Opinion

People of South Sudan need a chance to grow their peace

Malith Kur, Friederike Bubenzer, Elizabeth Lacey

The populace have to be involved in constructing a transitional government, but they are caught in a crossfire, and they are starving.

It’s been more than six months since brutal violence erupted in South Sudan, catapulting the continent’s youngest nation into a humanitarian crisis of outrageous proportions. (AFP)

It’s been more than six months since brutal violence erupted in South Sudan, catapulting the continent’s youngest nation into a humanitarian crisis of outrageous proportions.

Just as those displaced by the long-standing war between pre-independent south and north Sudan were beginning to return home to rebuild their lives, innocent civilians were caught in a resurgence of crossfire.

Violence has polarised the new nation, and there is no doubt that the ethnic undertones that shape this conflict have deeply divided South Sudan’s people, and will continue to do so for a long time to come.

While insatiable hunger for power by the dominant political elites within the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) was quelled on the battlefield, thousands of South Sudanese again fled to internal displacement camps, dismantling the fragile lives they had rebuilt since independence in July 2011. Many perished along the way; others were brutally murdered in their hospital beds, burnt alive in their tukuls (huts) or attacked while seeking protection in spaces mandated by the United Nations.

While tens of thousands of people have lost their lives during this latest surge of violence, the exact death toll is not known. Many of the killings remain undocumented, and many people are still missing – perhaps buried in mass graves.

South Sudan starving
As a result of pressure from the international community and South Sudanese civil society, a Cessation of Hostilities Agreement was signed in January 2014, and reaffirmed in May. Both were violated within hours; sadly the call for peace did not convince the warring parties to stop the fighting which continues to this day.

The violence is particularly vicious, and civilians are often targeted. Médecins Sans Frontières has reported that 59 people have been killed in hospitals and clinics since the fighting began.

In recent news it was reported that multiple aid workers in the Upper Nile State had been targeted, some pulled out of aid vehicles and killed based on their ethnicity.

Since the beginning of the crisis, local and international non-governmental organisations have been drawing the warring parties’ attention to the reality that what South Sudanese need now is sustainable peace and development.

Food security experts have classified South Sudan as a phase four “emergency”, and Jonathan Veitch, South Sudan’s head of Unicef (the United Nations Children’s Fund), warns spiralling rates of malnutrition are already severe enough in some places to term them famine areas.

Peace process needs public participation
With national famine continuing to loom, experts anticipate that up to 50 000 people may die from starvation in the coming months. Despite the urgency of these warnings, little headway has been made at the negotiating table in Addis Ababa where President Salva Kiir and his opponent Riek Machar remain at loggerheads.

The irony is that both the SPLM and the SPLM-in-Opposition are currently meting out very similar patterns of elitism and exclusion on their fellow South Sudanese to that exerted by Sudanese rule, prior to independence. As such, the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation was told by a leading South Sudanese think-tank that “the issue of inclusivity is a mockery”.

As yet another session of peace talks, mediated by the intergovernmental authority on development, resume in Addis, the question remains as to what future steps must be taken to move the process beyond the perceived stalemate that has paralysed progress over the last six months.

One such step would be to embark on a more inclusive process that allows a broadly representative and neutral spectrum of civil society players to be present. The process needs to be brought closer to the people for the impact of the talks to reach beyond the walls of exclusive and highly policed hotels and conference centres in Addis Ababa. Now more than ever, the country needs bold, selfless and transparent leadership which its people can salute and look up to, and which they feel represents them.

Once violence subsides, the final stage of the peace negotiations should be brought to Juba. The peace process has to be a people-driven exercise, which must be preceded by the drafting of a permanent constitution that guarantees rights and liberties.

The drafting of the Constitution should involve popular participation and consultation to lend it the legitimacy it needs. Given that the two conflicting parties do not represent the views and opinions of all South Sudanese, conducting the final stage of the peace negotiations in South Sudan is important for sustainable peace to take hold. The voices of the internally displaced, of refugees, and of all affected by the violence who are beginning the process of rebuilding their shattered communities, should be heard as part of their constitutional rights.

Move peace process to Juba
The Institute for Justice and Reconciliation places great emphasis on the value of dialogue as a tool for learning to understand “the other”, thereby contributing to co-operation and sustainable peace. Meaningful dialogue, however, becomes increasingly challenging when parts of the population are systematically stripped of their human rights and dignity. Inclusive national dialogue processes would allow the population to be part of such major decision-making processes as regards the constitution, federalism and the formation of a transitional government.

Concluding the negotiations in the country, possibly under the continued auspices of the intergovernmental authority on development, will open it up for public participation and scrutiny.

Moving the peace process to Juba would also allow for a gradual merging of the negotiations into the existing reconciliation initiatives whose aim it is to consult and engage the nation on how to move towards a unified and reconciled South Sudan.

This would go a long way in demonstrating that both parties are committed to inclusive and transparent nation-building and the reestablishment of civic trust.

Kur is a South Sudanese Masters candidate at the Centre for Transitional Justice and Post-Conflict

Reconstruction at the University of Western Ontario University, and a pastor in the South Sudanese community in London. Bubenzer and Lacey work in the Justice and Reconciliation in Africa Programme of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, South Africa and co-ordinate IJR’s work in South Sudan

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