Juba, South Sudan - "Toward effective nation building and prosperity for all", encourage the billboards across this city. As South Sudan's capital prepares to celebrate its second independence day on July 9, mixed feelings linger about the progress the youngest nation in the world has made since independence.
"We are free now, but life hasn't gotten better," said Ruth, who works for a local grassroots organisation. "Crime in Juba has increased, and education and health services have become more expensive,"
A group of students at Juba University reflected on the past two years. "To find a job is very hard, you need someone to get your back," Santo explained.
Johnson, a first year student, added: "You can see some improvements in Juba, but outside nothing has really changed. Juba is just a small drop in the sea."
Two years ago, South Sudan rejoiced in independence festivities to celebrate its secession from its northern neighbour, Sudan. The day was a historic moment of which many South Sudanese may not have dared dream. It marked the culmination of a long peace process, ending decades of war that claimed more than two million lives.
We are free now, but life hasn't gotten better. Crime in Juba has increased, and education and health services have become more expensive.
In the 2011 independence referendum, 99 per cent of the population voted to secede from Sudan, signalling a united desire to leave behind years of war for a new future. Euphoria and expectations ran high. Yet building a state from scratch is a daunting task, and two years later, people's patience is being tested - as the country struggles to stand on its own two feet and deliver the dividends of a promised peace.
Upon the signing of the peace agreement in 2005, the government of South Sudan set out on an unprecedented state building mission - to prepare for potential independence within just six years. Six years was an extremely short period of time to build a sense of nationality among dozens of ethnicities, to construct roads, schools, hospitals, to conduct a first census and elections, to establish a Central Bank and a currency, to set up key governmental institutions, and try to catch up with the rest of the world on working towards the Millennium Development Goals.
The international community lent substantial support along the way. Between 2005 and 2011, donors contributed billions to the budget of South Sudan to kick-start development. The recently closed $718 Multi-donor Trust Fund
, managed by the World Bank, was to help build very basic institutions and infrastructure.
"There was a huge amount of enthusiasm to kick-start development in South Sudan. A lot of commitments were made, and there were a lot of high expectations of what could be achieved very rapidly," said Bella Bird, World Bank Country Director for Sudan, South Sudan and Somalia.
"When we started work it was very apparent that there was very little capability on the side of the government… which slowed things down in the early years."
In the past few years, progress has been made especially with regards to building up institutions. "In the road sector, for example, we have helped build up the capabilities from close to nothing to a ministry that can now do its own procurement and has a strong role in developing infrastructure in the country. Of course capacity needs to be built further, but the difference between where things were and where they are now is significant," Bird said.
Yet still, South Sudan remains one of the poorest countries in the world. Many people in rural areas, but also in the capital, still struggle to achieve basic food security. Access to basic services such as education and health continue to be low, especially in rural and conflict-affected areas. South Sudan still ranks highest in the world in terms of maternal mortality rates - according to UNDP reports, South Sudanese girls and women have a two per cent chance of dying in child birth. At the same time, only nine per cent will finish primary education. Although decent paved roads have been constructed in the capital, much of the rest of the country continues to be inaccessible by road during the rainy season.
The past two years have been overshadowed by continued tension and fighting with Sudan. "At the time of separation, there were a lot of unresolved issues," Atem Yaak Atem, Deputy Minister of Information, told Al Jazeera. "We have been embroiled in a border conflict from the onset of independence. As such, it is not surprising that we haven't achieved much."
At the time of separation, there were a lot of unresolved issues. We have been embroiled in a border conflict from the onset of independence. As such, it is not surprising that we haven't achieved much.
Tit-for-tat attacks along the yet-to-be-defined border and fighting over the Heglig oil field (called Panthau by South Sudanese) escalated into full-scale fighting in 2012. According to reports released by the UNHCR in August 2012, the fighting displaced more than 170,000 people into refugee camps in South Sudan, causing a humanitarian crisis.
Both Sudan and South Sudan believe the oil field lies within their respective borders. But, since the south's secession, there has been slow progress to delineate the border as stipulated in the peace agreement.
