Peace in South Sudan: A Catholic Agenda


Author: John Katunga

Religious institutions, especially the Anglican and Catholic churches, have played a leading role in peacebuilding in Sudan for decades. Their role in the process leading to South Sudan’s independence is the most recent example.

Through a process of dialogue called Kejiko I and II, the churches helped address divisions among political and military factions in South Sudan. As the only significant functioning civil society institution in much of the country, the Church played a powerful role in facilitating the remarkably orderly and peaceful election and referendum processes. The churches also helped garner international engagement at key times in the process.

Just one indicator of the churches’ role: Besides its crucial humanitarian and development programs, Catholic Relief Services, one of the largest development agencies in Sudan, dedicated $4 million to peacebuilding in the 18 months leading up to the referendum, by far the largest peacebuilding program the organization has ever undertaken.

Fortunately, the return to all-out war that many feared did not happen. But a mostly peaceful election and referendum process is the beginning, not the end, of church involvement in peacebuilding in South Sudan. I propose the following agenda for mobilizing the Catholic community as it continues to be a significant force for peace, justice, and reconciliation.

Support a Marshall Plan for South Sudan

On July 9, South Sudan will become one of the poorest countries in the world, with 50 percent of its people living under the poverty line, 93 percent lacking basic sanitation, 4.5 million requiring food assistance and more than 80 percent illiterate. Add to that a massive influx of returnees from the north, a quarter of a million people displaced by violence last year, and more displaced from recent fighting in border areas and in Jonglei and Malakal. The hopes engendered by independence will soon dissolve into disillusionment if ordinary people see no change in their daily lives.

Working with the Vatican and other episcopal conferences, the Church in Sudan will have to advocate for a massive international, governmental and private effort to provide humanitarian and development aid to this new country. As the institutions with the necessary infrastructure, experience and trust of the population, church agencies, local and international, will play an indispensable role in meeting basic humanitarian needs and promoting sustainable development, a precondition for creating a politically and economically viable South Sudan.

Promote good governance

A Marshall Plan can succeed in galvanizing the energies of this new country for rapid economic development only if there is corresponding progress on political development. Perceptions of exclusion and marginalization are at the heart of ongoing instability, violence and displacement. An antidote to exclusion and marginalization is building representative, participatory, accountable — and therefore legitimate — political institutions.

Building legitimate political institutions at all levels is the work of political leaders, but religious leaders can play a critical role in encouraging equitable solutions on difficult issues of governance. They will insist that this solution is grounded in respect for the good of the whole nation and basic human dignity and rights; a commitment to nonviolent means of resolving political differences; guarantees of equal representation and participation in political institutions; and measures to ensure transparency and accountability. Especially important, church leaders will continue to insist that constitution-writing and other aspects of political development be based on full respect for the cultural, religious and ethnic diversity of the two Sudans.

Promote reconciliation

Political development requires political and social cohesion and reconciliation. Decades of war have resulted in a “war culture,” profound trauma and deep social divisions. Even more important than the churches’ consensus-building role in political development is their role in promoting personal and communal healing and reconciliation. Working within the Catholic community as well as with other religious bodies, the Church needs a well-designed and equally well-funded process that can engage individuals and communities over an extended period of time from the ground up.

Resolve remaining North-South issues

The Church’s peacebuilding efforts will include advocating for just and peaceful resolution of the north-south issues left unresolved by January’s referendum: sharing oil, waters, debts and assets; demarcating the border, resolving the status of Abyei, Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile areas; and ensuring citizenship, religious freedom and other rights for the minorities. In addition to advocating with the governments in North and South Sudan, the Church will continue to collaborate with the Vatican, other bishops’ conferences, and international Catholic and other faith-based nongovernmental organizations in advocating on these issues with countries in the region, the United Nations, the African Union, the Arab League, and key countries like the United States, China and Italy.

The Catholic Church in particular, working with other religious institutions, will play a critical role as South Sudan engages in nation-building. Like other leaders, religious leaders will have to help people maintain the hopes and energy unleashed by independence. At the same time, they will have to continually instill a large dose of realism, patience and determination, reminding people that independence is only the beginning of assuming responsibility for the arduous, long-term process of achieving freedom, stability, security and lasting peace in the whole Sudan. Far too much blood has been spilled. It is now time for the sweat and tears of hard labor necessary to peacefully build a new nation.

John Katunga is Catholic Relief Services’ regional technical advisor for peace-building and justice in the east Africa region, based in Nairobi, Kenya, and a 2011 CRS-Kroc visiting fellow. This essay is simultaneously published as “What Next for Catholic Peacebuilding in South Sudan?” at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies’ webzine, Peace Policy

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