Building Capacity of South Sudan’s Weak and Divided Civil Society

Conflict Resolution Capstone Paper

Macy Johnson, Naime Ozturk Meral, Patrick Pratt, Katelyn Thacker

Submitted to Dr. Peter Weinberger

The George Washington University

Elliott School of International Affairs

April 30, 2015

After less than three years of a historic Independence, South Sudan political reformers found themselves in political and military pursuit to restore vision, democracy and the rule of law in the world's youngest nation(Photo: file)

After less than three years of a historic Independence, South Sudan political reformers found themselves in political and military pursuit to restore vision, democracy and the rule of law in the world’s youngest nation(Photo: file)


May 29, 2015(Nyamilepedia) — For well over a year the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) has attempted to broker a deal to end the conflict in South Sudan. The two warring parties – the Government of South Sudan (GoSS) led by president Salva Kiir, and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army – In Opposition (SPLM/A-IO) led by former vice president Riek Machar -have each demonstrated intransigence at the negotiating table. Other SPLM factions and opposition political parties have been sidelined. Moreover, the voices of South Sudan’s civil society have been muted since the initial attempt to create a multi-stakeholder peace process. The proposed IGAD-Plus mediation format now aims to extend participation to the African Union, China, the European Union, and the Troika (Norway, the United Kingdom, and the United States). But, it has become increasingly clear that under the new format the IGAD-Plus peace process will remain a domain of elite bargaining. Such an elite-driven peace agreement is highly unlikely to bring sustainable peace by itself. If the sole focus of the IGAD-Plus process were forging a power-sharing arrangement among disputants, who are then mandated to oversee a transitional reform agenda, the result would likely be a fragile elite coalition preoccupied with retaining power, with scant pretense of accountability or reform.[1]

For a genuine transformation of the conflict, a parallel process must be undertaken to strengthen South Sudan’s weak and divided civil society. It is possible the IGAD-Plus process will result in an agreement, in which case civil society will need to be prepared to engage in any future transitional process. However, if the IGAD-Plus process does not result in an agreement, South Sudan can benefit from a strong civil society to pressure elites to resolve their differences, promote peace, and improve governance –a structure upon which the South Sudanese can depend in the interim. This strengthening of civil society requires development, coordination, and preparation to engage in national transitional process, which may include security sector reform, constitutional review, financial and budgetary monitoring, natural resource management, agriculture and land-policy development, etc. Without engagement from South Sudanese civil society in the implementation and monitoring of transitional tasks outlined in a prospective peace agreement, there is a significant risk that reforms needed to address the root causes of the conflict could fall short. Therefore, civil society must be strengthened from the bottom-up to promote reconciliation, reintegration of ex-combatants, transitional justice, the rule of law, government accountability, and every other measure needed during any transition from conflict. To do this, civil society must overcome its divisions, develop common principles, and leverage comparative advantages.


The information in this paper is taken primarily from interviews with civil society leaders in South Sudan; NGO professionals based in South Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, and the United States; diplomats from South Sudan, the surrounding region, Europe, and the United States; and regional experts in academia and policy research organizations. We supplement these interviews with academic research about the role of civil society in fragile and conflict-affected states, in war-to-peace transitions, and in governance and accountability. We have attempted to utilize these lessons for the South Sudan context and reflect upon lessons-learned for civil society during South Sudan’s own experience since the signing of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA). We based our understanding of, and recommendations for, South Sudan’s civil society on information from projects that were previously implemented in the country.

In examining the history of civil society in the South Sudan context, we explain the challenges that civil society has previously experienced and currently encounters. We then make recommendations on how international partners should engage with civil society. We argue that, regardless of the outcome of the IGAD-Plus process, civil society capacity building must be an urgent priority for donors. If an agreement is reached, civil society must be capable of monitoring any reforms and transitional tasks undertaken. If an agreement is not reached, civil society must be equipped to be a crucial link in providing stability to local communities until elites bring an end to the conflict. Our analysis assumes that, as occurred during the first IGAD process, CSOs will not be included as a negotiating party in the IGAD-Plus process, although they may be given a platform to offer their proposals and observe the proceedings.

