By Jok Madut-Jok
Professor of Anthropology
Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University
As South Sudanese continue to write under the crushing consequences of war and violence, it seems more and more like the warring leaders are unwilling to work for peace. This is despite multiple peace agreements they have signed over the years.
It is thus unquestionable that the most urgent thing the citizens need is a commitment of their politico-military leaders to peace and security in the country.
A peace agreement was signed in September 2018, between the two top warring parties in the country’s civil war, the ruling SPLM-IG and the opposition SPLM-IO. The two parties and their lesser allies have since formed a national unity government, tasked with domesticating that agreement and with major reforms, restructuring the State so as to ensure that government institutions can take up the welfare of citizens.
It is on this peace agreement that the country’s hope for security, justice and provision of basic services depend. Unfortunately, the expected outcomes of the peace process have neither materialized nor are there signs of a genuine commitment to peace evident.
Peace dividends have remained elusive in the young country, almost to the detriment of viability of the State itself. As things stand, not a single week goes by without reports of a deadly inter-communal attack, hunger strikes and rebellion from the various fighting factions.
The whole world, especially sister countries in the East African Community, mock South Sudan on account that it has not lived up to its responsibility for the welfare of its citizens and to international obligations. Now, the country is in jeopardy, as hold-out rebel groups, insecurity on its highways, the near total collapse of the economy and competition for power threaten to tear it apart.
If peace has been the thing that almost every citizen needed and worked for, how can it be so difficult to come by, more than a decade and half since Africa’s newest country attained its autonomy?
It is the puzzle about South Sudan. What is really behind the vicious cycle of war? Why do peace agreements end up in failure and return to war? Why has peace become ever so elusive, even as it’s the only thing everyone wants?
There are obvious factors behind the vicious cycle of violence, especially ones shared by almost all African countries that have gone through similar experiences, such as Sierra Leone, Liberia, Angola, Mozambique. These include collapse of the political deals that end the wars; they don’t prioritise the security and justice institutions in terms of what happens to the fighters once there is a peace agreement. These settlements are often about the competing elite and hardly ever people-centered.
When South Sudan was declared independent, the world rejoiced and there was massive international good will, aimed at supporting and financing state-building as the expected anchor for peace. Sadly, the reconstruction excluded rebuilding human relations that were wrecked by the decades of war.
Other crucial factors, if less visible, are potential glue to peace and possible spoilers. The scars of liberation wars, arms in civilian hands, neglected veterans and war time injustices, have remained unmitigated in peace times and they act as spoilers of peace.
FOCUS ON HUMAN BEINGS
Some say reconstruction of the country is often too focused on rebuilding the state and less on rebuilding human beings, repairing their frail spirits demolished by long years of violence. While it was/is important to build the institutions of the state, this needed to go in tandem with repairing ethnic relations, reimagining the nation and investing in the symbols of collective nationhood.
Repairing ethnic relations is a function of nation-building, getting the people back to sharing spaces, interacting in market towns, traveling beyond tribal boundaries, restoring civility to public discourse, increasing a sense of safety and above all, redeveloping the symbols of collective belonging to the nation.
Protracted liberation war has gutted the society of its capacity to reconcile conflicts and hold individuals accountable. For example, theft of public property by government officials, normally abhorred in society, has now become praise-worthy, even as everyone knows it is one of the primary drivers of exclusion and economic disparities in the country, which in turn is a cause of violence and war.
Currently, many people lament the current shift in the shared cultural norms of dignity and respect for other people’s property, including public resources.
Theft of cattle has become the norm and not the exception. The absence of justice system has left people with revenge and counter revenge as the only way to attain justice. If these socio-cultural shifts are not addressed in some manner and communal relations repaired, the cycle of war and violence will not end. Sadly, as things stand, there is no evidence that these issues are being even acknowledged in the making and building of peace.