The Difficulties of Reconciliation: The Case of South Sudan

By Akshay Sevak

South Sudan soldiers (Credit Image: AP)

Reconciliation plays an important, if not understated, part in conflict and post-conflict settings, carrying the hopes and expectations of many. The term refers to a reinstatement of peaceful relations between individuals and communities previously in conflict.[i] However, “Reconciliation” lacks a universal definition, and by extension what is, and can, be expected of Reconciliation varies. As a result, it is easy to stretch the concept and assume that reconciliation will reinstate interpersonal and inter-community trust, address historical grievances, impose  moral accountability upon perpetrators, all whilst not alienating a nation’s different communities.

It is clearly highly ambitious, if not unrealistic, to expect a singular effort of reconciliation to achieve all these outcomes. Recognising that the process is somewhat Herculean is perhaps obvious; but what are the specific difficulties that the reconciliatory process might face? The case of reconciliation in South Sudan highlights some important pitfalls reconciliation efforts may face. Thus, this article invites and calls for a nuanced approach to reconciliatory approaches, which focus on the context within which violence has been experience and the specific victims who have faced post-conflict trauma.

The world’s youngest state has been embroiled in a civil war, between the Government of the Republic of South Sudan and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army – In Opposition (SPLA-IO), that began in December 2013. More specifically, the conflict erupted following political disagreements between President Salva-Kiir of the Dinka tribe and former Vice President Riek Machar of the Nuer tribe. High levels of ethnic, sexual and gender-based violence, as well as forced recruitment of child soldiers and civilian fatalities, have been tragically common features of the civil war thus far.[ii] Consequently, it is unsurprising that conflict trauma has been experienced across different levels of society. The widespread and seemingly indiscriminate nature of the violence has led to high levels of trauma being experienced both personally by individuals, and more broadly at the  community level, particularly following ethnic violence.[iii] As a result, South Sudan’s already weak national identity, not least due to its infancy, has been further weakened as different communities, particularly Dinka and Nuer, grow further apart from each other.[iv] In a nation with over 60 different ethnic identities,[v] such division poses a heady challenge for any reconciliatory effort.

In this scenario, the work of Daly and Sarkin, which outlines that reconciliation is often needed at the three mutually reinforcing levels of society upon which trauma is felt, is particularly instructive. [vi] Focusing on the impact of conflict-trauma upon the personal, community and national levels helps illuminate the specific reconciliatory needs of a society – and the inevitable difficulties of delivering on these. As outlined above, violence in South Sudan has led to high levels of personal trauma, alongside a deeply fractured sense of national unity. It may initially be assumed that a broad reconciliatory programme can be instituted to address these experiences in one fell swoop. However, the shortcomings of reconciliatory efforts in other national contexts demonstrate that this is generally not possible. Fostering a sense of national unity is often made much easier if there is a background of commonality between different communities, historical or otherwise, which can be relied upon in any attempt at national reconciliation.[vii] For example, faced with limited similarities between communities in post-Apartheid South Africa, the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission tried to use a common history of human rights abuse under Apartheid as a common foil upon which both victims and abusers could share experiences.[viii] Such an approach necessarily leads to the creation of a “national story” which often will not be reflective of individual conflict experiences. Indeed, during the nation-wide “hearings” run by the Commission, this approach led many participants to feel as if the “national story” did not adequately resonate with their experiences. As noted by the residents of Duduza, whilst most of the victims in the community of the apartheid regime were committed to reconciliation, they were at the same time ‘not simply willing to move ahead as if nothing happened.’[ix]

When extrapolated onto the South-Sudanese context, the Commission’s approach certainly attracts sympathy. National unity in a fractured society cannot create itself, without a “guiding story” that is essentially centrally driven. South Sudan has fought two separate civil wars (1955-1972; 1983-2005) against the North (now Sudan) during which the primary binding factor between the discreet South Sudanese communities was a desire for independence from the North.[x] With independence granted in 2011, there has been a notable lack of a binding factor upon which national unity can be built. This notwithstanding, adopting a centralised reconciliatory approach to foster such unity does not afford individuals the necessary space to reconcile with personal traumas, and to essentially make sense of their personal perceptions of the violence. Worse still, such a centralised approach can lead to a general branding of one community as victims and the other as perpetrators; as was the case in the Rwandan experience.[xi]

The reaction to this conundrum may then be to adopt a reconciliatory approach that is not state-driven, but rather guided by civil society organisations (CSOs), as done in Northern Ireland. This approach relied upon a central fund from which different CSOs could draw resources to facilitate varying and decentralised reconciliatory programmes.[xii] While this has led to notable levels of personal and community reconciliation, with individuals and groups afforded time to formulate their own perception of the conflict[xiii], there is a notable lack of national reconciliation. Segregated housing and education are still prevalent within Northern Ireland.[xiv] Further, the Northern-Irish reconciliatory experience has heavily benefitted from the strong infrastructure, the established presence of CSOs and available funding in Northern Ireland. South Sudan, however, has a far weaker developmental foundation. Not only does the South Sudanese government not have a nation-wide monopoly on the use of force but less than 30% of the national road network is useable throughout the year, given the extreme weather conditions.[xv] This impedes the reach of security services and is a significant barrier to the inter-group contact between communities that is essential for reconciliation. Further, only 8% of households in rural areas (where 83% of the population resides[xvi]) own a mobile phone[xvii] and many communities are organised in a decentralised fashion, migrating each season on account of cattle grazing.[xviii] Any decentralised reconciliatory effort, then, may well serve to further separate discreet communities, and is unlikely to meaningfully contribute to national reconciliation.

