Ulf Laessing: Africa’s newest country finds all its troubles didn’t go away with freedom

SIX months after South Sudan gained independence, severe inflation, rebellions and escalating tensions with Sudan are dampening the euphoria that followed secession and undermining efforts to build badly needed state institutions.

Hard realities have since set in since 9 July, when it became Africa’s newest nation. Disputes with Sudan’s government in Khartoum have raged, and even if peace with Khartoum holds, analysts say South Sudan could become a quagmire with several lawless regions and rising poverty.

About 2.7 million South Sudanese, a third of the population, will need food aid from next year because of crop failures and widespread violence that killed more than 3,000 people in 2011, the United Nations says.

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Violence on the border with Sudan has disrupted trade, pushing annual inflation to almost 80 per cent, up from 57 per cent in August.

Nhial Bol, editor of South Sudan’s independent daily, the Citizen, said president Salva Kiir’s cabinet and parliament had been slow to issue laws, while many guerrillas-turned-officials had been unwilling to open accounts to public scrutiny.

Ravaged by civil war and neglect dating back to the British colonial era, South Sudan is one of the world’s least developed nations. It has less than 100km of paved roads and its budget depends almost entirely on oil revenues.

There is hardly any infrastructure outside the capital Juba, which buzzes with hundreds of consultants and aid workers. Aid groups provide basic services, such as clean water, in many regions of the country, the size of France.

Adding to social pressures, more than 350,000 southerners have returned from Sudan and more than one million might follow once their legal status ends in Khartoum in April. They will need jobs and housing.

The country also needs to lessen its reliance on oil, because its output of 300,000 barrels per day will halve within a decade unless new finds are made, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Though a return to full-scale war with Khartoum seems unlikely, diplomats say tensions will get worse as both governments need revenues from South Sudan’s oil.

Landlocked South Sudan relies on Sudan’s export facilities to sell its crude. Analysts say plans to build an alternative pipeline to Kenya will not be viable for the foreseeable future.

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The two old civil war foes have failed to agree on a transit fee Juba will have to pay to send its oil through Sudan, prompting Khartoum to halt exports temporarily last month.

“There is no breakthrough at all in sight. Both are worlds apart,” one source said.

• Ulf Laessing is a senior Middle-East correspondent for Reuters