The Divisions Among South Sudan’s Civil Society

A government allied civil society demonstrating against the release of political detainees who were eventually released by April 2014. However, the Chairman of the government-backed civil society, Deng Athuai, shown leading in the photography narrowly escaped assassinate a few months later in Juba, South Sudan(Photo: file)

A government allied civil society demonstrating against the release of political detainees who were eventually released by April 2014. However, the Chairman of the government-backed civil society, Deng Athuai, shown leading in the photography narrowly escaped assassinate a few months later in Juba, South Sudan(Photo: file)

During the interim period – between the signing of the CPA in 2005 and the independence of South Sudan in 2011 – the international community invested a great deal in building institutional capacity of the GoSS. Many of South Sudan’s civil society leaders were absorbed into the government at various levels. Thereafter a great number of CSOs have been engaged in issue-based and event-driven initiatives. They have remained overwhelmingly dependent on donor support and have been built around meeting donors’ programmatic priorities. Even then, civil society groups acknowledged their lack of capacity, experience, and cohesion. Yet attempts to strengthen and coordinate civil society focused on the short-term by primarily preparing for the referendum. They were implemented with the assumption that the GoSS was prepared both to govern and remain united. Despite the need for a strong civil society in South Sudan, lack of capacity, communication, and coordination among various groups have inhibited its ability to engage constructively.

Mirroring the ethno-regional divisions evident in society more broadly, civil society in South Sudan is divided along multiple fault lines. The most salient of these divisions is that of ethnicity. Although the current conflict began as an elite power struggle, it quickly fractured along ethnic lines – and civil society was no exception. Some CSOs profess to be neutral and not party to the conflict, but in reality, many members personally hold ethnically partisan views.[2] With the continuation of violence between the two warring parties, prospects for overcoming the divisions among civil society become increasingly stark. It should, however, be the responsibility of civil society to elevate awareness that ethnicity is not the source of conflict, but rather a tool of the elites to mobilize popular support for their own agendas.

Moreover, the very issues in which CSOs should be engaged have become politicized. Advocating for any number of reforms, or for justice for crimes committed in the course of conflict, can be perceived as support for one conflict party or the other. For example, many civil society actors, regional politicians, and traditional leaders throughout the country have advocated for the adoption of a federal system to accommodate diversity and devolve governance responsibilities to the local level. Although federalism has been an issue in public discourse in South Sudan since Sudan became independent, advocates of federalism are now perceived to harbor pro-rebel (SPLM-IO) sympathies.

Secondly, there is a distinct division between urban and rural civil society. In particular, the Juba-based civil society tends to be more educated and informed. These organizations have more formal organizational structures, formulate positions on national issues, advocate, and make demands of the government. They are more visible, comport more closely with a Western concept of civil society, and thus receive the majority of donor attention – funds, training, capacity building, etc. At the other end of the spectrum is the rural-based civil society, which includes regional or community-based CSOs.[3] There is a worrying information gap and lack of coordination between these two groups. Rural organizations are rarely consulted by urban organizations on matters of strategy, let alone issues of national importance.[4] In addition, those outside of Juba remain uninformed about the peace process in Addis Ababa or find it inconsequential for their community. They are focused on their daily lives and thus have vastly different priorities than civil society in Juba.[5] Nonetheless, there are important concerns and initiatives at the regional and local level – agriculture and land-use, marginalized groups, and local peace initiatives – that would find resonance with urban-based CSOs. Bridging this information gap between urban and rural civil society is critical to enabling all parts of the citizenry to establish a stake in national processes.

Thirdly, there is a gap between the civil society in the diaspora and those within South Sudan. There are two broad types of diaspora: those who have been locally displaced due to the conflict but have remained in the region and those who have been away for longer periods of time – many of whom have received a Western education. This second group brings resources, expertise, and passion to bear on issues of governance reform and nation-building. However, they are often viewed with suspicion by local CSOs who question their motives and ability to represent the South Sudanese –particularly the more rural populations. Moreover, the diaspora may have deeper ethnic biases than those who have remained in South Sudan or in the region. Many locally-based South Sudanese think that they have more at stake in bridging ethnic divides and seeking reconciliation; many in the diaspora display no such pretense to ethnic harmony.[6]

Additionally, although many in the diaspora are well-intentioned, collectively they face a crisis of legitimacy. Those who have not lived through the same experiences as domestic civil society can be seen to have “lost touch” with the grassroots.[7] This was demonstrated in early 2014, when a meeting of civil society stakeholders in Nairobi formed the umbrella organization Citizens for Peace and Justice (CPJ). The group initially appeared to be broadly representative of civil society. However, much of their leadership was drawn from the diaspora. Their advantaged positions enabled them to demand representation in the IGAD process, but their legitimacy and representativeness remained in question.[8] Furthermore, with the visibility and prestige that representing civil society affords, the selection of civil society representatives became a divisive process (see below). Their legitimacy was further damaged by their inability to coordinate and forge a common platform. Although civil society overcame many challenges to gain inclusion in the peace talks, by relying on a selection process that favored the diaspora, it missed opportunities to actually influence the IGAD process.

