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I was there when the Republic of South Sudan was born!

Obiageli Ezekwesili's picture

Obiageli Ezekwesili (c) with South Sudan President Salva Kiir (r). Photo: Laura Kullenberg, The World Bank

4:00 AM: I wake up this morning in Nairobi unusually excited and think to myself, “today is actually the Independence Day of South Sudan. Wow! This day has finally come!” I say a word of prayer for the day and get myself ready for the 5:30 a.m. trip to the airport to board our flight to Juba.

11:05 AM: We touch down at the spruced up Juba airport and are received by the wide smiles of our Government of South Sudan counterparts from the Ministry of Finance. We walk toward our cars and meet up with David Deng, Minister of Finance for South Sudan. He gives me kisses and says, “Congratulations, Mama! You have a stake in where we got to today. Today is your day too. Thank you so much for all you have done to support us”. Such kindness!

11:30 AM: We arrive at the venue of the Independence celebration to a mammoth crowd excited beyond measure. I find myself thinking of what I missed by being born three years after my own country's Independence. Such celebration as a norm only happens once in a lifetime. I’ve just caught the eyes of a particularly ebullient young woman and I imagine the deep joy of freedom that brings out in her that poignant look of “all things are possible”. I silently pray that every one of her good hopes for her country should please come to pass. Such infectious joy ought never to be episodic.

12:20 PM: We wait and wait as various presidents, prime ministers and heads of government arrive. Many African leaders come. It seems that the welcome applause accorded the leaders mirrors the strength of partnership, support, neighborliness or relevance of each country to the people of South Sudan Interestingly, Sudan’s President Omar Bashir gets a really loud ovation from the crowd.

12:30 PM: President Salva Kiir eventually arrives to the excited shouts and dancing of his citizens. He goes directly into the crowd touching them and reconnecting with their individual stories that gave birth to this day. He comes up the dais and the ceremonies begin in earnest. Christian prayer. Muslim prayer. The ceremony of the flags. The flag of Sudan comes down and the new one for the Republic of South Sudan is hoisted! The crowd screams. The new anthem is struck and we all jump to attention. The South Sudanese sing along in triumphant voices, especially the Minister of Work and Transport, sitting right behind me. It is a catchy tune and even though I do not get the lyrics from their singing, I hear the last stanza “God bless South Sudan”.

1:45 PM: Now President Kiir and his vice president sign the transitional constitution. And next they take their oath of office to tumultuous applause. Ban Ki-moon, U.N. Secretary-General speaks, welcoming South Sudan to membership of the United Nations. The crowd applauds. I like this. I make a mental note to double-check where the Bank is with our IMF/World Bank process for granting South Sudan membership to the Bretton Woods Institution. Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi is the best speaker when, as Chairman of IGAD, he rises and makes a one-minute speech that is substantial. His loud applause from the crowd reveals that there is a correlation between length of speech and crowd appreciation on memorable days when less is more. We learn every day. U.S. Envoy to the United Nations Susan Rice does a good job of remembering the patriots that gave their lives for today's Independence celebration. This is the first time today that I’ve heard this and it makes me mutter words of comfort for the families that lost loved ones in Sudan’s 25 years of conflict. The crowd thunders its applause. Minister William Hague of the United Kingdom, who speaks sharply and to the point, announces that the U.K. has designated an ambassador to South Sudan. That earns him an ovation. President Bashir reads a speech full of conciliatory tone and substance and the crowd reciprocates with very loud cheering. I am hopeful hearing the substance of his speech, hopeful that Sudan, as led by President Bashir and his Cabinet, fully understands and strategically appreciates that it must pursue peaceful co-habitation and economic cooperation with South Sudan to assure the enduring viability of the now separate nation-states. The daunting tasks ahead of both countries, as they revive the remaining complex, and tough, agenda of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement and post-referendum environment, could throw water on even the most optimistic of beings. But, I believe. I believe that the leadership virtues, needed from both sides to ensure an end-positive outcome rather than a relapse into conflict, will spring forth.

