Image credit: UN Photo Image credit: UN Photo

Following the independence of South Sudan in July 2011, there was great hope for peace.  The country was engulfed by an influx of returnees from among the diaspora and internally displaced. Civil society, including humanitarian and development organisations were hopeful of building peace. The church was particularly enthused after many years of working hand in hand with civil society to facilitate peace in South Sudan. It was from that background that the church and civil society responded with formidable courage when the situation deteriorated into violent conflict in December 2013.

As South Sudan reflects on its third year of independence, a dark cloud overhangs the country.  The December 2013 crisis changed the peace context significantly.

The crisis has had long-reaching consequences that have negatively affect the whole of South Sudan and infused the political and the military blocks with strained tensions.  Within the armed forces, internal fractions, rivalry, and divided loyalties exist. The ruling political party, the SPLM,  is in transition, from being a liberation movement to a political party in government.  This backdrop leaves room for more possible flare ups of tension that might trigger conflict.  There seems to be very little being done to ease these dynamics for the moment, beyond the erratic IGAD process.

Economy teetering towards collapse

World Bank reports indicate that the economy is teetering towards collapse if oil revenues are interfered with. Revenue from oil could be stopped due to increased risks and insecurity.  Austerity measures to stem the economy could lead to an even more downhill slide as the country has almost no economic sectors other than oil. Currently the economy runs on dependence on expensive borrowing by the government and incoming aid money. Just a few private investments in Juba, Malakal, Wau, Bentiu, Wau and Yei exist.

The ramifications of the crisis led to new types of crises such as spiralling inflation.  This could be exacerbated if there is a major shakeup of the currency by devaluation.  This would inhibit commerce and trade. Moreover, the South Sudan’s balance of trade has never taken off due to the country being a net importer in terms of goods and services in all sectors.

Humanitarian crisis looming

Factors indicate that South Sudan will encounter one of the worst food crises in recent years.
With the onset of conflict, new levels of vulnerability have emerged in South Sudan. The UN has already given firm warning that the country will be engulfed in a severe famine due to food shortages caused by the conflict. Furthermore, weather forecasts project low rainfall or severe flooding in some parts leading to low yields in coming months. These factors indicate that South Sudan will encounter one of the worst food crises in recent years.

It is estimated that over 50,000 children could die from malnutrition and disease outbreaks. Livestock epidemics could devastating livelihoods of vulnerable communities. It is evident that many households did not flee with any food stuffs, many have not planted and the host communities have not planted as much as they would otherwise as some of their land is occupied by the internally displaced.

The conflict displaced many households. In the process they lost livelihoods, assets, and dignity. The looming famine and food insecurity will occur at a time when households are vulnerable and disadvantaged. It might lead to a devastating humanitarian catastrophe.  The process of returning 1.8 million IDPs and 392,500 refugees will equally trigger challenges as people return to localities where most lost everything due to conflict.

There is the possibility that food insecurity will lead to new types of violence - marauding groups or bands of military and youth in the guise of finding food for families.  This would greatly inhibit commerce and movements of humanitarian supplies

Inadequate transport infrastructure and insecurity inhibits options for food distribution, further contributing to the food crisis. All aspects of transport in South Sudan - roads, river waterways, and air travel - are inadequately developed. Another factor increasing the effects of the crisis to humanitarian services is the current bureaucracy in obtaining permits and clearance including interrogation of humanitarian personnel at the local level during movement and delivery of aid. Displaced communities are currently in very remote locations where transport infrastructure further lacking.

Should bureaucracy and conditions for clearance and permits for humanitarian services continue; agencies will not be able to deliver much needed aid to IDPs and host communities in time and in levels that address the emergency effectively - risking many lives. By the time peace is fully realized in South Sudan, poverty would have had a major toll on most households. Few well off households will have support neighbour households that are in abject need, and this might drive social wedges and strife at a community level, despite a very resilient sharing culture and social fabric of communities.

Even if peace was effectively in place, the process for return would take approximately 18-30 months in the early onset of returns and resettling. The latter part might take the space of 3-5 years if peace and service delivery holds effectively at the local level.  For localities with severe impact of the conflict this might take longer.

Calls for peace by civil society

Civil society sought to address the issues early on and critical analysis was carried out and shared among agencies for early preparedness to avert crisis
The crises in South Sudan have not been unchallenged. Right from the time the Presidency removed the Vice President and dissolved cabinet in July 2013, the Church was aware that peace was at stake. Emissaries were sent to the President from different levels and at different times on this matter.  Thereafter, a number of Pastoral Letters signed by clergy and prominent citizens were presented to both parties contending in the crises.  Civil society sought to address the issues early on and critical analysis was carried out and shared among agencies for early preparedness to avert crisis.  Much ground had been covered in the efforts prior to the crisis months as was exemplified by the inclusion of the peace theme in the “New Deal Plan for South Sudan”.

With the advent of crisis in South Sudan and the difficult operating context, civil society came together on a platform dubbed Citizens for Peace and Justice in January 2014. This forum was augmented with a follow up conference which sought to identify the modalities for engagement and representation at the peace negotiations, and how to collectively raise crucial issues.  As a result, the Presidency in South Sudan and IGAD have acknowledged the importance of including civil society in the peace negotiations.

Constrained role of civil society in formal negotiations

Civil Society sought to be party in the peace negotiations for South Sudan in Addis Ababa, however, opinion has been divided on what the role of civil society is. As a result inclusion of civil society has been restricted. Members who get included are perceived to be those who hold similar views with the contenting parties or do not strongly challenge them.  Local civil Society in South Sudan is weak and depends on funding partners for resources to mobilize and plan for action.

Despite this, civil society organizations have demonstrated solidarity with the search for peace and presented a memorandum to the peace negotiators in March 2014 in Addis Ababa and key in the memorandum was a call for national reconciliation, justice and healing, and for the government to institute reforms. As part of the response to the calls by civil society the negotiators included in the peace agenda the need for a national reconciliation commission and on that civil society has been accorded room for representation.

In a recent event, activists noted the need for more voices to be included in the peace negotiation as well as in the facilitation of the mediation and post conflict reconstruction. An event supported by USIP had activists call for the inclusion of those without gunsin the search for peace.  All these efforts have contributed to the call for peace and the role of civil society in the process.  The space for civil society on peace is not an easy one, but the opportunities have been used well and documentation on peace processes has been done far much better than during the years of the war on liberation of South Sudan as attested by entities such as the SUDD Institute.

It is anticipated that peace will be realized in the coming months, however, due to pockets of tension and localized skirmishes between the government and opposition forces, the pace towards peace will be slow.  The signing of an agreement between the government and opposition gave the platform for putting in place an interim government. The envisaged process is expected to have a period of preparations and formation of the interim government which will take over, oversee the formulation of a new constitution, prepare and oversee elections and then transition to a popularly elected government.  This process will have its own internal tensions and power brokerage, whose effects might spill out and trigger new types of conflict.

Experts point out that overall to return South Sudan to peace will take time, effort and multiple approaches that leverage on different poles of power and force. The peace discussions in Addis Ababa alone will not resolve all the issues. Inclusivity in the approach to peace will be a crucial factor.  Efforts to broker peace will need to be inclusive of traditional local authorities, the church and civil society.  Efforts towards peace should aim at establishing South Sudan on the path to the process of building a nation.  Such a process will need enormous amounts of effort internally, in the Eastern Africa region and from the international community.  Equally, the effort will require a lot of time and resources to set up and establish.