According to Jok Madut Jok, the Executive Director of the Sudd Institute, the “near collapse” of South Sudan so soon after independence was difficult to predict, despite being monitored by diplomatic missions such as the United Nations and the African Union. He said the international community was blindsided by a “very strong euphoria within South Sudan about independence.”
He said that the people of South Sudan want an immediate cessation of violence, and that mediators working on the peace process, “need to work on more vigorously to immediately monitor and make sure that the cessation of hostilities agreement that was signed on January 23 is adhered to, and that it is enforced.”
What should not be done, he added, is “to announce yet another peacebuilding or reconciliation program that will flop. And any plan that you institute at the moment while people are still fighting is surely going to flop—and when it fails, it makes the situation worse.”
“So, there are preconditions to building sustainable peace in a society and that is, first of all, the current insecurity has to end first because you cannot reconcile people who are still shooting at each other.”
The second round of peace talks in Addis Ababa between South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir and the rebels came to an impasse yesterday over unmet rebel demands, and the talks have as of yet failed to resume.
Dr. Jok said, “South Sudan is a country that is emerging from a very long, treacherous, violent, and destructive war; that it did not hit the ground running is not a surprise. And that, like many other countries that have emerged in the world, it should be assisted to find its feet going forward.”
He said the best thing to do now “is to go for a more deliberate, honest, and slow peace process that is sequential, beginning with a ceasefire, going to humanitarian access, going to political settlement, and going for strategic institutional reforms that would make for a more stable country going forward.”
Dr. Jok said that civil society is an important element in the sustainability of peace. “And it is not just the organized civil society. There are also elements in the society—including the chiefs, the traditional authorities; including spiritual leaders; including women’s groups and professional associations; all of them represent the biggest bulk of South Sudanese society, and if the peace agreement is going to be something that every Southerner is subscribing to and committed to, they have to be given a say at the peace talks through their representatives.”
The interview was conducted by John Hirsch, Senior Adviser to the Africa program at the International Peace Institute.
Listen to interview (or download mp3):
John Hirsch: Good afternoon. Today we’re speaking to Dr. Jok Madut Jok, the Executive Director of the Sudd Institute, an independent research organization based in Juba, South Sudan that seeks to promote a more peaceful, just, and prosperous society by improving governance policies and practices in South Sudan.
The crisis that has erupted in South Sudan on December 15 of last year had been simmering for several months within the government and the SPLM [Sudan People’s Liberation Movement]. In your opinion, what early action could the international community have taken to prevent the violence and its dire human rights and humanitarian consequences?
Jok Madut Jok: Yes, thank you. The crisis that started on December 15, 2013 was indeed a shock to a lot of people and it was very difficult to predict the nature of that eruption—even though people thought that it was likely to happen following the July 2013 reshuffle in which the vice president and several ministers were removed from the cabinet; and following all the disagreements that had been going on within the ruling party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement. And so while this was seen to be just a matter of time before something significant happens, it was difficult to predict the nature of it.
But now that it has reached this level where so many people have died and so many people have been displaced—10,000 people are reported dead and 1 million people reported displaced internally and another 80,000-100,000 becoming refugees in neighboring countries—it is a significant question about how the international community could have prevented it, or how it could now respond that now that this has happened. In terms of predicting and preventing it, I think we had all the diplomatic missions—we had the United Nations, we had the African Union—watching the situation. And they were also blindsided by the fact that there was a very strong euphoria within South Sudan about independence. And that South Sudan nearly collapsing so soon after independence was not something that people thought was going to happen.
So it was not easy for them to predict it, but now that it has happened, the best thing to do is to go for a more deliberate, honest, and slow peace process that is sequential, beginning with a ceasefire, going to humanitarian access, going to political settlement, and going for strategic institutional reforms that would make for a more stable country going forward.
JH: IGAD [Intergovernmental Authority on Development], the regional organization in the Horn of Africa, is leading the negotiations in Addis Ababa that seek to restore stability in South Sudan. So, beyond what you just said about your hopes, what do you think realistically can be expected from this process? And what do you see as the main challenges?