3:25 PM: Now comes the speech we all, but especially the citizens of South Sudan, have been waiting for. President Kiir mounts the platform to speak. Silence. All ears want to hear what this leader with the once-in-a-many-generation mandate will say to his people. What will he say to citizens whose pasts are blotted with the deep scars of war and yet today carry the searing seeds of national pride, freedom and the highest expectations of a new dawn? Where does he start? How will he balance his people’s new-found hope that their free nation will improve their individual lot, with the reality that so many binding constraints stand in the way? He starts to speak. His tone is so soothing. So right. He speaks to them not at them. He begins by pulling them back to their checkered past, then skillfully draws them out of that past lest it paralyze them. He candidly tells of the failures of governance so far that he will lead them all to collectively confront. He promises to lead with integrity. He says it will not be an easy road but that they must all try. Official corruption, he says, will be tackled, as it represents a cancer that they cannot afford to permit. He offers amnesty to all who would lay down arms and join the clarion call for nation building. Echoing his Sudanese counterpart, he calls him “brother” and pledges commitment to working jointly to resolve the knotty outstanding issues between their two nations. He tells his citizens and other leaders the importance of managing oil resources well and investing in human and physical capital, diversifying their economy in order to grow faster and broader. He says, today’s political kingdom that they have attained will only be worth it if matched by economic freedom. His speech so hits the right cords with his citizens that they clap in concurrence throughout his delivery. He has connected with his people. Their eager response shows they are ready to take on his charge. One of my favorite life quotes is “leadership is without easy answers”. So President Kiir and his team will, by tomorrow, after all this celebration is over, face both existing and new obstacles as they strike out as a newly independent nation. They will do well therefore to govern transparently, constantly engage citizens and uphold accountability tenets. He ends the simple, elegant and deeply inspiring speech to a roaring ovation. He’s earned it.

4:10 PM: Then the deafening 21-gun salute, the rallying national anthem again and the event comes to a beautiful, unforgettable end.

Epilogue: Memories of today will live with me for the rest of my life. I pledge the World Bank’s total commitment to the people and government of South Sudan when tomorrow comes and they start the arduous journey to building a peaceful and vibrant democracy, a well-performing government and economy, and an empowered citizenry. What a great privilege to be an eyewitness to such a memorable day of history. I was there when the Republic of South Sudan was born! Long may it live!


Submitted by Bonaventure on
I agree with you. It’s a privilege to be at the birth of the 54th Africa’s country. I know you saw more than the ceremony. You saw generations’ dream happened in some minutes. Independent days had brought the same feelings to millions of Africans in 1960. However, those joys did not last long in some countries. I hope the best for South Sudan. People in this country deserve the best support they can get. I know for sure you will do what it takes to help the country’s leaders to build this new state of forty millions souls. Fifty years from now we will be judged based on today’s inputs.

Submitted by Anonymous on
I am glad that the corruption issues was mentioned by President Kiir in his remarks. Let there be no doubt at all - corruption in South Sudan today is probably some of the worst that there is in Africa. We wish them well. But the country will only grow if they address challenges such as this themselves. So far their track record is less than impressive.

Submitted by Mghenyi on
A very historic day indeed. South Sudan can learn from the mistakes of others and carve out a successful path. They will need knowledge to make good choices and develop effective institutions.

Submitted by Charles C. Musa on
This is a great story. How I wish I was there to witness this historic event. I am more impressed by the humility and decency of President Omar Bashir. In my wildest dream; i would have never thought he would attend the independence celebrations of South Sudan. This really shows that African leaders are willing to allow good changes happen. We wish President Kiir the very best. God bless us all.

