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South Sudan Turns 1, Without Much To Celebrate


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene. The world's youngest nation, South Sudan, marks its first year of independence tomorrow, but there is not much to celebrate. After emerging from 60 years of civil war and seceding from its northern neighbor, South Sudan has had to deal with continuing conflict with Sudan to the north, as well as ethnic violence at home. Add to that a crippled oil economy and political corruption. More than half of the country's population lives below the poverty line. And the World Bank says South Sudan has some of the lowest education and health levels in the world. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reported on South Sudan's independence last year and she's recently returned there. This morning, we have the rare chance to have her in the studio. She's visiting Washington for a few days. Ofeibea, it's great to see you.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Wonderful to be back.

GREENE: Help us understand the challenges that this young nation is facing.

QUIST-ARCTON: Huge. Huge because there was so much unfinished business between the newly independent South Sudan and its neighbor in the north and with the fighting between the two. And we're talking about issues over oil resources - because most of the crude oil is now in South Sudan - over borders. And that's why we've seen in the past few months or so more fighting at the borders between the two Sudans. So, although there was so much exuberance, happiness, joy, now a lot of people are saying we should have dealt with the issues that have not been resolved.

GREENE: The exuberance you're talking about, I mean, it was coming from the United States and a lot of Western governments who invested a lot in this. They seemed to know that this was going to be hard. Did they just underestimate, you know, the challenges that remained and not sort of get a handle on them? Is that where we are today?

QUIST-ARCTON: David, everybody wanted a star pupil. As you say, the White House helped to broker the peace accord of 2005 that ended the civil war between the north and the south. Everybody wanted a success story. And in some ways, yes, South Sudan is. But on the other side of the coin is that people are now calling it a failing state or a fragile state. Because although it has this wealth of oil, it has so much it has to do for its people - infrastructure, hospital, schools, you name it. So, now people are worried. And they're saying the West and the U.S., especially, you knew all these things. You knew that they could happen, you knew they might have happened, but you didn't do enough.

GREENE: I feel like we hear often about the danger of having failed governments and a failed state. South Sudan sits in, you know, in the Horn of Africa. It's the poorest region on the continent. I mean, why should people be especially worried about this? Are there unique dangers that could kind of reverberate?

QUIST-ARCTON: Because not so very far away is Somalia. And we've seen how Somalia has been over the past 20 years. And, yes, it is really important to keep this area of Africa as peaceful as possible. Because apart from the problems between Sudan and South Sudan, in Somalia, you have the threat of Islamist radicals al-Shabaab, that the U.S. is very worried about; all those issues that are making the region an unstable region.

GREENE: And, Ofeibea, you mentioned Islamist extremism. So often we hear about the potential for extremism to spread to failed states where there are failed governments. Is there the potential here for that?

QUIST-ARCTON: Well, you know, Sudan is mostly Muslim. And, of course, Osama bin Laden had a refuge in Sudan for a while. But that's perhaps not South Sudan's immediate problem there. You have across the border those who live in the north but fought with the south during the civil war are fleeing because they say they are being persecuted by Bashir's army. So, those are the sorts of issues that South Sudan has to deal with, rather than Islamist fundamentalism as such. But, of course, that is always a fear in the region, in the Horn of Africa, and with it possible terrorism.

GREENE: Ofeibea, I wonder if you could reflect a little bit. I mean, we're talking about a country marking its first year of independence, a country, albeit a troubled country, marking this anniversary. What are some of your impressions that stick with you after spending a lot of time there?

QUIST-ARCTON: That the young people are going to make South Sudan work, if anybody is. They are so determined. So many of them have not lived in their own countries. They've been in refugee camps across the border in Kenya. They've lived here in the U.S. Many of them are going back. I spoke to students in Benchu(ph), which is a Unity state near the border - actually I was going to cover the conflict and went up to the frontline - and they said, you know, education. So many people have had their education truncated in South Sudan. But it is with education that we're going to be able to build our nation. But, you know, the older people have been fighting for so long. They are the ones that have got to think peace.

GREENE: That's NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton. She's normally reporting for us somewhere in Africa. I had the rare chance to speak with her here in the studio in Washington. Thanks, Ofeibea.

QUIST-ARCTON: Always a pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.