Born into trouble: south Sudan and a baby girl

Nyanath Kier's protective arms cradle her crying baby, who entered the world just days before the south of Africa's largest country is itself born as a new nation.

The little girl, as yet unnamed, will grow up in the separate country of south Sudan -- and tough times lie ahead for both.

When the south achieves full independence on July 9, the oil-rich but grossly impoverished land will join an unenviable club of states such as Afghanistan and Somalia at the bottom of global rankings for health and social indicators.

Kier has already beaten the odds. More women die because of pregnancy, labour and delivery complications here than anywhere else in the world.

"No woman should die giving life, but unfortunately my country south Sudan has the highest maternal mortality ratio in the world," said Alexander Dimiti, a doctor working for the UN Population Fund.

"Worse still, they are dying from complications that we have knowledge and skills to prevent," added Dimiti, who helps the health ministry to train midwives.

After the decades-long war with the north ended in 2005, there were just eight midwives in the south, around one for every million people.

Today, there are still only around 100.

But improving health will be only one of many hurdles.

As one of the least developed regions in Africa, south Sudan faces colossal challenges as it begins forging a proper nation, from the accountability of its politicians and security forces to building schools, hospitals and roads.

"There are enormous expectations, but also enormous challenges ahead," said Joe Feeney, who heads the UN Development Programme in the south.

"The people of south Sudan have suffered enormously, and left a scar that is not only physical, but a scar on the people after 50-plus years of war."

The situation today remains unstable: more than 1,800 people have died and some 150,000 people have fled from violence in the south this year, according to UN estimates.

Literacy rates are appalling -- some 90 percent of women cannot read or write.

Development still has a very long way to go in a region larger than Spain and Portugal combined, where transport routes are often impassable mud tracks during the long months of the rainy season.

The first tarred road out of any city in the south -- from the capital Juba to the Ugandan border -- is just being built.

More than 300,000 people have returned south from the north since October, and more are expected.

The UN World Food Programme said it helped to feed about half the population last year, or some four million people.

And there is growing dissatisfaction at the chronic lack of infrastructure, alongside accusations of rampant corruption and embezzlement of the south's oil wealth.

"There has been progress since the end of the war, but at nowhere near the scale needed and people are becoming increasingly frustrated at the slow pace of change," said Alun McDonald from the Oxfam aid agency.

"Too much time and effort has been invested in getting to this stage for the world to then fail at the final hurdle."

 Key issues still unresolved

Tensions are high along the border with former civil war enemies in the north.

More than 110,000 people fled south after northern troops seized the disputed Abyei border region in May.

Key agreements on oil, debt, border demarcation, a lasting solution for Abyei and other issues still need to be hammered out.

Analysts say this year is set to be the most violent since the end of the war six years ago, and they also fear the worst could be yet to come.

"We're in a honeymoon period now," said Gerry Martone, humanitarian affairs director of the International Rescue Committee.

"But what we're worried about is the last precedent of African independence, which was Eritrea in 1993, and that went well initially but four years later exploded into war."

Governance remains a key issue, with power concentrated in the hands of the ex-rebel turned ruling Sudan People's Liberation Movement.

Opposition groups slammed drafts of a proposed interim constitution as "dictatorial."

Rebels have claimed they are fighting to overthrow the new government, forces that southern officials in turn claim are proxy forces of the north trying to control key oil areas along the south's border.

Journalists have reported serious harassment, including arrest and beatings.

"The early signs of governance -- forcing through constitutional changes, restricting the media, centralising power in the office of the president, and resorting to military violence over mediation in conflicts with rebel groups -- have not been encouraging," a coalition of campaign groups warned in a report last month.

Security remains a key issue, with human rights groups accusing the southern army of massacres and rape as it struggles to transform from a rebel to regular force.

"Reports of looting, harassment of civilians and even extrajudicial killings give cause for great concern," the report said.

It also warned of an "increasingly autocratic government" in the south, with power and money concentrated in Juba, and security taking the largest share of the budget.

Such reports are dismissed by the government, although it does admit that mistakes have been made in the difficult shift from guerrilla force to ruling party.

In an official government statement released ahead of independence, the south insisted it "will take all possible steps" to protect and build peace for its people.

Away from the marching bands and pomp of formal independence celebrations, for people like new mother Nyanath Kier, such a chance is all she wants.

"I want my girl to have a peaceful life," she says.


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