This brief consideration of reconciliation in the South Sudanese context may well reveal a host of potentially inevitable problems. Yet it also reveals that “Reconciliation” is not a silver bullet for post-conflict societies. This should not discourage any reconciliatory effort. Rather, the analysis of reconciliation across different societal levels highlights that particularly in the South Sudanese context, reconciliatory efforts must be nuanced. They may often be unable to address the whole complexity of trauma experience. However, in a post-conflict scenario, the question of how to reconcile conflicting communities can easily illicit a template-based approach, drawing on successes from other national contexts. Rather, a frank and sober consideration of the specific difficulties and opportunities at hand  may better serve any reconciliatory effort.


Akshay Sevak is Trainee Solicitor, and recent graduate from the King’s College Department of War Studies where he studied on the Conflict, Security and Development Masters programme. His research interests include peacebuilding during and after civil wars, the nature of violence and atrocity within civil wars, and the Arab-Israeli peace process. His research focuses on the East African and Middle Eastern regions. 


[i] For example, Herbert Kelman (1999), ‘Transforming the relationship between former enemies: A social-Psychological Analysis,’ in R. L. Rothstein (ED) After the Peace: Resistance and Reconciliation. Boulder: Lynne Rienner; Aletta Norval (1999)., ‘Truth and Reconciliation: The Birth of the Present and the Re-Working of History.’ Journal of African Studies. Vol 25: pp 499-519; Daniel Bar-Tal (2000)., ‘From intractable conflict through conflict resolution to reconciliation: Psychological analysis. ‘Political Psychology. Vol 21: pp 351-365.

[ii] Human Rights Council, 23 February 2018, Report of the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, Thirty-seventh session, A/HRC/37/71. Accessed 12 March 2018. Available at

[iii] Amnesty International, 2016., ‘South Sudan. “Our hearts have gone dark” The mental health impact of South Sudan’s conflict.’ Index number: AFR 65/3203/2016. Available at

[iv] See Hilde Johnson, South Sudan: The untold story – From Independence to Civil War. (IB Tauris and Co Ltd).

[v] United Nations Mission In South Sudan (2014)., ‘Conflict in South Sudan: A Human Rights Report.’ United Nations, p. 14. Available at

[vi] Erin Daly and Jeremy Sarkin (2007)., Reconciliation in Divided Societies: Finding Common Ground (UPen Press).

[vii] John Armstrong (1982), Nations before Nationalism. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. p. 292-293.

[viii] Richard Wilson (2001)., The Politics of Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge).  This was encapsulated by the driving notion of Ubuntu. Broadly defined this refers to one’s humanity and well-being being connected to the humanity and well-being of others: Cathy Bollaert, 15 February 2013, ‘Everyone’s a victim – the problem of Ubuntu.’ Language in Conflict. Accessed 10 March 2018. Available at

[ix] Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa (1998), volume 5, chapter 9, s. 130, p. 426.

[x] Wolfram Lacher (2012), ‘South Sudan: International state building and its limits.’ German Institute for International and Security Affairs. Berlin: Stiftung, Wissenschaft und Politik. p. 9

[xi] In this instance, blame for the Rwandan genocide was largely apportioned to Hutu communities through use of the gacaca courts in a state-driven and controlled reconciliatory process. See, Rene Lemarchand (2009), “The politics of memory in post-genocide Rwanda” in Phil Clarke and Zachary D. Kaufman, eds., After Genocide: Transitional Justice, Post Conflict Reconstruction and Reconciliation in Rwanda and Beyond. (Hurst & Company: London).

[xii] Nevin T. Aiken, (2010), ‘Learning to live together: Transitional justice and intergroup reconciliation in Northern Ireland.’ The International Journal of Transitional Justice. Vol 4: 2, pp: 166-188, p. 183-184.

[xiii] Miles Hewstone, Johanne Hughes and Ed Cairns, (2008). ‘Can contact promote better relations? Evidence from mixed and segregated areas of Belfast.’ Belfast: Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister.

[xiv] Miles Hewstone, E Cairns, A Voci, S Paolini (eds), (2005), Intergroup contact in a divided society: Challenging segregation in Northern Irelant. London: Psychology Press.

[xv] World Bank (2011), Project information development document: South Sudan rural roads project. Report No. AB6832. Washington: World Bank.

[xvi] UNDP (2017). ‘About South Sudan.’ UNDP in South Sudan. Available at

[xvii] Southern Sudan Centre for Census, Statistics and Evaluation (2011). Key Indicators for Southern Sudan. Available at

[xviii] Jonah Leff (2009), ‘Pastoralists at War: Violence and Security in the Kenya-Sudan-Uganda Border Region.’ International Journal of Conflict and Violence. Vol 3:2, pp 188-203.



Image Source: 



2 thoughts on “The Difficulties of Reconciliation: The Case of South Sudan”

  1. Very wise, thanks for looking into this and giving us insight into the importance of more nuanced reconciliatory approaches to conflict resolution peace-building.

Share this

Copyright © 2019 Strife Blog. All Rights Reserved.

Designed by Kris Chan