Political tension between the mostly Muslim and culturally Arabic Northern Sudan and the mostly Christian and culturally Sub-Saharan Southern Sudan led to acts of insurgency that produced the First Sudanese Civil War. The war broke in 1955 while Britain implemented a decolonization strategy that centralized power in northern Sudan and threatened the South’s autonomy. Conflict assailed the region until 1972, when the Addis Ababa Agreement gave southerners rights to a single administrative region. In 1983, contention over who would control the lucrative oil fields that lie between the north and south escalated into the Second Sudanese Civil War. The second war raged until 2005, and resulted in the death of two million people from violence and famine, the displacement of four million people, and widespread human rights violations that went largely unchecked. In 2000, the Egypt-Libya Initiative was in the midst of attempting to broker peace talks, and failing. This same year, in the context of this bleak political climate, Edmund Yakani, then an internally displaced person (IDP) who was “facing huge violations of our human rights” at the hands of the Sudanese authorities, co-founded the Community Empowerment for Progress Organization (CEPO), established to provide legal aid services and facilitate peace dialogues.
Telling the story of CEPO’s founding, Yakani recounts that the process began when he found the UN guidelines for the protection of the rights of internally displaced people, a document authored by Frances Deng, a South Sudanese who became South Sudan’s first ambassador to the UN in 2012. Yakani decided to distribute the guidelines in IDP camps throughout the region, and this work ultimately led to the formation of CEPO, which according to Yakani is engaged in “questioning the various government institutions on their duty and responsibility on safeguarding human rights in South Sudan per national and international standards and instruments.”
Within the current context of an active conflict and ongoing famine, the region’s chronic insecurity and political instability have presented serious challenges, said Yakani. Members of his organization have been arrested on baseless accusations that they are foreign agents trying to topple the government. Their attempts to work for social change have been met with stiff resistance by traditionalists, particularly in cases involving the empowerment of women in a patriarchal society. This resistance has even bled into Yakani’s life at a personal level, as he has been a victim of death threats and torture from opponents of his vision.
But CEPO’s hard work has resulted in some admirable achievements against desperate odds. They have negotiated the release of detained journalists and human rights activists. They have created and maintained an encrypted database providing evidence of atrocities, in anticipation that justice will one day be served. They have lobbied the legislature for changes in the laws regarding public funds, human rights and the rule of law. And they have lobbied for an inclusive peace mediation process.
Furthermore, Yakani’s efforts have not gone unrecognized. In 2017 the Stockholm-based NGO Human Rights Defenders named him Human Rights Defender of the Year.
A leader, Yakani writes, knows how to listen to people and amplify their voices; and how to take personal responsibility for improving one’s own society. He is not averse to risk, if it is taken “smartly,” within existing democratic frameworks. “I still continue my work because I feel it is an obligation as a citizen… I want to volunteer as a role model to make sure that perpetrators of human rights crimes never go free.”
As the conflict deepens in South Sudan and the numbers of displaced persons increases exponentially, with an estimate well over 3.5 million people, the country’s future is fragile at best. In the face of this continued instability, Yakani perseveres through personal and professional risk to strengthen CEPO as an organization both responsive to the needs of IDPs and taking a role in global advocacy for a stable South Sudan. He seems more challenges than opportunities, but he still see hope: “I see a very long way to the future that I can describe as a state that is democratic and observes human rights. It’s a long way.”
Learn more: www.cepo-southsudan.org