South Sudan celebrated its first day as an independent nation Saturday, raising its flag before tens of thousands of cheering citizens elated to reach the end of a 50-year struggle.
President Obama called the day a new dawn after the darkness of war, while visiting dignitaries offered both congratulations and prodding for South Sudan and its former ruler, Sudan, to avoid a return to conflict over serious and unresolved disagreements.
The black African tribes of South Sudan and the mainly Arab north battled two civil wars over more than five decades. About 2 million died in the latest war, from 1983 to 2005, which culminated in a peace deal that led to Saturday’s independence declaration.
“From today our identity is southern and African, not Arabic and Muslim,” read a hand-painted sign that one man carried as he walked through the crowds.
At a packed midday ceremony, the speaker of parliament read a proclamation of independence as the flag of Sudan was lowered and the flag of South Sudan was raised, sparking wild cheers from a crowd tens of thousands strong.
Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir arrived amid a mixture of boos and murmurs. He stood beside Kiir and smiled during the ceremony, and said in a speech that he respected the south’s choice to secede, even as he prodded Obama “to meet his promise and lift the sanctions imposed on Sudan.”
The United States has promised economic and political rewards to Sudan if it allows the south to secede peacefully, but military standoffs in the contested border region of Abyei and new fighting in South Kordofan — a state in Sudan with many south-supporting residents — have the potential to spark a new north-south conflict. The United States has indicated that those issues need to be resolved before normalization of relations can occur.