How can we advance democracy and peace? (w/ Lauren van Metre)

In the latest episode of DemWorks, NDI’s Lauren van Metre is joined at the US Institute of Peace by global activists Emna Jeblaoui (Tunisia), Jacob Bul Bior (South Sudan), Samson Itodo (Nigeria) and Aluel Atem (South Sudan). They discuss new thinking about mobilizing good governance and the challenge violent extremism poses to democracy

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Lauren van Metre: According to NDI's Chairman, Secretary Madeleine Albright, the prevention of violent extremism is primarily a democracy and governance challenge. In today's episode we’re joined at the U.S. Institute of Peace by activists from Nigeria, South Sudan, and Tunisia to discuss new thinking about mobilizing good governance.

I'm Lauren van Metre, senior advisor at the National Democratic Institute. Welcome to DemWorks. Thank you all for joining us today. Before we begin I'd like to ask each of you to introduce yourselves and give a brief description of your organization. Tell us practically what you do every day to advance democracy and peace in your country.

Emna Jeblaoui: I'm Emma Jeblaoui, executive director of Institute for human development, IDH NGO. I lead the NGO who is covering Tunisia. So we cover all the territory and we work mainly for governor aids in the north and two governor aids among the libyan borders in the south of Tunisia.

Jacob Bol Bior: My name is Jacob Bol. I’m the co-founder and the media coordinator of Anataban Arts Initiative and I'm currently studying masters of international development and policy at the University of Chicago under the scholarship of Obama Foundation program. Anataban is an Arabic word for ‘I am tired’. We started this youth movement in 2016 to basically have a flat phone for the youth of South Sudan to speak on issues of concern in the country.

Samson Itodo: My name is Samson Itodo. I work for Yiaga Africa and also part of the Not Too Young to Run movement. Yaga Africa works to advance democracy and we work in three areas: elections, legislative engagement, as well as governance and development that looks at how young people participate in the political process. Well as an individual I work day and night to retire old and expired politicians who are in public spaces because we want to disrupt politics to make sure democracy delivers development to the people.

Aluel Atem: Aluel Atem is my name and I am women's rights activist from South Sudan and also a co-founder of feminists, a young feminist organization, called Crown the Woman South Sudan that focuses a lot on correcting historical injustices and trying to address and prevent and respond to, to gender, sexual and gender-based violence related issues that are affecting and also limiting the potential of a lot of women, young women's participation in all spheres of life in South Sudan.

LVM: I’d like to talk a little bit about this afternoon around the context within which you all work, and we're seeing today in all regions of the world; Africa, the Middle East, Asia, Europe, Latin America, even North America, mass demonstrations. People are demanding change and a say in how they are governed.

From your experience, what do you think motivates people to take to the streets, and what is needed for these global movements to be successful, and how would you define their success as activists?


JBB: That's a great question and as we have seen from different countries starting from Tunisia and Egypt and all the way to Sudan of recent. We are also seeing what is happening now in Uganda where also a young person want to buy for a political position and maybe, I mean, the highest office in the country, and it's about gathering the numbers and how do they channel their frustration into a more constructive way of achieving what they need and getting rid of, as he mentioned, Samson, all the tired leaders who have, you know, kept us in some kind of, you know, a box that we need to get out of as the young people with the ideas of state building. So, you know, most of, in the region, in East Africa, or maybe generally in Africa, we have always been used to kind of using violence to kind of solve our problems. But then, you know, we're trying to put it to the public that there is an alternative to that. So instead of this destruction with violence and taking up arms, how about we use the non-violence approach to be able to kind of, you know, dislodge these, these political leaders who are kind of not helping us but only just dividing the social fabric.

