18 Apr 2024 - by A4ID

Fear and disillusionment

On Monday we held our first Governance Knowledge Group meeting, and what a great way to kick off this series of seminars.

The topic under discussion was ‘Building the Rule of Law in Fragile and Post-Conflict States’ and we had two great speakers talking about the situation in both Afghanistan and South Sudan.

Our first speaker was Naina Patel, a barrister at Blackstone Chambers who earlier this year was working in Helmand Province, southern Afghanistan where she was a Senior Justice Adviser to the Provincial Reconstruction Team. She talked about the three different legal systems at play in Afghanistan and the interplay between them, as well as the important steps forward that are being taken to ensure individuals have access to justice.

The second speaker was Mareike Schomerus, a researcher from LSE who spoke about the challenges of ensuring access to justice in a newly independent South Sudan.

One interesting point raised by Mareike was the common misconception that so-called ‘democratic rituals’ – voter registration, elections – automatically lead to real democracy, and therefore development.

She said this was too simplistic. For example, an election does not mean real choice, if there is only one party to choose from or if intimidation is used to influence voters. In fact, one theme throughout the talk was how our view of South Sudan is generally too simplistic and that easy narratives (such as inter-tribal conflict) are usually inaccurate.

What also struck me was the fact that 20 per cent less people in South Sudan registered to vote in the referendum than they did the last national election (when Sudan was still one country.)

Why when it appeared that independence was what the whole of southern Sudan was crying out for, did people not take the chance to exercise their democratic rights? The two reasons that Mareike pointed to were disillusionment and fear.

Quotes she had gathered from people in states across South Sudan illustrated this point. People felt that the referendum was insignificant to their lives; it might make the rich richer, but it wouldn’t help them access food, healthcare or water, or stop the conflicts over land and cattle.

Political engagement does not have a long history in South Sudan, where justice and stability (or lack thereof) has been largely meted out by the military. So it is not necessarily surprising that intimidation (real or perceived) during the referendum was rife.

In her talk Mareike also highlighted how focus on a single issue – in this case independence – displaced proper political processes and nuance in debate.

In the run up to the referendum the rhetoric was of justice. People were promised a new, better, fairer society if they voted for independence, but there was no discussion of how this would look or be achieved in practice.

As Mareike pointed out this has only led to disappointment. People are now beginning to feel frustrated that almost a year since the referendum was held there has been little difference in their lives and that their disillusionment with the political process was justified.

From the outside it isn’t hard to see why change has been slow to come; over half of the population live below the national poverty line, 63 per cent of the population cannot read or write, and 78 per cent rely on agriculture and pastoralism to make a living.

Problems have not gone away with independence, and in some cases have got worse. There are still food shortages, there is still (growing) conflict within the country, and people still struggle to access basic services such as safe drinking water. For many there is anger or despair because this is not the just society they were promised.