WORLD NEWS – NAIROBI (AlertNet) – South Sudan, the world’s youngest country, will mark its first birthday next week. As the nation gears up for celebrations on Monday, AlertNet asks experts to assess South Sudan’s first year of independence and cast an eye to its future.

What has South Sudan achieved in its first year of independence?

Jok Madut Jok, academic and founder of the Sudd Institute think-tank: Freedom. And there is no material value to be placed on freedom.

Harry Verhoeven, Sudan academic at Oxford University: The biggest achievement is probably that [President] Salva Kiir himself has not been openly challenged and we have not seen an internal split within the SPLM  [the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement]. Despite a number of rebellions, the South has managed to remain perhaps more unified than many people would have thought a year ago.

John Ashworth, S. Sudan analyst who has worked with churches in Sudan for 29 years: New roads, new buildings, functioning government, expanded telecommunications network, domestic airlines reaching many new destinations, resolving inter-communal conflict in Jonglei State… progress which has not necessarily met everybody’s unrealistic expectations but which is nevertheless progress.

What have been the greatest challenges?

Jok Madut Jok: The most daunting challenge has been the one of security because it was the independence dividend that was most expected by the people. And it has become the most difficult to achieve. It has not helped at all that the Khartoum government continues to think of South Sudan as a province of Sudan.

Harry Verhoeven: Across the board, the challenges are as big as they were a year ago and this government does not give a lot of people confidence that it’s up to the job. Corruption is the one that people complain about the most. But, frankly, the behavior of the army and the huge human rights violations inside South Sudan are a real source for discontent for a lot of people.

John Ashworth: Military, economic and political aggression from Khartoum, the difficulties of taking development out to the states and rural areas, governance challenges (including corruption).

How does the humanitarian situation today compare with one year ago?

Jok Madut Jok: Food deficits are a lot more grave this year than last year. A lot more people need assistance. That is because of a combination of factors: poor rains last year, poor harvest, the shutdown of the borders and the shutdown of the oil.

Harry Verhoeven: It has continued to get worse and the overall collapse of the economy due to the collapse of oil revenues is of course the main culprit there. The situation is very dire I think for huge numbers of people.

The truth is that a lot of NGOs and the U.N. don’t really have reliable statistics for a lot of places, for example, in Bahr el Ghazal (in the northwest). Places are very remote, hard to access, sometimes very unsafe to visit. So I think we might be underestimating the degree of suffering and the extent of the humanitarian catastrophe.

John Ashworth: Probably much the same, as it has been for many years in reality. Refugees from Sudan’s civil wars in Blue Nile and the Nuba Mountains and South Sudanese returning from Sudan add to the difficulties.

How do you foresee South Sudan’s second year?

Jok Madut Jok: The second year will be challenging so long as Khartoum wages its war on us. It is challenging on the economic front, on the security front, but it is another year of freedom. People will continue to work on internal security which is the biggest problem confronting many communities within South Sudan.

Harry Verhoeven: I am very pessimistic in the short term because people in Juba tend to believe that revolution in Khartoum is imminent, Khartoum is about to fall. So if they hold out a bit longer they can get it all instead of having to settle for a negotiated deal right now. It is a major error in judgment. I think you are likely to see a lot more of the same. You are likely to see protracted hunger and displacement. You are likely to continue seeing a lot of local insecurity.

John Ashworth: It will be a difficult year but South Sudan will continue to move forward. Negotiations with Sudan will continue, on and off, and will not develop into full-scale war. Some temporary solution will be found to obtain revenue from the oil until such time as the new pipelines are completed (or Sudan backs down).

Looking ahead, what are the priorities?

Jok Madut Jok: In a country with such a long history of destruction, everything is a priority. Basic services of healthcare and education are a major priority. But infrastructure is a major priority in terms of generation of electricity, in terms of the roads to connect all the 10 states to the capital. Security is a priority. The country finds itself confronted by multiple extremely challenging tasks.

Harry Verhoeven: The top priority should be to improve relations with Khartoum and to settle the partition of Sudan and to make sure that the secession arrangements are finally all put in place, including on oil, including on water, including on citizenship and the border. This is really the top priority. It is very hard to imagine the country going anywhere without an improvement in its relations with its most important neighbor.

John Ashworth: Everything – which is one of the reasons why much of the foreign criticism of the government in Juba is unfair. But probably achieving some normalization with its northern neighbor is a priority. The constitutional review process is also a priority as it has important long-term implications. Great progress has already been made in reducing internal violence via the Jonglei peace process, but the implementation of that process is a priority otherwise conflict could return.