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Strong constitution

Rotary Peace Fellow Susan Stigant puts political theory into practice

When Susan Stigant was growing up in the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia, she was far from the unrest in Quebec, on the other side of the country. But she paid close attention to that province’s independence referendum of 1995 and to the consequences of the “no” faction’s razor-thin margin of victory, when the Canadian government quickly set in motion reforms to assuage the separatists. 

“There was a way — through negotiation, through putting guarantees into the constitution — to ensure that the concerns that the Quebecois were feeling about their distinct culture and identity were addressed,” Stigant says. “There was a way to design institutions to respond to that need, rather than resort to violence or separation from Canada. That sparked my love affair with constitutionalism and the way people feel protected by, and proud of, what is in their constitution and the institutions that uphold it.” 

Stigant built on that interest at the University of British Columbia, where she majored in international relations and French, and as a Rotary Peace Fellow at Duke University and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she received a master’s degree in political science in 2005.

The same year, Sudan signed a peace agreement that granted autonomy to the southern part of the country, which led to the creation of the nation of South Sudan in 2011. Stigant witnessed the transition: After finishing her master’s degree, she went to southern Sudan and worked for the National Democratic Institute, an international nongovernmental organization, to support implementation of the peace agreement. 

South Sudan’s successful independence movement and subsequent descent into chaos has given Stigant a firsthand look at the limitations of political science’s theoretical framework. The theory said that setting up a government based on power sharing among factions was the right approach. The reality was that the new nation rapidly devolved into infighting and violence. What Stigant learned as a peace fellow prepared her to figure out what went wrong.

Since 2013, Stigant has worked at the United States Institute of Peace, a nonpartisan organization dedicated to promoting national and global security by reducing violent conflicts abroad; she oversees programming in Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Nigeria, South Sudan, and Tanzania. Throughout her career, she has focused on the conversations that must happen before treaties and constitutions are written, helping people understand what they want and need from any negotiation process. Stigant spoke with senior editor Hank Sartin about laying the foundations of lasting peace.

Illustration by Viktor Miller Gausa

Q: What does the United States Institute of Peace do, and what is your role as director of Africa programs?

A: The USIP was established by the U.S. Congress in 1984 with a mission to prevent and resolve violent conflicts around the world. To achieve that objective, we work with individuals, civic organizations, and governments. We share ideas about how to solve conflicts. In Africa, we focus primarily on two countries, South Sudan and Nigeria. 

Our approach combines working at a local community level and working from the top down. In Nigeria, on the top-down side we work with the state governors, because like in the United States, the state governors have a lot of constitutional authority, and many of them go on to become national leaders. Together, we try to understand why Boko Haram could thrive in Nigeria and to come up with policies to address that. 

At a grassroots level, we help Nigerian community leaders foster dialogue among communities. We give them tools to try to resolve conflicts that might arise when there are elections or when people try to return to normal life after crisis and violence.

Q: How do you start to work on building peace in a place like Nigeria, which is still struggling with Boko Haram, or in South Sudan, which was born out of a civil war and has since fallen back into internal strife?

A: You start by listening and by asking questions. We use a conflict analysis approach. We ask, what in the culture connects people? What divides people? What are the core issues that could cause conflict, that could spark into violence? What are the sources of resilience in communities? What helps people withstand shocks to the system? What role are other countries playing? We map out all of that. We try to understand the dynamics of local and regional power. Often it is easy to see the symptoms — fighting, mass movements of people — but it’s harder to see the underlying causes.

Q: You mention resilience in communities. What helps a community withstand a shock or perceived threat?

A: We worked with a partner organization in northern Nigeria that did interviews in communities that had been attacked or taken over by Boko Haram. There was a community that successfully repulsed Boko Haram. It was a religiously diverse community, but there had been significant intermarriage. The communications and the social connections jumped across the religious divisions. So when the threat came, they were able to communicate with each other quickly, to agree that Boko Haram was not welcome in their community. When people are connected across identities or languages or historical communities by things like clubs and organizations and social systems, that creates cohesion that allows a community to respond to a threat.   

Q: How did your time as a peace fellow shape the work you do?

The Rotary Peace Fellowships program trains highly qualified professionals to become agents of peace. To learn more, go to

A: I studied African affairs, constitutional design, and election systems design for inclusive societies. I focused on how you can structure elections to include minority groups, particularly following conflict. When drafting a constitution, how can you develop a process that makes people feel included and ensures that they buy into the peace? And how can you design a government in which people see themselves represented and have confidence that the government will deliver for them? 

For me, the highlights were the courses that all the Rotary fellows took together. One in particular was on negotiations, and I use ideas from that course on a daily basis. We learned to understand the difference between the positions people take and what they actually hope to achieve. We have to look beyond what people state as their position and understand why they would take that particular position. Understanding people’s motivations and priorities helps us get people to a common ground.

Q: What makes a constitution inclusive?