Potential Partners of Civil Society

Other groups with the potential to facilitate and complement civil society are the church, business community, and the academia—neither of which have been sufficiently leveraged.[9] The church is the most unified, far-reaching, influential, and respected institution in South Sudan besides the SPLM. However, the church does not necessarily consider itself part of civil society; to a degree, it views itself as superior.[10] Particularly during the CPA period, the church succeeded in reconciling many hostile groups through its extensive reach. NGOs and INGOs reached out to religious leaders of all denominations—Muslims and Christians—and urged them to use their networks to reach communities with a message of peace and reconciliation. Churches, mosques, and other religious gatherings were used successfully as convening forums for discussions about reconciliation.[11]

Despite being the best-managed institution –with the most expansive organization, institutional memory, and track record of success– the church has exercised limited influence on the negotiating parties. Moreover, church leaders have at times compromised their neutrality by assigning responsibility for the conflict to one party.[12] Church leaders, although delivering a message of peace, have also stoked the conflict. Nonetheless, their distance from the conflict parties and the peace process has potentially worked to their advantage. While the CSOs at the peace talks actually lost leverage through ineffectiveness and disorganization, the church has managed to retain credibility.

CSOs would benefit from partnership with credible and organized institutions such as the church and faith-based organizations. However, if civil society is to partner with the church, they need to develop a shared understanding of their respective roles in addressing various security, governance, and development challenges facing South Sudan. Such a partnership would in turn be an important step in educating citizens of their role in holding leaders accountable. Yet, convincing the church to work with CSOs directly may be a challenge given the church’s self-perceived role and status. Many current civil society leaders are young and inexperienced, and the church is reticent to engage with them. At the same time, the church has proven receptive to civil society leaders who have reached out to it. These engagements have often been ad-hoc, for a limited purpose, and temporary.

Also, business and trade unions have been underutilized as a potential partner of civil society. The potential power of these groups offers an alternative route to bridge both the gap between civil society and the government and the rural to urban divide. Trade unions within South Sudan are not well understood nor are they seen as a force for reform. However, they do represent an important constituency and could collectively wield significant influence. Currently though, the business sector is disorganized and unaware of its own power.[13] Should civil society develop its common cause with the business community through advocacy—to improve the business and investment environment, expand economic opportunity, provide critical physical infrastructure, and develop human capital—it would potentially be a mutually-beneficial alliance.

Finally, academia and research centers also have prospective leverage in any future peace process or transitional period. One of the primary reasons civil society representatives at the IGAD process were unable to play a constructive role in crafting and shaping the negotiations is that they lacked an understanding of thematic issues like security sector reform, transitional justice, rule of law, and federalism —knowledge that is critical to comprehending the consequences of the decisions being made. However, these concepts are Western constructions, often lacking a contextual basis for implementation in South Sudan. The academic community at state universities and research institutions in South Sudan has produced first-rate research and analysis and offer a wealth of knowledge that contextualizes international prescriptions for peacebuilding and governance reform. These institutions are capable, offer a degree of neutrality, and can represent the view of citizens—perhaps better than CSOs currently can.[14] Civil society should leverage the expertise of these institutions to formulate evidence-based policy positions. Also, civil society could play an intermediary role between the academia and ordinary citizens —most of whom lack formal education, let alone literacy. By making matters of governance and reform relevant for people’s lives, civil society can guide communities in realizing the stake they have in national processes. If successful in narrowing this conceptual gap, communities will clearly see the value of exercising their collective influence in developing the nation.

Where and Why Does Civil Society Fall Short?

The process to include civil society in the IGAD mediation was itself a source of division among civil society and explains in some measure its inability to influence the process. Initially, CSOs were not involved in the IGAD peace talks, but a growing chorus among the international community and South Sudan’s civil society to develop a broadly inclusive multi-stakeholder format led IGAD to invite civil society to participate. At the time, CPJ was the most organized umbrella organization of CSOs advocating for peace and reform. CPJ initially sent fourteen people to Addis Ababa to represent civil society at the talks. But soon the GoSS complained that representatives were biased towards the SPLM-IO and demanded that IGAD revise the selection of civil society representatives. Other civil society leaders allied with the government –including security operatives and others backed by South Sudanese businessmen– sent representatives as well. The IGAD mediation soon found that the multi-stakeholder process had become unwieldy and contentious and asked civil society representatives to decide among themselves which fourteen CSOs could stay and which had to leave. All of the CPJ representatives were turned away, leaving seven Juba-based organizations and seven diaspora organizations to represent civil society at IGAD.[15] Given the fault lines in civil society described above, this not only left important constituencies without a voice in the process but also sowed further division.

