Active Citizens, Africa, Civil Society, Human Rights, TerraViva Europe | Columnist Service

Vibrant Civil Society, A Must For South Sudan

In this column, Danny Sriskandarajah, Secretary-General of CIVICUS, the global alliance for citizen participation, argues that without a vibrant local civil society, long-term peace and stability in South Sudan is unlikely.

JOHANNESBURG, May 21 2014 (IPS) - I had the privilege of visiting South Sudan a few months after the world’s youngest state had been born in July 2011.  Then, most people were wondering what the future held for the country.  The road has not been easy so far.

Months of fighting between the government and rebels have just ended, leaving behind thousands dead and over a million people displaced.  A peace accord that has been signed has brought some positive outlook for prospects of peace in the country.

However, without a vibrant local civil society, long-term peace and stability in South Sudan is unlikely.  Civil society in the country is weak, partly a consequence of decades of conflict, extreme poverty, low standards of education and emigration. The few stable and sizeable civil society organisations that exist in the country today are generally supported by foreign donors, and even they have struggled to make much of an impact so far.

In South Sudan, like in many other countries, most political energy is focused on the state. The government apparatus dominates policy development and resource allocation, so those that seek influence seek to control the state. This raises the stakes of being in power, with those outside the state having little influence.

Sadly, South Sudan has suffered – in extremis – from an affliction that has plagued many other countries, especially in Africa. This is the unwillingness of leaders, especially those who have liberated their countries from conflict or colonialism, to permit the expression of dissent.

Danny Sriskandarajah

Danny Sriskandarajah

Governments across Africa are clamping down on dissent, hiding their secrets and attacking the funding base of their critics. And it seems that those who fought hardest for freedom are now those least convinced by the virtue of freedom of expression, association and assembly.

The situation in many African countries is particularly acute, especially where political movements that once fought for freedom and prosperity and have now assumed power are undermining both aims by trying to clampdown on civil society.

What they ignore at their peril is that, while solidarity and unity are crucial during liberation struggles, debate and dissent are vital to democracy and economic prosperity in the wake of liberation.

Two post-liberation African countries provide examples of the fork in the road the government of South Sudan faces. It can go the way of South Africa, where debate and dissent is alive – tensions and niggles notwithstanding – or it can go the way of Zimbabwe, where dissent is demonised and civic space is constantly under threat.

We saw an example of this in South Sudan in 2013, when the government presented the ‘Voluntary and Non-Governmental Humanitarian Organizations Bill’which would have sought to limit the activities of civil society organisations in key areas such as tackling corruption, promoting good governance and advocating against human rights violations.

Rather than seeing civil society as a threat, the South Sudanese government should see it as a fundamental building block of a stable democracy that needs to be nurtured, not over-regulated. Any healthy state needs to be buttressed by a robust and active civil society. Civil society organisations are needed to vent grievances, promote dialogue and even carry out service delivery. Civil society then becomes an effective arena, outside party politics, for policy debate to take place and for leaders to be held accountable.

While securing a lasting peace is an immediate priority in South Sudan, a longer-term challenge will be to create an enabling environment for civil society to flourish. This will require paying attention to the legal and regulatory environment for civil society to make sure it is not overly-restrictive. And it will also require developing the skills and expertise of local civil society leaders.

The investment of resources into civil society is a further need. When I visited the country in 2009, I found it tragic that a civil society resource centre that had been funded by aid agencies in the euphoria leading up to independence was already struggling to meet its operational costs. The anticipated income from local civil society using the facilities had not materialised.

There are countless political and economic challenges facing the world’s newest country. Obvious attention needs to be paid to those immediate priorities that will make the South Sudan safer, help end poverty and promote stability. However, investing in a vibrant civil society will be a critical means to helping all of those ends – and indeed an end in itself. Let us hope that South Sudan can lead the way in nurturing positive conditions for civic life to flourish. (END/COPYRIGHT IPS)

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