Eyewitness to History: I was there when the Republic of South Sudan was born!

by Obiageli Ezekwesili, World Bank Africa Region Vice President

This article was originally posted on the World Bank’s Africa Can blog.

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!

Obiageli “Oby” Ezekwesili, a Nigerian national, was appointed Vice President for the World Bank’s Africa Region in 2007. She oversees more than 1600 staff and is responsible for the delivery of projects and economic and sectoral work in 47 Sub-Saharan countries.

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