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South Sudan’s difficult decade

09 July 2021

Progress is needed to secure peace in the world’s newest country, says Anthony Poggo


The Primate of the Episcopal Church of South Sudan, the Most Revd Justin Badi Arama, is welcomed to the town of Bor, South Sudan, in 2020

The Primate of the Episcopal Church of South Sudan, the Most Revd Justin Badi Arama, is welcomed to the town of Bor, South Sudan, in 2020

THIS year, South Sudan marks ten years as an independent country. After decades of war against successive ruling regimes in Sudan, the southern part of the country came into existence as an independent nation on 9 July 2011 (News, 15 July 2011).

For the first few months, there was extreme joy and hope that, after so long at war, the new nation would join other countries in the region in development and provision of services to its people, who have suffered through conflict, displacement, and lack of progress.

But has an independent South Sudan met the aspirations of the 12 million South Sudanese and friends of South Sudan who were all ecstatic at independence ten years ago? Through an exploration of the conflicts that have taken place in South Sudan, I will reflect on the hopes for peace that remain.


The first Sudanese civil war (1955-1972)

ONE of the main causes of conflict was religion: the northern part of Sudan predominantly followed the Islamic faith, while the southern part followed the Christian faith and traditional African religions. The other issue was lack of development and accusations of marginalisation of the southern and areas of the western, eastern, and central parts of the country.

The southern part of Sudan was engulfed in 17 years of civil war, from 1955 to 1972. During this time, it is estimated that more than 500,000 people lost their lives. The war ended in 1972 with the signing of the Addis Ababa Peace Agreement. Direct negotiations between the Government of Sudan and the Southern Sudan Liberation Movement were preceded in 1971 by a series of discussions through the mediation of the All Africa Conference of Churches, and the World Council of Churches. The signing of the Addis Ababa Peace Agreement, on 27 February 1972, ended the war and ushered in an autonomous regional government for the southern region.

South Sudanese people were initially coerced into being part of Sudan by the Anglo-Egyptian condominium government and the British colonial government, before they granted Sudan independence in 1956. Although the few educated South Sudanese had called for a delay in granting Sudan its independence, with an option of granting the southern Sudan federal status, this was not heard, and independence was granted to Sudan. South Sudanese were marginalised, and not offered equitable civil service positions after Sudan’s independence.


The second Sudanese civil war (1983-2005)

THIS relative calm after the Addis Ababa agreement was short-lived. In 1983, elements of the Sudanese army, consisting of southern Sudanese soldiers, staged a mutiny in Bor. This led to the formation of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A). Some of the reasons these soldiers took up arms again were the gradual abrogation of the 1972 agreement, the imposition of Islamic sharia law, and the change to Arabic instead of English language as a medium of instruction in all schools in Sudan, including southern Sudan.

This second civil war came to an end in 2005 with the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) on 9 January 2005. The conflict had lasted for 22 years, and during this time more than 2.2 million people died and 4.5 million people were displaced, either as internally displaced persons (IDPs) or as refugees who fled to the neighbouring countries, Europe, the United States, and Australia.

The SPLM/A were fighting for a secular Sudan, in which each Sudanese would have the right of citizenship regardless of religion or race, to put an end to the policy of Islamisation and Arabisation.

The reality was that Sudanese Muslims and Christians co-existed well with each other. Problems arose when certain politicians used religion to cause division between ordinary people, encouraging some to feel that they were more important in society, and to seek political gain.


The Comprehensive Peace Agreement

DURING the long period of struggle, self-determination was a clarion call for all south Sudanese. This was often rejected by successive regimes in Sudan. Self-determination was a key demand during the negotiations, and resulted in the signing of the Machakos Protocol in Machakos, Kenya, on 20 July 2002.

When the CPA was signed on 9 January 2005, it was one of the cardinal protocols of the accord. The CPA granted south Sudanese the right to conduct a referendum for self-determination after a transitional period of six years. When the people of south Sudan voted, on 9 January 2011, they overwhelmingly chose the separation of South Sudan from the Sudan. This was why the new nation of South Sudan came into existence on 9 July 2011.


The part played by the Church in reconciliation and peace

THE Church played an important part in ensuring that the referendum took place in time, and worked hard to encourage peace and reconciliation among groups who were fighting.

The Church operated under the umbrella of the New Sudan Council of Churches (NSCC), an organisation that brought together different denominations (including Episcopal/Anglican, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, and Roman Catholic) in the liberated areas of Sudan during the time of struggle.

To give an example, in the late 1990s, after the second Sudanese civil war had continued for more than ten years, the NSCC facilitated a series of meetings and conferences designed to bring together different tribal groups to overcome their internal conflicts.

As another example, at the end of 2010, it appeared that the referendum was in jeopardy. A high-level ecumenical church delegation, led by Archbishop Daniel Deng Bul, was sent to meet the secretary-general of the United Nations and to brief US White House advisers to warn the international community of the danger of returning to war. The delegation also met with the then British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown.

Such effort bore fruit, as the external pressure made the referendum go ahead. The ecumenical delegation delivered two messages: “Let my people choose,” and “We came to ring an alarm bell.”


