Mundri, South Sudan, December 8, 2014. (Photo: Lotje de Vries)

Today, Aug. 17, 2015, is yet another final deadline for the warring parties in South Sudan to sign a peace agreement. The new nation has been at war with itself since December 2013. Today’s deadline was set by the regional Intergovernmental Agency for Development (IGAD), which has been mediating in the conflict.

But IGAD hasn’t had much mediation success since South Sudan’s political and military leadership split into two camps: One led by President Salva Kiir and his national army, and the other a coalition of military commanders headed by former Vice President Riek Machar. Political rivalry turned into fierce fighting and violence committed along ethnic lines in the three northeastern states of Jonglei, Unity and Upper Nile, killing tens of thousands of people and displacing more than one and a half million others.

Both camps have signed a number of cessation of hostilities agreements over the past 20 months; both continue to violate these while missing various other IGAD deadlines to reach a power-sharing deal and create a transitional government. President Obama pressured for a settlement during his visit to East Africa last month. A peace deal between the political-military elites responsible for the violence has been the major aim not just of IGAD and the U.S., but also of South Sudan’s other long-standing western partners such as Norway, the U.K., and the Netherlands.

A second priority for the international community has been to prevent the war from spreading to the more peaceful parts of the country. This means that while seeking peace, donors and the South Sudanese government alike are scrutinizing South Sudan’s relatively stable regions for signs of war.

Telling two dangerous stories about what’s happening in Western Equatoria State

In the ordinarily peaceful South Sudanese state of Western Equatoria, dozens of people reportedly died recently during what South Sudan’s army has called “ethnic unrest” between communities from the Dinka and the Azande people. The army commander in charge assured journalists that “everything is under control” and asked politicians to avoid “inflammatory statements.”

But attributing these clashes to conflict between ethnicities is inflammatory in itself: It feeds conveniently into two dangerous narratives that we regularly encountered among South Sudanese and the international community while conducting research in South Sudan’s southwest between November 2014 and March 2015.

The first narrative is that ethnicity causes clashes. Since the civil war in other parts of South Sudan took on an ethnic component, lines of division are quickly drafted along the malleable category of “ethnicity.” However, tensions in Western Equatoria come from the need to find ways how groups with different livelihoods — those that farm and those that tend to cattle—can peacefully co-exist.

The second narrative is that war will unavoidably spread to currently peaceful regions. The government has been claiming that rebellion is now brewing in the three southern states of Western, Central and Eastern Equatoria, which are in the southernmost part of South Sudan. Any tension, such as the fighting in Western Equatoria, allows the army to justify crackdowns on the population, acting as if everyone in South Sudan is ready to line up to fight on one side or the other in a civil war that does not appear to be ending any time soon–deadline or not.

Talk of war hides the real problems

To focus on the risk of the war spreading seems like an important, maybe even harmless concern. But emphasizing the possibility of war has consequences, we found. Simply talking about war as an option makes violence more likely — and offers a useful disguise for other problems. Pushing the perspective that everything that happens is connected to war means that violence emerges as the most obvious possibility and that learning from how peace has been maintained is limited.

Talk of war inadvertently supports those members of South Sudan’s political elite who are benefiting from violence, because the threat of war legitimizes tightening control over people.

It is true that tensions exist between farmers and cattle herders in the Equatorias. These skirmishes are being interpreted as a sign that the civil war is expanding beyond the three states in the northeast where fighting is currently concentrated. It is one further justification to portray South Sudan as a powder keg.

But war is one thing. Testy relationships among people whose livelihoods are at odds with each other is another. Mixing up those two contributes to a deteriorating situation. With the local government attempting to safeguard its people, and the national government accusing its citizens of rallying to join the armed opposition, local political stability suffers and people increasingly fear their national government. Pressured to line up on one side or the other, local governments and the people they govern feel cornered. As a result, the real underlying problems of clashing livelihoods remain unresolved while the government accuses them of a lack of loyalty.

Trying to escape being drawn into the civil war

So if war is not a useful interpretive lens, what could be? Socio-anthropological research in various parts of the country shows that many people try hard to avoid being drawn into the violence — not only in Equatoria, but also in the areas overrun by the civil war. Our countless conversations in Juba and further west made clear that both the Juba government and the opposition are widely seen as opposed to peace.

Many citizens consider power sharing — the proposed solution on the mediation table — as at best short-sighted and short-term. Instead, our interview partners stressed the importance of exploring alternatives for managing political tensions and relationships, and by extension of finding ways to end violence in South Sudan.

In the counties affected by violence that is not part of the civil war, our interview partners offered more nuanced ways of looking at relationships. What emerges is a perspective full of grey areas between livelihoods and ethnicity, and between local skirmishes and war.

For instance, the local traditional and political elite in one of Western Equatoria’s counties, Mundri, insisted that problems with cattle keepers were part of a larger plan by the national government to evict them from their farmland. At the same time they continued to try their own ways of mediating between cattle keepers and farmers and to avoid further violence.

The risk of violence may of course increase despite such efforts. Frustration and need for physical protection can seduce people, particularly young men, to respond to violence with violence. But fighting to protect livelihoods and people is different from joining the army or the armed opposition in a war in which few see much sense and in which government and opposition forces kill, abuse, and displace people every day.

How can peacemakers succeed? Learn from the Equatorias and other peaceful regions. 

In an attempt to refill the emptied army ranks, the South Sudanese government requested young man to sign up. But we were often told that “our boys are not interested in joining the army.” The people we spoke to argued that enlisting in the army would mean taking sides in the war. Refusing to join the army, however, does not equal supporting the armed opposition. Many young men who were respondents in our research have no intention of playing a part in the war at all — not for government, opposition or as a third force.

When a South Sudanese general talks about the possibility of war in an area where local tensions are unrelated to South Sudan’s civil war, he is steering the public narrative toward seeing violent confrontation as an overpowering possibility.

That is not only unfortunate, it also pushes the idea that everyone in the country will fall on one side of the political elites. This process hijacks possible visions of peacemaking while it discards how much people in the Equatorias and elsewhere want to avoid violence.

No one wants to be held hostage by a few political or military leaders who negotiate about war and peace but who act on the war side of that imagined divide. International engagement can and needs to step free of this stalemate.

Peacemaking interventions need to shift from trying to arrange a power-sharing deal towards looking at how people in largely peaceful areas imagine that they can manage their relationships, outside the framework of the civil war entirely. This is where lessons of peace can be learned.

Lotje de Vries is a post-doctoral fellow at the German Institute of Global and Area studies (GIGA) and an assistant professor at the Centre for International Conflict – Analysis and Management (CICAM) of the Radboud University in the Netherlands. Mareike Schomerus is a research fellow in politics and governance at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) in London, U.K.