So I think it's a, it's a good approach that is being used and it's a, it's bringing in transformation, it's bringing in different ideas, and people are learning to be able to hold their political leaders accountable and that is where we want to go to because there is no democracy without accountability. Because in the end, they might do elections. We have seen dictators calling for elections and doing those elections. But in the end, what do these elections deliver? Is that any democracy? So this is where we see the case of Gambia. We are seeing now what is happening with the Adama Barrow, he was elected as somebody who is going to lead and he promised that in three years he's gonna step down but it never happened. So the young people are also tracing up now, the young people that brought him to power are raising up now against him in order to get rid of him. So we need these political leaders to learn that, in one way or the other, the young people will never stop and they will keep monitoring them with regards to how they have put their mandates and how they have promised the young people on delivering service to the people and not just about themselves.

LVM: Thank you for that answer, Jacob. Here seems like the perfect place to take a quick break.

For more than 35 years, NDI honored to work with thousands of courageous and committed small d- democrats around the world to help countries develop the institution's practices and skills necessary for democracy success. For more information please visit our website at

Emna, you're from Tunisia, which is the birthplace of the Arab Spring. Do you see these global demonstrations as a continuation of what occurred in Tunisia or is this something fundamentally different?

EJ: I think that the, the demonstration raised in Sudan, in Lebanon, in a lot of countries can be understood as continuing, continuing of the rise of people in 2011 in Tunisia. As far as what they are claiming, is freedom is more participation inclusion in the decision-making process so all these, how to say, needs, or, how to say, slogans were raised in Tunisia in 2011. Even in Tunisia we see also a new, let's say, wave of, how to say, anger among young people and it's more linked with, let's say, economic vulnerabilities because democracy in Tunisia brought free elections, brought transparent elections, but the path of democratization is still on and the process of democratization I think is still taking some time.

If democracy doesn't bring prosperity, that is an issue and election doesn't feed people. So we are, in Tunisia, at this level of people are seeing, let's say, free politics, transparent election, but are having difficulty on prosperity level. [They] aren't having really or seeing the result on economic level in their everyday life. So it is, in a way, harming the image of democracy, the branding of democracy and we've been saying to the governors since 2011 that the transition should bring free politics but also good economy otherwise people will be angry and and there will be new waves of anger. So in Tunisia, for me, and in all the region there is an issue about the branding of democracy, there is an issue about the link of free country or democracy, free democracy and prosperity. The third other concern is about the freedom and the value of freedom.

Are these people elected serious about the value of freedom?

As my colleague said - sometimes free election bring ultra conservative wings or very religious wings who are not really fan of freedom and it's sometimes very challenging for us to gain after. So for me there is also a lot of work to do on making the thought, the discourse about liberal Islam more strong.

LVM: In 2019 there was a recent Afrobarometer survey that that citizens in Africa are strongly supportive of democracy but have little confidence in their political leaders. This has been a theme of the workshop today about political leaders that are not responsive to their citizens.

How and why can this popular support for democracy be sustained, how can trust between citizens and the elite political class be re-established.

SI: That's the whole essence of democracy, I think there are two conceptual clarifications. One is elections, or democracy aren’t just about elections. The fact that you have regular elections does not mean you are democratic nation. And the second part is that participation in democracy doesn't stop elections, that actually the business of governance begins right after elections. Elections just in leadership recruitment process, I think there needs to be a shift in the paradigm of citizens and how they conceptualize politics or democracy and participation. Now when you go out to cast your vote, it is just a very small component of, of the whole concept of democracy or political participation. Post elections you've got to get involved in the budget process, you've got to get involved in asking your representatives that you've given power to hold in trust for you and take decisions, you've got to be involved in that. You've got to be involved in community organizing efforts that, that engages your leaders and ask them when they stand up in Parliament to say they speak for the people that they're indeed speaking for and on behalf of the people. The other critical issues about political parties, I'm ensuring that when people make promises to other people, when politicians make promises and have campaign or manifestos that they perform that part of their contract and citizens need that level of orientation. The third part is the role that civil society play and what we play - that, that role. Because we are interlocutors between the state and citizens. What we must not do is to abdicate that responsibility to another, to the political parties, or take over the responsibilities of citizens and begin to speak for citizens and we neglect the citizens who ought to be involved in that engagement.