Civil society representatives who remained in the IGAD process often focused on their own issues without developing common principles for engagement, a reform agenda, or an overarching strategy.[16] CSOs found themselves competing for resources rather than organizing and building alliances to influence or improve the IGAD process.[17] Some of the representatives succumbed to intimidation or cooptation, and the longer the talks went on, the less vocal CSOs became. Although there were opportunities in Addis to coordinate positions and strategy and to influence the parties outside of the formal peace talks, civil society representatives assumed a passive role – merely observing the process. Moreover, there was a dearth of communication between CSOs at the talks in Addis and those in South Sudan, leaving excluded CSOs uninformed of the status of the negotiations.[18] Still, civil society representatives are not wholly responsible for their inability to influence the process. The IGAD mediation and the negotiating parties often spurned civil society representatives altogether, particularly when negotiations narrowed to determining the structure of the executive of the transitional government.

All of this suggests that the inclusion of civil society in the IGAD process had been an end in itself without a shared understanding about what its role should be. CSOs were unprepared to engage and not adequately accommodated at the talks. Without mechanisms for engagement, coordination, and communication, civil society was unable to influence the process. Over time, the ineffectiveness and passivity of civil society representatives, their competition for representation and resources, and their disengagement from South Sudan-based civil society, eroded their credibility. In fact, it is important to note, many observers now question the value of the multi-stakeholder process. However, this should not lead to the conclusion that civil society is fundamentally incapable of affecting change.

Faulty Funding Mechanisms        

CSOs in South Sudan have historically been at the mercy of donor funding cycles. In the run-up to the referendum and independence, civil society engaged in the process, but their capacity dropped off after independence when donor priorities shifted.[19] CSOs are normally given 3-6 months of funding at a time and thus lack long-term focus and sustainability. Donors have historically been frustrated with South Sudanese CSOs and their lack of involvement in the political processes. However, with such short-term funding, CSOs are forced into a counterproductive prioritization of efforts. This funding dynamic results in a focus on organizational survival and service-delivery, a chronic lack of organizational capacity, and hesitancy to engage the government.[20] CSOs have historically provided 80% of social services in South Sudan. They have adopted this as the main function of their organizations and have not focused on political advocacy.[21] Since the onset of the current conflict, CSOs have shifted their activities to align with donor priorities, which have become focused on short-term, but life-saving, humanitarian support.[22]

Many civil society leaders during the CPA period were absorbed into the government after independence, effectively decapitating the leadership ranks of civil society. Thus, many civil society leaders and organizations are inexperienced. Without effective leadership, CSOs are unable to effectively engage with government leaders and institutions, and are likely to be perceived as representing the donor community rather than domestic constituencies.[23] When civil society does assert itself, it is heavily scrutinized by the government and security services, making civil society hesitant to speak out and skeptical of its ability to influence elites in a meaningful way.[24]

Piecemeal support must be fixed if CSOs are to contribute to peace efforts like government accountability, reconciliation, and reintegration of ex-combatants. Furthermore, the money provided by donors cannot be used simply for organizing civil society events and conferences. A substantial share of it must be directed to capacity-building so civil society can continue once donors withdraw.[25]

Potential Role of CSOs in the IGAD-Plus Process

The initial IGAD multi-stakeholder process revealed that mere representation at negotiations does not guarantee participation or influence in the peace process.[26] Also, taking into consideration the current challenges CSOs face in South Sudan, it is difficult to envision an effective role for them in the formal peace negotiations. Nevertheless, this does not mean that CSOs cannot make a meaningful contribution outside of the IGAD-Plus forum. On the contrary, they can make a difference in the peace process if they develop common principles and are offered an appropriate platform for engagement, but this requires overcoming their own divisions and remaining realistic about their limitations.

Advocacy for Peace – In the IGAD-Plus process, civil society organizations should put more pressure on the conflicting parties to work more constructively to reach a peaceful negotiated resolution. To this purpose, they can mobilize citizens to exert pressure using media campaigns and mass action. Outside pressure could be very important in settlement of internal conflicts. The South Sudanese diaspora, in coordination with the national civil society organizations, can lobby the respective countries to support the IGAD-Plus process, direct the parties towards a peaceful resolution, and apply pressure where needed.[27] CSOs can also advocate for adding important issues to the negotiation agenda.

Facilitation of Dialogue between the Conflicting Parties Civil society organizations can also support the formal talks by facilitating the dialogue between the political elites; they can develop proposals for solutions and compromises. Yet the biggest obstacle impeding civil society from playing this role is a lack of expertise and technical knowledge on most of these issues. However, within South Sudan there are well-educated professionals with experience in governance, economics, development, and DDR issues. Many of them are currently serving in the army or unable to do their job due to the lack of security in the country.[28] CSOs, with the help of international partners, should create safe forums to bring academics and professionals together to discuss these issues and develop proposals to forge compromises.[29] These forums would also form the nucleus of broader reform discussions.

