South Sudan’s fraught peace agreement and transition have been blamed for fuelling a series of conflicts that have divided communities and contributed to humanitarian indicators reaching levels unseen even during the 2013-2018 civil war.
Yet efforts by local and international organisations to reduce such conflicts are often falling short, over a dozen community leaders, government officials, and individuals involved in peacebuilding work in the country told The New Humanitarian.
“What peacebuilders are not considering is that [conflict] does not end by just bringing [communities] together and letting them talk,” said James Ninrew Dong, founder of the Assistance Mission for Africa, a national NGO. “What is important is what comes next.”
South Sudanese President Salva Kiir signed a peace deal in 2018 with opposition parties including that of his long-time foe Riek Machar. They agreed to form a unity government in 2020 and have since tried to project an image of reconciliation.
But the transition process has focused on political power-sharing rather than local communities. Their grievances continue to produce problems, while youth are being drawn into conflicts stirred by elites who use violence to further their ambitions.
Seeking to ease tensions, peacebuilding organisations – from church groups to international NGOs and a UN peacekeeping mission – often focus on organising inter-community peace conferences and dialogues in local areas.
Interviewees said these efforts are helpful if they are sustained and include real power brokers. Yet they argued that initiatives are often short-term oriented; get subverted by national elites; and fail to break the economic incentives that sustain local violence.
How should grassroots peacebuilding be done? What’s worked in the past and what hasn’t? This article explores these questions through interviews conducted last year in South Sudan. It is part of a stream of peacebuilding reporting from The New Humanitarian.
Efforts should be long-term and involve power brokers
The 15 people interviewed for this story all called for long-term initiatives that build positive ties between communities who have been divided by a civil war that cleaved groups along ethnic lines
Conflicts have continued to affect social relations even during supposed peacetime. In Jonglei state, hundreds have died in clashes between Bor Dinka, Lou Nuer, and Murle militias, while Nuer and Shilluk youth have featured in recent fighting in Upper Nile.
Yet interviewees argued that donors rarely finance long-term programmes that could be more impactful. They said interventions instead tend to focus on one-off dialogues and isolated conferences that lack end product and aren’t properly followed up.
“People at NGOs are focusing on saying, ‘I have done this’, ticking boxes, and sending a nice report back to donors so they are happy and can send more money.”
“[Organisations] want a quick fix and a report to go to a funder,” said Julia Duany, a civil servant who has also been involved in many peacebuilding processes. “[But] it has to be a process of bringing real people together who can talk [through] the issues.”
Dong, who is now the head of the presbyterian church in South Sudan, said the pressure on organisations to meet the demands of donors rather than communities has led to a “commercialisation of peace”.
“People at NGOs are focusing on saying, ‘I have done this’, ticking boxes, and sending a nice report back to donors so they are happy and can send [more] money,” Dong told The New Humanitarian.
Interviewees also criticised dialogues and conferences for not involving individuals and groups with actual power. Duany said armed youth, for example, are rarely invited to these events, which limits the chance of any agreement being respected.
Officials from peacebuilding organisations said security rules are part of the problem. They prevent organisations from leaving urban areas and constrain their ability to speak with armed youth and traditional leadership authorities.
Address the influence of national elites
Some analysts argue that the focus on inter-community dialogue is misplaced, since what are framed as communal conflicts are often driven by national elites. Elites have armed community militias in Jonglei, for example, while political power struggles lie behind the Upper Nile violence.
“Whatever political rivalries [there are] at the top, those conflicts will manifest in how people relate… at a local level,” said South Sudanese scholar Jok Madut Jok. He said communal conflicts are often “an extension” of disputes in the government and army.
Elite interests complicate local peacebuilding efforts, which some argue treat the symptoms of violence rather than the institutional issues creating it. For example, while communities may agree to halt a conflict, far off elites may have other ideas.
“Whatever political rivalries there are at the top, those conflicts will manifest in how people relate… at a local level.”
“It is very difficult to make peace, because politicians at the higher level want to have control [over communities],” said Jackcilia Salathiel Ebere, national women coordinator at the South Sudan Council of Churches. “They are the engineers of bad things.”
Jok said grassroots efforts will only succeed if national elites reconcile first. “My real issue with local-level peacebuilding… is that obviously they cannot be sustained if they are not visibly championed by political and military leaders at the centre,” he said.
