Building Peace in Africa’s Newest Nation

Building Peace in Africa’s Newest Nation
Victoria John Toro holds her baby and displays the card she received after registering to vote. Paul Jeffrey

Cecilia Akuyu sings softly as she and some of her neighbors pull weeds from among the pineapple and peanut plants in the women’s field in Pisak, a village in Southern Sudan. Forty United Methodist Women members from the community joined together last year to plant crops, including sorghum and beans, and to care for the field until harvest time, when they will share the proceeds of their work.

It’s a simple act, in some ways, to cultivate and then harvest. But for people whose lives have been broken by decades of violence and displacement, there is also a profound joy in working the soil in peace and unafraid.

The women of Pisak, an hour from the city of Yei, see their small farm in the same light as their nascent country’s January referendum on independence. If both go well, their future will be different than their war-torn, hungry past.

“If we free ourselves from the government of the north, there will be many changes,” Ms. Akuyu said. “We can grow our own produce to sell here or export, and as an independent country we will be able to see the benefits of our work because the fruit of our labor will stay here.”

Each of the women’s families has its own agricultural plots, but here routine farming decisions are inevitably made by men, even though the women do most of the work. In this field, however, just a short walk from the rustic chapel where they gather on Sunday mornings, the women are in charge. The proceeds from their harvest, after 10 percent goes to the church, will be divided up among the women who participate. They will spend it on school fees for their children, medicine for their families, and seeds for another round of planting this year, Ms. Akuyu said.

United Methodist Women members in Pisak were among the first in their village to register in November and the first to vote in January. “As women, we’ve suffered horribly,” Ms. Akuyu said. “With independence, we pray to God that this will change. That’s why everyone here is voting for separation.”

At the end of January, officials announced the referendum to secede had been approved by 98.83 percent of voters. The high approval rate was no surprise to observers, who noted that even Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir had seen the handwriting on the wall, announcing on the eve of the vote that he would respect the results. Such realpolitik came after solidarity groups and activists spent months pressuring President Barack Obama and other world leaders to make sure the government in Khartoum understood the dire consequences of failing to respect the right of the south to secede.

The devil will surely be found in the details of separation, and Khartoum will quibble over issues like oil revenues, border demarcation and citizenship, as well as the fate of the fertile border region of Abyei, which was scheduled to hold its own vote in January on whether it would cast its lot with Khartoum or the new Southern government in Juba. Yet Khartoum insisted that a nomadic group that spends most of the year outside of Abyei be included in the voting, something that wasn’t acceptable to the Dinka Ngok majority, which favors alignment with the south. Fighting broke out in late February when northern troops and militia groups attacked Abyei, causing most residents to flee to the south.

The people of Southern Sudan also want an end to the permanent crisis provoked by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a Ugandan rebel group that has morphed into a transnational terror force reportedly bankrolled by Khartoum. Villages close to the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic are particularly vulnerable to LRA raids, and many have launched their own popular militias — dubbed the “Arrow Boys” after their principal weapon — to defend the children of their communities from being kidnapped.

101 days of prayer

Although future challenges await, what surprised some about the January vote was the relative peace that prevailed during the week of polling. Many Southern Sudanese attribute that to the 101-day campaign of prayer that preceded the referendum. Although led by Catholics, in Southern Sudan’s strong ecumenical atmosphere the prayer campaign was embraced by other Christian denominations, including United Methodists, and even the south’s Muslim communities.

Faith communities have long played a central role in working for peace in the region. The 1972 accords that brought an end to the 17-year First Sudanese Civil War were brokered by international church leaders. In the Second Sudanese Civil War (1983-2005), churches took a lead role in mediating more than a score of local conflicts that contributed to the larger war.

Paul Nantulya, a Catholic expert on peacebuilding in East Africa, said those local agreements were the “building blocks” that made possible the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which ended most of the fighting and outlined a process of autonomy that culminated in January’s independence vote.

“The church had capacity that no one else possessed to mediate in the middle of the war. There was no real civil society in Southern Sudan at the time,” Mr. Nantulya said. “The church didn’t see itself as just evangelizing and taking care of the spiritual welfare of its followers. It became an agent of development, education, health services, a major player in governance, diplomacy and advocacy — a lot of things that governments would ordinarily do, but at ?the time the people of Southern Sudan didn’t have a government.”

With the relative autonomy of the south since 2005, and the transformation of the liberation movement into a more or less functioning government, the role of the church has been evolving. Yet the work of peacebuilding at the grass-roots level has continued, as local communities throughout the south deal with ethnic tensions, disputed tribal borders and cattle rustling. These conflicts are not new, but many believe they have been exacerbated by Khartoum’s divide-and-rule policies.