The major issues preventing an agreement in the IGAD process –transitional security arrangements, implementation of a federal system, executive structure and power-sharing ratios, assumption of SPLM-IO debt, among others–will not be resolved without a major change in each side’s calculations. Some of the foundation for a comprehensive agreement is outlined in the February 1st IGAD agreement on principles for the establishment of a transitional government. These include engaging in security sector reform and reconstituting the National Constitutional Review Commission; the National Electoral Commission; and the National Commission for Truth, Reconciliation, and Healing. Furthermore, the parties agreed in principle to ensure prudent, transparent, and accountable management of national wealth and resources. These are themes which civil society must emphasize and hold the parties accountable for implementation.

Informing the South Sudanese about the Peace Process – CSOs should engage with citizens within South Sudan to develop an understanding of the IGAD-Plus process and solicit views on major outstanding issues. Such a role could be better performed if the selected civil society groups are guaranteed observer status in the negotiation process. Although the attempt to include civil society in the previous negotiations revealed the limitations of direct participation, maintaining observer status would allow civil society to remain informed about the negotiation agenda, enabling it to act as a “watchdog” and to keep South Sudanese informed of the proceedings.[30] Even if CSOs are not conferred observer status in the IGAD-Plus process, other mechanisms to facilitate information sharing about the peace process are underway. Two resource centers ­­–one in Juba and another in Addis Ababa– are being established to facilitate this communication.[31] Representatives of civil society should utilize these to transmit their observations back to their civil society counterparts in South Sudan, who in turn should inform their communities and constituents. In this way, citizens would have a better sense of what is happening and why it is happening as well as why certain proposals are offered as a solution.

Monitoring the Prospective Peace Agreement and the Reform Process – If an agreement is reached, its provisions and associated reforms will require robust monitoring, mutual accountability of the signatories, and external pressure to implement.[32] Civil society in South Sudan would be an important guarantor of the agreement.[33] However, the proposed Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission (JMEC) responsible for overseeing the final agreement does not include civil society representation.

During the transitional period, the risk of reversion to conflict is high. The coalition government of former disputants will face the triple challenge of maintaining peace, governing the country, and reforming the system of governance itself. Civil society monitoring of the main provisions of the agreement can place pressure on the parties to maintain their commitments in the implementation process. However, to ensure adequate participation in monitoring requires that the parties agree on the mechanisms, and corresponding provisions should be specified in the agreement itself.[34] Therefore, throughout the negotiations, civil society should engage with the IGAD-Plus mediation and the negotiating parties to develop proposals for civil society monitoring of the agreement.

Overseeing the reform agenda is as important as monitoring the peace agreement. Although the reform agenda is central both to the dispute and to its solution, it became sidelined in the initial IGAD process by the narrow discussion of power-sharing between the two negotiating parties.[35] A sustainable peace requires going beyond this narrow issue and discussing many underlying factors to the conflict. Nevertheless, there is little reason to think that this issue will be resolved in the IGAD-Plus process. Thus, civil society should facilitate discussion within South Sudan about prospective reforms regarding governance, security, justice, accountability, oil and natural resources, and public financial management. It should also oversee the implementation of already agreed-upon reforms.

Civic Education – Civic education efforts in South Sudan should go further than simply informing the citizens about the formal negotiations process. In order to build a durable peace, the process should be brought closer to the people. This could be done by creating awareness and educating people about broader issues in peacebuilding process such as constitution making, reconciliation, transitional justice, and electoral processes. CSOs are well positioned to organize consultations and meetings in community-based groups to create a better-informed citizenry.[36] Additionally, radio shows like those used to promote civic education on issues in Sudan during the pre-referendum period could be developed and broadcast.

Radio broadcasts can be a powerful tool of civic education and citizen engagement. During the interim period leading up to South Sudan’s referendum on independence, radio programs were utilized to educate the citizenry about the terms of the CPA, the functions and responsibilities of government, and the referendum. The radio program “Let’s Talk,” developed by the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and funded by USAID, produced dozens of programs that were relevant, listenable, entertaining, and accessible. Some communities convened “listening groups” to listen to the program as it aired and to discuss the week’s topic. Even after independence, the program continued airing shows relevant for the constitutional review process. However, the program was discontinued within a year after independence as donor priorities shifted towards state-building and development. Donor investment in civic education is often driven, and is therefore limited, by immediate priorities (the referendum and independence) rather than a sustained effort to develop and maintain an informed and engaged citizenry.

Currently, radio programs are used by the UN in Protection of Civilian (POC) sites to provide humanitarian information on issues that affect people’s everyday lives – when food rations will be distributed, where cholera has broken out – which people depend upon for survival. These programs are typically apolitical and offer no information on the status of the negotiations, the dire fiscal state of the government, corruption, or justice and accountability. In effect, these programs do a great deal to inform people how to survive but stop short of explaining why they are in a survival situation.

