Calls for unity have grown in South Sudan ahead of Pope Francis’ visit to Juba from February 3-5, accompanied by the Archbishop of Canterbury for the Anglican Church and the moderator of the Church of Scotland. Do they herald a breath of fresh air for the peace process and reconciliation in the world’s youngest country? “The Holy Father wishes first of all to come and give courage to the suffering people,” explains the Apostolic Nuncio (the representative of the Holy See) of South Sudan, Hubertus van Megen. But also to encourage leaders to reconcile and put themselves at the service of their people. »

Independent in 2011 after decades of war, South Sudan plunged back into civil war in 2013, a conflict stemming from rivalries between President Salva Kiir, a Dinka, and his vice-president Riek Machar, a Nuer. Dinka and Nuer are the two largest ethnic groups in the country, which has no less than sixty-four. Now united in a government of national unity and transition under the 2018 peace agreement, the two rivals have since failed to stem the violence: communal clashes against a backdrop of power struggles that have claimed thousands of victims and displaced hundreds of thousands of people.

“This violence and fighting, disturbingly characterized by tribal overtones (…), is particularly damaging”, lamented the head of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (Minuss), Nicholas Haysom, on January 13, during a ‘a press conference. “They could derail the peace process,” he warned, worried that such violence could escalate as the 2024 elections approach. to continue its actions of “support for dialogue” by organizing “peace conferences”, while regretting the incessant return of “cycles of communal conflicts”.

Millions of dollars spent

Indeed, peacebuilding and reconciliation initiatives abound in South Sudan. A veritable “peace industry” worth millions of dollars since the end of the second Sudanese civil war in 2005 and the country’s independence in 2011, but whose results leave doubts. Starting with the creation of South Sudan itself, the country of which the United States is often considered the “midwife” who gave birth to it. How many “peace workshops”, how many resolutions and peace agreements at the local and national level have been sponsored by the international community while proving unable to contain new raids by cattle rustlers, new revenge attacks , new clashes for power?

“There is a flagrant lack of coordination” between the various actors of reconciliation, notes a diplomat on condition of anonymity, deploring in addition “the fact that the international community designs programs without always taking into account what the South wants. -Sudanese themselves”. Thus, several sources consider that the provisions related to transitional justice and reconciliation in the 2018 peace agreement (its chapter 5) will have a hard time seeing the light of day. “The question is also when is a society able to look its past in the face? asks the diplomat.

Catholic priest Gregor Schmidt, leader of the Comboni missionaries in South Sudan, spent more than ten years among the Nuer in the remote village of Old Fangak in Jonglei state. He is also skeptical about the impact of the peace agreement on reconciliation. “Riek Machar and Salva Kiir should be the first to testify in a truth and reconciliation process. Will they? I don’t think so,” he says. He noted “a desire for revenge for the atrocities committed against the Nuer at the start of the civil war, in December 2013, in Juba”. For him, only initiatives emanating from the communities themselves and conducted according to tradition can resolve disputes rooted in history. “The sacrifice of an animal is, in the eyes of the majority of South Sudanese, much more valuable than the signing of a written document,” summarizes the cleric.

The Church at the heart of the reconciliation process

Jackline Nasiwa, rule of law specialist and director of the Center for Inclusive Governance, Peace and Justice, took part in the national consultation conducted in 2022 for the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) planned by the ‘peace agreement. A process initiated by the Ministry of Justice in January 2022, with logistical support from the UN. “We have carried out public consultations in the ten regional states, two administrative areas, the camps for displaced persons and refugees, she explains, expressing her satisfaction to finally see progress in the implementation of Chapter 5 of the peace agreement. peace. People have spoken very clearly: they want an end to the bloodshed and they want the Church to lead the reconciliation process, not the government. A report was compiled and submitted to the Ministry of Justice in August 2022, which is supposed to serve as the basis for the constitution of the TRC. Since then, the process has stalled again.

“People trust the church,” says Maurice Okwera, mediator and reconciliation officer for the South Sudan Council of Churches, which includes seven churches, Catholic and Protestant. He took part in a long and difficult mediation following the conflict in the village of Tombura, devastated by violence between Azande and Balanda ethnic groups in May 2021, which left at least 300 people dead. Along with a team of clerics, a series of “retreats” were held, with local chiefs, residents, and even politicians implicated in heightening tensions. “Initially, representatives Azande and Balanda refused to sit in the same room,” he recalls. They said, how can I talk to the one who killed my family members? But, from session to session, “through prayers and counsel,” things settled down. It took months. “We managed to bring the same people together and they confessed their actions in front of others, there were tears, it was a great moment of truth and healing”, testifies Maurice Okwera.

These appeasement efforts remain fragile in the face of power struggles. Father Paulino Tipo Deng, leader of the Upper Nile Initiative for Peace and Reconciliation, knows something about this. “We had been organizing activities for three years to reconcile the Nuer, the Shilluk, the Dinka, the Mabanese and the Koma, he testifies, but now everything has come crashing down.” In August 2022, a conflict between two generals escalated into an intercommunal conflict between the Nuer and the Shilluk. Today in Sudan to try, from the city of Kosti, to bring assistance to the Shilluk refugees “who live in undignified conditions”, he hopes that “the pope, with his language, will touch the hearts of all these leaders” and, perhaps, “convincing them to stop the revenge”.