South Sudan, the world’s newest country, has come perilously close to civil war. More than 1,000 people have been killed in interethnic clashes and political violence in South Sudan since mid-December. The toll includes United Nations peacekeepers who had been in the country to help it rebuild from its last war. More than 100,000 displaced people have sought refuge in U.N. compounds. Embassies have evacuated staff. U.S. helicopters and soldiers came under fire during a failed attempt to rescue U.S. citizens — an image that may cast some minds back to Mogadishu, Somalia in 1993. And despite talk of a cease-fire, young men loyal to armed factions continue to fight each other around the country.
The violence in South Sudan is neither new nor unexpected given the young country’s turbulent past. The current situation grew out of a legacy of rule by two outside masters — first the British during the first half of the 20th century, then the northern Sudanese until South Sudan’s 2011 independence.
British colonialism in Sudan (1898 to 1956) helped to give rise to inequality between northern and southern Sudan. The British saw educated northern Muslims as their heirs, and so they trained their successors in the capital of Khartoum in the functions of colonial government. The British largely ignored southern Sudan, leaving it to fester under European Christian missionaries seeking to "civilize" the local population.
After Sudan’s 1956 colonial independence, successive Khartoum-based governments — democratic and otherwise — ignored or downplayed southern Sudanese interests, which fueled mutinies by southern military officers and, ultimately, catastrophic civil wars. The most recent civil war lasted a generation (1983 to 2005) and its effects will last many more. Nearly a quarter of the population was either killed or displaced, ultimately leading to South Sudan’s 2011 vote for secession from Sudan. South Sudan’s birth out of a war zone left it dependent for survival on a risky combination of natural resources (oil, which continues to spark conflict along the border with Sudan) and donor funding.
Since South Sudan’s independence, education, medical care, and employment have been in short supply. However, weapons and young men who have few skills beyond fighting are abundant. The recent eruption of violence among groups of these armed men recalls the same pressures that led to Sudan’s civil wars, including inadequate representation of minority interests in government.
South Sudanese I met even prior to the country’s independence shared privately the concern that the new government, alongside U.N. agencies and donor countries supporting it, seemed to be favoring certain political and ethnic groups. A perception has grown among minorities that a new master — under President Salva Kiir, from the Dinka ethnic group — is replacing northern Sudanese rule. Moreover, South Sudan’s ethno-cultural and linguistic diversity, less salient during the battle against a common enemy in the north, has sharpened into ethnic divisiveness and a call to arms since independence.
Given South Sudan’s wretched past and its dysfunctional present, what can aid groups and the country’s allies do to help curtail the violence and craft a lasting peace in South Sudan?
First, focus on the church. Missionaries long ago were part of the problem, but today they may be part of the solution. While the number of Christians in South Sudan is unclear, the 2011 secession came about after intense lobbying by church leaders unwilling to live under Islamic law. During Sudan’s civil war, churches fought for human rights by providing assembly spaces in times of curfew, by discreetly disseminating to foreign audiences information about human rights abuses and slavery, and by dissenting from laws that interfered with the religious mission of social justice. Church congregations, along with the umbrella organization South Sudan Council of Churches, represent the country’s range of ethnic and linguistic groupings. Put simply, the church may be the most trusted name in South Sudan.
Pope Francis and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, have issued a joint statement on behalf of the Catholic and Anglican churches, widely acknowledged as South Sudan’s two largest faith communities. Bringing these religious leaders to the region will demonstrate their commitment to peace and stability and affirm statements they have already made to support the world’s poorest people.
Second, focus on civic leaders, particularly women’s rights activists. These leaders were branded as outlaws by Sudan’s government during the war. They quickly became low-ranking office workers at the United Nations or aid groups that arrived to help the country rebuild. Some of them have been pacified by air-conditioned offices and have spent more time building Excel spreadsheets on laptops than building peace on the ground between rival factions. Activists at heart, however, they are South Sudan’s most likely pioneers in the country’s first collective "spring" against violence.
Third, focus on former combatants. As early as 2007 in Juba, South Sudan’s capital, I witnessed young men celebrating their looming freedom with a dangerous combination of guns and alcohol, both widely available for the first time (for decades South Sudan had been under Sudanese law forbidding alcohol consumption). A lack of meaningful employment and inadequate social services for disaffected warriors can lead them back into the battlefield — a terrible lesson South Sudan learned since December. Aid groups and human rights advocates are well positioned to intensify their efforts focused on this struggling demographic.
Looking ahead to January 9, the third anniversary of South Sudan’s sweeping secession vote, and to the remaining months of the new year, a global commitment to return this young country to its path of peace will involve bringing together these three unlikely grassroots allies: church officials, civic activists, and former combatants.
Mark Fathi Massoud is a Sudanese-American author and professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz. His book, Law’s Fragile State: Colonial, Authoritarian, and Humanitarian Legacies in Sudan (Cambridge University Press, 2013) is based on fieldwork in Sudan and South Sudan.