Rajab Mohandis, alumnus of the Global Development Institute
Civil society organisations (CSOs) play a constructive role in public affairs in South Sudan. They contribute to the search for peace and stability, public policy formulation and implementation, protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms, information dissemination and delivery of life-saving humanitarian assistance to needy populations in the country. Besides this massive public presence however, the concept of civil society appears to be confusing in the public domain. This article attempts to provide some level of clarity on the identity of CSOs, focusing on South Sudan.
What is civil society?
In South Sudan, the Non-governmental Organisations Act of 2016 recognises and defines civil society as a non-governmental and a non-profit organisation that has presence in public life, expressing the interests and values of their members or others, based on ethical, cultural, scientific, religious or philanthropic considerations.
The African Union Commission for Human and People’s Rights defines civil society as formal and informal associations independent of the state through which citizens may pursue common purposes, participate in the political, social and cultural life of their societies, and be involved in all matters pertaining to public policy and public affairs.
These definitions provide two characteristic elements of civil society. First, they provide the nature of civil society as being formal and informal, independent from the state, non-profit distributing and an arena of voluntary public action. Second, the definitions suggest the work of civil society as being among others, the pursuit of common purpose, promotion of participation of citizens in public affairs and facilitation of change, democracy and good development.
Civil society and politics
A common question on civil society is about their role in politics. Direct participation of civil society delegates in the South Sudanese peace process, the High-Level Revitalisation Forum in 2017/18 prompted questions on the possibility of civil society assuming constitutional or political positions in government institutions. Available literature on CSOs provides sufficient clarity on the limits of civil society engagement in politics and political processes.
In simple terms, politics is about the entire society. In ‘Political Analysis & Public Policy: An Introduction to Political Science,’ Mitchell J. and Michelle W. observe that politics is the process of collective making of public policies for an entire society. Such public decision making takes place in political processes including elections, public budget development, constitution making, peace negotiations, peace implementation and development of legislation. It involves participation of individuals or organised groups of citizens including political parties and civil society.
The contemporary definitions above, in the NGOs Act of South Sudan and the African Union Commission provide for participation of civil society in public life, better known as politics.
The big questions are: would CSOs assume political positions and where does the dividing line lie between civil society and political parties? Available literature on CSOs authoritatively provides responses to these questions. For example, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe clarifies that CSOs form the fabric of society by linking the individuals, the market and political institutions and they participate in these sectors in the interest of their members without seeking financial gain or political office. It therefore goes without say that politics and political processes are open to CSOs with their role largely focusing on influencing the processes to accommodate, reflect and respond to broader interests of society.
In a situation like South Sudan, the need for civil society engagement in peace and political processes for successful transition to a stable democracy is even more relevant. John Keane further asserts that a robust civil society can start transitions, help block reversals, generate political alternatives and keep post-authoritarian governments and states on their toes.
The Revitalised Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan provides room for participation of CSOs in transitional institutions and mechanisms meant to monitor peace implementation and support institutional and systemic reforms and transformation. These mechanisms are separate and different from political institutions like parliament and executive arms of government that run the country. Ardian Kastrati affirms that through such participation, CSOs give voice to groups of citizens that don’t feel represented in democratic processes. In South Sudan, these groups of citizens include the victims of the conflict in their various categories and the broader civil population.
While the preceding arguments indicate that the relationship between CSOs and public authorities can be meaningfully collaborative, it is not always the case in practice.
Activism of the CSOs, their pursuit of accountability of public officials for misappropriation of public resources, human rights violations and ineffective implementation of public policies create tensions between the CSOs and public officials. Increasingly, public officials perceive CSOs as being an extension and sympathisers of opposition groups and forerunners of foreign agenda. For example, in May 2018 when members of the Women’s Coalition participating in the HLRF in Addis Ababa released a statement saying women suffered sexual abuses including rape during the civil war in the country, they faced stark criticism from South Sudan’s National Security Service (NSS) officials. They accused the Coalition of tarnishing the image of South Sudanese women and the country.
Similarly, CSOs faced criticisms from Opposition political entities while participating in the HLRF. For example members of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army – In Opposition (SPLM/A-IO) accused CSOs of toeing lines of the Incumbent Transitional Government of National Unity (I-TGoNU) for accepting to sign what was then the first complete version of the R-ARCSS without consideration for reservations raised by SPLM/A-IO and the South Sudan Opposition Alliance.
In public events organised by civil society in Juba, participants raise questions on the difference between CSOs and Opposition groups and more so on the agenda these two sectors intend to achieve. Meanwhile during the HLRF, several members of the Opposition groups said CSOs based in Juba were not completely independent but affiliates and sympathisers of the I-TGoNU. They even asserted that those who were not arrested and detained by NSS were likely to be collaborators of the I-TGoNU.
These doubts, misconceptions and accusations tend to resonate with the assertion of Jérôme Tubiana that each party tends to believe the most legitimate civil-society representatives are those that think just as it does. While independent CSOs may share the same agenda with political entities, it is only true if such an agenda reflects broader aspirations of society but not narrow party interests.
Responding to this question of antagonism between CSOs and established political entities, Ardian Kastrati recommends that civil society should not be defined negatively as opposition, but positively, in the context of the ideas and practices through which cooperation and trust are established in social life.
What ideas? All along, independent CSOs have been consistent in their demands for a better South Sudan. For example, at the eve of the independence of South Sudan, the Civil Society Referendum Taskforce in 2011 called for:
- Zero tolerance for violence as a political means and to ensure that elected governments are upheld
- Zero tolerance to tribalism, nepotism and corruption
- Protection for the freedom of expression and association and peaceful assembly
- Transparency, accountability and inclusivity in the expenditure of public funds and
- Protection of the rights of women and girls. Cooperation between CSOs and public institutions on these ideas alone would have helped to main peace and stability in South Sudan. However, South Sudan went to its lowest depths since 2013 when violent politics gave way for destruction of the country.
The other side of civil society
The persistent belief that CSOs may be compromised in their core values and principles of independence, impartiality and pursuit of common societal interests does not necessarily come out of the blue. According to Jérôme Tubiana, Darfurian civil society in Western Sudan proved to be politicised and ethnically divided and that South Sudanese civil society had shown similar tendencies.
Tubiana further pointed out that civil society groups accused South Sudan’s government of spoiling peace symposium in 2014 by having brought its own “civil society” and the opposition backed the claims and wanted its own “civil society” to be represented. Those political actors in government and opposition, who had their civil society, are still actively engaging in the politics of South Sudan. They knew very well, the CSOs they probably camouflaged into the peace process. And, when they and others claim that CSOs are compromised, they may be right and more so, speaking out of experience.
Answers are not in short supply to the question of “who we are” as CSOs. CSOs are partners for peace, development and societal progress. They bring to public agenda ideas that promote common public interests. They are heroes of liberatory change and catalysts that facilitate democratic transitions and good development. It is also true that some CSOs compromise core values and principles of the sector. Nevertheless, healthy collaboration and partnership between state and independent CSOs present an opportunity for societal progress.
Mr. Rajab Mohandis is Executive Director the Organisation for Responsive Governance and an active Member of the South Sudan Civil Society Forum. He was a representative of the Civil Society in the South Sudanese Peace Talks in Addis Ababa and in 2017/18. Mr. Mohandis may be reached on: firstname.lastname@example.org