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South Sudan needs citizens’ participation in politics

By Biong Deng Biong

On the 4th December 2012, Isaiah Abraham was tragically gunned down in cold blood outside his residence in the South Sudan capital, Juba. The gunman was apparently ‘unknown’. Many quickly concluded that Abraham’s tragic murder was connected to his habit of openly expressing anti-government opinions.

This incident and many to follow gave birth to what becomes the new normal in South Sudan. The ‘Unknown Gunman’ struck again, on multiple occasions, killing only citizens actively engaged in politics. Recently I wrote a piece equating President Kiir to Nelson Mandela. The reaction I received prompted me to think a lot about citizen-participation in South Sudanese politics. I expected the article to be controversial, aware that I was discussing a sensitive subject, but I was surprised by the reaction to it.

While I received overwhelming support through my messenger and emails, my public posts on Facebook did not receive anywhere near the same attention. This raised questions for me around our people’s willingness to participate in South Sudanese Politics. I don’t want to conclude here, but I sense people are not comfortable discussing political issues in public, particularly if the issue is of a sensitive nature. It seems that it is becoming worse and I found myself wondering: are people fed up or scared?

Perhaps there is another underlying issue. But in this article, however, I intend to explore the participation levels of South Sudanese citizens in the most obvious areas, hoping we haven’t yet reached a North Korea-style situation.

To shape a country’s direction, consenting peoples’ voices must be heard. Political participation allows citizens to help guide how their country is governed. Activism helps set the political agenda or steer a government in the right direction. It is a two-way relationship that benefits both groups. People engaging in political issues give the government a window into what they need, just as it lets the people ensure the politicians are delivering on these needs. Whether it be through voting, dialogue, campaigning, or running in an election, there are many ways to ensure voices are heard. I thought this would be a good opportunity for me to offer my opinion on this important matter.

The most obvious way for citizens to participate in the political process is through voting. Voting lets us elect the politicians who will best represent our voice in an official capacity. The last general election in South Sudan was nine years ago, in 2010, when South Sudan was yet to become an independent country. The only other voting process the country had participated in was the referendum that delivered this independence. Of all the MPs elected to the national parliament nine years ago, very few have made an effort to visit their constituencies. Moreover, the Government has never asked them to run any consultation process with their electorates to gain the people’s approval of any Government agenda or direction. In fact, Government agendas are more or less discussed and decided solely by the Government’s Executive arm. Very little is done by the parliament, leaving parliamentarians to walk around with honourable titles and a little income, but no voice or influence.

Apart from the individual MP’s representing the interests of their constituency in the parliament, opposition parties are supposed to play a crucial role in representing the people’s voices and providing checks and balances for the government. This is not the case in South Sudan. Instead of strong opposition parties, we have armed groups that exert power without the people’s approval. The officially elected opposition parties have little to no influence on the country’s affairs. This has contributed to the increase of the armed rebellion that continues to engulf the country and has become the new normal.

We can, therefore, conclude that citizen participation in the area of voting is zero.

The other way citizens can get involved in the political process – with the aim of creating awareness of a political agenda or situation ¬– is through campaigning. This could be in a form of peaceful protest, writing a petition or opinion piece (like this one), through public lectures or joining interest and activist groups. South Sudanese people once performed well in this area, but over time things have changed. To my knowledge, the only existing initiative is the Civil Society, which has no voice, very little influence and conducts no activities.

Discussing politics with family, friends, and colleagues is one of the most common and accessible ways for citizens to engage in the political system of their country. This is one area in which South Sudanese people excel, with healthy political discussions dating back to the struggle time. Although people still engage in such conversations now, it is usually behind closed doors, and often closer to gossip than in-depth discussion. People no longer feel free to discuss politics openly as they once did, with the conversation on social media reflecting this shift. People seem to now want to avoid discussing anything in public.

There is another option for citizens who wish to take an active role in their country’s political system. That is to become part of that system through holding a public office. Of course, we know in reality how this happens. Positions are filled by decree after decree, and only those who have significant influence can be decreed in or out by the president. Participation at the state level is the only way many South Sudanese engage with politics in this area, even though loyalty determines whether a person is truly allowed to participate or not.

This is not an exhaustive list of all the ways people can engage but, all things considered, we can conclude that actual participation with the political system in South Sudan is very low. But this leaves us with the question: why?

