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 say.
“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.
James Ninrew Dong is founder of the Assistance Mission for Africa, a faith-based national NGO. He said peacebuilding efforts should have a long-term focus.
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 our stream of peacebuilding reporting.
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.
“[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 nice reports back to donors so they are happy and can send [more] money,” Dong says.
Julia Duany, a civil servant and long-standing peace activist, was involved in several bottom-up peacebuilding initiatives in the 1990s.
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.
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.
Even conflicts over cattle are often linked to generals and politicians. Many are from pastoralist communities and have amassed vast herds over the years that they seek to expand.
“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.
- The New Humanitarian report