JUBA, Sudan (Reuters) – Southern Sudanese in the country-in-waiting’s capital are sprucing up streets, confiscating black market guns and trying to impose order on frenetic traffic to make sure independence day goes smoothly on Saturday.
For many southerners, the split from the country’s north represents a moment of long-awaited triumph and fresh optimism after decades of brutal civil war and perceived marginalisation.
It also brings a raft of challenges as the rickety boomtown of Juba receives scores of foreign dignitaries and the government tries to enforce its writ across a territory roughly the size of France wracked by internal rebellions and awash with guns.
Men and women with straw brushes are sweeping leaves and dust from the southern capital’s streets and men in paint-stained jumpsuits are whitewashing walls. Celebratory banners hang across the city.
“They’re doing a very good job. Visitors from all over the world will come and see that the town is very clean,” Kisereko Charles, a 51-year-old engineer, said in central Juba.
A red digital display in a nearby roundabout is counting down the seconds to independence. “Free at last,” one message on the display flashed.
North and south Sudan have warred over ideology, religion, ethnicity and oil for all but a few years since the country’s independence. An estimated 2 million people – most of them southerners – died in the conflict.
A 2005 peace deal that brought an end to the war promised southerners the chance to vote for independence. About 98 percent chose to split when the referendum was held in January.
“Vote for dignity,” one sign left over from the poll reads, displaying a facsimile of part of the ballot: an open hand with the word “secession” printed in Arabic and English.
South Sudan, with at least seven internal rebel militias according to a U.N. count, will begin life as an independent country in a region known for political turmoil that can erupt in terrible bloodshed.
Neighbouring Ethiopia and Eritrea fought a devastating war in the late 1990s after Eritrea split away. Kenya exploded in violence after a disputed election in late 2007.
Suicide bombings ripped through Uganda’s capital during the 2010 football World Cup. The militant group that claimed responsibility is based in Somalia, a country that has not had an effective central government for about two decades.
Analysts and aid workers say independence might encourage renegade militias in the new Republic of South Sudan to step up their challenge to a government the rebels say is corrupt and autocratic.
Interior Minister Gier Chouang Aloung, acknowledging security worries, told reporters that “enemies of the south” would not be allowed to spoil the celebrations.
Security forces were continuing a sweep-up of illegal guns and were registering people trying to buy new firearms, he said.
Authorities were issuing regular statements to discourage harassment and abuse of power among security forces.
Even celebratory gunfire would not be tolerated on July 9, he said.
“There will be no shooting. The only shooting will be the 21-gun salute,” Aloung said. “Any other shooting is illegal and it will be taken care of.”
Authorities have started cracking down on traffic, too. The former insurgents charged with policing Juba’s streets have been blocking the city’s ubiquitous motorcycle taxis, or “bodas,” from main roads.
“FIRST CLASS CITIZENS”
The secession has been a temporary boon for the fruit and vegetable markets on the capital’s sprawling edges as southerners stock up on food ahead of the celebration.
“These days they are really buying,” said Gift Kadija, a 38-year-old vendor, who is from Uganda like many of the sellers there.
“They buy tomatoes, Irish potatoes, beans, rice, cooking oil for the celebrations. They are preparing.”
Hundreds of thousands of southerners have already returned home ahead of independence, and many more are streaming back. A flight from Khartoum last week was full of southerners carting bulging suitcases wrapped up with tape.
They were greeted in Juba by a one-room terminal crammed with passengers jostling to collect their bags. Arrival times of flights were jotted on a white marker board on the wall. Down the main road to town, pickup trucks packed with men flew South Sudan’s new flag and bullhorns blasted the new national anthem.
“We have chosen to be first class citizens,” one banner read.
“I’m very happy, very excited,” Edward Roji, a 48-year-old government worker standing near the banner, said. “I was born in this war, and I grew up in this war — over 40 years of war.”