As South Sudan celebrates its independence, Conciliation Resources hears from South Sudanese religious and cultural leaders about what they consider* to be the ongoing challenges facing the new country.
*These views are those of the stated individuals and do not necessarily reflect the views of Conciliation Resources.
Within South Sudan there’s a sense of optimism about the future, with its people having fought for a long time for their independence. However, this sentiment is tainted by conflict. In addition to the ongoing dispute between North and South Sudan over the oil-rich region of Abyei, South Sudan faces further violence along its southern borders.
Despite excitement around independence, the people of rural Western Equatoria State (WES), near the borders of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Central African Republic (CAR), have to deal with the daily threat of attacks by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).
In the absence of adequate protection, tens of thousands of civilians have fled to urban centres for safety. Even here humanitarian access to displaced persons remains insufficient, with the result that - despite the risk of attacks - some people return to rural villages. In addition, decreased food production in WES is contributing to food insecurity across South Sudan. Many people in the area are faced with the stark choice of either going hungry in town centres or risking LRA attacks in rural areas.
Wilson Hassan Peni, Paramount Chief of the Zande People, comments: “After the long war in South Sudan, after the signing of the [Comprehensive Peace Agreement], and the referendum result, people are now happy because they have fought for secession.” Nonetheless he highlights the continued challenges: “There is still some conflict… people are not happy because there is war still going on”.
The Rt Rev. Samuel Enosa Peni, Bishop of Nzara Diocese, feels a similar way: “The issue of independence is very big in Sudan. Every Sudanese is anxious; they’re excited about it… At the same time the problem we have - in Western Equatoria, in the whole of Equatoria, which is badly affected by the issue of the LRA - is that, yes we will got the independence, yes we will celebrate it, but we are not going to celebrate it in our own homes, we are going to celebrate it in camps or in places where people have taken refuge… we will celebrate it but we will not fully celebrate it because we have the fear, there is big fear of attack from the LRA at any time”.
Lack of protection for communities
LRA raids on villages in WES have resulted in 313 deaths and led to the displacement of 120,000 people and the abduction of 1,055 people since 2008, according to figures from South Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Commission. Many feel protection of civilians is lacking. As highlighted in a report written by the Catholic Diocese of Tombura–Yambio for a regional religious and cultural ‘taskforce’ meeting: “South Sudanese military and UN peacekeeping forces deployed to Western Equatoria lack the resources and motivation to do more than deter LRA attacks on major population centres.”
In addition there is growing suspicion and mistrust of the Uganda People’s Defence Force (UPDF), which has been fighting the LRA not only in northern Uganda where the conflict originated but also in neighbouring South Sudan. As the report states: “Community leaders and local government officials are increasingly critical of the UPDF’s perceived unwillingness to proactively engage LRA groups who commit attacks in Western Equatoria State. There is also widespread suspicion within communities that the UPDF is intentionally prolonging its deployment in order to profit from timber exploitation in Central African Republic and transporting petty traders between Mboki, CAR and Nzara, South Sudan.”
A recent research mission in WES by the Catholic Diocese of Tombura-Yambio found regional governments were not, “up to the task of protecting civilians from LRA violence and assisting displaced communities”.
The perceived ineffectiveness of military and government intervention to protect civilians has resulted in local community leaders taking the step of establishing a number of self-defence groups - known as ‘arrow boys’ - to patrol rural areas and create safe havens for community members. These groups however lack oversight from the government and place more arms in the hands of civilians in already fragile areas. In addition, experience from other regions has shown that such groups have not successfully been able to prevent LRA activities. Despite this, many South Sudanese believe that they are the only way the communities have of protecting themselves.
Taking action on the conflict
As well as trying to protect their communities from attacks, community leaders in WES are taking steps to deal with the conflict at a local level and care for those who have been affected. Bishop Samuel has been providing counseling and support to his community: “Trauma healings have helped many people; many women whose husbands have been killed, whose children have been killed. I have helped many men who [previously] said they cannot forgive the LRA, but now they said they can.”
Describing what he and his colleagues plan to do in future, Bishop Samuel says: “We want a panel, we want a forum where data can be collected... we don’t [have] comprehensive information, which is needed: how many people have been killed, where was it, which date was that, how many people were on the other side of the LRA, what really took place… We [then] plan to publish[the data] - we can share it with people who can talk on our behalf… people who like to know what is happening, we can give them accurate reports.”
