An island of peaceful coexistence along a river of turbulence

Two Sudanese fisherman set out on the River Kiir, the border between Darfur and the region of Bahr el Ghazal in northwestern South Sudan, in a USAID-provided canoe to bring fish and much-needed goods back to their communities. Photo by: AECOM

The River Kiir forms part of the border between Darfur and the region of Bahr el Ghazal in northwestern South Sudan. The river flows through an area that has been marked by conflict for generations.

Sylvester Abraham Madut grew up in Northern Bahr el Ghazal State. Even as a child in the 1940s, Sylvester recalls violence over access to land and water between pastoralists, farmers and fishermen.

Hostilities between communities with distinct cultural, ethnic and religious identities have been further exacerbated by the second Sudanese civil war (1983-2005) and the ongoing tensions between the government of South Sudan and opposition forces.

In 1991, the Joint Border Peace Committee was created to reduce tension and improve collaboration between communities along the border areas of Bahr el Ghazal. The committee brought together different ethnic groups to oversee cattle migration and cross-border trade while mediating peaceful resolution of conflicts.

After receiving his degree in Khartoum, Sylvester taught in various schools in Greater Bahr el Ghazal, Darfur and Equatorial provinces of Sudan, eventually becoming the director general in the Ministry of Education of Northern Bahr el Ghazal. In 2008, Sylvester became co-chair of the Joint Border Peace Committee.

When South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in 2011 the border closed causing economic activity and cross-border trade to dramatically decline. This closure was also catastrophic to the pastoralists whose animals relied on migration along the river for survival.  Cattle raiding increased thereby fueling a cycle of violence.

In 2012, USAID’s conflict mitigation program in South Sudan identified the Joint Border Peace Committee, led by Sylvester, as an important catalyst for peace in this restive region.

With logistical support from USAID, the committee conducted migration conferences to mark the start and end of the dry season when thousands of herds of cattle cross the River Kiir into Northern Bahr el Ghazal in search of water and pastures. The migration conferences bring together traditional leaders and community members to discuss, agree upon and adopt resolutions on cattle migration routes and the protocols for handling disputes and taxation.  

The resolutions from these conferences are then disseminated to the population centers along the border through local community meetings and radio programming. This process marked the revival of the cross-border cattle migration and the re-opening of the border markets.

Sylvester Abraham Madut believes USAID support was key to empowering his committee to serve as a catalyst for peace around the River Kiir. Stronger ties between communities motivate residents to resolve issues jointly and peacefully.

Despite the ongoing conflict between the government of South Sudan and opposition forces, Northern Bahr el Ghazal remains an example of conflict resolution and coexistence among diverse cultural, ethnic and religious identities surrounding the border communities.

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About the author

  • Evan Papp

    Evan Matthew Papp manages public affairs and engagement for USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives in the Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance. Evan works with field teams in countries experiencing crisis, conflict and political transitions to capture stories that resonate with policymakers in Washington. His favorite medium for storytelling is video narratives. Before joining USAID, he spent five years with the Peace Corps working in Zambia, Jamaica and Washington, D.C.

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