How far can communications fuel the war for peace?

By Charles Okwir

Pic for Peacebuilding Comms Article
Photo credit: @UNMISS

London – 18 Aug 2016: In 1994, the Rwanda genocide, in a most grisly fashion, demonstrated how the invisible power of communication can be used to shatter peace in polarised societies.  What is not clear, however, is whether communication can be leveraged to fuel the war for peace after it has been shattered.  In this article, I reflect on the mechanics of doing peacebuilding communications in war-torn South Sudan and ask: how far can communications fuel the war for peace in highly polarised settings?

In 2013, UNDP South Sudan was doing something called ‘edutainment’ – a concept which integrated entertainment into peacebuilding communication.  Basically, a mobile theatre truck carrying South Sudanese drama-actors travelled to public markets and trading centres around the country and staged drama shows that highlighted the benefits of peaceful co-existence.  Big crowds turned up for the fun, and in the process, they also absorbed the peace messages subconsciously.

However, the biggest limitation of this physical communications approach was that quite often, powerful peace messages remained confined to the geographical boundaries of small local markets and surrounding villages.  Breaking that geographical barrier was therefore critical, and that made the media an indispensable ally in efforts to amplify peace messages and reach the hundreds of thousands, if not millions who listen to radio, read newspapers, or get news online.

One example demonstrates this very well: following an edutainment performance, a team of peace advocates were chosen to participate in a radio talk show on the dangers of civilian gun ownership.  A day after the radio show, five men walked into a rural police post and handed over their guns voluntarily.  For the communications team, this was like candy to a toddler from Father Christmas, and they sang about this modest success to high heavens – all to inspire others to follow suit.

The new war for peace

In December 2013, South Sudan was plunged into a bloody conflict which opened up huge socio-political fault-lines.  In no time, the country was sharply polarised along ethnic and tribal lines, with each group baying for the other’s blood!  Thousands died in the process.  Everyone seemed to agree that something needed to be done, and indeed, on 5th April 2014, the UNDP-supported National Platform for Peace and Reconciliation (NPPR) was launched in the capital Juba.

In such a time of high socio-political polarisation, the NPPR needed to be seen to be totally impartial and independent of the competing political interests that sparked the war.  Therefore, all pre and post launch communications had to project the NPPR as an impartial and independent peacebuilding initiative that is concerned with nothing but the return of peace for ordinary South Sudanese to enjoy.  And for good measure, senior religious leaders were mobilised to be the public faces of the NPPR.

As the English say, however, “the proof of the pudding is in the eating” – and the public’s perception of the NPPR was the pudding in this case.  It was also obvious that the public’s perception of the NPPR could only be shaped by how it communicates about its peacebuilding activities, and especially activities that are actually happening – not empty calls for peace.

As a result, a lot of emphasis was laid on telling the story of ordinary South Sudanese who bore the brunt of the war and were actually taking the ‘new war for peace’ in their own hands.  For this, and perhaps with a degree of justifiable desperation for peace, even the smallest workshops at which ordinary South Sudanese resolved to embark on implementing peacebuilding initiatives in their respective home areas became newsworthy stories for the NPPR’s communications team to amplify.

Building a critical mass for peace

It was also the NPPR’s declared intention to build what one official called “a critical mass” of peace advocates whose collective voice would be too powerful for the warring parties to ignore.  And of course, by sheer necessity, this meant that daily media monitoring would be an integral part of the communications strategy – primarily to enable the NPPR to identify like-minded people whose peacebuilding initiatives could be brought under the auspices of NPPR.  It worked.

In no time, the communications team picked on a news report about a group of Christian leaders who had taken it upon themselves to do community level peacebuilding work.  This was interesting news for three reasons: First, the fact that the NPPR learnt about and picked interest in the Christian leaders’ peacebuilding work through a news story validated the communication team’s decision to shout loudest and amplify peacebuilding activities that were actually taking place.

Secondly, the Christian Pastors were the sort of religious leaders that the NPPR was desperate to put at the forefront of its peacebuilding work.  And finally, the Pastors had the potential to use their moral authority and access to large congregations in the evangelical movement to build the critical mass of vocal peacebuilding advocates that the NPPR was looking for.

Indeed, one of the NPPR’s ‘big’ breakthroughs was spearheaded by what became known as the Pastors Peace Initiative (PPI).  After weeks of negotiations, the PPI successfully convinced women (from the Nuer tribe) who had sought refuge in a UN compound in Bor – Jonglei state to meet women (from the Dinka tribe) who remained in Bor town.  Soon thereafter, the women came up with an action plan to help foster peaceful co-existence between the two rival tribes.

To make the most out of the Pastors Peace Initiative in Bor, a decision had been taken to embed a member of the communications team with the PPI team in Bor.  Once again, it paid off.  Daily updates started coming in until it became clear that the women had finally agreed to meet at a public event outside the UN compound at which they would present their peacebuilding action plan.

While we are on the subject of action plans, it may be worth reminding ourselves that all actions that we take as human beings are premised upon a legitimate expectation of some form of benefit – either for us as individuals, for our loved ones, or for the good of society.  The challenge for the NPPR communication team was therefore to demonstrate and amplify the benefits of peace in order to motivate other South Sudanese to take action to help foster peaceful co-existence.

And in the case of the Pastors Peace Initiative in Bor, the NPPR communications team did everything in their power to show the rest of the country that for the very first time in nearly a year, women who had been confined in an overcrowded UN camp were able to come out and peacefully enjoy the freedom of the open world outside the UN Protection of Civilians camp.

It was a small benefit – of course! But in such a situation of deep social polarisation among a hopeless and war fatigued population, a small peacebuilding event like this was as big as it gets – and the NPPR communications team, bursting with a war correspondent’s adrenaline, swung into action and mobilized journalists to cover and amplify the PPI’s success beyond the reality of its impact.  That, one might say, is precisely what the “psychology of peacebuilding communications” is premised upon.

Does it always work? Well, the honest answer has to be “yes, sometimes, but not always” – because on 8th July 2016, just two years after the launch of the NPPR’s peacebuilding initiatives, South Sudan’s fragile peace was shattered again by four days of vicious fighting in the capital Juba.  In fact, not only was the fragile peace shattered, any opportunity to make assumptions about how far peacebuilding communications helped the war for peace in South Sudan was also shattered.

The only thing we can attribute to NPPR’s peacebuilding communications is that an independent survey found that it had become the second most recognised peacebuilding institution in South Sudan – not an insignificant achievement for a loose organisation that had just celebrated its first birthday!

The author is a Senior Consultant at Afro-Insights Communications. Twitter: @COkwir