It’s not the kind of research to sit on a shelf to gather dust: instead, Sam Angulo Onapa has high hopes his newly completed PhD thesis can help end the longstanding, violent conflict in South Sudan, and assist in other conflict situations.

Originally from Uganda, where he witnessed armed conflict and a refugee crisis, Sam has spent the last three years at UNE investigating the root causes of South Sudan’s ongoing conflict – among the world’s worst humanitarian crises.  

The conflict has flared up intermittently since 1983, when the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) launched its struggle for freedom against the Government of Sudan.

“One of my key findings was that trust broken between the disputing SPLM leaders was not addressed in a rushed peace agreement signed in August 2015, which then fell through in July 2016,” Sam says.

“A new agreement was signed in September 2018 and is being implemented now, but most people I interviewed for my research, who know the parties, have said it’s impossible for the parties to successfully work together.

“There needs to be a process of dealing with the estrangement in the political relationship, and that process requires trust building. Trust building is the key missing link.”

Sam hopes he’ll be able to get the attention of the political parties involved in the country’s peace agreement with his findings and recommendations, to create a more robust peace-building process.

“What my thesis is recommending is that the trust-building process should be instituted. It is very critical.

“This can only work with the ownership of the parties. You cannot just introduce it to them and say, this is what you ought to do. They need to understand where they aggrieved each other and address the issues.

“It’s also important the parties are not depending on themselves to maintain these relationships, but there should be institutional mechanisms that will regulate the actions and behaviours of the parties and hold them to account.

“These recommendations should get the attention of the mediators and sponsors of South Sudan’s peace agreement. They should put their heads together and look at how this can be brought to the parties as part of the policy framework, where it will then get to implementation level.

Rather than simply delivering his findings and hope they will be employed by the agreement’s mediators, Sam hopes to be part of the change. 

“I would like to position myself to be able to contribute to these findings. For example, I know the African Union, where I was working before I started my study, is one of the major stakeholders in the mediation process. The United Nations is another one, so my desire is to get into one of the systems – it’s easier to work from inside than from outside, to be able to inform policies that would help in implementing these findings.”

While Sam sees his work is only just beginning, finishing a challenging thesis in three years is certainly a milestone.

To top it off, the high standard of Sam’s research has been acknowledged with the awarding of a Chancellor’s Doctoral Research Medal.   

“I had heard about the Chancellor’s Doctoral Research Medal, but not in my wildest dreams did I think I would receive it!” he says.

“I knew I worked hard, and I was expecting good results. But I wasn’t expecting the Chancellor’s Medal, so when I got it I was very, very excited and truly honoured.”

Sam believes the networks and skills he’s developed through his PhD studies at UNE will help with his future endeavours.

“I’ve built lots of great, great relationships – from my supervisors and colleagues to staff members, both academic and administrative – which I believe I will maintain over time.

“And I’ve learnt lots of things; for example, now I am better at planning. To complete my research in just a little over three years required a lot of planning.

“My academic writing and presentation skills have developed a lot. And my approach to issues has changed too. Outside of academia, everything is a little bit linear, but in academia, you look at things from different perspectives; you probe issues and you always look for other opinions on issues, so that has widened my understanding and perspective on things.”

Sam is the fourth UNE Peace Studies student to be awarded a Chancellor’s Doctoral Research Medal since it was introduced in 2015.