By John Ashworth
Based on a public lecture presented on 30th March 2012 at Home and Away, Juba, South Sudan, by John Ashworth, under the auspices of Justice Africa in partnership with Centre for Peace and Development Studies, University of Juba, the South Sudan Human Rights Commission and the Civil Society 
April 11, 2012 — My main claim to fame is that I have been in Sudan and South Sudan a long time – 29 years, working with churches. For most of that time, my line managers have been South Sudanese. I have worked as part of local organisations, not worked with them as partners. This has given me some fairly unique insights. I will probably apply for South Sudanese citizenship when the time is ripe, so I have a personal interest in the topic assigned to me.
Nationalism is connected with nation-building, not simply state building. I will concentrate on the former and will not be looking at good governance, development, infrastructure, and many of the other important issues which are essential for forming a new state.
National identity, not ethnic identity
A new state needs a national identity. At one level, the Constitution sets the national identity. New constitutions often come out of particular historical and political circumstances, and the nation they define is based on that context. Our new Permanent Constitution will probably define South Sudan as a decentralised state, for example. It will also have a strong human rights component, in response to decades of oppression.
But it is not only what is contained in the Constitution which defines a nation; it is also the manner in which the Constitution is produced. If the nation is going to be one in which people participate in governance, then it is essential that they are able to participate fully in the development of their Constitution. Most constitutions begin with the words, “We, the people...” Such a Constitution must be owned by the people.
South Sudan must find its national identity, and this should be an identity based on citizenship, not ethnicity. President Salva Kiir has said, “You have no tribe or home; your tribe and home are South Sudan”. The Catholic bishops of South Sudan have called for “One nation out of every tribe, tongue and people”. Of course there is nothing wrong with tribes. We all need to be rooted somewhere, proud of our language, culture, heritage and traditions. But at a national level there must be a sense of “I am South Sudanese” before “I am Dinka, Nuer, Bari, Zande or whatever”. Tanzania would appear to be a good example of this, where national identity was stressed over and above tribal identity from the very beginning of its existence as an independent nation.
For many decades, the identity of South Sudanese has been a negative one: “not-northerner”, “not-Arab”. This may well have been a useful uniting factor in a long liberation struggle, but for a newly independent nation it is inadequate and even dangerous.
Another danger is that the hostility will be transferred, from the “Arab” to other outsiders, notably people from Kenya, Uganda and other neighbouring states. Xenophobia appears to have raised its ugly head earlier in South Sudan than it did in South Africa. Both nations seem to have forgotten all the assistance they received from their neighbours during the liberation struggle, and are now targeting their former friends. Security and immigration officials in South Sudan are harassing and intimidating aliens; even the word “alien” is a negative one. We know that these officials are poorly trained and are themselves traumatised after years of war, but they must be reined in, and quickly. South Sudan used to have a reputation for hospitality, openness and friendliness. Is the image of the new nation going to be one of hostility, xenophobia and isolationism? Just as the new national identity must move on from “not-Arab”, it must not be allowed to become “not-East African” (which raises another contradiction, as South Sudan is applying to join the East African Community and indeed become East African).
South Sudanese are not “not-anything”; they must articulate a new and positive identity.
Root causes of conflicts
It may be useful to look at the root causes of the conflicts in the old Sudan.
The first is identity. Sudan was a multi-cultural, multi-religious, multi-lingual, multi-ethnic country – multi-everything, in fact. But over a long period one identity grouping, which happened to be “Arab” and Islamic, dominated. It defined itself as the Sudanese identity, and at various times oppressed, assimilated, disenfranchised, marginalised and tried to destroy other identities.
The second is the centre-periphery dynamic. Power, resources and development were concentrated in a small geographical area and amongst a small number of ethnic groups in the centre of Sudan. All peripheral areas were marginalised.
These dynamics led to the wars in Sudan, not only in the South but also Darfur, the Nuba Mountains, Blue Nile and the Eastern Front, and to tensions even in the far north amongst Nubians. It created second-class citizens (and some would say third and fourth class too).
The danger of the same dynamics in South Sudan cannot be ruled out. If there is a perception that any one group, whether ethnic, geographical, political or whatever, is appropriating to itself not only power and resources but the very concept of national identity, then there is a potential for conflict. National identity must be built on the primacy of citizenship, not any other criteria.
National unity and symbols
The new nation clearly needs unity, and national symbols are one way to promote this.