Still, others suggested change at the grassroots can force change at the national level. While politicians and generals instrumentalise communities to fight for them (and might not want peace efforts to succeed), several peacebuilders said they can also sensitise communities to understand it's not in their interests to follow what elites are telling them.
Peace dividends are needed
Pia Philip, the undersecretary of South Sudan’s ministry of peacebuilding, argued that reducing the influence of elites on local youth requires “building their resilience” and creating “sustainable livelihoods”.
Others argued that boosting local economies might prevent youth from engaging in common violent activities like raiding cattle from neighbouring communities.
“Does any partner in their hearts have a holistic approach for resolving the conflict in South Sudan? Or are their plans just a cosmetic approach to say we are doing something?”
But Philip argued that donors aren’t interested in providing the kind of development support that is necessary. He said they prefer to spend money on short-term dialogues, and that even then only a limited number of people are allowed to participate.
“Does any partner in their hearts have a holistic approach for resolving the conflict in South Sudan?” Philip asked, rhetorically. “Or are their plans just a cosmetic approach to say we are doing something?”
Another peacebuilding official, who was interviewed off the record so they could speak more freely, added: “It is an open question about which donors [have] a medium-term plan that even pays lip service to development. It is not even discussed.”
Centre women and make space for tradition
If local peacebuilding efforts are to work, then women must play a central role, according to Ebere of the South Sudan Council of Churches, which is an ecumenical umbrella group.
“Men go to the [dialogue] table and they are lying,” Ebere said. “And because of the lies, they keep making solutions that are unrealistic. A woman will talk from her heart about what she is going through, [about] what is happening in the community.”
Maurice Okwera, a mediation coordinator at the same church group, said women have “clear information” because they are “the primary victims in most of the crises”. But he cautioned that in some scenarios women can also be “promoters of hate speech”.
Peacebuilding interventions should also engage with the institutions and rituals that communities traditionally use to manage and resolve conflicts, said Gabriel Gai Riam, an author and local NGO director.
“A woman will talk from her heart about what she is going through, about what is happening in the community.”
Riam, who was involved in grassroots peacebuilding initiatives in the 1990s, argued that traditional conflict resolution mechanisms are often ignored by peacebuilding interventions.
“Every culture has its own way of managing its affairs,” Riam told The New Humanitarian. “But we [are] taking tools and theories to people that don’t understand what they are.”
Others argued that traditional tools are operating poorly too. For example, blood compensation – where perpetrators of lethal violence give cattle to victims’ families – has become unworkable as civil wars have killed hundreds of thousands.
“Compensation reduces the pain in the heart of those who lost a dear one,” said Agany Akol, a community leader from northern Warrap state. “[But] because of the great number that have been lost it is difficult to carry on with [it].”
Still, Duany argued that there are traditions like truth-telling that remain valuable. “[They] are still there, and they can still be used to solve even the conflicts which are happening today,” she said.
Dong, who is the chair of a transitional justice working group, argued that in areas like compensation it is necessary “to think outside of the box”. He said reparations and the memorialisation of victims in public spaces could provide alternative forms of redress.
Look to the past
Several interviewees said a better way of peacebuilding can be found in past efforts. They cited the 1999 Wunlit conference, which sought to reconcile South Sudan’s two largest groups – the Dinka and Nuer.
The church-led effort followed a division within the southern Sudanese rebel movement that was fighting against the Sudanese government. The split opposed two key rebel leaders – Riek Machar (a Nuer) and John Garang (a Dinka).
Two years of mobilising and awareness-raising – which Duany and Dong were both involved in – ended with a conference in Wunlit village. Thousands attended and resolutions were adopted – from returning abducted women and children to their communities, to the cessation of cattle raids.
Though the process had issues (compensation was not exchanged) and benefited from a particular context (the south had a common enemy in Sudan’s government), it helped end the Nuer-Dinka violence and reconcile the rebels who later won independence.
Wunlit is still spoken of today as an example of patient bottom-up peacebuilding. According to Duany, the use of Dinka and Nuer rituals was key as was the role of women. Major efforts were also made to get the buy-in of rebel leaders.
“There is a need for a new Wunlit,” said Ramadhan Delenge Marajan, a community leader from Warrap who attended the conference. Conflict has flared in his state in recent years, even as dialogues and forums have been held.
Edited by Andrew Gully.