Conflicts about Peace – As revealed in Sudan and South Sudan

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In regions mired in armed conflict, there is no shortage of peacemaking initiatives and indeed, plenty of competition among the peacemakers. For international organisations, regional unions, departments in various foreign ministries and non-governmental organisations, ‘peace’ serves as the unifying rallying cry. Or as Johan Galtung quipped a half-century ago, “it is hard to be all-out against peace”. We all want peace, and ideally, a Nobel Prize for it.

A kaleidoscope of peace

But, as Oliver Richmond has argued, the moment one starts digging deeper into various actors’ understanding of peace, including those who are supposed to be brought to peace, fundamental conflicts surface. We all want peace on our own terms, including our own definitional terms. Among the various meanings of peace is an irreducible minimal concern for ‘not war’. But from the Pax Romana to the Pax Americana, one group’s peace has been the other’s oppression. Those most interested in ‘maintaining’ the peace have often been those for whom the status quo is good or bearable; a status quo often obtained through not particularly peaceful means. The kaleidoscope of peace also reveals other meanings, from normative ideas such as the ‘liberal peace’ or peace as social justice or development, to pragmatic arrangements that serve interests, share spoils or contain crisis.

Getting perspective on peacemaking

Such deeper digging into the meaning of peace is exactly what our recently published edited volume (with Laura James),  Making and Breaking Peace in Sudan and South Sudan: The Comprehensive Peace Agreement and Beyond, has done. We argue that the sheer absence of agreement among the various actors over the nature or desired outcomes of peace makes it fruitless to identify general criteria for progress or peacemaking success.

The book’s method, then, matches its argument. There can be no reckoning and even less prescribing without accounting for the actual politics – messy, fraught and unpredictable – of peacemaking in civil wars. To grasp what peacemaking comes actually to be about, and to think through new possibilities for how it might fare better, we insist on revealing these tensions at play. The perspectival approach we adopt thus foregrounds an enquiry into the on-the-ground contestations over different ideas of peace and modes of peacemaking, and seeks to trace their impact. The contestations are irreducibly political: these ideas and modes of peace and peacemaking reflect the political worldviews, histories and projects of the actors involved and their relative power to influence the situation.

Competing ideas of peace and peacemaking as revealed in the Sudans

Three modalities of peacemaking have been prevalent in the Sudans in recent decades: peacemaking as deal brokering, as liberal peacebuilding and as state-building. The dominant idea of ‘peace’ has been elite bargains to end overt violent conflict, centred on sharing power, wealth and military control. Sometimes the peace being pursued through narrow elite bargains includes institutionalising reforms towards civil liberties, democratic government and a stronger rule of law. Indeed, the promise of this so-called liberal peace seemed to make elite bargains tolerable. With the prospect of a new sovereign country in southern Sudan, landlocked, war-ravaged and desperately poor on any human development measure (though anticipating oil wealth), peacemaking was also understood as state-building: a stronger southern state-in-the-making that above all reformed and controlled its security. Yet such peacemaking priorities left undone the political transformation of the rebel movement and a wider democratic transition, as South Sudan’s deadly civil war has borne out.

Less dominant as a modality of peacemaking, but very much prevalent as a conception of peace, has been peace as social justice. Subnational political movements in Sudan, both armed and unarmed, have employed a language of peace that is inflected with aspirations for equality and socio-economic justice. On this view, peacemaking requires not another elite deal but an ambitious socio-economic programme that addresses historical inter-community tensions, including between local and national levels, and which may extend beyond the country’s borders. Communities that include the socio-economic dimension in their understanding of injustice find the liberal peace’s focus on so-called atrocity crimes (genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes) inadequate, and continue to demand accountability from the political leadership for its failure to deliver socio-economic justice.

International actors’ understanding of peace has had a somewhat different economic dimension. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005 (CPA) emphasised, for example, ‘peace dividends’ alongside economic arrangements for (re)building an effective state. In the context of donors’ Joint Assessment Missions and Multi-Donor Trust Funds, such dividends are arguably a form of appeasement to those already wielding power, as they do little structurally to address deeper socio-economic inequalities from past failed development. Other players such as the Chinese government have explicitly pursued a concept of peace-as-development. Beijing, which has deeper pockets and a longer foreign policy timeline than its Western counterparts, has become a significant player in Sudan through its oil investments, without the burden of the liberal peace agenda.

A related economic idea of peace that has been prevalent in the Sudans is essentially a business strategy: political leaders regard a post-settlement influx of assistance as conducive to rent-seeking and self-reward, or as oil for patronage machines. At loggerheads with the images of peace held by foreign peacemakers, in this conception peace has no inherent moral value; instead it is an objective to be instrumentalised. This understanding of peace, held by elites at various levels, easily appropriates and disrupts other ideas of peace, such as grand national bargains, freedom and liberty, security in a strong state, socio-economic justice or development. Here, ‘peace’ appears as a shifting terrain within a wider political economy of instability, coercion and opportunism that previously took the form of ‘war’.

Ideas of peace can also have deeper and more complex histories than are apparent in immediate periods of elite peacemaking. In the 1990s, the Wunlit and Nuer peace processes in southern Sudan successfully manifested vernacular and indigenous understandings of peace and ways of peacemaking, including those inspired by religion. Characteristic of these processes was the ‘people-to-people’ approach in which communities and churches convene to make peace and reconcile in the absence of their political and military leaders. The strength of these processes was that they recognised and amplified the agency of communities that are often treated merely as victims of conflict. Their weakness was that by bypassing combatants, they could not silence the guns.

Finally, ‘peace’ in Sudan has also been tied to ideas about nations and self-determination and the kind of post-colonial peace that emerged after the Second World War, as Nasredeen Abdulbari, Sudan’s current Minister of Justice, shows in our book. Such ideas of peace were not championed by peacemakers and foreign states; they were deeply woven into Sudan’s history and the contested space of political aspirations of southern Sudanese.

The value of a perspectival approach

Scholarly debates on the ‘right’ definition of peace and the ‘best’ modes of peacemaking also enter into peacemaking politics. The perspectival heuristic is concerned with seeing and unravelling political contestations at close range, including how epistemic authority is claimed and by whom in studying and advising on peace in any specific context. Scholars too cannot ignore the “multiple ideas, relationships and experiences that are embedded within hierarchies of power and knowledge” in peacemaking, as Curtis puts it. Accordingly, the perspectival approach resists the temptation to use a case study to judge one or another idea of peace or mode of peacemaking as superior or more efficacious than another. But this approach does allow for insight into how the contested nature of peace might affect peacemaking in otherwise unforeseen and poorly anticipated ways, including reproducing logics of violence and  killing the non-violent civil politics that peace seeks to promote. Given the patchy record in the Sudans, such insight is an essential starting point for rethinking the peace project there as well as across the world.

About the authors

Sarah Nouwen is Professor of International Law at the European University Institute (on leave from Cambridge University). She authored Complementarity in the Line of Fire: The Catalysing Effect of the International Criminal Court in Uganda and Sudan. Her current research focuses on law & peacemaking.

Sharath Srinivasan is Co-Director of the University of Cambridge’s Centre of Governance and Human Rights. His new book is When Peace Kills Politics: International Intervention and Unending Wars in the Sudans (Hurst, 2021)

*The introduction to Making and Breaking Peace in Sudan and South Sudan: The Comprehensive Peace Agreement and Beyond will be freely available to readers from 1 July 2021 –  31 September 2021.

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