I’ve been one of a few refugee representatives allowed to attend the peace talks. I’ve seen that when South Sudanese own the process, there’s hope.
Last week, South Sudan held another round of peace talks in Addis Ababa aimed at breaking the gridlock and finding a way to end the country’s long-running conflict. They were, once again, unsuccessful but there were some bright points.
In February 2017, the regional mediators Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) agreed to allow some refugee representatives to participate in the talks. I was one of the nine who made it. Having just a handful of people to represent 2.4 million refugees is only symbolic, but attending the talks has allowed us to hold our leaders accountable and measure their commitment to ending our suffering. It has also enabled us to deliver a simple message: make peace so we can go home.
The latest round of talks again ended without any white smoke, but there were times during the week when the sense of investment and ownership in the process shifted, offering some hope for the future.
The first indication of this was when IGAD’s Special Envoy on South Sudan, Ismail Wais, decided that a discussion of ten contentious issues should be mediated by the South Sudan Council of Churches. For these talks, I joined representatives from the government, opposition and civil society. Everyone in the room was South Sudanese and, for four days, we presented our positions and discussed ideas.
At many other sessions I have witnessed at these talks, international mediators and South Sudanese leaders have fixated only the wordings of potential agreements while avoiding any discussion of the actual reasons they are at war. But in this South Sudanese-led discussion, the parties engaged meaningfully with one another. They owned the process in a remarkable way. Although they rarely budged from their original stances, they spoke respectfully and thoughtfully, creating a feeling of trust and revealing a genuine desire for peace.
Being alone as South Sudanese also triggered a sense of pride — and with this pride came a spirit that we can do this. We can make peace.
Why the talks have failed
My country has been at war for the past five years. Since then, attempt after attempt has been made to establish peace. So far, they have all failed but are we learning from our mistakes? Looking back at the most recent efforts, two things stands out clearly.
First, if the peace process is not embraced and owned by South Sudanese, any agreement reached will never hold. The most recent peace deal, the Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan (ARCSS) in August 2015, was effectively imposed on its signatories. It was not embraced and owned by them. Given this, its eventual collapse in April 2016 was not a surprise to any of us watching closely.
Second, for there to be hope for peace, South Sudan’s leaders must be made accountable not just to one another but to the South Sudanese people. Ordinary citizens have the most to gain from peace and the most to lose from continued conflict. Yet we have barely had a glimpse of what goes on behind the closed doors in the foreign hotels where these meetings are held. I’m certain our absence from those discussions has been a factor in the types of deals that have been made and their eventual break down.
It is essential that South Sudanese citizens own the peace process, because it is we who must reconcile our differences, forgive each other, and heal together. But to do this, we must understand and be allowed to participate in the process. We must also come to learn what our leaders are willing – or unwilling – to sacrifice for us.
South Sudan is ours
Most of us 2.4 million refugees were born and raised in war. Our traumatic experiences leave us naturally pessimistic that there will ever be peace. Endless talks that have gone nowhere have done little to change this feeling. And yet, I’m given hope by that intra-South Sudanese dialogue and by the growing inclusion of refugees and civil society. These factors have increased a sense of ownership and transparency.
Much more is needed. For example, traditional chiefs and spiritual leaders are still conspicuously absent. Meanwhile, the Church and IGAD must find ways to improve outreach and communication to the public, including those without smart phones, TVs or radios. It is crucial that all South Sudanese can follow what is happening and that those debating the country’s future know they are being watched.
South Sudan is ours. We must make sure that its peace is ours too.