In a new country struggling for stability and still trying to craft a national identity, research conducted recently for USIP shows that the youth of South Sudan could emerge as an influential force in nation-building and peacebuilding. A new USIP radio drama will help to empower youth in this process.

Radio’s Power for Peace Among South Sudan’s Youth
Photo Credit: UN Photo/Isaac Billy

Such youth participation would come at a critical juncture. As Secretary of State John Kerry commented, “The world is watching to see if South Sudan pursues the path of peace and prosperity, or the tragic path of violence and conflict that has characterized much of its past.” His remarks were made in response to President Salva Kiir’s sudden decision to dismiss his vice president and entire Cabinet on July 23. The president nominated new Cabinet members last week, returning several previous members and leaving some positions yet to be filled, including vice president.

Amid the political struggle, violence has gripped South Sudan’s Jonglei State, where ethnic and tribal clashes that have left an estimated 100,000 displaced people without food, water or medicine. With the government of South Sudan in transition and the international community unable to provide enough assistance in Jonglei, other sources of conflict resolution are required.

Since approximately 72 percent of the population is under age 30, youth are obvious agents of change, and many are willing and ready to help, according to research commissioned by USIP and conducted by Integrity Research and Consultancy, a UK-based firm with a strong local presence in South Sudan.

Most of the young people involved in the study said they feel tribal differences in South Sudan are a threat to the prosperity of the nation. In fact, many feel it is their role to raise the awareness of their parents and elders about the benefits of promoting nationalism as opposed to maintaining tribal or ethnic divides. Most of these young voices have been marginalized following years of conflict that caused elders to see them as adversaries. Now the youth are seeking an outlet for their views and goals.

To help provide a constructive outlet and empower youth in South Sudan as next generation peacebuilders, USIP is working with local radio production partners to develop a youth-focused radio drama. Radio is a powerful medium in South Sudan, where an estimated 86 percent of the population listens to radio daily, according to research commissioned by USAID. That’s a wider audience than both television and newspaper combined.  

The radio program will target urban audiences around South Sudan and seek to educate, as well as entertain, by building a peacebuilding curriculum into the drama. The curriculum, developed with local partners, will be designed to help shape constructive attitudes and behaviors of young listeners in three thematic areas: respect for diversity and national identity, empowerment and personal responsibility, and gender equality.

One goal of the radio drama is to provide the building blocks for strengthening national identity by encouraging peaceful co-existence and mutual respect among a wide range of youth. Although it is a delicate balance to develop characters that support national unity while still respecting cultural diversity, the radio program’s curriculum is designed to achieve this balance by increasing knowledge, and molding attitudes of the audience regarding the acceptance of differences, as well as the shared histories and common goals of many youth.

Integrity Research conducted focus groups in June of 2013 in Juba with youth from different ethnic and geographic backgrounds, and the results offer some insight into the opportunities and challenges of reaching a youth audience on the issue of national vs. tribal identity:

  • Many of the young respondents said immediately that tribalism is a negative influence and that they should feel more allegiance to South Sudan, but follow-up questions indicated they didn’t have a clear understanding of what constitutes tribalism or nationalism, so their immediate response seemed conditioned rather than a conclusion that was truly embraced.
  • Despite the immediate support for a national identity, many youth spoke about the positive aspects to tribal culture. Some shared that people of the same tribe enjoy a comradery that is important, given the instability of their daily lives.
  • Most respondents felt that national unity would facilitate the end of conflict, cattle raiding, nepotism in employment, and unequal distribution of resources.
  • Some of the youth mentioned that tribal culture is more celebrated by elders but that young people also segregate themselves along tribal lines in gathering places.
  • Many of those questioned expressed a desire for an end to tribal divisions and mentioned ways to promote national identity through education, playing sports, holding dialogues, and raising awareness of the negative consequences of tribalism. Most mentioned education as a key to ending tribal conflict.
  • Some responded that greater understanding of a common language and more inter-tribal marriage and employment would be useful steps toward to strengthening national identity.

USIP and its production partners will use these research findings to help in developing entertaining storylines that appeal to a variety of South Sudanese youth. One potential storyline would follow a dynamic young South Sudanese girl who helps support her family by selling traditional tribal crafts. She meets a person from a different tribe and they discover that they could make a great deal more money by working together; they just have to overcome their ethnic differences.

A storyline like this will show how youth can use their creativity to explore business opportunities while also encouraging respect for diversity. The aim is to take a small step in empowering youth to address some of the drivers of conflict that have left the new nation on shaky ground.

Theo Dolan is a senior program officer and Christine Mosher is a senior program assistant, both in USIP’s Center of Innovation in Media, Conflict and Peacebuilding.

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