“Why isn’t Ban Ki Moon here?” asked my neighbour, sitting in the hard-won fifth row seat in Freedom Square in Juba, at the first anniversary of South Sudan’s independence as a new nation. “It’s a snub!”
Expectations were high for this year’s ceremonies after the huge celebrations held at independence on 9 July 2011. Many left work early on Friday the 6th, and announcements of a public holiday on the 9th were posted across town and in public offices. Banners declaring 2012 as the year that South Sudan became a player on the ‘World Stage’ decorated Freedom Square. While many people anticipated a repeat of the grandeur, investment and international interest of last year, most, however, were disappointed: not only did South Sudan’s deep financial crisis severely limit the scale of events, but there was also no real discussion – at least in public – about what should constitute the ‘traditions’ for Independence Day in the South. Leading up to 9 July 2012, there were simply no clear expectations about what Independence Day meant for this new nation.
Various ‘traditions,’ both spontaneous and engineered, were enacted in Juba over the weekend, and often competed for space and interest. Formally, the government repeated the basic outline of last year, with ranked seating rigged up in Freedom Square in front of the well-decorated podium, half reserved for SPLA generals and the other half for miscellaneous dignitaries. John Garang – the leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army in the second civil war and the leading face on all national currency – was invoked many times in speeches and in the ceremonial respects paid to his mausoleum by President Salva Kiir and President Museveni of Uganda. Many speakers invoked the now-standard ‘traditional’ national story of the South’s struggle towards independence, led solely by Garang and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). Many audience members felt frustrated in listening to this oft-repeated tale rather than any mention of growing problems in the nation, including the financial crisis, unemployment rate, corruption and ongoing border war.
Behind this somewhat predictable display, however, was the sound of drums: sponsored by the government, several official dancing groups performed throughout the ceremony, watched by people tired of speeches. This was also a smaller repeat of last year: budget constraints meant that the majority of the beaded and feathered dancers were local Bari and Acholi communities, or groups formed in Juba. Clustered in ethnicities, with circles of spectators creating small arenas, the dancers performed throughout the more formal ceremonials behind them, with members of their ethnic communities joining in with the more ‘traditionally’-attired dancers. These displays of discrete, ‘traditional’ ethnicities were a demonstration of what the government likes to call ‘unity in diversity’. Local ‘tradition’ (albeit in neatly delineated ethnic groups) had been brought in to bolster a new, more fragile, national ‘tradition’ in Freedom Square.
These government-run ceremonial displays of ethnicity and nationhood, however, were matched for size and outdone in enthusiasm by the more spontaneous and popular events of the night before. Like last year, celebrations started early: people turned out onto the streets of southern Juba, dancing, drinking, throwing burning paper and lighting aerosol cans, and riding around on pickup trucks (and in one case, this year, a tractor). This raucous celebration was a carbon copy of last year’s joyriding, and actually disrupted the more ‘official’ event at Nyakuron Cultural Centre by blocking the roads entirely. This was the real popular event of the weekend, encouraged by the idea circulating last year that the unofficial but real moment of independence was at midnight on the night of the 8th: the moment of the country’s birth.
“Maybe this should be a tradition,” said a radio commentator, looking at the dancing in Freedom Square. These initial celebrations, while often disorganised, uncertain, disruptive and politicized, were all attempts, consciously or not, to repeat, formalise and enshrine particular practices and ideas about how the independence of the nation should be demonstrated.