(Dr. Munzoul A. M. Assal - University of Khartoum) - The role of civil society organizations in peace making and peace building is often valorized
, especially in countries that witness protracted conflicts. The assumption underlying this valorization is that while conflicting parties sign peace deals, it is civil society organizations that undertake the implementation of such peace deals. A significant requirement for the success of civil society organizations in peace building is their inclusion in peace making in the first place. Such inclusion is indicative of the recognition accorded to civil society organizations and, conversely, their exclusion means that those who broker peace deals are not cognizant of the roles of these organizations. While civil society organizations may have negative roles or may even be party to conflicts, it is important to highlight the instances in which they are excluded from partaking in peace-making and peace-building engagements. The conceptualization of civil society is yet another challenge that bears on how these organizations contribute to peace making and building. Sudan represents a case that requires scrutiny. The peace process that culminated in signing the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2005 started in 2002. Peace negotiations spanned over almost three years, with a notable absence of civil society organizations. Peace talks were an exclusive affair between the Sudan Government and Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M). Civil society organizations in Sudan had to deal with the peace agreement as a product of bilateral negotiations between the two signatories, but were keen to contribute to the success of the agreement. Different was the case of the Doha peace talks on Darfur where civil society organizations from Darfur were present during the peace negotiations that culminated in the Doha Peace agreement of 2009.
Taking the examples of Darfur civil society organizations, and two Khartoum-based ones, this research closely looks at the roles civil society organizations play in peace building, the modalities of playing such roles, and the challenges facing them. The research concludes that despite political repression, a deteriorating economy and active war in three parts of the country, civil society organizations in Sudan do contribute to peace making and peace building. There is also a need to embrace a broad conceptualization of civil society, although we must be aware of the potential for romanticizing what these entities can achieve. By adopting the broader concept of civil society, one that allows for the inclusion of diverse groups such as traditional leaders, faith-based organizations, women, youth, ethnically based associations, professional societies, trade unions, and student unions, we will be in a better position to understand the role of civil society in the peace-building process.
The role of civil society organizations in peace making and peace building is contentious. There is often a valorized role for civil society in promoting peace, especially in countries where conf lict is protracted. The assumption underlying this valorization is that while parties to conflicts sign peace deals, it is civil society organizations that assist in the implementation of peace deals on the ground, selling the process, so to speak. For civil society organizations to succeed in selling peace deals, they should be active parts of such deals. A maximalist versus minimalist perspective is at play when trying to identify the role of civil society in promoting peace (Murphy and Tubiana 2010). While a maximalist perspective advocates for full participation of civil society in peace negotiations, a minimalist approach calls for the role of civil society to be that of an observer around the negotiation table. These two perspectives emanate from the continuous debate about what is meant by civil society, and the tendency to emphasize the voluntarist nature of civil society. Needless to say that a significant requirement for the success of civil society organizations in peace building, following a maximalist perspective, is their inclusion in peace making in the first place. Such inclusion is indicative of the recognition accorded to civil society organizations and, conversely, excluding civil society organizations means that those who broker peace deals are not cognizant of the roles of these organizations. That civil society organizations are vital players in peace processes is an issue over which there is little or no disagreement. As argued by Murphy and Tubiana (2010, 17), “civil society as a player in the peace process can no longer be treated as an afterthought.”
Yet, the role of civil society, while vital, should not be romanticized. Civil society organizations may play negative roles or may even be party to conflicts, and it is necessary to highlight instances where they have been excluded from partaking in peace-making and peace-building engagements (Bereketeab 2009). Exclusion represents a major dilemma facing civil society organizations in conflict and post-conflict societies. Sudan represents a case that requires scrutiny. The peace process that culminated in signing the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2005 started in 2002. The peace negotiations took almost three years, with a complete absence of civil society organizations. Peace talks were exclusively between the Sudan Government and Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M). Civil society organizations were again excluded from the Abuja peace process between the Sudan Government and the Darfur armed groups, and between the Sudan Government and the Eastern Front in Asmara in 2006. Civil society organizations in Sudan had to deal with the different peace agreements as an affair strictly between the government and the armed groups. Many civil society organizations (e.g., Sudanese Writers’ Union and Sudan Organization for Research and Development) were however keen to contribute to the success of the agreement.
While civil society organizations were not included in the peace-making process in Sudan, their participation in peace building was not always welcome either. In 2006, just one year after the signing of the CPA, a new law organizing the work of civil society organizations was passed by the parliament. The law restricts the work of civil society and requires that they obtain approval from the authorities for funds they receive (Assal 2011b), as well as renew their registration annually. In the years that followed the promulgation of this law, many civil society organizations and NGOs were expelled and their registration was revoked. As a result, in 2009, thirteen international organizations were expelled and three national voluntary organizations shut down (see below). In 2012, three civil society organizations (Alkhatim Adaln Centre for Enlightenment and Renaissance, Sudanese Studies Centre, and Bait al- Finoon) were closed down based on the accusations that they received external funding and posed threats to national security. Apart from external disturbances, part of the conflict is internal to these organizations; weak administrative structures, mediocre staff, financial insecurity, and lack of clarity in what they ought to perform, are some of the problems facing civil society organizations.