A: I’m not a lawyer, so I am more focused on how you agree on a constitution, rather than what the actual language is. How do you cultivate a national conversation about, for instance, what it means to be South Sudanese? The constitution is the contract between citizens and their government, outlining the roles, the responsibilities, and the rights of each. In drafting a constitution, it’s crucial to have a conversation about what it means to be a citizen, what the expectations are of the government.  

Q: You were focused on the situation in Sudan even before you were a peace fellow.

A: I started following the situation in Sudan when I was an undergraduate. We were asked to write a paper on a conflict that had ethnic components to it. I wrote about Sudan. By the time I was at Duke-UNC, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, which represented largely the people in the south, was negotiating a peace agreement with the government in Khartoum.

I went to Sudan right after I had finished the Rotary Peace Fellowship in 2005. I planned to spend three months there before returning to the United States. I stayed for six years. I was there at a time when all the parties in Sudan had just signed the agreement to end the civil war. I witnessed the referendum where 99 percent of South Sudanese voted for independence, the drafting of their interim constitution, the first elections, the actual building of that government. I was there on Independence Day in 2011. And now, seven years later, the country is in a state of crisis. It’s sobering. 

Q: There was great hope for the newest nation in the world, but since 2013 South Sudan has been embroiled in a civil war. What went wrong?  

A: Looking at the theory, should it have worked? In my work as a Rotary Peace Fellow, I was looking at power sharing theory and how it was being applied in Sudan to see what the theory got right and where it was lacking. I asked, is there representation of the different factions in the executive? The answer was yes. Is there representation in a proportional way in the legislature? The answer was yes. Is there a way for people who are in the minority to override decisions if they need to? The answer was yes. All of these things added up to say yes; they checked the theoretical boxes. 

However, in power sharing theory, there was no mention of security. With armed forces seeking to break away from the Khartoum government, Sudan essentially had two armies, and various factions within those armies. So any theory going forward would need to address that. There was no recognition of the deep divisions that had grown up and developed among communities. And there was no recognition of the deep trauma that is inevitably the result of years of violent conflict.

Everyone was very focused on using the referendum to determine whether they would be independent or not. Not enough attention was paid to the challenges of making the transition from being a liberation movement to being a government. I don’t think enough attention was paid to healing the conflicts within the south. All of those fault lines were still there, and so in 2013, when the move started toward elections, the political competition was intense. As soon as there was violence at the top political level, it spread very quickly into communities and ignited these old divisions. None of these problems have quick fixes. If it seems easy, then you probably got it wrong.

Q: What is USIP doing now to address the situation?

A: We’re working on two levels. First, we’re doing a high-level analysis to better understand what the conflicts are in the country and what they’re rooted in, so that policymakers in the United States, in Europe, and in the neighboring countries can develop a response. Second, we’re focused on supporting young peacebuilders who are working in their own communities to bridge the divides. 

Last year, USIP hosted two young South Sudanese men from two of the dominant ethnic groups, the Dinka and the Nuer, that have been fighting. These two young men spent four months working here at USIP. We arranged for them to live together. They were getting phone calls from home, saying, “You can’t live with that guy because his people killed your brother. He’s going to kill you. You have to tell Susan this. She has to get him his own place.”

But they became friends. It’s a symbol of what’s possible at a personal level, if people are given a little bit of space. Both of them are part of a program called Generation Change, in which we work with young leaders who have already established their own organizations. We’re giving them new skills in conflict management, communications, and prejudice awareness. We’re never going to reach every person in the country, but we hope that we can reach some of the people who are influential and who are touching tens, hundreds, thousands of people — who are slowly shifting the conversation in their communities.

We’re also working with groups that are using the arts and music to mobilize the South Sudanese toward peace. There’s this great initiative called the Anataban Campaign. In Juba Arabic, ana taban means “I’m tired.” They make street theater, graffiti, murals, sculpture, and poetry, and they post images, video, and messages on social media using the hashtag #anataban: I’m tired of war, I’m tired of hunger, I’m tired of suffering. They’re trying to mobilize people across the country to demand peace. It’s a way they can express this demand that’s safer and more accessible.   

Q: What else have you learned from studying South Sudan’s descent from independence to civil war?

A: It’s not just a conflict among political leaders. It’s been complicated by the interest of the neighboring countries. In the Horn of Africa, the Nile River is strategic, and access and rights to the Nile are a critical political issue; this has complicated the way forward for South Sudan. Neighboring nations, Sudan and Uganda in particular, also have very strong business interests in South Sudan. There are tangible incentives for people to fight.   

Q: What role do organizations such as Rotary have in the peace process?

A: This is a particularly important moment for organizations like Rotary International. When I was living in South Sudan, a Rotary club was established, with a cross-section of people, both international and South Sudanese. [There are now three clubs there — eds.] They were providing the traditional type of organizing that Rotary does, bringing people together for service. You can’t underestimate the value of that. 

On a global scale, it’s hard to move forward at the moment in the traditional multilateral institutions such as the United Nations. Rotary is well-positioned to advance the conversations around conflict and peace. Rotary is investing in peace through the peace fellowship program and through the partnerships around the world. I hope Rotary will continue to double down on those efforts and do what it does best — connecting people. 

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