Also empowering citizens is a responsibility that we have. Our citizens should not abdicate our responsibility to NGOs. NGOs are institutions, no doubt. But there is a limit to what NGOs can do. You are a citizen and that's why we say the highest office in the land is not the president or the seat in the national assembly, it is the office of the citizen.

You've got civic responsibilities and you've got a right to actually engage so that's something citizens can, can do.

The fourth and perhaps the last is the role of political parties and what parties do. Parties as platforms of political participation or actualization or galvanization or social interests as the case may be. One must be democratic in their management of party affairs. They must also ensure that people who are in the parties get involved in the decision-making processes of the parties. What you have on the continent is parties that have become cartels or [inaudible] of individuals who are only interested in state capture - not for the common good of the people but to advance their own individual interest. And that is something citizens need to disrupt because Africa is where it is today because the political leadership have, over the years, maintained power and recycled themselves in office and we citizens have become docile and have lost faith.

That if you look at Hong Kong, if you look at Tunisia, if you look at Liberia, if you look at Nigeria, if you look at Sudan, it's about citizens exercising agency. And so for citizens who are listening to this program - if you say you have the power, the power actually lies in your hands, all you need to do is to activate that power, activate your citizenship by going beyond voting at elections but holding your leaders to account and there are several mechanisms to do that.

AA: Just to add on on the point of civil society and civic engagement efforts and programs to make people understand that they are the power and the power is within them. I think, for example, in South Sudan people look at their leaders as many gods to worship, not people that should be their servants, and how to, to [inaudible] that mindset, to say that if you have a governor in office he's not your small god. You shouldn't be killing your last God just to please him this person owes you services, he owes your child's school, you know, health care, he owes you roads, and economic, you know, prosperity. So I think that we need a civil society, there's a lot that needs to be done to actually civically engage and educate people on what it means to have a leader that is yourself and another leader that you should be afraid of or worship for the fact that he sits in a particular chair.

LVM: Aluel, that's a great comment and I want to explore that further after this short message.

Aluel, you spoke about how the power lies in the individual, not in the leader, and that people need to be educated about this. Can you talk a little bit practically how you do that, how you convince citizens that they are in a situation to have agency, how you, every day, through your organization give citizens that faith in their own activism.

AA: Jacob earlier mentioned what he called a new tribe. And it's a, it's a group of nonviolent action, we call it synergizing nonviolent action, and peacebuilding programs in South Sudan. And what that, what that is doing is we can't tell people to just build peace. we can't tell people to stop fighting each other. Because there are grievances that still needs to be addressed. The wounds haven't healed, people are still bleeding so we can't ask people to stop fighting, people need to revenge because they feel like nothing is coming their way. And so to do that while we build peace, while we push for dialogues and negotiations, we also need to give people alternative ways of expressing themselves. 

I think for us the introduction of the concept of nonviolent action to tell young people, to tell women groups that you can actually take actions that express your grievances, that do not necessarily mean picking up guns. We're doing this through various, we have a South Sudan Women's coalition group that coordinates and works with women at grassroots level, at national level, both women in the national government and state and local government and traditional leadership structures to give people alternative ways to continue to express themselves while we dialogue and negotiate peace agreements without necessarily sharing people from expressing themselves because what that does is you, it's like putting grass on fire, you're just waiting for it to explode any minute.

So to me it's, one way that has been very helpful to just tell people, to just teach people the skills and the knowledge of nonviolent action and what that means in terms of expressing themselves without causing more harm to the society or to the people.

LVM: And with that I'd like to draw part one of this conversation to a close. Emna Jeblaoui, Jacob Bul Bior, Samson Itodo, Aluel Atem, thank you all for speaking with us today. Please don't forget to join us next time as we discuss the challenges of democracy and governance work and how you build inclusion. I'm Lauren van Metre and you've been listening to DemWork's. Goodbye.