The crisis in South Sudan has engulfed a population already living in a fragile state, significantly affecting the large youth population. Approximately four million people have been forced to flee their homes in South Sudan since war broke out in late 2013 . Half of those are living as internally displaced persons in South Sudan, the other half becoming refugees in neighbouring countries, namely Uganda. In Uganda, approximately 61% of the South Sudanese refugee population is under 18-years-old. With much of South Sudanese youth lacking opportunities, traumatized by war and holding hatred towards certain ethnic groups, there is a high risk of this generation returning to South Sudan to perpetuate violence. In a country where two-thirds of the population are under the age of 30, South Sudan cannot afford to have its youth sitting idle.
South Sudan has witnessed a surge of inter-communal violence among young people with often high loss of life. Youth are resorting to violence as a result of a number of factors including a lack of development and education, high unemployment and lack of access to basic services. Without any real alternative, young citizens often turn to violence as a means of survival. Particularly, a significant issue in South Sudan is the use of youth in armed violence. Armed groups often coerce children by threatening to confiscate a family’s cattle, a key source of wealth and status in South Sudan. In other circumstances, individuals become desperate to provide for themselves and their families and so join armed groups. South Sudan’s government have also recruited child soldiers in preparation for renewed conflict. In 2016, UNICEF announced the at least 650 South Sudanese children had joined armed groups in that year alone. Further, around 16,000 child soldiers had been recruited since the war began in late 2013. Youth are targets for recruitment as they can be easily mobilized. Justin Forsyth, UNICEF’s deputy executive director stated that people “believe they can easily control and manipulate young minds. The children can then ‘commit atrocities, and they will do what they are told.’” However, there are numerous circumstances in which the youth in South Sudan have stood up as leaders for positive change.
Five years after the failure of a peace deal between the central government in Khartoum and the South, the young men of Nzara in South Sudan took matters into their own hands in an attempt to protect their people. A group calling themselves the ‘Sudan Arrow Boys’ established a community watch group to protect the community members from attacks by the Lord Resistance Army (LRA). Venturing into the darkness of the night, young men, as young as sixteen, sought to protect their community at great risk. The group used any available weapons, such as spears and homemade rifles. Although meeting violence with further violence is not the most effective approach, the concept of the Sudan Arrow Boys highlights the potential for community members, namely youth, to come together and address conflict in South Sudan.
The youth of South Sudan have also campaigned for independence and peace in other ways. In 2010, a group who called themselves the ‘South Sudan Youth For Separation’ began airing messages on their own radio station in attempt to encourage voting in the upcoming election. The group broadcasted messages that called upon the South Sudan people to vote for separation of South Sudan from the rest of Sudan. Each day, a group of youth would also venture out into the streets of Juba to help their message be heard. Members of the group claimed they were in search of a separate, more peaceful homeland for the South Sudanese. Radio presenter Lazarus Okeny stated that those in the group “Want our liberty,” and, “want our freedom.”
Furthermore, youth leaders in South Sudan have taken the initiative to form organisations dedicated for becoming a positive force for change. One of which is the African Youth Action Network (AYAN). This group conducts dialogue sessions and educates youth in peacebuilding and conflict resolution. AYAN bring together members of various ethnic groups to discuss issues related to both the South Sudan conflict and those facing refugee communities. Malual Bol Kiir, AYAN’s co-founder and executive director, asserted that “So often, youth are being regarded as only victims or perpetrators, but the great potential that we have to bring about positive change in South Sudan is neglected.” It is this potential that has yet to be realised and supported among South Sudanese youth.
Communities must engage the young generations to help them play a leading role in establishing peace in their young nation. The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) noted that “we need to ensure that young people are equipped with social and market-related skills which will enable them to be well integrated young adults as well as being competitive at the national, subregional and global levels.” In regard to education, the emphasis must surpass basic literacy and extend beyond primary school education. This should include skill and knowledge-building and job training. Additionally, communities must establish active youth activities which focus on empowerment and peacebuilding. Activities should work to change youth attitudes towards people, ethnicities and religions to create a culture of peace and a conflict free environment. From an international perspective, donor countries and the humanitarian community must prioritize youth and aim to invest in these education, reconciliation and peacebuilding programmes. Greater pressure must also be put on the South Sudan government to prevent the recruitment of child soldiers into the army and to reintegrate existing child soldiers back into society.
South Sudan’s idle youth pose a huge risk factor for continued violence. But, with the right support and investment, these youths can play a pivotal role in establishing peace in South Sudan. Youth in this fragile country have the potential to play a key role in escalating the violence, but also the determination for driving positive change, as highlighted by the Sudan Arrow Boys, South Sudan Youth For Separation and AYAN. And so, it is imperative that youth become a central focus for addressing the conflict in South Sudan. The world cannot lose an entire generation to war.