Fostering peace in South Sudan

October 7, 2012

[Episcopal News Service] A little more than six months after the Republic of South Sudan became an independent nation, President Salva Kiir Mayardit established a Committee for Community Peace, Reconciliation and Tolerance in Jonglei state. Today, with the help of Archbishop Daniel Deng Bul of the Episcopal Church of the Sudan, and others from the Episcopal Church and the committee, conditions on the ground have improved, though still remain tense.

Jonglei (pronounced “Jonga-lay”), one of the 10 states of the new nation of South Sudan, is a vast area of mainly African savannah, open grasslands and low trees, home primarily to pastoralist tribes which historically have lived off herds of cattle and goats which they moved regularly in search of grazing. Cattle are the basis for wealth for pastoralists; there are no banks and very little currency in places like Jonglei.

Over the past few years Jonglei has experienced an escalating cycle of violence stemming largely from cattle raiding which resulted in attacks and counter-attacks producing many casualties. A family’s wealth is tied-up in heads of cattle. The more you have the wealthier you are and the only time cattle are consumed is for ritual sacrifice.

Raiding partly stems from religious beliefs. In the traditional creation theory of most of these tribes living in Jonglei, after God created the heavens and the earth He gave each tribe all the cattle and so it is their right to reclaim them. Another reason for raiding is the inflation of bride prices: To marry, a man must pay cattle to a woman’s family. It used to be around 30-head of cattle, but has become inflated to 100 cattle and upwards. This puts a lot of pressure on clans to gather cattle.

The Episcopal Church of Sudan is one of the largest social services providers in South Sudan. It operates nearly 400 schools, a hospital in Lui, and numerous clinics around the country. Through the Mothers’ Union, the church offers literacy training and micro-finance. And it also works with international partners to provide bore-wells for communities to offer clean water. The church is highly respected and was front and center when South Sudan achieved its independence from the north on July 9, 2011.

In late February 2012, the appointment of the archbishop as chairman of the Committee for Community Peace, Reconciliation and Tolerance was a reflection of his status within Sudan as a recognized champion of peace. As the archbishop stated, when work began, the goals of the committee would be to teach people to be good neighbors and to learn the principles of peaceful coexistence. These would not be easy lessons for people who have known nothing but deprivation and violence for so long, especially during the 50 years of civil war with Sudan.

The committee followed a three-step path towards the establishment of peace. First would be fact-finding visits by the committee to the affected communities. This would be followed by individual intra-community dialogues led by sub-committees during which community members would be invited to share their grievances and suggestions for how peace could be achieved. The final step was an All Jonglei Communities Conference at which delegates from the individual dialogues would come together to determine together the best way forward.

Four intra-community dialogues were organized in late April to allow people to express their fears and frustrations in an open setting. The expression of grievances was viewed as highly cathartic and helpful for the communities. The events also allowed communities to identify members they could trust to represent them at the All Jonglei Conference.

Through the smaller dialogues several key issues were identified including underdevelopment, high unemployment, lack of resources such as schools and roads and clean water, trauma, theft of livestock, food insecurity, and the abduction and trafficking of women and children.

The five-day All Jonglei Conference was held in May in Bor, the capital of Jonglei. The conference attracted 84 delegates representing all the communities and all levels of government. In his introductory remarks the archbishop stated the four reasons for the conference:

  • Offer the six tribes of Jonglei the chance to come and reason together
  • Find how to rebuild the social trust we have lost over the years
  • To seek the healing of our social divisions, and
  • The restoration of our broken relationships through the involvement and active participation of our communities.

The meetings were long and contentious, with representatives airing their grievances directly to one another in an open forum. But engaging in open and honest dialogue without recriminations or mocking allowed the delegates to develop trust in one another. As the archbishop stated, “What people spoke from the heart is important. It is vital to release all the pain for meaningful dialogue to take place, but what is important is that people are showing respect for one another.” And also that, “We cannot have fellowship without forgiveness. We need to have mercy on one another.”

During the conference the leaders of the communities made a real breakthrough and agreed to work together for peace. And on the last day, in the presence of the president, the leaders of the six main communities of Jonglei, the Jieh, Kachipo, Anyuak, Murle, Nuer and Dinka tribes, signed a peace agreement.

As some of those participating observed, there have been past conferences and resolutions passed similar to the ones adopted this time, but the difference is that this time the committee members committed themselves to implementing the agreement and the Government of South Sudan actually has contributed resources to assist the process. For instance, following the conference the government paid for the committee members, including leaders of the six tribes, to travel throughout the 11 counties of Jonglei to disseminate the message of peace. The leaders reaffirmed the commitments they agreed to before all the communities of Jonglei.

(Thanks to a grant from the American Friends of the Episcopal Church of Sudan, the church had two pastors who accompanied the leaders of the six tribes as they moved about Jonglei.)

In the immediate aftermath of the peace treaty, cattle-raiding had declined some 90 percent. People were reporting that they felt more secure; that some women and children who had been abducted were returned to their families; that the national armed forces, who had been sent to disarm the population and help serve as buffers between communities, had also tracked down and returned large numbers of cattle; and that the tribal chiefs who had felt marginalized were now feeling empowered to use their position for peace.

— Larry Duffee is an Episcopal Church volunteer for mission serving the Episcopal Church of Sudan.  He assists the church in financial and administrative management.