Fatigued by war that has ravaged their country and disrupted their lives, three Sudanese communities are turning to traditional methods of conflict resolution. OGOVA ONDEGO reports.
As the world focused on the peace talks between the Government of Sudan and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) in Naivasha, Kenya, in mid February, grassroots leaders of the Dinka, Missiriya and Rezeigat were meeting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to map out strategies for peaceful coexistence at grassroots level in Southern Sudan.
After the five-day conference, the tribal leaders said in Nairobi, “If Naivasha peace talks succeed, local conflicts will disappear. It will then be easy for us to resolve any conflicts among our three communities without the shedding of blood.” They said they had initiated the peace discussions at grassroots to reconcile their communities and prepare them psychologically “before total peace is restored in the Sudan”.
The delegates, drawn from all levels of leadership, gender, age and religious groups in each county, resolved to implement whatever they had agreed upon in Addis Ababa. They appealed to the Government of Sudan (Khartoum) and SPLM “to give us space to proceed with our initiative for peace’ as “peace must begin at household and community level.” The Sudanese have traditionally had disputes over resources like water, pasture, livestock and fishing grounds. However, they always had mechanisms for handling such conflicts at village and county level. But this changed with the flare up of war in Southern Sudan. The chiefs who would have been used in resolving disagreements have little respect for one another due to what the tribal leaders termed as “Khartoum’s attempts at Arabising and Islamising communities of the south and especially the Dinka besides expanding into the Dinka territory.”
There was not only mutual respect among chiefs, the leaders said, but their authority was respected and binding on every one under their jurisdiction. However, the leaders say forced Islamisation and Arabisation undermined the culture of peaceful co-existence. With the break out of the war and discovery of oil in the Sudan, the social conflicts have taken on a new image with warring parties fanning household and village conflicts to international scales. This has eroded the traditional mechanisms of conflict resolution as, the leaders said, the government of Sudan in Khartoum sponsors heavily armed militias on horseback to torch houses, loot food crops, livestock and properties of communities along the borders between South Sudan and the North; they also sodomise men, rape girls and women, and capture children, girls and women and kill all the men in the vicinity.
The phenomenon of looting has denied the people peace. The Dinka, desperate for peaceful coexistence, initiated peace talks (peace markets) with their neighbours, especially the Missiriya and Rezeigat, in 1991. SPLM facilitated the grassroots peace meetings through a formation of Peace committees. But the Khartoum government disrupted the meetings till June 2003 when two conferences were held on how to peacefully co-exist with their Arab (Missiriya and Rezeigat) neighbours. It was with the aim of restoring the balance and building mutual trust, they say, that their communities established “peace markets”.
The Addis Ababa meeting was the first of its kind where Dinka, Missiriya and Rezeigat chiefs came together to discuss peace and cement mechanisms to bring about peace along the border. But this commendable effort is not going on unchallenged. For instance, Arthur Aguein, chairman of the Aweil Community, says, “Extreme forces are complicating our peace programme. It was at Addis that we managed to come together for the first time as African and Arab neighbours and we appeal to Khartoum and SPLM to support this initiative so that we may have peace with our neighbours across our borders.” Bol Adiang, chairman of the Abindan Peace Committee in Tuic County, says the Missiriya and Reizegat had to sneak into meetings with the Dinka at the risk of arrest and confiscation of their property as the government could not permit them to do so.
“After peace is restored in our country, the Missiriyya and the Rezeigat could bring their livestock for watering and pasture freely in our territory,” he says. He adds that redeeming their children and women from slavery is of primary importance. For this to be done, there needs to be peace on the border. It would also make delivery of services possible. Restoration of peace in the region could strengthen the on-going community peace initiative and pave the way for communities to negotiate how livestock could graze peacefully. After initiating the peace markets, the leaders say, communities can now trade freely amongst themselves without fear or suspicion. Before this, soldiers used militias to loot food and bring it to them. The establishment of the markets proves that the communities can now access the goods they otherwise could not earlier on.
After the historic Addis Ababa meeting, the communities have resolved to meet again before the end of April 2004 to chart the way forward for peace. Khartoum and the SPLM have always battled over the control of the mineral- and wood-rich Abyei. With the on-coming of peace and resource sharing protocol that has already been signed in Naivasha, the sharing of resources like oil, teak and mahogany will be strengthened. “We don’t want oil companies and politics to divide us. Had the government not tried to settle scores with us through our Arab neighbours, we could have settled whatever differences arose among us amicably,” a senior executive chief, Nyal Chan Nyal, says.
The leaders say all they want now is a return of their children and women as “the Missiriyya and the Rezeigat, acting on behalf of the government of Sudan, have destroyed more than they could possibly compensate communities that have lost children and women.” They say the traditional compensation for blood (murder) was between 31 and 41 cows depending on a particular county and that no one can hope to adequately compensate them for their losses of property and lives. CWAK, an indigenous Sudanese non-governmental organisation (NGO), says an estimated 14000-15000 children are under captivity. The grassroots leaders suggest that they return to the traditional practice whereby community leaders met regularly to review the relationship among their communities and to plan how to live peacefully.
“That we had to go to Addis Ababa in search of peace within our country means a social conflict has been upgraded to regional and international level,” a local grassroots leader says, adding, “Some people with vested interests are sabotaging our peace initiative. We would like to assure them that we are committed to peace and we won’t lose focus of it.” They nevertheless thank the Government of Sudan and the SPLM for allowing them to meet in Addis Ababa for negotiations.