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"The conflict itself has a much more complex reality on the ground"

South Sudan
DME for Peace
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Author, Copyright Holder: Janice Freeman

Three years ago, a political crisis erupted between the government of South Sudan and opposition forces. It quickly escalated into a civil war. With 50,000 civilians killed and over 1.8 million people displaced, the war in South Sudan is one of the most violent conflicts happening today. Despite the gravity of the situation, the media rarely highlight what is happening in the world’s youngest country.

Janice Freeman, Policy & Advocacy Intern at Search for Common Ground, met with Adrienne Lemon, Design, Monitoring, and Evaluation Specialist for East and Southern Africa at Search for Common Ground, to discuss the unique causes, devastating consequences, and reasons for hope in the midst of the South Sudanese conflict.

In your research, what have you seen as the conflict drivers in South Sudan? Why do some people choose to engage in violence?

There are triggers and drivers. The main conflict drivers surround resource distribution and access to water and land. Things like cattle raiding are triggers that are typically driven by lack of access to resources. Then you have ethnic divisions as another major factor in driving conflict.

These two are the most cited, but there are also conflicts with the police or the military, shaped by ethnic divisions and lack of state control, or by the lack of ability to consolidate power. So, the main four are access to water, access to land, state control, and ethnic divisions.

Could you provide some background on the ethnic dimension of the conflict in South Sudan?

The major unifier in South Sudan up to independence was this idea of becoming South Sudan. After, the question was – how does this become actualized? When Salva Kiir [the President of the country, ed] got rid of the Vice President, Riek Machar, this was the kickoff of the ethnic dimension of conflict.

The conflict itself has a much more complex reality on the ground. What we see is that this ethnic conflict between Dinka and Nuer at the state level has manifested itself through intercommunal conflicts at the local level. It’s at the local clan level that most of the conflict is happening. It’s really about access to resources and local disputes that are being shaped by a generalized insecurity in the state.

According to the New York Times, it’s possible that as many civilians are dying in South Sudan as in Syria. What are some of the challenges when approaching a conflict this severe?

There are several needs happening all at once when you have both a humanitarian crisis, violent conflict, a breakdown of the state, and violations of peace agreements. There’s stuff going on at every level. In order to address conflict in that setting, there’s a real need for conflict sensitivity in humanitarian work. This means thinking strategically about food distribution systems. It’s important to figure out if you are exacerbating or minimizing conflict based on how you distribute food and how transparent you are in the choices you’ve made.

A critical challenge is working with the government to make sure it isn’t working against you at every turn. They need the confidence that you’re not trying to undermine their authority. In the past, that hasn’t been communicated well between the humanitarian groups and the government. It needs to be.

Why do you think the crisis in South Sudan goes largely unacknowledged in mainstream media, when compared to the coverage on Syria?

There are national interests that play up Syria vs. South Sudan right now. But more importantly, I think there’s this reticence around how we act. It’s hard to advocate for South Sudan when you don’t know what to advocate for. People feel that there was a lot of potential in 2011 [when the country gained its independence from Sudan, ed] that was not realized because humanitarian and political aid didn’t play the game right.

Now there’s a reticence around wanting to advocate because no one is sure if what humanitarian actors are doing is going to help or hurt. Groups are trying to be more sensitive about contextual issues, but you do find a pattern of silence on the part of the international community when they’ve tried something and it didn’t work. There’s a quiet which maybe lasts for years or months, because no one wants to take credit for another failure of a humanitarian intervention.

Search frequently works with underrepresented groups such as women and youth in South Sudan. What are the dynamics surrounding them?

In addition to the problem of domestic gender-based violence, women are heavily affected by the IDP crisis [Internally Displaced People, ed]. They don’t own their land, so if they lose a husband, they are likely to be displaced. At the same time, women don’t have access to formal decision-making mechanisms.

Youth are also frequently barred from decision-making because it’s usually the elders that are making choices. In particular, youth don’t have access to formal mechanisms for dialogue, so it’s important to bring them in and engage them. There’s a lot of potential around more leadership from youth and also more subtle engagement. We recognize that we’re not going to suddenly have youth in leadership positions, but changing the way the conversation is held is important.

While working with Search, what positive changes have you seen in attitudes towards conflict?

There was an area in Eastern Equatoria where land ownership disputes created tensions between two communities. They created a new administrative structure to solve the problem, but it actually generated more tensions and less positive interaction.

We worked with existing grassroots organizations that could help support re-engagement between the two groups and the outcome was really positive. We did things like sports activities that allowed the groups to interact again. You can’t necessarily do this everywhere simultaneously, but showing that it can be done in one community makes it possible for other communities to see that they can do it too.

What can international actors, particularly in the policy realm, do to support positive change in South Sudan?

Humanitarian work is humanitarian, so let’s not be too influenced by the politics and make sure that people are getting what they need to ensure stability. There are tensions around how we can respond to humanitarian crises, but there needs to be a definition for when something is a humanitarian crisis and when we are going to intervene. Finally, it’s critical to pay attention to conflict sensitivity in those interventions and not ignore the conflict drivers.

It’ll be important to make sure that we’re partnering with grassroots community organizations who manage these things well. It’s very easy to focus on the negatives, but let’s not forget that there are positive opportunities, resources, and individuals who are already managing crises, engaging in dialogue, and working across community lines. Rather than acting like they don’t exist, strengthening those resources will be extremely important to create sustainable solutions.

How are local media portraying ethnic tensions?

A huge percentage of the population listens to the radio in South Sudan, so it’s very important to have diverse ideas represented by the media. That’s been challenging in South Sudan because there aren’t a lot of operating radio stations and they don’t cover the whole country, which means that there are areas where media doesn’t reach as fully. But media is an amazing tool for planting seeds and getting people to see things in a different way. Based on all of the research that we did, we were able to create some interesting media programs to address the issue of youth engagement and to give a platform to marginalized groups. Now they can have them heard in our radio call-in program, which is exciting.

What is the risk of mass atrocities happening in the near future?

There is a risk. The risk really surrounds things like access to resources and access to water, really basic stuff. The growing trend of people not being able to access basic resources is worrying.

Violence could increase and mass atrocities could occur if there isn’t action around the food security crisis in South Sudan. That’s part of why it’s so important to act and not prioritize political needs above the needs of everyday members of the population, because that’s where conflict takes hold.

This interview was conducted by Janice Freeman.