Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin/AP
A South Sudanese government soldier stands guard as a delegation of visiting officials leaves from the airport in Malakal, Upper Nile State, in South Sudan, Jan. 21. The government said Monday that it had regained control of Malakal, the capital of the oil-producing Upper Nile state, though the UN said its base there took fire, wounding nearly three dozen people and damaging the hospital.

How grass-roots peace can take hold in South Sudan

Bringing peace to conflict-torn South Sudan will require more than negotiated cease-fires and UN aid. Key community leaders – especially women activists and church pastors – must work for local unity.

South Sudan is facing a critical test of endurance that no nation should have to undergo, let alone the world’s youngest country and one of its poorest.

Aid groups estimate thousands of people have been killed and nearly half a million more displaced from their homes in just a few weeks since fighting began there in mid-December. Thousands have fled into Uganda and neighboring countries. Control of major South Sudanese towns, particularly those located near lucrative oil fields, has switched hands more than once among rival armed factions and the national military – itself a militia group prior to the country’s 2011 independence.

Policy analysts debate whether to call the recent violence a civil war while cease-fire talks proceed in Ethiopia’s capital city, Addis Ababa. But peace talks have stumbled. A lack of suitable meeting space even forced them to move, incredibly, to a local nightclub. 

As political and military leaders negotiate a cease-fire and debate their fragile nation’s future on a nightclub floor, how can the South Sudanese people find common ground amid the torrent of brutality and tragedy? A radical middle ground in South Sudan is possible. And it will emerge from a shared appreciation of the country’s political history and will involve building peace from the grass roots. 

Once united by a common enemy

South Sudan’s situation grew out of five decades of political struggle and displacement. In the years between Sudan’s 1956 independence from British colonial rule and South Sudan’s 2011 secession from Sudan, diverse ethnic, religious, and linguistic groups were loosely united by shared opposition to successive governments in northern Sudan that failed to represent southern Sudanese interests.

For South Sudan’s most impoverished populations, the generations of political struggle gave rise to a recurring cycle of war, displacement, and return. A civil war that began in 1955 ended in 1972 with a peace deal between armed groups and Sudan’s autocratic president, Jafaar al-Nimeiri. Following the 1972 peace accords, millions of war survivors took the long march home to southern Sudan. But civil war restarted a decade later in 1983, and many once again fled northward to desert encampments outside Sudan’s capital city, Khartoum.

Some stayed for more than 20 years, until the war ended in 2005, in what the world had hoped would be “temporary” shelter. The 2005 peace accords between southern Sudanese armed groups and Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir brought millions of people home to southern Sudan once again. But as the world learned from January’s violence and displacement, the sinister pattern from Sudanese history is repeating itself in South Sudan, now making the South Sudanese among the world’s most displaced people.

Each time a war in the region ends, United Nations agencies and aid groups arrive in droves to return survivors to the remains of their immolated villages, until the next round of violence causes them to flee. While a shared struggle against the north was enough for South Sudan to achieve independence, having a common enemy in northern Sudan has proved an insufficient basis for lasting national unity, particularly with large numbers of southern Sudanese still living in the north. 

A local model for grass-roots peace?

Putting weapons down is a necessary short-term goal. But bringing about lasting peace and alleviating poverty will involve substantial grass-roots efforts. Local elders, religious figures, and civic activists can share a message of mercy and forgiveness that transcends ethnic, national, political, and religious divisions that have too often catalyzed youth into battle. 

One potential model can be found close by in the Horn of Africa. In 1991, the breakaway region of Somaliland declared its independence from Somalia after decades of authoritarian rule and civil war. Here, respected local elders banded together at the grass roots – and without Western support – to build a regional model of democracy from the bottom up. Today, Somaliland is a bastion of local stability amid a wider state collapse.

Fortunately, several groups in South Sudanese civil society hold the potential to foster this kind of grass-roots reconciliation, including local elders, religious leaders, women’s groups, and health professionals working with youth torn apart by decades of war.

Civil society picks up where cease-fires fail

Building grass-roots peace in South Sudan may start with women activists. Many of them put their lives at risk by calling attention to human rights abuses on all sides of Sudan’s civil war. Later, during South Sudan’s rocky transition to independence, they led relief programs focused on displaced and marginalized persons, often for little or no pay, until aid agencies arrived. These women activists – from teenagers to grandmothers – form a powerful network that could be mobilized once again, this time for local peacebuilding. 

Church pastors and community leaders – of both genders – are another important resource that could help diffuse tensions. Aid groups typically cannot enter new areas without the support and help of local elders or others who hold their community’s confidence. And even without foreign assistance, locally instituted dialogues among these community leaders can help to bridge divides, as the case of Somaliland reveals. 

Finding common ground in South Sudan may come from the top down, with negotiated cease-fires, or from the outside in, with the assistance of allies, UN agencies, and aid groups. But ultimately, building peace in the world’s most displaced country must also take hold at the grass-roots level, as trusted civic groups and community leaders come together in a common struggle for peace. 

Mark Fathi Massoud, an assistant professor of politics and legal studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, has conducted research in Sudan, South Sudan, and Somalia. His book, “Law’s Fragile State: Colonial, Authoritarian and Humanitarian Legacies in Sudan,” comes out in paperback in April from Cambridge University Press.

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