Although radio programming for civic education diminished after independence, the infrastructure for radio is expanding. CSOs would benefit from developing partnerships with the media to develop programming to disseminate their message as widely as possible. Civil society voices speaking to both local-level and national issues would generate a shared understanding of the conflict and sensitize the citizenry to the contentious issues in the IGAD process. For example, both parties have agreed that there should be a revived constitutional review process, but the baseline of citizen capacity to engage in the broad-based consultation process is insufficient. Although the country is in conflict at present, civil society could initiate education and discussions on such issues as federalism, the distribution of national wealth, security sector reform, civil and political rights, the role of ethnicity and gender, and other fundamental issues in preparation for a constitutional review process. On issues that are still outstanding in the IGAD negotiations, civil society could present the merits and drawbacks of each side’s position. Care must, of course, be taken to represent fact-based arguments. Moreover, civil society could use radio to generate a national discussion on government accountability, educating and–to educate citizens on the responsibility government has to them and their role in holding the government to account.

Peacebuilding – As top-down negotiations do not address local grievances, peace and reconciliation efforts in South Sudan require peacebuilding at local and community levels. The local peace committees (LPCs) that were established in South Africa, Northern Ireland, and Nepal to address community-level grievances and promote peacebuilding from the bottom up could be utilized in a South Sudanese context. These LPCs are committees formed at the district, municipality, or village level, which are inclusive of all sectors of the community. Local government officials, victims of violence, women, youth, local NGOs, business people, and security sector personnel should all be represented. Each LPC’s mandate will differ according to the needs of the local context, but there should be clarity from the outset about what the committee’s functions and responsibilities will be.[37] Ideally, these committees would develop action plans for how to collectively respond to emergencies in their communities –whether they be situations of violence, natural disasters, or otherwise. LPCs have proven indispensable in promoting social stability, engendering dialogue processes, and preventing violence.[38]

Civil society representatives can and should play a vital role at the local level by building cross-community peace initiatives. They can lead in establishing the groups and advocate for strengthening of LPCs. With time and resources, these LPCs would be able to network with others in their region to develop cross-community peacebuilding activities, with the growing ability to scale-up to a national peacebuilding front.

In addition, CSOs should reach out to communities with messages of peace and reconciliation and bring people together from adversarial groups through dialogue, conflict resolution workshops, exchange programs, and peace education projects. Religious leaders can play an important role in these efforts. In the medium-term, civil society actors should work together to create a conflict-sensitive historical narrative of South Sudan to challenge deep-rooted animosity and antagonism among ethnic groups.[39] This narrative should then be internalized in future generations through the public education system.

Facilitation of Dialogue between the Government and Citizens Peacebuilding requires constructive dialogue between the citizens and the government, but the current conflict has caused citizens to lose trust in government and political elites. Therefore, in addition to facilitating dialogue among citizens, civil society can play an important role in promoting dialogue between citizens and elites.[40] It can organize various activities to connect citizens with their elected officials and build trust between the people and the government. Constituency dialogues convened by the South Sudanese Network for Democracy and Elections and Oxfam in the pre-conflict period could serve as a model for this process.

Constituency dialogues (CDs) convened citizens within their own communities to discuss their concerns and needs, and develop an action plan for engaging their elected officials. After several sessions of facilitating community discussions, elected officials would then visit representatives of the community to hear their concerns. During several of these CDs, citizens challenged elected officials on the status of Constituency Development Funds (CDF) –funds allocate to elected officials for community projects. Many communities were unaware of the existence of CDFs before CDs, and when pressed, many officials were unable to account for these funds. CDs, in most cases, were the first time citizens of South Sudan were given an opportunity to directly address their leaders. Several of these sessions devolved into uncomfortable confrontations, and many of them ceased to convene. Although tangibly little was accomplished, these CDs demonstrated to citizens for the first time that their elected leaders have a responsibility to serve them. Such programs, if revived, would not only contribute to building sustainable peace but also help South Sudanese civil society to gain influence with the government.


As this paper has described, civil society faces many challenges in South Sudan. It is not currently equipped to play a necessary and critical role in the survival, stabilization, and growth of this young country. Civil society must be developed and strengthened. To achieve this, the international community should engage CSOs in South Sudan in the following ways:

