In the week of South Sudan’s seventh anniversary of independence, Christian Aid’s Senior Adviser on South Sudan, Natalia Chan, explores prospects for peace in the young country.
As South Sudan marks another independence anniversary this week, many South Sudanese will wonder what it all really means. Since 2013, their country has collapsed into multiple conflicts over resources, power and identity.
Improvements in people’s lives in the years after the 2005 peace agreement between independence fighters and the Government of Sudan have since been swept away by civil war.
The latest peace agreement, signed last week, is one of multiple agreements signed since December 2013. Understandably, it has been met with some degree of scepticism from many South Sudanese. But with that scepticism there is still hope, even if it comes from a sense of desperation.
Surely it is time for peace to come, and for the suffering to end.
The extreme suffering caused by the fallout of this political crisis has captured global attention. South Sudan’s humanitarian disaster has become one of the worst in the world over the last four-and-a-half years. It has become a common refrain that the only way to stop the suffering and give people hope and a sense of pride in their national identity, is for there to be peace.
And so a great deal of international attention has focused on how to broker a peace deal between powerful belligerents. In January 2014, the first agreement, a Cessation of Hostilities, was signed amid relief and celebration. But as stories emerged of the most unspeakable acts of violence being committed, it became clear that much more was needed.
At the seventh anniversary of South Sudanese independence and in the fifth year of its civil war, meaningful peace still feels a long way off.
Conflict in South Sudan is complex – loyalties from previous conflicts, traditional patterns of seasonal migration, cattle raiding, cycles of inter-communal violence, historic trauma and grievances, gender-based violence and competition for natural resources –all of these localised dynamics interact with national politics.
Recognition of this has led to renewed interest in what can be achieved at ‘local’ levels. This is welcome. As a new report from Christian Aid points out, working on grassroots peacebuilding and linking it with national strategies for peace will support the more transformational change that needs to happen in the long run.
While local peacebuilding is no substitute for a national peace agreement, the stability of the national process depends on addressing local disputes. Indigenous and religious traditions are key in the power of local processes to transform conflict.
At all levels, while external actors have an essential role to play in facilitating peace, for peace to prevail and be meaningful, peace initiatives and problem-solving must be owned by South Sudanese people themselves.
Local peacebuilding matters because:
It can mitigate the worse effects of national conflict, and can help people move around, earn a living, trade with each other and get more of what they need. It can improve people’s lives, even for a short time, despite national instability.
It can build relationships and expand the choices available to people and communities, helping them to opt-out of conflict, or at the least prepare for peace to prevail when opportunities become more apparent
Focusing on community-level conflict can provide key entry points and opportunities for long-term, transformational change which helps tackle the underlying causes of national conflict and provide key building blocks for longer-term national stability.
Peace is made and broken every day in South Sudan; conflict never ends. The aim should be to help communities manage it peacefully.
Communities’ experience of conflict varies greatly across South Sudan, so can only be addressed with approaches which are suited to each context.
South Sudanese people across the country are taking their own initiatives to build peace, find non-violent ways to deal with conflict and keep hope alive in their communities.
There is no easy or quick-fix solution to South Sudan’s painful problems. All of those who walk with South Sudan on its difficult journey – whether as diplomats, donors, humanitarian workers or peacebuilders – must commit the time and space to understand the complexity and their own role in the picture.
We owe it to the people of South Sudan to be with them, in it for the long haul.
Christian Aid’s new report, In It For The Long Haul? Lessons on peacebuilding in South Sudan, is available to read here: http://caid.org.uk/south-sudan-report
A policy and practice summary paper can be found here: http://caid.org.uk/south-sudan-summary