We already have some very obvious ones. Dr John Garang de Mabior is the founding father of the nation, and everybody can unite behind him. The referendum was also a uniting factor. Even the active rebel groups who are opposed to the government in Juba agreed to a cease-fire during the referendum; their desire for a successful referendum leading to independence was greater than their hatred of the ruling SPLM. Ironically the act of cutting off the oil supply through the Republic of Sudan has also proved to be a uniting factor. Throughout South Sudan it has proved a very popular move, despite the potential economic hardship. It was a declaration of national sovereignty at a moment when many felt that Khartoum was still trying to treat the new nation as if it were a recalcitrant province of Sudan. More universal symbols such as the flag and national anthem seem to be slower to really grab the attention of the nation.
There are other symbols which need careful management. As has been mentioned above, the “common enemy” may have been a useful uniting factor during wartime, but has now served its purpose. The symbolism of remembrance of the SPLA, its martyrs and its heroes will remain with us as their sacrifice must be honoured, but it must be balanced with remembering all the others who struggled for liberation. The danger of creating a militaristic and/or a one-party state are real.
And finally, all the victims must be remembered... which leads us to healing.
So how do we begin to bring healing?
The constitutional review can be a healing process if done properly. That must include popular participation, dealing with issues which concern the people. National healing is already in the preamble of the Transitional Constitution:
We, the People of South Sudan... Dedicated to a genuine national healing process and the building of trust and confidence in our society through dialogue...
Terrible things have been done in South Sudan, by South Sudanese to South Sudanese, during the war. There has been no closure for many people. They see the perpetrators still benefiting; there is impunity. There is no sense of justice (or, since the word “justice” is perceived as somewhat devalued in Africa recently due to the International Criminal Court, perhaps “fairness” is a better term.). There has been no compensation for people who have suffered.
Nevertheless, we need to recognise the need for transition. The concepts of transitional justice and transitional democracy are gaining acceptance in the world. Kenya and Zimbabwe are both examples of the latter. Their makeshift coalitions are not perfect by any means, but they stopped the killing and provided a space for attempts to resolve the issues peacefully. It will not serve any purpose simply to start arresting people in South Sudan for their part in the atrocities. Indeed you could end up arresting most of the adult male population, including virtually the whole government, as almost nobody has clean hands in decades of bloody wars. Clumsy premature attempts could cause a government collapse, which would certainly not bring peace and stability, nor healing. Indeed old wounds could be reopened and new ones started in a further cycle of violence.
So we might ask what level of reconciliation do we want? Full-scale reconciliation, with the implication that all issues have been satisfactorily resolved? That is certainly an ideal to work towards. But in the short term, we might need to look at a more limited goal. Perhaps “the least we can live with without killing each other” would be worthwhile? If we could stop the hate speech and stereotyping, stop the cycle of revenge, it could at least present a window of opportunity for the new nation to begin healing itself. I call it “transitional reconciliation”. I don’t know if that term has been used elsewhere; maybe I have just invented it!
Let us look briefly at a false dichotomy which is often presented between peace and justice. There is a perception that justice is sometimes being sacrificed in order to bring about peace. But this is based on a consideration of only one model of justice: retributive justice. There are also others, including restorative justice.
Retributive justice recognises that a crime has been committed and concentrates on finding and punishing the guilty party. It is done by state actors (particularly the police and the courts) and in many ways it marginalises and disempowers the victims. Restorative justice, on the other hand, recognises that something has gone wrong and needs to be put right in a way that benefits the most people and rights the wrong that was done. It might involve punishment but not necessarily. Both victim and perpetrator are involved in the process. Relationships are important in Africa and restorative justice appears to fit well with African tradition: restoring the relationships which were broken by the wrong actions.
Let us then look at two different models of reconciliation : South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and South Sudan’s People to People Peace and Reconciliation Process.
Truth and Reconciliation Commission
The first thing my South African friends always tell me is that nobody should simply copy their TRC. Rather every state should look for its own model. Timing is very important. Opening old wounds too quickly in a fragile state may not be helpful. The new South Africa inherited a well-developed infrastructure, government, civil service, judiciary, security organs, economy and civil society which formed a good background to reconciliation; the new South Sudan does not have these.
Participation was one of the keys to the TRC. Those who were voiceless found a voice, and were listened to. Both victims and perpetrators told their stories. Truth is important. As well as giving some degree of closure to those who have suffered and lost relatives, it also reshapes the old narrative into something new and liberating. The perpetrators must acknowledge their responsibility, not only as individuals; institutions also have to admit their culpability. It is then possible to grant amnesty to those criminals who have cooperated with the Commission; punishment is not always necessary. However there are sanctions against those who refuse to cooperate, and some went to prison.
