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South Sudan’s fourth anniversary offers little to celebrate

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JUBA, South Sudan – The laborers, hundreds of them, were hard at work, busily fixing roads, painting buildings and making the parade grounds sparkle.

At first glance, it might appear that the economy of this nation, one of the world’s poorest, is humming back to life.

It is not.

The work was being done in preparation for Thursday, when the governing party led by President Salva Kiir will celebrate the fourth anniversary of South Sudan’s independence.

The day after the festivities, residents say, the work will stop.

It is a Potemkin celebration, they say, marking an occasion that was greeted with such great hope in 2011 but that now rings hollow for many as the country descends further into division and misery.

For more than 18 months, South Sudan has been torn asunder by a civil war, with towns deserted and in ruins, villages burned to the ground, hundreds of thousands displaced and thousands dead.

But it may not be the battle of arms that poses the most immediate threat to the survival of Kiir’s government.

It may be the shattered economy.

Western officials say that the government nearly ran out of money in May and that it is being kept afloat only by printing currency at a seemingly unsustainable rate and by a recent loan from a Middle Eastern nation, perhaps Qatar.

South Sudanese officials would neither confirm nor deny the loan, reported to be between $250 million and $500 million, but the economic crisis is evident everywhere.

The day after the anniversary, there will still be less than 50 miles of paved roads in a country of 11 million people. There will still be few paying jobs outside the military and government. And there will still be little indication of how the world’s newest nation can put itself back together.

In recent months, the fighting has intensified and threatened the government’s main source of income: oil.

"South Sudan is the most oil-dependent country in the world," according to the World Bank, "with oil accounting for almost the totality of exports."

Rebel forces attacked the last working oil field in May, forcing workers to evacuate and nearly seizing control before being turned back. They launched another offensive last week, but it is unclear how close they came to the oil field.

Even before the war, oil income was severely strained by South Sudan’s terms with Sudan, the nation it split from after decades of war.

The government pays a set fee to Sudan, regardless of the price of oil, and it is now making less than $10 a barrel, according to Western officials. Since the war began, production has fallen by one-third, according to the Oil Ministry.

The shortages of gasoline and diesel force gas stations to close without notice, and the currency has recently undergone wild fluctuations.

Shoppers at the Konyo Konyo market here in the heart of the capital, where tin stalls packed with goods brought from outside South Sudan line rutted dirt roads, do not need an economist to tell them that things are not right.

Even though the shelves are filled with staples like beans, wheat and flour, business is as bad as anyone can remember since the fighting started at the end of 2013.

Joyce Pony, whose family fled its village when fighting broke out, sells roasted nuts outside the stalls.

Even she has been forced to raise her prices. A cup of nuts used to cost 1 South Sudanese pound a few months ago. Now it is 5 pounds.

Asked why she thinks prices are rising, she said she was told it had something to do with the dollar.

"I have never seen a dollar," she said. "But it rules my life."

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