South Sudanese citizens are demanding democratic reforms through strategic nonviolent action
BY: Maria J. Stephan; Nicholas Zaremba
On September 12 of last year, South Sudan’s president, Salva Kiir, signed the Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of Conflict in South Sudan (R-ARCSS) with South Sudan People Liberation Movement in Opposition chairman Dr. Riek Machar and several other armed groups. Meanwhile, South Sudanese civil society has sought to further advance the country’s peace process through coordinated, strategic nonviolent actions and campaigns.
According to the deal, the armed forces must be unified, and a transitional government should be formed by May 2019. However, at the midway point, the agreement’s implementation is facing many challenges including: a general lack of funding needed to carry out reforms; little progress on the reintegration of armed groups; military offenses against non-signatory groups; reports of assaults on peace monitors; and localized violence including the detestable accounts of mass rapes in Bentiu. The peace deal is being implemented amid an ongoing economic crisis and widespread food insecurity. As a result, many displaced South Sudanese feel that it is unsafe to return home.
Nonetheless, there is hope among South Sudanese that this agreement will finally bring about peace and there have been some positive indicators. For example, some prominent opposition and former cabinet members have returned to Juba. The government has also released some political prisoners, and is taking steps to create key institutions like the National Pre-Transition Committee, the National Constitutional Amendment Committee and the Ceasefire and Transitional Security Monitoring and Verification Mechanisms. Furthermore, there has been a marked decrease in violence in conflict-affected areas.
However, the prospects for sustainable peace in South Sudan will be strengthened if the country’s civil society and grassroots leaders mobilize to ensure that their visions of a peaceful South Sudan are integrated into the peace process. Fortunately, this is already happening. Amplifying their nonviolent activism and supporting their efforts to organize strategic coalitions, campaigns and movements should be a priority of external actors seeking to support peace backed by justice and inclusion in the country.
Citizen Engagement is a Necessity
At the onset of the High-Level Revitalization Forum negotiations in December 2017, African Union Chairperson Moussa Faki emphasized the importance of an active role for civil society, religious leaders, and South Sudanese grassroots groups in bringing peace to the country. Likewise, when the current peace agreement was being finalized, the Troika governments (Britain, the United States, and Norway) released a statement arguing that “the best hope for sustainable peace is a process inclusive of ordinary men and women, civil society, religious leaders, ethnic minorities, and other excluded groups.”
These statements underscore that true peace will not come to South Sudan merely through a top-down, negotiated agreement by political leaders, but rather in an environment where citizens can wield collective power to press for reforms that will foster peace. As identified by a nationwide surveyconducted by the South Sudan Civil Society Forum (SSCSF), such measures may include: more robust engagement with citizens on the R-ARCSS; accountability for R-ARCSS violators; releasing political detainees; communicating with non-signatories; making the National Dialogue more inclusive and independent; and establishing the transitional justice institutions outlined in Chapter V of the R-ARCSS.
It is critical that citizen input on the peace process is taken seriously in South Sudan. About 50 percentof countries emerging from a civil war relapse into violent conflict within 10 years. However, democratic transitions fostered by nonviolent pressure are about four times more successful than top-down transitions driven by powerholders.
Burgeoning Nonviolent Action
Fortunately, South Sudanese civil society and grassroots leaders are mobilizing to make their visions of a just and sustainable peace in South Sudan known among government leaders. These groups are aiming to bring peace to South Sudan, not just through traditional conflict resolution mechanisms like negotiation, mediation, and dialogue, but through the application of collective nonviolent action that includes tactics like vigils, marches, and street art. Such extra-institutional actions are key to building unity and lowering levels of fear.
For example, the popular arts-based youth campaign, Anataban, is a national leader in drawing attention to obstacles to peace and sharing their vision of a peaceful South Sudan. In response to The Profiteers—a documentary highlighting the role that corruption in neighboring countries played in the perpetuation of the civil war in South Sudan—Anataban partnered with Kenyan activists in a protest to demand the Kenyan government stop elites from looting South Sudan’s resources and laundering money. Additionally, Anataban hosts concerts, poetry slams, comedy shows, and radio programs, providing South Sudanese with a platform to express their fatigue with violence and hope for peace.
Furthermore, Anataban participates in the #NadafaLeBeledna (“cleaning our country”) campaign—a monthly cleaning exercise, led by the OKAY Africa foundation, whereby Juba youth collect trash to physically demonstrate the cleansing of their country following years of war and to provide a service to the community in the absence of regular trash collection, exemplifying the type of nonviolent action Gandhi called for in his “Constructive Program.”
