Kampala — A South Sudanese student union in Uganda belatedly marked their country's third anniversary since independence on Saturday amid claims several senior officials in the capital, Juba, turned down invitations to attend the event.
The students union in Kampala claimed that the first invitation sent to Eastern Equatoria governor Louis Lobong Lojore to attend the scheduled 9 July celebrations, but it was turned down after president Salva Kiir failed to approve the request.
The South Sudanese student union then extended another invitation to the the minister of foreign affairs, Barnaba Marial Benjamin, as guest of honour, but he also declined to attend the function.
Deng Gai Gatluak a fourth-year law student at Uganda's Cavendish University, who doubles as a legal advisor for the union, told Sudan Tribune that students were shocked by the government's decision to turn down their invitations.
Students were subsequently forced to delay scheduled celebrations, which went ahead on Saturday despite the lack of government attendees.
"It is our task and it is our duty as students who are study in different universities in Uganda to make sure to celebrate this day even if we have no guest of honour from the Republic of South Sudan," said Gatluak.
"We consider this independence celebration for all South Sudanese and that is why we are celebrated as [the] South Sudanese student union in Uganda," he added.
The student union leadership attributed the government's refusal to allow governor Lojore's to attend the function to fears he may hijack the student rally to boost support for public calls for the introduction of a federal system of governance.
Gatluak urged South Sudan's warring parties to work towards peace and end the targeting of innocent civilians.
"Let them (politicians) put their interest aside and consider the interest of South Sudanese citizens, who are innocent citizen in the UNMISS (UN Mission in South Sudan) camp, in the forest, in the whole of South Sudan," said Gatluak.
Union spokesperson Malual Bol told Sudan Tribune on Saturday that students have an important role to play in ending the current crisis in South Sudan and could lay the foundations for change.
"We, as the youths or we as students, we are the function of change for this country," he said.
Bol accused some South Sudanese politicians of working to divide communities along tribal lines.
He said South Sudan's leaders were distorting the country's future, calling on youth to "remain united".
"... We should keep our unity together ... because the politicians in the country; they are destroying the opinion of the youths," he said.
"Their days are numbered, that is why they are destroying our future," he added.
Rhoda Ayen Manyuon, the head of the South Sudanese women's association in Uganda, says she believes women also have a role to exercise
in current peace talks between the warring parties in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.
South Sudan's ambassador to Uganda, Samuel Luate, was the only government representative to attend Saturday's celebrations.
He called for unity among South Sudanese students regardless of race, religion and ethnicity.
"I came here to join students from South Sudan who are studying here in Uganda. My message to them is that they need to keep the unity. I saw that this unity [can] continue because we are seeking for peace in South Sudan," said Luate.
The ambassador also urged students to continue to press their leaders so that peace and stability can be restored in the country.
"[Rebel leader] Riek Machar should agree, should calm down and sit down with Salva Kiir Mayardit so that both of them .. bring that peace for our people to enjoy," he said.
"We have fought in this country for many years and we have obtained the independence of South Sudan for all our people," he added.
The South Sudanese students union in Uganda said they had faced a series of financial setbacks in the lead up to independence celebrations, calling for more funding support from the government in order to run student activities and peace-building initiatives for youths abroad.
South Sudan gained independence in July 2011 after a 2005 peace agreement brought an end to a brutal 22-year civil war with the north.
Fresh conflict erupted in mid-December last year amid escalating political tensions within the ruling SPLM, in what is South Sudan's worst post-secession violence.
The conflict has pitted troops loyal to the president against rebel forces aligned with Machar.