Juba, South Sudan - As South Sudan prepares to celebrate its second independence day, mixed feelings linger about progress made since becoming the youngest nation in the world.
South Sudanese rejoiced at festivities two years ago Tuesday marking secession from its northern neighbour Sudan, after decades of war that claimed more than two million lives. At a 2011 referendum, 99 percent of the population voted to secede, and expectations for a better future ran high.
We are free now, but life hasn't gotten better. Crime in Juba has increased and education and health services have become more expensive.
But building a new state has proven a daunting task, and two years on people's patience is being tested as the country struggles to stand on its own and deliver the dividends of a peace for its 8.3 million population.
"We are free now, but life hasn't gotten better," Ruth Lugor, who works for a local grassroots organisation, told Al Jazeera. "Crime in Juba has increased and education and health services have become more expensive."
Upon signing the peace agreement in 2005, the government of South Sudan embarked on a state-building mission to prepare for independence in just six years, an extremely short timeframe to unite dozens of ethnic groups, construct roads, schools, and hospitals, to conduct a first census and elections.
Progress has been made in setting up institutions, but South Sudan remains one of the poorest nations in the world. "Towards effective nation building and prosperity for all" rings out the mantra on billboards across Juba, South Sudan's capital, but high expectations have given way to hard reality
Familiar problems of corruption, poverty, hunger and unemployment bedevil this infant country against the backdrop of continued tensions and tit-for-tat skirmishes with Sudan.
The international community has lent substantial support, and donors have contributed billions to bolster South Sudan's development.
"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 South Sudan.
"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 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 build further, but the difference between where things were and where they are now is significant."
Yet many people struggle to feed themselves, access to education and health services is low, and according to the UNDP South Sudanese women have the highest maternal mortality rate in the world. Only nine percent of the population will finish primary school, and most of the country continues to be inaccessible by road.
Progress has also been overshadowed by continued tensions and fighting with Sudan. Attacks along the yet-to-be-defined border and fighting over the Heglig oil field escalated into heavy fighting in 2012, displacing more than 170,000 people into camps in South Sudan and causing a humanitarian crisis.
"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," said Deputy Minister of Information Atem Yaak Atem.
|Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir meets his South Sudan counterpart Salva Kiir (L) [Reuters]
Disputes over fees landlocked South Sudan must pay to transport its oil by pipeline to Port Sudan halted exports for more than a year - eliminating 98 percent of the government's revenue.
Although production resumed in April, a few months later, Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir threatened to shut down the pipeline again.
Given such tensions, it is not surprising that South Sudan blames its neighbour for the lack of progress. Yet there are also internal political issues that have held the country back.
Corruption within the government has been rampant. Last year, President Salva Kiir asked 75 former and current officials to return an estimated $4bn of stolen public money.
Allegations of graft have exacerbated bitterness towards the government, and is also impeding much needed private investment in the country.
Competition among ethnic groups for a share of the country's resources has also increased. In Jonglei state, David Yau Yau's rebel movement has recruited youth from disenfranchised Murle tribe to fight the SPLA, the new country's army. Up to 120,000 people may have fled into the bush amid fighting over the past month.
Crime is being fuelled by ethnic rivalry and unemployment, and South Sudan has yet to establish a viable police force and turn a former rebel movement into a professional army.
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.
"Security remains a very serious challenge for the country in terms of militias, urban crimes, unemployed youth, ethnic conflict and confrontations over land," said Jok Madut Jok, founder of the Sudd Institute, a think-tank in Juba.
Yet despite the many problems facing this young nation, progress has been made and there are positive signs.
Last week, South Sudan shipped its first oil to market and Vice President Riek Machar travelled to Sudan's capital Khartoum to defuse tensions in an effort to keep the oil lifeline open.
This week South Africa's former president Thabo Mbeki is scheduled to visit Juba to advance concrete plans to demarcate the demilitarised border zone between the two neighbours.
Ordinary people such as Duku Patrick, a second year engineering student, are under no illusions about the scale of the task facing policymakers - and believe now is the time to revise the high expectations that accompanied independence.
"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," Patrick said.