Civil war has engulfed South Sudan, displacing 1.6 million citizens and causing vast human suffering. Political struggles make the conflict impossible to resolve through a top-down approach. Therefore, the best approach is to work bottom-up to solve issues of ethnic distrust and intercommunal violence. The UN and the international community should stop supporting South Sudan’s corrupt leaders and focus on local peacebuilding initiatives.
The best way to mitigate violence and to implement a peace agreement is to build resilient local communities. This means working with communities to air grievances and reconcile them. In South Sudan, both the Nuer and Dinka communities committed atrocities against each other. These wounds will not be healed by a national government power-sharing agreement. NGOs need to work with communities to address differences and foster reconciliation.
Groups like Search For Common Ground (SFCG) have been doing vital work on the ground in South Sudan. They train media practitioners on how to analyze conflicts and deal with tribal divisions. Journalists learn to report in ways that do not inflame conflict. They learn how to tone down the rhetoric and communicate with leaders of all communities to get a well-rounded perspective.
SFCG’s Radio for Peacebuilding Initiative created radio programs in South Sudan, like Hiwar Al-Shabab. This initiative has already produced over 180 episodes focusing on promoting peace and empowering youth to take a more active role in society. This program was able to reach a significant portion of the community, with 27% of respondents saying they had listened to Hiwar Al-Shabab. Additionally, listeners were significantly more likely to view violence as unacceptable and more willing to engage with other tribes, according to polls.
Local initiatives focusing on youth empowerment have also been effective in building community resiliencies. Young adults are at high risk of being recruited by rebel groups. Local youth councils, like the Youth Leaders Councils established in 13 of Tunisia’s 24 governorates, make them stakeholders in the community. Members are more invested in preserving peace. As these organizations become more entrenched in communities they build a rapport with government officials. This helps higher-level government officials better understand the needs of their constituents. Government officials also feel more comfortable allowing local groups to solve local problems.
It is crucial that the international community stays engaged on South Sudan to try to mitigate the violence and shape the outcome of the violence. The recent pause in the international response afforded by political changes continues to provide President Kiir with the means to solve political disagreements with military force. If the international community withdraws, there is a legitimate risk that genocide will take place in South Sudan.
Those who say local peacebuilding does not work could take a look at Liberia. After decades of civil war, complete with mass killings and sectarian strife, it has had relative stability since the end of its conflict in 2003. While the country is no utopia, peacebuilding organizations have created community resiliencies so that they are able to solve their own problems through dialogue rather than violence. Organizations like The Center for Media Studies and Peace Building have run media training programs that sensitize journalists to conflict issues so as not to enflame them. These organizations and programs are a big reason why Liberia has not relapsed back into violence.
The local peacebuilding initiatives introduced by NGOs and governments are critical to transforming the conflict in South Sudan, and making long-term peace possible. The cost of working to prevent genocide is far less than responding once it has happened. It is important that organizations continue to engage in South Sudan so that factional violence and the spirit of revenge do not spin this conflict out of control. If the international community engages with countries in conflict on local initiatives, the world can take a big step toward fostering reconciliation and building peace.
Alexander Werman is a Master's Candidate in the Security Policy Studies Program at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University. He earned his Bachelor of Business Administration from Emory University in 2014. He has been published in USA Today, The Diplomat, and the International Affairs Review. Alex is a Policy and Advocacy intern at Search for Common Ground and previously interned at the American Foreign Policy Council.