  1. Conduct a thorough mapping and assessment of CSOs – International support of CSOs should begin with an assessment of the current CSO landscape. What is already clear is that CSOs’ capabilities and needs vary based on sector and location. CSOs in Juba versus those in different parts of the countryside will need targeted programming that takes into account their current capacity, their potential roles, and the limitations of their unique operating environments.[41] The mapping of CSOs should include the establishment of specific points and methods of contact that work best for each organization. A formalized collection of contact and leadership information will provide the building blocks for an eventual civil society network that can better share information and coordinate.
  2. Create a coordination mechanism Lack of coordination of civil society has consistently undermined its efforts. A coordinating mechanism at the national level could have a significant effect on improving capacity, reducing duplication of efforts and encouraging complementarity so that CSOs do not work at cross-purposes. As international actors assess the CSO landscape, developing a coordinating mechanism should be a primary priority. This mechanism should stretch across all CSO levels –from Juba, to the states, to the diaspora groups, and to those participating in peace talks. Coordination methods should adapt to the varied cultural contexts and technological capabilities of each CSO. It should function as a network, enabling the sharing of information among CSOs and avoiding taking on a national leadership role.
  3. Better engage potential partners – Civil society should be empowered to seek out and forge partnerships with other groups to leverage comparative advantages. First, the diaspora has exhibited a higher level of unity and organization than is typical of South Sudanese CSOs, at least while abroad.[42] It has greater resources and access to powerful voices in the international community and is thus well positioned to form partnerships with national CSOs. However, it is limited by its historical tendency to fracture into ineffective parties when taking on a more active role within South Sudan.

Second, women’s groups also have potential to serve as a reasonable entry point. Many such groups already exist and with women acting as important figures in every home, from rural to urban and across all ethnicities and tribes, they are naturally positioned to exercise significant reach. Yet, they also tend to be poorly educated, marginalized, under-resourced, and thus lacking in general capacity.

Third, the church is likely the best positioned to act as a bridge. It has credibility, experience, and the respect of those with political power.[43] The church is arguably farther reaching than the government itself.[44] Nonetheless, due to a self-image of superiority, the church is unlikely to be proactive in this role, and the international community will likely need to act as matchmaker between budding CSOs and religious organizations.

Finally, members of academia must participate. They possess the necessary skills but have been largely excluded.[45] In the future, CSOs will require these scholars and their knowledge to effectively advocate on matters of federalism, constitutionalism, and transitional justice.[46] South Sudan is not currently an environment where CSOs can gain these skills and abilities through practice.

Regardless however of which CSOs take on a greater role, the message that each puts out to its constituency will be crucial, and the first priority must be to stop exacerbating the fissures in society. Each CSO will need to promote a historical narrative of strength in diversity and unity to their constituencies. The narrative must recast South Sudanese diversity as a prized asset, emphasizing how the commitment and bravery of a broad range of actors led to independence and, moving forward, this diversity must be channeled to strengthen the young country.[47]

  1. Enable knowledge and resource sharing – With IGAD and IGAD-Plus being so politically charged and exclusive, CSOs should try to sidestep a direct challenge to those players by focusing on sharing knowledge and resources instead of taking a more aggressive advocacy role. Historically, public forums have proven useful in knowledge and resource sharing. They allow specialists in different areas (i.e. economics, public health, or education) to safely, and even temporarily, set aside other loyalties and constructively discuss the future and development of South Sudan.[48] The international community has a critical role to play in the creation of safe spaces for these forums. This can be done by either providing the space itself or using influence to pressure the GoSS to facilitate. Providing the space itself will be more costly and less sustainable, but it will avoid allegations of government manipulation that could surface if the GoSS were to initiate the dialogue.
  2. Leverage mass communication to spread knowledge and increase citizen engagement – Additionally, radio must be utilized in information sharing and citizen engagement. Radio is the most trusted medium in South Sudan and has been underutilized despite 48% of the population relying solely on radio for information.[49] It is the only medium with the reach for broad-based information dissemination and coordination.
  3. Build CSOs’ expertise and capacity to engage – CSOs do not currently have sufficient expertise or advocacy skills to engage constructively on the range of complex technical issues. Training in a range of skills and substantive issues is required to equip CSOs to engage with local communities, government officials, international organizations, and donors. Donors and program developers should also be conscious of the sensitivities of engaging with leadership of diaspora-based civil society. Although they may have the skills and knowledge necessary to run effective organizations and programs, they may lack the legitimacy and representativeness to maintain a constituent base.[50] Furthermore, training programs should be broad-based enough to be applicable across a range of CSO sectors but adaptable enough to address the specific needs of the various types of CSOs, in different operating environments, and with different roles. Needs will vary among national and local CSOs and between those represented at the peace talks and those working at the grassroots level. Although each organization has a unique purpose, and represents different constituencies, a baseline understanding of roles and responsibilities in engaging with stakeholders and decision-makers is necessary to maximize their effectiveness.
  4. Fix faulty funding mechanisms – International funding mechanisms for civil society programs need to be improved. The donor funding cycles are too short for initiatives that require years to develop and produce results. With the onset of the conflict, international donors shifted funding for CSOs to humanitarian response efforts. This restricted the reach of CSOs at a time when they required the most support. With such limited resources and capacity, restrictive time frames compound their ability to conduct advocacy.[51] Funding civil society programs for 1-3 year cycles would enable a broader, longer-term reach.[52]


It is clear that South Sudan’s civil society is critically limited in its capacity and fractured along a variety of lines, leaving it currently unable to play a significant role in peace negotiations or a prospective transitional process. South Sudan needs civil society to provide an alternative to elite-driven, self-interested power politics such that the root causes of the conflict are actually addressed. The above recommendations can provide an important start for establishing CSOs as a relevant, contributing, and powerful force in South Sudan as it works towards peace and prosperity.