Conflict after independence in South Sudan

AFTER independence, the Republic of South Sudan took its rightful place among the nations of the world. Some of the intertribal conflicts continued to simmer at a low level. Allegations of tribalism, nepotism, and corruption continued to be heard on a larger scale than before.

The fact that the government of South Sudan was now in charge of its oil revenue meant that the government was receiving a great deal of money, and some people were taking advantage of the poor governance and accountability systems, and diverting some of the income for personal use.

The nascent government did not have sufficient governance structures and capacity to handle some of these issues. Successive Auditors General submitted their audit reports to parliament, in which they outlined some of the weaknesses in the financial accountability system; no concrete action was taken, however. The government set up an anti-corruption commission; it did not yield the expected results.

In addition to the above, South Sudanese began to witness and hear reports of internal wrangling within the ruling party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM). This led to a reshuffle of the government and replacement of South Sudan’s Vice-President.

In the middle of December 2013, the conflict in the SPLM took a dramatic turn for the worse, as it led to shootings in the capital, Juba (News, 20 December 2013).

The conflict continued unabated for many years, even after the signing of the Agreement for the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan (ARCISS) in August 2015. This agreement was reviewed, resulting in the signing of another agreement on 12 September 2018, referred to as the Revitalised Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan (R-ARCSS).

By the time of this signing, the conflict that started in December 2015 has cost more than 400,000 lives, and 2.5 million people have been displaced, either as refugees in the neighboring countries or as internally displaced persons (IDPs), some in what is known as protection of civilians (PoC) sites under the United Nations and other agencies.


The part played by the Church in mediation

THE South Sudan Council of Churches (SSCC) and other faith groups played an important part in the mediation of the revitalisation of the ARCSS. They helped in the building of trust and confidence among delegates, and encouraged them to address issues of conflict in an open, frank, and cordial manner. Some of these sessions were conducted without international facilitation.

During the peace negotiations, church leaders undertook spiritual and chaplaincy roles through Sunday church services where all delegates participated. The Church in South Sudan is respected by all the warring parties. It has developed credibility through years of resilience and challenging wrongs. The Church stayed with the people even when other international organisations and institutions left; the Church consistently challenged wrongs on all sides.


‘Vengeance is mine’ says the Lord

THERE are aspects of South Sudanese culture that exacerbate conflict. One of these is vengeance. Many of our cultures in South Sudan encourage, or even promote, revenge.

In some South Sudanese tribes, you are meant to pay back or kill someone from the family, clan, or community of the person who killed your kith and kin. The Bible tells us that “‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay’ says the Lord.’ (Romans 12.19). The reality about vengeance is that it promotes a cycle of violence which it cannot end. Mahatma Gandhi is quoted as saying, “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.” The Church has an important part to play in teaching and encouraging reconciliation. It also needs to address some of the South Sudanese cultural practices that encourage vengeance.


Vatican retreat

IN 2019, the Vatican retreat for the political leaders of South Sudan, together with the Christian leaders, through the auspices of the South Sudan Council of Churches (SSCC), was another way in which the Church worked towards peace and reconciliation in South Sudan.

The Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury hosted the political leaders for a spiritual retreat at the Vatican, along with a former Moderator of the Church of Scotland (News, 12 April 2019). This was an unprecedented move: it was the first time since the Reformation that the Reformed, Anglican, and Roman Catholic Churches had come together for such an event.

The idea was for this to be a time for prayer, reflection, and dialogue. One of the outcomes has been the improvement in trust and open communication between and among the presidency and church leaders, and there was a commitment by the political leaders to implement the 2018 revitalised peace agreement.


Hope for peace

THE reality is that peace means different things to different people. For some of the leaders, peace may mean a return to some position in government, and, to these people, the formation of the national and state governments means that the agreement is being implemented.

I was asked in a conference a few years ago how I would define peace in South Sudan. My immediate response was that peace, to me, is when I can sit under my mango tree in Kajo-Keji without any fear of attacks from the national army or any of the other groups who took up arms. It is when I can collect food from my own garden, as I have had no interruption to the season of cultivation, and no cattle or goats are roaming around being herded by herders with AK-47 guns, perhaps with the owner of these cattle sitting somewhere in Juba or other parts of South Sudan.


AT THE time of writing, what I have described above indicates that peace is still a long way off. Many people do not yet have the confidence in settling back in their villages, as some of the issues that led them to flee from their homes of origin have not been settled.

Although the revitalised government of national unity has made some progress in the implementation of the revitalised agreement, there are crucial aspects of the agreement yet to be implemented. These include, among other things, the formation of a unified national army — a key aspect of reforming the security sector.

Another is the formation of the legislative arm of the government. Although members of the transitional legislative assembly have been appointed, at the time of writing this article they have not yet been sworn in; the membership of the parliament has been increased from 332 to 550 members. On the permanent constitution for the country, more work is needed on plans for writing a constitution for the nation, as stipulated in the 2018 agreement.

There is much that still needs to be done to show that the parties who signed the agreement have the political will to implement it. Unless this happens, it will hamper people who want to return from neighbouring countries to their homes of origin, and also hope for the world’s newest country to develop in peace.


The Rt Revd Anthony Poggo is the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Adviser on Anglican Communion Affairs. He is South Sudanese and served as Bishop of the diocese of Kajo-Keji, in South Sudan, from April 2007 to October 2016.

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