The Regional Civil Society Task Force
As the conflict has spread and is currently affecting parts of DRC and CAR, as well as South Sudan, community leaders have identified the need to have a more coordinated approach to the problem – with greater regional and international efforts to protect civilians and deal with the conflict.
As Wilson Hassan Peni comments: “We see the LRA they are not living in WES, their bases are in DRC and Central Africa, they just come and attack people and go back.“
Wilson Hassan Peni and Bishop Samuel met recently in Kampala to participate in a Regional Civil Society Task Force meeting, facilitated by Conciliation Resources. The task force consists of religious and cultural leaders from the four countries affected by the presence of the LRA – South Sudan, DRC, CAR and northern Uganda. It was formed to enable the leaders to discuss common challenges and agree on coordinated actions for civil society in each of the regions, in order to address some of the issues surrounding the conflict.
Bishop Samuel enthuses about the role mass collective action and advocacy can play: “Advocacy is important. If the task force can raise awareness generally, like the four countries to do mass peace demonstrations, this will have an impact. Where people are well informed about it, I’m sure people will come because they want these things to end. In Yambio when we tried it, thousands of people came...this made the Government send a delegation from Juba immediately, on the final day - they have to come to listen.”
He also points to the benefit of wider collaboration: “[The] most important thing is sharing of information… what is happening and what they are doing about it in each of these regions. In northern Uganda they have gone through all of the experiences we are going through now; they have tried military, they have tried arrow boys, they have tried peace talks and for them, their recommendation is we go for peace talks... For people in CAR and people in DRC we learnt of the atrocities happening… it is happening at the frontiers, it is happening at the borders, very far from the capital cities. As it is happening there, very far… it is not at the top agenda of the Governments in these regions. We in Sudan are going through the same issue”.
Finding a long-term solution to the conflict
While opinions on exactly how to tackle the conflict are mixed, many believe there are a number of non-military solutions that could be used to effect, including renewed political dialogue, encouraging the return and reintegration of abductees and looking to identify and deal with the root causes of the conflict. “This issue of LRA just didn’t come out the blue,” asserts Bishop Samuel, “there are people who masterminded it, people who planned all these things to happen because there are certain things they would like to achieve… be it political, be it personal or be it regional. If these people, the people who masterminded it, if they’re not at the table discussing it, talking about it, we cannot achieve [peace],” He continues, “Such a meeting - that is one of my own personal recommendations. People who really have the interest in these things [should] come to those meetings… if we talk minus them we don’t really go very far.”
Both Bishop Samuel and Wilson Hassan Peni believe that African Union involvement will only help if it has a very clear mandate, and neither of the two men has much faith in a full military solution. As Bishop Samuel states: “Military [involvement] will only help if they are protected, the communities. For us, particularly in South Sudan, we think the presence of UPDF in some way has helped although the disadvantage is, they are said to be exploiting the resources, because nobody goes there, nobody sees what is going on there.”
He lays out his steps for a resolution of the conflict: “In order to return to peace talks there are several things that need to be put in place. The LRA need to be informed to stop attacking people, innocent people. And UPDF and arrow boys… Then the other part would be the transitional justice that people talk about… The ICC warrant of arrest needs to be lifted or suspended so that those people, those commanders don’t fear to come home, because that is one of the reasons we are told, which makes them not to go for this agreement.”
In addition to calling for a greater involvement from the international community on the issue of the LRA, and specifying a need for regional governments to play more of a role, the report written for the task force meeting lists a number of specific recommendations for dealing with the conflict. These include; ensuring better humanitarian aid for affected communities; funding the expansion of mobile phone and radio networks, and improvement of roads in the border areas to enable community-driven early warning; facilitate escape and rehabilitation of abductees; and look to facilitating peace talks with the LRA.
Whatever action is taken, it is clear that communities need to work together to find a solution. Initiatives such as the Regional Civil Society Task Force are therefore crucial. Only with coordinated civil society action combined with political dialogue, will the people of South Sudan will be able to look forward to a peaceful and secure future.