry, according to the United Nations. Only about a third of the population has access to safe drinking water, and only a fourth is literate, the U.N. says.
There are also concerns about the new country's leaders, most of them former rebel fighters united by a foe that, on peace declarations at least, no longer exists.
And devilish issues remain unresolved. Mostly Christian and animist South Sudan says the Arab Muslim north is fomenting insurgencies in its territory. Both claim the oil-rich Abyei region, and they have not decided how to divide their abundant oil revenue: The south has the oil and the north has the pipelines to carry it to market.
With independence, the question of exactly what each side will demand, and will be prepared to risk, is expected to come into sharper focus.
"In a way, the poker game has just begun," said R. Barrie Walkley, the U.S. consul general in Juba, South Sudan's capital. The United States, which helped broker the peace deal, gives South Sudan $300 million a year in development funds and $150 million in food aid, and is financing the building of the country's first paved highway, which will run from the capital to the border with Uganda at a cost of $225 million.
How responsibly the Juba government will spend donor money "is obviously a big concern," Walkley said. "If you talk to the man on the street here, there is the perception that there is corruption at the highest levels."
Although the government has an anticorruption commission, he said, it lacks prosecutorial powers.
U.S. investment here has been discouraged by sanctions against Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, but with independence, South Sudan breaks free of them. USAID will hold a conference this year to give potential American investors a sense of the business landscape.
"There are opportunities here," and the agricultural potential is enormous, Walkley said. "It should be the breadbasket of this part of Africa."
Nhial Bol, owner and editor of the Citizen, a 5,000-circulation daily newspaper with the motto "Fighting Corruption and Dictatorship Everyday," believes the leadership of South Sudan wasn't prepared for independence when voters overwhelmingly approved it in January. What used to unite the men now running the country was their battle against the north, he said, "but they don't have one vision for the nation."
Bol said he has been arrested and detained three times in the last four years — most recently last month — after criticizing officials for corruption and mismanagement.
"People like our leaders have not been challenged in their life," Bol said. Most were once rebel fighters in the bush, and rank brought absolute authority, he said.
In that environment, "you can just choose to claim somebody's life, and nobody can challenge you," Bol said. "Now, if you ask, 'What did you do with the money?' he won't like it."
Recently, he has published critical articles detailing the funneling of large amounts of money to the army without a proper paper trail. "There is no accounting," Bol said. "The corruption here is very high because the culture of war has been institutionalized."