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Civil Society, Democratisation, and the Closing of Civic space - Experiences from South Sudan

Since the outbreak of the South Sudan conflict in 2013, conditions for freedom of expression and knowledge production have further worsened. Journalists, civil society actors, and knowledge producers are threatened and attacked for reporting and sharing their experiences of the conflict. The pursuit of democracy, peace, security, and the rule of law is under attack in South Sudan. The government views civil society activities as intrusive and takes extreme measures to suppress them.

Public gatherings critical of the government trigger heavy-handed security responses. In 2015, civil society activists in Western Bahr El Ghazal state were arrested for petitioning the state government to check and control the behavior of security personnel.  As a result of such incidents, most civil society activists have resorted to self-censorship. They deliberately do not speak out on certain issues for the sake of their longevity and survival as in-country activists.

By 2016, the government had passed three pieces of legislation: the NGO Act 2016; the Relief and Rehabilitation Commission Act, 2016; and the National Security Services Act, 2014. These laws set stringent legal conditions for NGO registration, and a level of government oversight and censorship that is onerous to civic engagement.

Unlike civil society crackdowns in countries like Kenya and Uganda, South Sudan’s is more violent. Civil society actors often receive anonymous death threats. National security agents have been deployed in most public spaces including hotels and workshop venues and service providers reject any activities that have not been authorised by national security. National security agents physically participate in civil society workshops and meetings to control what people discuss.

The rhetoric of the August 2015 peace agreement, as a settlement between two distinct warring parties, bolstered the government’s actions to assert force. Security forces' "government/rebel" dichotomy helps justify systematic looting and violence against civilians. Civilians on neither side of the conflict have, as a result, been wrongfully accused and harassed by the warring parties. An NGO worker elaborated that, “In the scramble for the pieces of the pie of the peace deal – the government seems to be targeting anyone who is against its interests.” The “with us or against us” attitude has expanded beyond targeting organised activism to the repression of civilians.

While the context is improving vis-à-vis the High-Level Revitalisation Forum and consequent Revitalised Agreement on the Resolution of South Sudan (R-ARCSS), the scope of the crackdown is still complex and difficult to establish.

Where prospects are limited for civil society actors, exit becomes the main option to evade repression. In South Sudan, the conflict coupled with increased state repression has not only forced many civil society actors to leave but also ordinary women and children to flee their homes. Some organisations that couldn’t align their programs with the new stringent NGO law have also been forced to close. Moreover, activists that have chosen to stay within the country have been harassed.

Despite all the above constraints, civil society in South Sudan has managed to resist and adapt to continue influencing peace. Yet the ways they resist and adapt are not documented.

Civil society groups have resorted to forming issue-based coalitions. The Citizens for Peace and Justice (CPJ) coalition was formed in 2014 to explore the causes of the conflict and coordinate civil society involvement in the IGAD led peace process.

Following increased government repression and delegitimising the CPJ and its members, the South Sudan Civil Society Forum (SSCSF) formed in 2017 to re-inaugurate civil society’s role in the peace agreement process. The SSCSF has since played an instrumental role in coordinating civil society activities and advocacy towards the peace process.

Civil society groups have also resorted to the use of different kinds of media such as plays, art, and drama that allow for the use of metaphor. The “Ana Taban” (I am tired) campaign is a platform for young South Sudanese to discuss and contribute ideas and solutions to the conflict. The campaign uses various art forms such as street theatre, graffiti, sculpture, song, and poetry to speak about issues of peace, security and rule of law. Such approaches are considered less aggressive as compared to more conventional NGO approaches.

While it may be difficult to determine the impact of these forms of resistance, they seem to have proven more sustainable in a militarised context of censorship and repression. Moreover, aggressive approaches such as protests to reclaim civic space may only end in violence as the government pushes back more forcefully.

More attention needs to be paid to these smaller forms of resistance. Documenting these realities highlights how resistance and potentially change can be achieved incrementally, when civic actors respond to the realities of how state systems actually function rather than westernised notions of how they should function.

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