The TRC process envisaged reparations (a form of compensation) to those who had suffered, and it is one of the great failures of the process that reparations never materialised.
Psychological support for the victims also appeared to be lacking. Although in some cases it was cathartic to speak publicly about the hidden events of the past, it was also very traumatic, and some of those who testified had problems afterwards.
People to People Peace and Reconciliation Process
This process, spearheaded by the churches of South Sudan in the late 1990s, used traditional reconciliation mechanisms. The peoples of South Sudan all have their own traditional mechanisms. They are widespread, different, eroded by war and guns, but they still exist.
The People to People Process was based on building trust amongst people, but it must also trust the people’s process. It involves a great deal of preparation. The people must be ready for reconciliation; it cannot be imposed from above. These meetings take time, and may last for many days; many African traditions involve consensus-building, where the same story is repeated again and again, with minor changes, until it appears in a form which is agreed by all. There must be time for everyone to tell truths to each other while the others listen. Hatred and bitterness are “vomited out” as each side tells what the other has done to “us”. Gradually it dawns on participants that this cannot continue, and a peace agreement is reached.
The follow-up is very important. There will be practical aspects to the agreement – return of cattle and abductees, regularisation of marriages, payment of compensation, agreements about borders and land. Regular follow up meetings are important, to deal with breaches and to defuse potential tensions.
One of the weaknesses of the People to People Process was that it depended on the international aid community to provide a peace dividend; boreholes, schools, clinics, some humanitarian aid, communications equipment for community policing. Just like the reparations in South Africa, this never materialised.
All these are national processes, albeit involving individual citizens. What about something more personal?
Healing of Memories
Reconciliation implies that there are two parties. What if one of them does not wish to reconcile, or is simply not around any more? In European and north American news broadcasts, how often do we hear victims saying, “I will never be at peace until the perpetrator of this crime is brought to justice?" In other words, my future peace and happiness are in the hands of others; I have no control over my life; I am helpless and disempowered, a perpetual victim. And this form of “justice” is often indistinguishable from revenge.
How can victims take control of their lives again, especially when they have no control over states, courts, tribunals and leaders? "Healing of memories" has been developed by, amongst others, Fr Michael Lapsley, an Anglican priest who lost both his hands and one eye in a bomb attack due to his part in the South African anti-apartheid struggle. It’s about remembering, the suffering being recognised, honouring the memory — and letting go. It doesn’t depend on others, because it’s about "me dealing with my stuff, me dealing with what I have in me because of the journey that I have travelled."
It’s not always easy or comfortable. "God helped me," said Fr Michael. "The safe space was prayer, love and support that gave me the room to, if you like, spiritually manoeuvre because I realised if I was full of hatred, bitterness, self pity, desire for revenge, that I would be a victim forever. They would have failed to kill the body, but they would have killed the soul and I would be permanently their prisoner." Some victims spend their entire life in that prison, not realizing that only they have the power to release themselves.
One of the great leaders of South Africa, Chief Albert Lutuli, once said, "Those who think of themselves as victims eventually become the victimisers of others." The healing of memories breaks that chain of violence and victimization.
All of this is connected with trauma. After five decades of war and oppression, we have traumatised individuals, traumatised communities and indeed a traumatised nation. There is a culture of violence. Behaviour which would be “normal” and even rewarded during war time (eg a pre-emptive attack on another community) is totally inappropriate during peace time, when there are other more appropriate mechanisms, including recourse to the rule of law.
Thus there is a great urgency to begin healing both individuals and communities. Much of the work on trauma healing has been done in Europe and north America, where individualism is the norm, and is based on individual therapy. In South Sudan, like most of Africa, community is the norm, and trauma healing must take this into account. Some innovative work has been done in Rwanda and elsewhere on healing of communities, and of healing individuals in the context of community.
The same might be said of healing of memories. Is it only an individual approach, or can it also be done by and in communities?
Who are we as a nation?
Every nation has a national narrative, based on real and mythologised history. It is expressed through symbols and, consciously or unconsciously, is a factor in shaping the future.
What are the stories which are told around the camp fire and dining table, in the cattle camps and farming settlements, in the hotels of Juba and the tukuls all over South Sudan? What are the stories about “who we are”? Is it still, “The gun is my mother, my father, my wife, my food...” or has it changed to a narrative based on positive values, both traditional and modern, encouraging peace, healing and reconciliation in the African way? Do our stories promote tribalism and division, or equal citizenship based on the dignity of every human being? Which nation do you want to belong to?
John Ashworth is a Sudan/South Sudan expert. He writes and advises on the subject and has spent 29 years in the region.