JMJ: Well, the people of South Sudan don’t expect anything short of total cessation of violence. And so that is what the mediators need to work on more vigorously: to immediately monitor and make sure that the cessation of hostilities agreement that was signed on January 23 is adhered to, and that it is enforced. The challenge in that is that as we move now towards dialogue over political settlements, both sides are probably going to be tempted to try to gain some degree of military advantage in order to raise their ability to negotiate at the peace talks. So that is the basic challenge: both parties violating the ceasefire in order for them to appear as stronger and have more clout at the peace talks. And I think that is something that IGAD can more vigorously challenge, even in collaboration with UNMISS to try to prevent that.
JH: One of the things we heard at the meeting you just attended was the fact that there’s no quick fix. This is all going to take a long time if it’s going to succeed, the peace process. So what do you think of the main conditions for genuine national reconciliation and sustainable peace? And what do you think the South Sudanese political and military leadership needs to do to promote a truly sustainable peace process over the long run?
JMJ: I may not know exactly what needs to be done, but I know what should not be done. And what should not be done is to announce yet another peacebuilding or reconciliation program that will flop. And any plan that you institute at the moment while people are still fighting is surely going to flop—and when it fails, it makes the situation worse. So, there are preconditions to building sustainable peace in a society, and that is, first of all, the current insecurity has to end first because you cannot reconcile people who are still shooting at each other.
So, the insecurity has to end. The violence that is going on has to end to give people a sense of confidence that the state is here to reckon with, and then you begin a process of reconciliation. And reconciliation cannot work in the absence of true justice and accountability for things that have been done already—even a degree of humility and apology from the side of the political and military leaders to the people of South Sudan, saying that they have done wrong in having not protected the people more. And that will allow the people to say, Yes, there is something to do here. And they will sit down and work out what has been done wrong in the past and what should be done to rectify that. I think in the absence of security and peace and stability, reconciliation is just not going to happen.
JH: I would like you to say more about the question of impunity. For past human rights violations, this has been identified among the factors of the crisis, and the African Union as you know has set up a commission of inquiry and has even suggested a special tribunal for South Sudan to investigate and prosecute the authors of the massive human rights violations committed since the beginning of the crisis. Given that both sides seem to have committed these violations, or whichever sides you identify, how realistic is that approach, and how effective do you think these proposed mechanisms can be in assuring accountability and deterring future violence?
JMJ: These are all very, very important instruments to be put in place in preparation for such time when it is logistically feasible to do it—to do the investigation, to do the verification, and to set up tribunals—only in an environment where the fighting has stopped. Doing it right now is simply impossible because you can only go to some places and not others. You also have hardened positions, where each side is inflating its victimization, and at the same time trying to downplay what has happened to the other side. So the government will say, Yes, maybe some Nuer were killed in Juba, but the Nuer went on revenge and killed even more people on the Dinka side.
So they will be engaging in the game of trying to make each side making themselves look like more victim than the other. And so it will not really lead to a level-headedness that is required for investigation to be objective. I think it’s a good plan to have in place, ready for when there has been a degree of stability. And then you can investigate and you can interview people who are no longer fearing to be seen to be on that side or the other side.
JH: I wanted to ask you about the role of civil society in South Sudan. As you know most of the players so far have been the government, various ministers and these militia leaders. What is the role of civil society? Do you have entrée into these negotiations? Do you think that civil society is going to have an impact on the outcome of these negotiations?
JMJ: Yes, civil society is a very, very important element in the sustainability of peace. And it is not just the organized civil society. There are also elements in the society—including the chiefs, the traditional authorities; including spiritual leaders; including women’s groups and professional associations, and if the peace agreement is going to be something that every Southerner is subscribing to and committed to, they have to be given a say at the peace talks through their representatives.
And it is not just a question of sending a few people to represent, but it is also, more importantly, a question of including the agenda of civil society on the peace talks. And that can be achieved if the mediators press it upon the parties that the only way to get a more sustainable and long-term and durable peace is for every South Sudanese to feel that they have been consulted on.
JH: Do you have any final remarks you want to make before we close the interview?
JMJ: South Sudan is a country that is emerging from a very long, treacherous, violent, destructive war; that it did not hit the ground running is not a surprise. And that, like many other countries that have emerged in the world, it should be assisted to find its feet going forward.
JH: On behalf of everybody at IPI, we want to wish you and the people of South Sudan a peaceful future.