Submitted by Alessandro on
Dear Oby, thank you for sharing this. You have been able to make the reader feel as he/she was present at this event. Through your narration you have been able to transimt the suffering, the passion, the excitment and the happiness of Southern Sudanese people in achieving such an incredible result, for which, is true, you had a stake!

Submitted by gouaf on
I think world powers, the World Bank included, made a major mistake by pushing for partition. If you look at what is happening on the ground, there are signs that S Kordofan might follow suit and attempt to secede too. Then what are you going to do? Even S Sudan is plagued by internal tensions which so far have caused the death of over 2000 people.

Submitted by Anonymous on
Dear Gouaf, I fully agree with you. So many countries have secessions issues (ethnics, religious, economic issues etc.) but no one supported them. Maybe because they don't have oil in their soil!!! or if they have, the oil is with "Friendly Hands". Dividing a country whose people have the same language, same culture,same customs, etc. while grouping countries with difference language, difference culture, difference customs etc. (EU) give the feeling that the partition was not on humanitarian bases only. Hopefully Corsica, Kashmir, Chechnya, Saharaoui Republic will soon be independent too.

Submitted by Anonymous on
SPLM started with the goal and vision to emancipate all the peoples of Sudan. It is indeed very sad that that vision was given up in exchange for petrol dollars, hummers and villas. The international community, including dear Oby and the World Bank, really think they did a great job, don't they? how pathetic. Do you think that if South Sudan doesnt have the oil that it has and the fertile land that it has these same powers would be as cordial and supportive? I dont think so. But now that we have a new country in Africa, let us all pray that they dont fall for the same neocolonial pills that will surely come from all sides, including the 75 million that they got from you.

Submitted by Uba on
My sister, we all are happy it happened. We are also praying that one day, we will have our Biafra as a new Nation. Who knows, Biafra may become the 55th Africa's country. God bless!

Submitted by Ella on
Dear Oby, Among your many amazing qualities, I now see that you are also a great writer...a poet. I join my voice with yours to say, may the Republic of South Sudan live long!

Submitted by Jeff on
What an inspiring story. Thanks Oby for taking us there, to the birth of Southern Sudan, through your narration. Let's work hard to help the leaders and people of that new-born country to learn from the lessons of other African countries; adopt the good practices, avoid the bad, and even lead in finding new paths to making government really work for the citizens.

Submitted by Marina Galvani on
Thank you for sharing such moving and important moments. I'd wish I could have been there, cheering for this historical day. My deep admiration to both the leaders and the people who made this possible.

Submitted by Anonymous on
Thanks Obi for reporting your experience that day! We can only wish the best to this new nation. They have a lot of hurdles to jump since this is just the begining. I hope they involve people in their diaspora to start building the new institutions. I hope the WB plays a significant role in South Sudan's economic development. Wishing peace in that region for years to come.

Submitted by Phyllis on
Thanks for sharing such a great and inspiring story. I join you and others in offering a prayer for the newest nation. May God bless the Republic of South Sudan!

Submitted by Anonymous on
Are there any more photographs of the event?

Submitted by Anonymous on
Reporting from South Sudan and celebrating this day called historic is not really what Africa and the Africans need at this point. We have famine and drought looming in the Horn of Africa. The continent is facing a terrible energy crisis which is hampering any significant development. Adding a 54th states to the Africa patchwork is not gonna change anything.When the world is advancing in regional blocks, continuing the Balkanization of Africa is not going to help and there is nothing to celebrate about this terrible situation which have lasted 50 years without Africa being able to solve it in another way than secession.

Submitted by Anonymous on
Oby, Just to let you know that I read deliciously because of the style and the emotional side it is restoring to the ceremony, that I didn't feel watching it on TV!

Submitted by Anonymous on
Oby, Thanks for the note on the occasion of the birth of the youngest state in Africa. I was delighted to read through and was able to get the events of the day. It was a great day for us South Sudanese and Africans to be free at last. The hard work starts now, as we all join in the nation building; our heroes and hHeroines didn't die in vain.

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