“Stealing cattle is an age-old sport here. Yet in a normal cattle raid people don’t get killed or, at worst, only a few young warriors,” said John Ashworth, an advisor to the Sudan Ecumenical Forum. “In 2009, however, we saw an escalation in violence, and we’d have hundreds of people being killed in a single raid, old men and women killed with heavy weapons. That’s not part of the tradition. And land issues are not unsolvable. The elders know where the borders are. These issues can be solved if nobody is manipulating them and keeping the wounds open.

“We don’t accuse Khartoum of starting the conflicts, because these are traditional conflicts. But Khartoum is manipulating and exacerbating these existing tensions.”

Peacebuilding continues

Despite Khartoum’s meddling, local conflicts diminished in 2010, in part because the churches have reinvigorated local peacebuilding efforts. The Sudan Council of Churches is sponsoring peace conferences in each of the budding country’s 10 states as well as in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile states — two border areas that, along with the Abyei region, may eventually become part of the south.

This renewed peacebuilding effort enjoys a new level of cooperation and trust between the churches and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), the governing party in the south. The shared commitment solidified in October when top church leaders and government officials held three days of talks in Juba. Participants named it the Kajiko II conference referendum after a seminal 1997 conference between church and SPLM leaders in Kajiko, a village near Yei.

A joint statement issued at the close of the meeting pledged both parties to work together in civic education, peacebuilding and advocacy. It promised greater cooperation and established the framework for creating ad hoc committees to work through whatever tensions may develop.

The spirit proved infectious. During the same week as Kajiko II, a wide spectrum of political parties and factions agreed to set aside their feuding until after the January vote, and Southern Sudan President Salva Kiir promulgated an amnesty aimed at bringing three prominent but disgruntled military leaders back into the fold.

It may have been the death knell for divide and conquer. “In one week, Salva Kiir undid five years of Khartoum’s planning,” Mr. Ashworth said. “By bringing people back together he destroyed a major plank of Khartoum’s plans to disrupt the referendum.”

As the country moves towards an official declaration of independence in July, the church will face new challenges, particularly given its recent chumminess with the state.

“In the short term, the church will continue to provide services and cooperate with the government,” Mr. Ashworth said. “That’s similar to South Africa, where during the struggle the two parties were on the same track. Yet as the liberation movement becomes a democratic government, we’ll begin to see the church become more critical, and there will be some confusion and hurt between the two parties.”

Tools for peace

As it works for peace, the church is also struggling to help the people of Southern Sudan learn what they need to know to run their own nation. That starts locally in small schools like the Salam United Methodist Primary School in Yei.

“Independence is coming, and it’s up to us to determine the direction we are heading as a new nation. For that we need to study and learn about the world outside,” said Mary Amuna, the school’s head teacher.

Yet learning is hard when many of the school’s more than 800 students are hungry. “Some children come to school with an empty stomach. The teacher tries to help them learn, but they sometimes get dizzy because they had no food in their house. It’s very hard to learn when you’re hungry,” Ms. Amuna said.

For Steve and Diantha Hodges, who came to Yei last August from Kylesford, Tenn., as individual volunteers in mission, working for improved food security and better health care is their contribution to building peace.

In planning sessions with villagers in the 17 communities where the United Methodist Church has congregations, the Hodges discovered that many farmers — studies show as many as 80 percent — can’t grow enough food to feed their family year-round. Rain-dependent farming leaves many running out of seeds and money at the end of the dry season. Mr. Hodges is teaching improved agricultural techniques, including to the women of Pisak.

Ms. Hodges is a health educator. She’s helping a government-sponsored initiative lower one of the world’s worst infant mortality rates by training and equipping midwives and traditional birth attendants in remote villages.

The Hodges count on United Methodist Women Mission Giving to help provide critical resources for their work. Yet they’re clear that long-term change will come not from simply providing resources but by empowering communities to make their own decisions.

“Too often foreigners come in with lots of resources, and their own agenda, and they distribute the resources and then move on,” Mr. Hodges said. “We’re moving slowly, taking the time to listen, to help communities decide what’s most important for them to tackle, and then helping them figure out how to achieve that, even if it’s not what we would have chosen. This process takes trust. It takes breaking down the dynamic of outsiders giving and insiders receiving, which has developed over the decades here.”

Having a faith community as the focal point of that development work is an advantage, Mr. Hodges argues. While nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have carefully elaborated exit strategies, the church comes to stay.

“We have a constituency already on the ground and organized,” he said. “Although we’re intentional about inviting other community leaders into the process, we have the advantage of starting with a grass-roots group already in place with its own structure and leadership. When they become convinced that we’re not just another organization that’s soon going to leave, then they’re willing to make a deeper commitment to work with us on changing their community.”

Paul Jeffrey is senior correspondent for response and a missionary with the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries.

Posted or updated: 3/31/2011 11:00:00 PM