In December 2013, two weeks after the start of South Sudan’s recent internal conflict, South Sudanese academic Jok Madut Jok told a New York Times interviewer: “The two men will eventually sit down, resolve their issues, laugh for the cameras, and the thousands of civilians who have died will not be accounted for. No one will be responsible for their deaths.” It was almost two years later, in August 2015, that the two men in question — President Salva Kiir, and former Vice President turned rebel leader Riek Machar — did finally smile, shake hands, and put pen to paper on an agreement to end hostilities and begin a process of national reconciliation.
The outcome for the people of South Sudan has been humanitarian crisis on a grand scale. The total number of those killed is unknown. Among the litany of horrors recorded in the interim have been indiscriminate attacks against civilian populations, extra-judicial killings, sexual violence, mass displacement, abductions, forced disappearances and the forced conscription of adults and children. The report of the African Union Commission of Inquiry on South Sudan (AUCISS) found that both Kiir’s government forces and opposition forces allied to Machar had committed serious human rights violations and violations of international humanitarian law.
Much of the formal peace process during 2014 and 2015 focused on bringing ‘the two men’ to the negotiating table. Mediation talks were held under the oversight of a regional trade body, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), in Addis Ababa. The centrality of Kiir and Machar, present on behalf of the two sides they were thought (or hoped) to control, reflected the initial source of the unrest, as divisions within the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) party led to violence between rival army factions. As a result, the path to resolution of the conflict has often been seen as a matter of finding a balance in the sharing of power — at the expense of underlying issues.
The IGAD mediation process was notable for its extensive involvement of outside actors. The talks became known as the ‘IGAD-Plus’ initiative, due to the presence of states beyond the group’s East African bloc, with representatives from the so-called ‘Troika’ group (the US, the UK and Norway, responsible for financing the talks), China, the European Union and the African Union joining. At the time of the signing of the final peace agreement, both parties still held reservations, but were reportedly forced to proceed under pressure from increasingly frustrated international partners.
Significant regional power dynamics were also evident around the formal peace talks. In June 2015, Kenya — seen, along with the Ethiopian hosts, to be vying for control of the process — hosted a parallel meeting between Kiir, Machar and a group of former political detainees. Further parallel talks were convened in Tanzania, intended to reunify the divided factions within the SPLM. Meanwhile both Uganda and Sudan, present as IGAD member states, had their own interests in the conflict: Uganda had deployed troops into South Sudan at the request of the government, while in certain areas Sudan was alleged to be providing logistical and intelligence support to the opposition.
There was, however, a much wider group of key actors who were not present for these high-level meetings and negotiations. Among the voices crowded out from the dialogue have been domestic civil society organizations, less powerful political parties, women’s groups, youth representatives, and the representatives of traditional authorities. For the deeper process of national reconciliation beyond the formal peace process, a more nuanced strategy is required: in the country’s fragmented institutional landscape, influence in the area of peacebuilding and reconciliation cannot necessarily be secured through the exercise of central state power alone.
Peacebuilding at the grassroots level, rather than solely among political and military elites, will therefore be pivotal. The recent crisis is the latest in many decades of insecurity which have severely damaged inter-communal relations, subsuming what low-level local tensions into the context of increasingly heavily armed conflicts. The AUCISS report recognised this pattern, stating that: “The multiple conflicts in South[ern] Sudan’s history have negatively impacted relations at multiple levels … a peace and reconciliation agenda that proceeds from the position that a genuine national dialogue — one that past peace initiatives have been unable to guarantee — is imperative.”
There has been a history of successful grassroots peace efforts, particularly those orchestrated by church groups. The 1999 Wunlit Conference, for example, convened by the then-New Sudan Council of Churches, has been celebrated for bringing together fueding community representatives around the West Bank of the Nile to commit to peaceful relations. Similarly, the Kuron Peace Village project in Eastern Equatoria State, set up by the Catholic Diocese of Torit, provides another lauded example of ‘people-to-people’ peacebuilding methods. Grassroots peacebuilding can also bring its own complexities: Alex de Waal has noted the potential for local conferences to be used to redefine larger political and military conflicts as mere inter-communal disputes.
External observers of the conflict have at times relied on reductive narratives around the role of inter-communal violence. In many areas, violence beginning with political and military tensions took on an ethnic dimension, with reports of attacks based on ethnicity (or perceived ethnicity) fuelling fear and consequent cycles of retaliation. This built upon a bitter history of leaders using identity politics to mobilise support behind their own political goals. Simplified understandings of this phenomenon meant that less attention was paid to other driving factors, such as failures of post-independence governance, issues of corruption and neopatrimonialism, a high level of militarisation across society and historic grievances.
It is clear that if future peace is to be ensured, sincere efforts towards accountability and redress for past crimes must be demonstrated. In January 2016, President Kiir issued a rare public apology, saying: “I apologise on behalf of the SPLM to the people of South Sudan for the suffering they are going through as a result of war… People will have to account for the crimes they have committed.” While a Truth, Reconciliation and Healing Commission and a Compensation and Reparations Authority are due to be established, Amnesty International and other human rights NGOs have demanded the creation of an independent hybrid court, with international jurists and prosecutors, to try crimes committed during the conflict.
Machar was recently reappointed to high office, as Kiir’s Vice President. The responsibility of those once again entrusted with power is now to ensure that the reconciliation process is a genuinely inclusive one, incorporating a range of South Sudanese voices, and which makes steps to take on difficult, sensitive issues of accountability and governance. Jok has written that such an approach is essential for sustainable peace: “A peace project that does not address the root causes of the conflict, make a commitment for institutional reforms, promise the provision of a minimum level of economic development and promise to increase the welfare of the citizen would simply be postponing the conflict for a while before it erupts again.”
This article was written in February 2016 as a submission for the HART Prize for Human Rights, and was awarded first place in the senior essay category. It was subsequently published on Global Public Policy Watch.