The obvious reason for this reduced participation is that South Sudan has been at war with itself. This has taken precedence over political processes that would have normally taken place, including a general election. Members of parliament continue in their posts without a renewed mandate from the people they are supposed to serve. Some of them have joined the rebellion and so do not necessarily seek citizen-approval any longer, as there is no scheduled election. More so, when the war began in 2013, the citizens fought a serious war among themselves on social media, which drove the division just as much as the physical conflict that was happening on the ground. Citizens engaged in a war of words; hate-fuelled verbal stoushes that usually followed tribal lines. This went on for some time until people on both sides became weary and lost interest. More people might have been discouraged from active political engagement by this online fight.

The Unknown Gunman also scares the majority. Since the killing of Isaiah Abraham in December 2012, freedom of speech has been badly impacted. The Unknown Gunman continues to target more people who in one way or another have become more politically outspoken. The most recent victim, Mr Bol Deng Miyen, was killed simply for his Facebook commentary. Mr Bol Deng Miyen was very close to Paul Malong, the former chief of staff of the army forces, during the fallout between Paul Malong and the President. People believe that his killing was related to his vocal support of Malong on Facebook. Like all the Unknown Gunman’s other victims, no one can confirm the killer’s motive. However, people are scared to vocally engage in politics, especially if they are living in South Sudan.

As well as their fear of the Unknown Gunman, many people were scared or discouraged after the regular harassment used by security agents. After the 2013 war, security agents in Juba have become more aggressive in dealing with anybody seen or suspected to be openly opposing the Government. The cases of Peter Bair Ajak, Dr Luka Biong and Dr Jok Madut Jok, among many others, are all evidence of this.

Stigma and labelling are also discouraging factors. Whenever people express themselves in writing or verbally, they are quickly judged by their fellow citizens, the Government, or opposition, based on their tribal background or political affiliation, with very little consideration given to the content.

Knowing the importance of improving citizen participation, and considering its deterioration, governments can take the following steps to improve engagement:

• Strengthen laws and guidelines allowing peaceful protest, public lectures and other awareness initiatives. Clear guidelines and laws can help governments streamline and control activities that fall outside the parameters of laws or guidelines. It will also help the Government understand what people need them to do. The people, on the other hand, will start to trust the Government more, which will only increase support.
• The security sector needs more ethics and professional training, supported by guidelines on how to deal with threats to national security or Government interests. There needs to be strict disciplinary action against any security agent who takes the law into their own hands. There are cases where security officers have acted alone but blamed their actions on the Government or the President. These could be minimised, allowing citizens to feel more respected and valued.
• The Unknown Gunman could be stopped if the Government puts more value on its citizen’s lives. There is no benefit in killing a human being because of how they have acted. In fact, the worse an activist is treated, the more people study and admire what that individual was involved in. A bullet might be good at silencing people in the short term, but in the overtime, it makes their voices louder. The Government could fare well if it values its citizens. Control the Unknown Gunman and let the law deal with individuals who go against the national interest.
• The Government needs to empower elected individual and opposition parties, instead of armed groups. It will create an environment more conducive to democratic participation, which will benefit the Government in the long run.
• Finally, the Government needs to encourage citizens to be nationalist instead of tribalist. That way, a person’s opinion will be judged by its merit and not on the person delivering it.

All things considered, the South Sudanese people are still in a good position to lobby the Government for freedom of speech and improved access to political engagement. They need to do so by showing maturity in the way they engage in politics. We all need to consider the direction our country is headed, due to everyone fighting each other. If all people put the country before themselves, anything is possible.

To sum up, the tragic killing of the outspoken journalist, Isaiah Abraham has harmed freedom of speech. We have now become used to the Unknown Gunman scaring our citizens away from political engagement. Moreover, the 2013 war, harassment from security agents, and other factors have led to a decline in citizen-participation in our political system. Consequently, the Government is missing out on all the benefits that come from free and open participation. Among these benefits are: the people informing and approving the Government agenda; improving the people’s trust and goodwill for the Government; gaining credibility for the Government through its fair treatment of its citizens; improving democracy, and many more favourable results.

This being said, the Government has an important role in directing this engagement too. It can improve things by strengthening laws and guidelines that guide awareness initiatives. Security-sector reform is desperately needed, the Unknown Gunman must be eliminated, and the Government needs to discourage rebellion by allowing democratic participation through empowering elected members of parliament – a true opposition, instead of an armed rebellion.

In the end, we can all make a difference to the situation if we act with maturity and put our country’s welfare first.

The author, Biong Deng Biong, is an Executive Officer with Edmund Rice Services Ltd. He currently resides in Melbourne, Australia.

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