South Sudan: ‘Our current regime is democratic only on paper, not in practice’

As part of our 2018 report on the theme of reimagining democracy, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their work to promote democratic practices and principles, the challenges they encounter and the victories they score. CIVICUS speaks to John Ador, founding member of the #Anataban movement, about South Sudan’s new peace agreement and the prospects for democracy. #Anataban - literally ‘I am tired’ - is a collective of artists, young people and other citizens aiming at fostering public discussion about the issues of social injustice and government transparency and accountability in South Sudan. #Anataban was created in 2016 in reaction to South Sudan’s civil war and offers a platform for South Sudanese citizens to speak up and make themselves heard through art and social media.

1. South Sudan became independent in 2011 and civil war began in 2013. What is the current situation?

South Sudan has indeed been at war through all this time, and even before it gained independence from Sudan. But truly, most of the country is now pacified. What we have today is not war anymore; there are just a few bandits, as I call those who haven’t seized the opportunity of the ceasefire agreed in early August 2018, who still command armies and soldiers and are set upon attacking. These days, the strategy is ‘to attack, attack and run’. The full-blown war that we had for years starting in 2013 is mostly over now.

The Khartoum Declaration signed in June 2018, however, was unnecessary, and I’m not sure it is going to bring any change to us. The Khartoum Declaration was mostly a power-sharing agreement through which some of the ‘rebels’ regained positions in government and parliament. But first, the ceasefire does not address the current situation; it has nothing to do with why we are in this mess. Since the talks started in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia in 2015 and until their final stages in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, we had many peace agreements, which weren’t respected. And all of them neglected the main issues impeding us from moving on as a country. Beyond that, there is no real common understanding of the issues and the solutions for our current problems.

Second, elections have now been programmed for 2021, although according to the latest peace agreement they were due this year. However, there is no guarantee that the different factions are not going to disrupt the peace agreement again before 2021, so it is likely that elections might be postponed again.

Third, most civil society views, including youth voices and even those of religious leaders, haven’t been taken into account or even listened to at all regarding this agreement. The political parties who signed it just wanted to get their hands on small pieces of the resources we still have in South Sudan. The economy is on the verge of collapse. Inflation surpassed 600 per cent at one point in 2016, and earlier this year, year-on-year inflation stood at 161 per cent. The situation does not look like it’s getting better any time soon. And yet citizens’ concerns haven’t been addressed, including youth unemployment, under-development, illiteracy, lack of jobs and insecurity. All of this needs to be tackled for a free and peaceful South Sudan to develop.

2. To what extent would you say that civil society’s three fundamental rights – of association, peaceful assembly and expression – are respected in South Sudan?

Our current regime is democratic only on paper, not in practice. In terms of policies and their implementation, there is no democracy at all. The constitution gives us the right to protest in public gatherings and express our opinions freely, but this doesn’t really happen. Most civil society activists, media outlets and citizens don’t speak their minds openly about what is going on in South Sudan. There is fear that whenever we speak out or go out to protest we might be detained. For instance, one fellow civil society member was detained recently for saying out loud things that are happening in South Sudan. When we lobbied for him to be released, or at least for the authorities to bring him in front of a court of law for a trial, they answered that they didn’t have him and didn’t know where he was. Other agencies we reached out to said he was not under arrest but had just been taken in for interrogation. We got completely different information from different offices. I don’t know who was telling the truth or whether they were all just playing games.

Intimidation comes not only from the government but from other sources: individuals, members or factions of the security forces and other power-bearers who have decided to establish their own security forces and take matters into their own hands. They can simply come, take your belongings, or detain you or arrest you illegally. And they never take you to a court of law or provide any reasons why they have detained you. Cases have been documented of enforced disappearance and murder.

3. What steps need to be taken to build democratic freedoms in South Sudan?

In South Sudan, the state is very weak. Our institutions are there, but they are not respected. It’s just a few individuals within the system who are running the country. Nowadays, even the president might not know what is going on in the country that he is supposed to run. Actual power-bearers are usually very wealthy, which gives them a huge power advantage in a country where most people are just trying to survive, not even with the bare minimum. Even army officers are not well paid, and if they are, they’re usually not paid on time. When the generals that head these armies are in a position to pay their soldiers and take care of them, they will remain loyal to them rather than to their country. It’s because there isn’t one central command of the army that we can’t have elections, nor hold protests like they do in The Gambia or Zimbabwe.

Our policies and institutions are not in order. We do not have mechanisms to hold office-holders accountable, except to remove them from office. But being removed from office doesn’t mean losing power; power is retained and those who have it are still free to exercise it. We should have the possibility of holding trials under a martial or criminal court and law, so that everybody understands that the rule of law must be respected. We need a stronger judiciary, and even maybe establish an institution to enforce accountability of the judiciary. We could start, like they did in Kenya, by looking at each institution one by one, to reinforce them, remove people, or change internal policies or the laws that rule them, as needed.