[1] Interview with South Sudan expert and development professional, Jan 27, 2015.

[2] Interview with NGO Professionals, Mar 12, 2015.

[3] Interview with Democracy and Governance Program Officer for Sudan and South Sudan, Feb 10, 2015.

[4] Interview with NGO Professionals, Mar 12, 2015.

[5] Interview with Democracy and Governance Program Officer for Sudan and South Sudan, Feb 10, 2015.

[6] Interview with South Sudanese CSO founder, Mar 12, 2015.

[7] Interview with NGO Professionals, Mar 12, 2015.

[8] Interview with International NGO, Dec 17, 2014.

[9] Interview with International Organization Official, Jan 1, 2015.

[10] Interview with South Sudanese CSO founder, Mar 12, 2015.

[11] Interview with Senior Peacebuilding Advisor, Jan 26, 2015.

[12] Interview with South Sudanese CSO founder, Mar 12, 2015.

[13] Interview with NGO Professionals, Mar 12, 2015.

[14] Interview with NGO Professional, Mar 5, 2015.

[15] Interview with South Sudanese CSO founder, Mar 12, 2015.

[16] Interview with NGO Professional, Mar 10, 2015.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Interview with South Sudanese CSO founder, Mar 12, 2015.

[20] “Local views on international aid in situations of conflict and fragility,” Saferworld Background Paper: 11.

[21] Ibid, 11.

[22] Interview with NGO Professionals, Mar 12, 2015.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Interview with NGO Professional, Mar 10, 2015.

[25] Interview with NGO Professionals, Mar 12, 2015.

[26] Interview with South Sudan Expert/Conflict Resolution Professional, Feb 13, 2015.

[27] Interview with NGO Professionals, Mar 12, 2015.

[28] Interview with African Ambassador, Dec 17, 2014.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Thania Paffenholz, “Civil Society and Peace Negotiations: Beyond the Inclusion– Exclusion Dichotomy,” Negotiation Journal (January 2014).

[31] Interview with South Sudan Law Society, Citizens for Peace and Justice, Mar 12, 2015.

[32] Interview with European Diplomats, Jun 13, 2014.

[33] Interview with Senior Think Tank Researcher, Dec 2014 and Interview with International Organization Official, Dec 16, 2014.

[34] Interview with International Organization Official, Jan 2015, 2015.

[35] Interview with International Organization Official, Dec 16, 2014.

[36] Interview with NGO Professional, March 5, 2015.

[37] See Bishnu Sapkota, “Local Peace Committees in Nepal: A Lost Opportunity?” The Asia Foundation (May 20, 2009).

[38] See Andries Odendaal, A Crucial Link: Local Peace Committees and National Peacebuilding (United States Institute of Peace Press, 2013).

[39] Interview with Senior Peacebuilding Adviser, Jan 26, 2015.

[40] Amplifying Voice of Civil Society in New Deal: World Bank Fragility Forum 2015.

[41] Civil Society in Fragile and Conflict-Affected States, OXFAM.

[42] Interview with Senior Peacebuilding Adviser, Jan 26, 2015.

[43] Interview with NGO professionals, March 12, 2015.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Interview with NGO professionals, March 5, 2015.

[46] Interview with NGO professionals, Mar 10, 2015.

[47] Meeting with Senior Peacebuilding Advisor for International Organization, Jan. 26, 2015.

[48] Interview with African Ambassador, Dec 17, 2014.

[49] Meeting with International Development Professional, Feb 18, 2015.

[50]Meeting with International NGO, Dec 17, 2014

[51] Saferworld Background Paper, March 2011

[52] Interview with NGO professionals, March 5, 2015

  1 comment for “Building Capacity of South Sudan’s Weak and Divided Civil Society

  1. GatNor
    May 30, 2015 at 5:57 pm

    The first groups of civil society had narrated a bias account of what transpire since Dec/2013. This group had damaged the credibility of the civil societies because they were one sided instead of beinh neutral. Their participation in the peace process only brings more complications and dhould be exluded up untill the new government. SPLA/M IN OPPOSITION should avoid all complications btought by different groups and just take power from Kiir. The rest will know where they stand with buttering up their wishes to encroach against as it had already happenrd.


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