The research problem can thus be framed within the ongoing debate about the role of civil society in peace building outlined above. While much of the debate in the field argues for a positive role of civil society in peace building, empirically there are many challenges that obstruct the capabilities of civil society. Some of these challenges are related to the very nature of civil society in the African context where ethnicity, politics and clientelistic relationships are all issues that are part of their daily functioning; hence, a Eurocentric approach or definition falls short of truly capturing the realities of civil society. These challenges are present in Sudan and as the examples in this paper show, the complexity of civil society organizations in contexts of protracted conf licts requires a creative look that overcomes conceptual straightjackets; of the sort that endeavor to provide an all-inclusive definition for civil society. Empirically, this paper addresses dilemmas facing civil society in Sudan, where peace making, peace building, political repression, deteriorating economy and active wars in three parts of the country all go hand-in-hand. What challenges, internal and external, are civil society organizations facing? How do they deal with them? What aspects of peace building are civil society organizations engaging in? Are the roles of civil society organizations in peace building in Sudan maximal or minimal?
The concept of civil society is rather amorphous and analytically contentious. Beyond this amorphous nature, “there is a tendency that everything located outside the perimeters of the bureaucratized state and any social association is thrown into the all-embracing basket of civil society” (Bereketeab 2009, 35). Locating civil society organizations outside the state assumes they are opposed to it. This, in the African context, is not necessarily the case, even though the relationship of civil society to the state is paradoxical. Mamdani (1996, 15) puts it this way: “Although autonomous of the state, this life cannot be independent of it, for the guarantor of the autonomy of civil society can be none other than the state.” Tvedt states that “the great majority of the most inf luential of these organizations were financed by states and work in accordance with regulations issued by individual states….” (2007, 29). Similarly, Assal (2011b, 81) argues that “the civil society-State opposition that appears in much of the definitions about non-State actors is not totally unsubstantiated as the situation in Kassala reveals. Yet, we should not fall into the myopia of completely stripping off the agency of the State since there must be a body that regulates the presence of the different groups that fall, for good or bad, under the umbrella of civil society.”
Civil society and the state may not be directly linked, but at times the line between the two is blurred, as ethnic, political, religious and other cleavages overlap.
For some scholars (Chabal and Daloz 1999), civil society can evolve through the existence of what is seen as a “shared common space.” In this space, there exist the state, civil society, and the family— civil society being between state and family, which are seen as public and private spaces, respectively. In reality, however, these three spaces overlap, not least in contexts where political and ethnic cleavages cut across each other. The lack of these distinct spaces does not necessarily signify the absence of civil society. Chabal and Daloz (ibid., 17) are skeptical about the existence of civil society in societies that are traditional and have tribal, religious and sectarian associations. They also claim that there should be separation between civil society and the state: “The notion of civil society would only apply if it could be shown that there was meaningful institutional separation between a well organized civil society and a relatively autonomous bureaucratic state.”
Part of the conceptual discussion is also the question relative to who should be included in the definition (Kasfir 1998). But generally scholars of civil society are open to accept ing broad def initions and looking at civil society as encompassing formal and informal, modern and traditional, religious and secular, civic and ethnic assoc iat ions (Kasfir 1998; Young 1994; Bereketeab 2009). Others (e.g., Assal 2011b, 73) conceptualize civil society organizations generally as “non-state actors.” NGOs, professional associations, trade unions and even opposit ion political parties are considered civil society. Within this broad categorization, civil society “entails associations, with or against government, that strive to achieve democracy, human rights, rule of law, poverty alleviation, socio-economic development, environmental and cultural preservation, conflict resolution, peace and stability, community solidarity…” (Bereketeab 2009, 36).
The above list of activities in which civil society is engaged is by no means exhaustive, and by no means standardized for civil society everywhere. This is so because the emergence and development of civil society is predicated on the dynamics of certain societies. The presence and proliferation of civil society ref lects the needs, political and social developments in the particular society. For instance, much of what civil society in Sudan has been engaged with for almost a decade is a product of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) signed in 2005 between the Sudan Government and SPLM, and the Darfur Peace Agreement (DPA) in 2006 between the Sudan Government and one of the Darfur armed groups. Indeed, hundreds of civil society organizations sprung up following the signing of the peace agreements.
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