4. In this context, how do you manage to reach out to and mobilise citizens towards the goals of your campaign?

If you speak too much or too loudly, you may face all kinds of repressive tactics. Despite the hostile environment, at #Anataban we work and grow out of solidarity. If numbers are on your side, it becomes harder for them to crush you. We decided to multiply, to become many, and then more, and as a result we became more difficult to deal with. #Anataban is not an individual or a small group, but a lot of people with massive support. We have created chapters all over the country - in Bor, Lankien, Yambio and Yei, and also abroad, in Addis Ababa and Gambela in Ethiopia, Nairobi and the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya and Kampala in Uganda. We keep expanding.

We also don’t just target issues directly but rather deal with them indirectly, in what we think is the most appropriate and resolving way. We use our art to raise issues. Other people may see art as mere entertainment, but not us - we’re using it as a tool to advocate for our rights, for social justice and against human rights violations. That also confuses our adversaries, who sometimes don’t really understand what we are doing. For instance, during the most recent International Peace Day in September 2017 and during the peace discussions in Addis Ababa, we printed more than 3,000 T-shirts with a message for peace, which we distributed during a street contest, even to motorcycle and taxi drivers. Then we moved like a caravan across the streets of Juba, South Sudan’s capital, sometimes blocking intersections, and talking to people about our rights and the peace process in general. It was some sort of performance rather than a traditional protest. This is not what was expected, so at first they didn’t try to stop us – they only did so when we became too many on the streets. Only then did the security forces realise that we were up to something and begin to stop us.
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 #Anataban members and other citizens during the 2017 International Peace Day event



Additionally, every year we organise an arts festival. This year it was our anniversary, so we decided to produce a theatre play on a controversial news topic. In the context of a calamitous economic situation, with so many people on the brink of starvation, the government had decided to offer parliamentarians car loans of US$40,000 each, on the grounds that they have ‘a right to mobility’. We put on a play based on that issue, to condemn the decision and highlight the multiple ways the government could be helping our least-favoured fellow citizens instead. The event was eventually shut down by the security forces, but we still got many people coming to see it.

SouthSudanIsWatchingA few years back, #Anataban and several other organisations, including the Community Empowerment for Progress Organization, Justice Africa, OKAY Africa Foundation and the South Sudan Youth and Development Organization, launched a campaign, ‘South Sudan is Watching’, to mobilise civil society for the peace process. Some participants, including youth organisations, managed to become representatives in the peace talks in Addis Ababa, and were then able to follow up on the progress made. Our voices were heard then, although lately our efforts haven’t been all that successful.

5. What kind of support does South Sudan’s civil society need, particularly from international civil society and the international community?

Overall, South Sudanese civil society is alive and growing – the main issue right now is leadership. There are too many divisions among us; there are organisations leaning towards the government and others siding with the opposition, while others have stuck to the cause of civil society without taking sides in political struggles. We need to put in place a leadership that is respectful of civil society’s autonomous work.

Division is not only political; it is also caused by competition for resources. We need to replace unnecessary competition with serious solidarity. We need a civil society umbrella body, one focal voice or forum, where all of us can come together and agree on one agenda for the common good of South Sudan. We need to work together to protect our space. Right now, we don’t have one voice or even a single language to communicate in, and the government and others are taking advantage of our divisions.

Foreign and international partners have sometimes tended to choke the work of civil society through their decisions about where to work or how to deploy their funding. We don’t want the international community to do our work; we want their technical support, including financial and human resources. We need to change the mindset that a black man cannot resolve the issues of his fellow black man - that an international solution is always better than a home-grown solution.

In Eastern Africa, we don’t have regional integration bodies like the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Other governments in the region, such as Rwanda, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda, have played a part in the peace agreement in South Sudan only because it suited their self-interest, usually of an economic nature. I liked the ECOWAS answer to recent political crises, such as the ECOWAS Mission in The Gambia (ECOMIG).

As for the international community’s support to South Sudan as a whole, they shouldn’t turn their back on us. The country is broke, and the needs are too many. If they could support a rejuvenation of our judicial system, it could give the country a fresh start to increase respect for our constitution and laws. With a new judiciary and parliament in place, we would be able to discuss a new constitution, which is necessary because the current one is very shallow.

6. Do you see any reason for hope that the situation will improve in the future?

We should all be hopeful that South Sudan’s future is bright. I believe that after every bad situation, good times will follow. Nowadays there are just a few power-hungry bandits who rebel when they are removed from power. They are the only ones destabilising peace in South Sudan. Our founding father, John Garang De Mabior, used to say that as a nation we should stop focusing on oil and start cultivating the land – and now, when it’s rainy season, you can finally see in Juba all these small gardens growing in people’s yards. This shows that war has brought not only destruction but also lessons learned. And most importantly, citizens have started speaking one and the same language, because they are all tired of violence. In Juba, it’s become very rare to hear gunshots at night, when there was a time we wouldn’t be able to sleep in peace. We are definitely headed in the right direction.

Civic space in South Sudan is rated as ‘closed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

Get in touch with the #Anataban movement through its website or Facebook page or follow @AnaTabanSS and @longj2a on Twitter.