What Vision Will Guide This Important Chapter In South Sudan's History?

Mamer was born in southern Sudan but, due to conflict, was forced to walk hundreds of miles to Ethiopia and then back through southern Sudan to Kenya, where he lived as a refugee until he came to the United States. I met Mamer in 2003 at a church conference and when my pastor invited Mamer to spend the summer with our community, he did not hesitate to accept. Mamer came to the U.S. for a reason, to get an education and work experience so that he could return to Sudan and help build his country. Mamer's choices were and continue to be guided by a good vision and a keen sense of responsibility for the now independent South Sudan.

In 2008, I served as an international observer at the 2nd National Convention for the Sudan Peoples' Liberation Movement (SPLM) in Juba. The first convention was held in 1994. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), signed in 2005, ended the 22 year civil war between the National Congress Party (NCP) in the north and the SPLM in the south. The purpose of the CPA was democratic transformation, a solution that could have addressed the root cause of conflicts plaguing Sudan today. The CPA provided the opportunity for the south to exercise its right to self determination if the NCP failed to make unity attractive in the 6 year interim period. The CPA also guaranteed a referendum for Abyei to decide if it would stay in Sudan or rejoin the south. Abyei is an important oil rich area on the border between the north and south and many of its leaders were present at the 2nd National Convention of the SPLM. A couple of days into the convention, word arrived that the NCP, emboldened by normalization talks with the U.S., had wiped out Abyei with the entire civilian population displaced and their homes burned to the ground. It was an incredibly tense time. Many worried about what would happen next and whether or not the CPA would survive. The answer was hanging on a huge banner behind the platform at the convention. The banner read, "No to War, Yes to Peace," and it captured the determination of a people committed to a vision for a better life.

The six-year interim period of the CPA passed, and the NCP, known for failing to implement every agreement it signs, also underestimated the people of southern Sudan and the vision that guided them. Despite the NCP's foot dragging and widespread skepticism regarding the referendum's feasibility, the people of southern Sudan, with the support of the international community, peacefully and effectively conducted their long-awaited referendum in 2011 with 99% voting in favor of independence. The lesson I have learned since meeting Mamer in 2003 and many others since then, is to never underestimate the people of South Sudan. Their vision, purpose and pride can accomplish the impossible.

Fast forward 5 years, and the impossible seems to be on the horizon. On November 17th, after a recent trip to South Sudan, Adama Dieng, the UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, reported to the UN Security Council that he "saw all the signs that ethnic hatred and targeting of civilians could evolve into genocide if something is not done now to stop it." Just five years later, the vision, the people and the future of South Sudan are at risk. A South Sudanese leader warned,

"We have to stop this war in South Sudan because when we take those children and give them guns, what do they learn? Violence. And what will be the future? They will think that the only solution for any problem is fighting and killing one another...we lose this generation and we lose the country." Hanna Andrew K. Dijok, Executive Director, Sisters Hope for South Sudan, 2nd Annual Coalition of Advocates for South Sudan (CASS) Conference

The question is how will South Sudanese rise to meet this new challenge? What vision will guide them through these perilous waters? How will they write this important chapter of their history?

The 2nd Annual CASS Conference provided a rare opportunity for South Sudan's stakeholders to sit together and discuss the issues and a way forward out of this crisis. The stakeholders included the government, representatives of the various opposition, the church, civil society, women and youth as well as a variety of experts and friends of South Sudan. Per the conference report, "while the issues that divide South Sudan were ever present, agreement was reached on the desire for peace, the need for justice and accountability through the hybrid court, and the importance of reconciliation, dialogue and support from the U.S. and the international community." Over 100 organizations, prominent individuals and scholars, including South Sudanese organizations and leaders, reiterated in a letter to the African Union and IGAD, this call for urgent engagement by Africa's leaders to avoid "another genocide" in South Sudan.

As in the past, the international community can help, but in the end, the decision is up to the people and leaders of South Sudan. I believe that the same vision that inspired Mamer and that maintained the necessary focus to forge a new country can correct South Sudan's course and allow a return to the hard work of dialogue, reconciliation and compromise that will ultimately honor the sacrifices of millions and establish a peaceful and prosperous South Sudan.