Forging peace in South Sudan

By John Ashworth, adviser to the Sudan and South Sudan churches

South Sudan sank into civil war in December 2013, less than three years after gaining independence. This latest civil war is often described as a political power struggle which soon morphed into ethnic conflict.

However, it might be more accurate to say ‘revenge-driven’ rather than ‘ethnic’. The lack of a reconciliation process to address the hurts of earlier conflicts has only exacerbated the thirst for revenge. The peace talks led by the regional grouping IGAD in Ethiopia’s capital Addis are attempting to address the political component; but who will address the cycle of revenge?

Bibiana - refugee camp, Juba, South Sudan
Bibiana Okong lives in the safety of a camp on the outskirts of Juba. She fled to the camp after one of her sons was accused of being a government soldier and was killed.

‘People to People’ – bringing communities together

In the 1990s, during an earlier conflict which also exhibited ethnic revenge dynamics, the churches created an innovative People to People Peace Process which brought warring communities together again. Aid agencies such as CAFOD played a major role as partners in supporting the original People to People Peace process, working with and through the Church at the grassroots to build peace at a local level in communities. The lessons learnt from this process can contribute to resolving the current conflict.

Please donate to support vulnerable communities in South Sudan

These days the term ‘People to People’ seems to be bandied about by anyone who wants to raise funds for their own particular peace and reconciliation conference. However, People to People was not primarily about conferences; it was about months and indeed years of patient preparation, mobilisation, awareness-raising, consultation and trust-building on the ground before the high-profile conferences took place. Bringing a few chiefs and elders together for a highly-visible quick-fix conference is not ‘People to People’.

Our partner – The Committee for National Healing, Peace and Reconciliation

The Committee for National Healing, Peace and Reconciliation (CNHPR), has People to People at the heart of all that it does. An independent Committee headed by national religious leaders, it has developed a two-year programme to consult with the people of South Sudan, leading to meetings at county, state and national level aimed at developing a ‘national agenda’ for reconciliation by 2016.

In October last year over 70 people from all over the country gathered in the town of Yei, in the south west of the country, where they sat together, listened to each other’s painful stories, and embarked upon the training they will need to take the lead to galvanise over five hundred Peace Mobilisers who will work to put in place this consultation process at the local community level.

Last month the Committee met to work on the next steps: the selection, training and commissioning of the Peace Mobilisers. Catholic Bishop Paride Taban, the Deputy Chair of the Committee, urged the members with the wise words of not to get rid of tribes but rather of tribalism.

In April 2013 the Government of South Sudan asked religious leaders to lead a new reconciliation process, and just as the late President Nelson Mandela of South Africa appointed an archbishop to lead their Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the President of South Sudan – Salva Kiir – has appointed Anglican Archbishop, Daniel Deng Bul to lead South Sudan’s Committee for National Healing, Peace and Reconciliation.

Church leaders call for peace

Churches represent perhaps the only ‘institution’ that transcends the ethnic and regional differences. The Catholic Church has been involved for many years promoting a culture of harmony and peace. In the run up to the referendum in January 2011 and ahead of Independence in July 2011, the South Sudan Catholic Bishops’ Conference called for unity and peaceful coexistence, proactively working with different ethnic groups on reconciliation and peace building.

Faith leaders recognise that if the perpetual cycle of violence that has plagued the region for so long is going to be broken, then there must be a peace dividend delivered to the people. Of course it is the Government of South Sudan that has the primary responsibility for this, but Church leaders from all denominations recognise that they have a crucial role to play in forging that peace.

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John Ashworth is a CAFOD partner and acts as an advisor to the Churches in Sudan and South Sudan, and to the Committee for National Healing, Peace and Reconciliation. He is author of the book ‘The Voice of the Voiceless: The Role of the Church in the Sudanese Civil War 1983-2005’.

John’s blog was also published in The Catholic Times.

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