On March 9 and 10, Anataban will host its third annual Hagana Festival. This event is a celebration of South Sudanese culture and is an opportunity to plea for peace. It features traditional and contemporary music, theater, dance, comedy, spoken word, fashion and art, and is attended by thousands of South Sudanese each year.
Apart from Anataban, a new coalition of over 50 civil society organizations (CSOs), calling itself the New Tribe, has been active in coordinating nonviolent activities and serving as a hub for training activists and peacebuilders across the country on how to analyze conflict and strategically sequence nonviolent activities to advance their goals. The New Tribe has emphasized the importance of citizen-led nonviolent action as means of building genuine peace and democracy and discussed ways that all South Sudanese participate.
The New Tribe also engages in direct, strategic nonviolent action. They’ve petitioned the government to lift restrictions on civic space, engaged in dialogue to request due process for political prisoners, spoken with traditional leaders to reduce local violence, and held public vigils.
South Sudanese women’s groups and organizations have engaged in sustained and coordinated action: The South Sudan Council of Churches–National Women’s Program still holds regular peace demonstrations in Juba; the South Sudan Women Coalition for Peace and Development is petitioningthat the transitional government is comprised of at least 30 percent women; Crown the Woman–South Sudan is speaking out against sexual and gender-based violence; and the Eve Organization is empowering women through policy advocacy and leadership training.
The actions of these groups are gaining attention. As South Sudan expert Douglas Johnson recently noted, we are “beginning to see not only in youth groups, but in women's movements and other civil society and civilian organizations a growing demand that there must be some sort of accountability for the atrocities.”
These groups are looking beyond the latest signed power-sharing agreement and are seeking to address issues that lay at root of conflict in South Sudan like corruption, tribalism, and impunity; and are pushing for specific reforms that reflect those identified in the SSCSF survey.
South Sudan’s civic space is among the most limited in the world. There is little press freedom, critics of the government are repressed, NGOs are heavily monitored, and any meeting is subjected to be attended by security forces. On July 28, nationally known economist and peace activist, Peter Biar Ajak was arrested and detained after challenging the South Sudanese leadership. Now his lawyers are worried that his life could be in danger due to accusations of treason. However, South Sudan’s increasingly engaged civil society has taken action, calling for him to either be released or brought to trial.
Success through Strategic Planning and Training
Research indicates that nonviolent campaigns and movements can achieve their goals even in the most repressive contexts. Factors that are most relevant to a campaign or movement’s success is a group’s commitment to nonviolent discipline, its size, level of inclusion, and diversity of nonviolent tactics. The most successful nonviolent campaigns and movements have embraced strategic planning, which involves carefully selecting and sequencing nonviolent tactics that: attract more people; are in accord with a conflict’s power dynamics; and are relevant to the interests, positions, and needs of the key parties in the conflict.
The Liberian women’s-led movement to end the country’s civil war offers insights into the strategic selection of nonviolent tactics. In the beginning of the movement, when power was concentrated with the government and rebel groups, the women carried out low-risk, but effective tactics like taking off their jewelry and wearing white during vigils. As the balance of power began to shift, the women engaged in direct action like sit-ins and sex strikes to put pressure on the men to lay down their weapons, and eventually blocked the doors of the negotiating room and refused to leave until a peace deal was signed.
Strategic planning for nonviolent action—which entails creating concrete goals, assessing conflict, and determining how to combine dialogue and direct action to build strong participation—will help sustain the recent uptick in nonviolent activity in South Sudan.
Along with the many CSOs, campaigns, and informal grassroots groups in South Sudan that are actively building a peace movement, unaffiliated teachers and traditional and community leaders also play a tremendous role in communicating, organizing, and mobilizing their respective communities. These civil society organizations and informal nonviolent groups can be convened and connected by established peacebuilding and nonviolent groups like the Organization for Nonviolence and Development and Nonviolent Peaceforce among others.
These strategic planning and networking processes can be complicated. Thus, intentional education and training is essential. Many successful campaigns and movements integrated training into their activities, focusing on skills in organizing, media, strategic planning, and nonviolent action. The U.S. civil rights movement, the Filipino Yellow Revolution, and the “Balai Citoyen” movement in Burkina Faso provide just a few examples.
The next four months represent a critical window for South Sudan. While a peace deal signed on paper may provide a roadmap to peace, strategic nonviolent citizen engagement will be necessary to address persistent problems like local violence, corruption, and economic disparity. South Sudanese are demanding democratic reforms, and strengthening and focusing collective action and movement-building will help them achieve it. Diplomatic recognition of these civic actors, media coverage, and donor support for their strategic planning, organizing, and coordination would help enable a participatory and rooted peace.