On the economic front, disputes over transit fees brought oil exports to a halt for more than a year. When South Sudan became independent, 75 per cent of all oil reserves came to be located within its borders. But as a landlocked country, South Sudan relies on Sudan's pipeline to the Red Sea as the only viable export route. In January 2012, the government of South Sudan announced it would shut down oil production, accusing Sudan of diverting oil from the pipeline to its own refineries. Sudan claimed it was only collecting unpaid transit fees.
The wells were shut, eliminating 98 per cent of the government's income source, and sending South Sudan's economy into a downward spiral of austerity, economic contraction, hard currency shortage and increased economic hardship for the population. Production resumed in April this year after the signing of the implementation matrix for the September 2012 agreements. But only a few months later, President Bashir again threatened to shut down the pipeline, this time accusing the South of supporting the SPLM-N rebels who are fighting the Sudanese Armed Forces in Southern Kordofan.
Not just Khartoum
Given this track record between the two neighbours, it may not be surprising that South Sudan tends to cite tensions with Sudan as one of the key reasons why there has not been more progress. Yet the nascent government has plenty of its own internal problems - which do not all depend on the goodwill of its northern neighbour.
Corruption within the government has been rampant. Last year, the Associated Press news agency obtained a letter in which President Salva Kiir asked 75 former and current officials to return an estimated $4bn of stolen public money. Resource discovery in developing countries that lack strong institutions tends to be accompanied by rampant corruption. In South Sudan, the low salaries of public servants, coupled with limited ability of the government to hold individuals accountable, provide a particularly profitable breeding ground for officials seeking to line their pockets.
The allegations over corruption have further acerbated bitter feelings towards the government, which retained and paid its entire staff during the economic crisis at the expense of public programmes. Corruption is also reportedly impeding much-needed private sector investment, due to the unpredictability and high cost of doing business.
Internal insecurity remains
Another area which still requires a lot of work is peace and nation building. During the civil war, there was little unity among South Sudan's many ethnicities - apart from the shared cause of reaching independence. Now, the competition over resources has become the number one priority.
The situation in Jonglei state has been particularly serious, where David Yau Yau's rebel movement has recruited youth from the disenfranchised Murle tribe to fight the SPLA. According a statement released by Medecins Sans Frontieres on June 13, "an estimated 120,000 people have fled for their lives into the bush amid intensified fighting between the SPLA and the David Yau Yau armed militia group over the past month". MSF, an NGO comprising medical workers who operate on all sides of conflicts, further warned that mortality rates would rise rapidly due to lack of access to food, basic healthcare and the rise of diseases such as malaria during the rainy season.
"Security remains a very serious challenge for the country in terms of militias, urban crimes, unemployed youth, ethnic conflict and confrontations over land," explained Dr Jok Madut Jok, the founder of the Sudd Institute, a think tank and research organisation in Juba. South Sudan is in dire need to put in place a thoroughly effective police force and turn a former rebel movement into a professionalised army that can adequately deal with its post-independence security issues.
But large government spending on security erodes funding for important development programmes, and leaves the bulk of basic service provision to the international community. The shortfall of oil revenues in the past two years placed additional pressure on important public programmes. South Sudan's public universities have faced major funding cuts, and some infrastructure programs have reportedly been put on hold.
Making the right decisions
The first two years of independence may look rather bleak if South Sudan as compared to the rest of the world. However, taking into account South Sudan's point of departure and the level of needs at the end of the war, progress has been made. Lifting a nation from civil war or building a new state will take not years, but decades. Yet the decisions made now will set important foundations going forward.
"We need visionary leaders to make the right choices. We need to invest in education so that we are equipped to take the country forward," said Duku Patrick, a second year engineering student.
As independence day celebrations draw near, some positive signs emerge.
Last week, South Sudan shipped its first oil to the international market. At the same time, Vice-President Riek Machar travelled to Khartoum to diffuse the tensions between the two countries to ensure that South Sudan's lifeline remains open.
Former South African president Thabo Mbeki is also visiting Juba this week to take forward concrete plans to demarcate the safe demilitarised border zone between Sudan and South Sudan.
It is clear that progress is being made, yet significant challenges remain.