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Why is civil society under attack?



sofonea shaleBy Sofonea Shale

The recent political and military developments in this Kingdom have not only put civil society organisations under the spotlight given their mandate in defense of human rights, promotion of democracy, peace education and advocacy, facilitation of dialogue, development and representation of voice of reason but equally received the political wrath of people who claim to be proponents, supporters and owners of the Khokanyana-phiri Coalition government.  Attackers of the sector claim that it lost mandate and serves bizarre agenda goals.  The question that perplexes many is why is civil society being attacked?

This is an important question in many respects and there are two ways through which it could be addressed. This question contributes to the democratisation of Lesotho politics which are mainly based on the culture of violence as opposed to the culture of peace. It also helps to broaden political perspective of the captives of politics of domination usually promoted within the confines of structures of political parties. This way, this question has the potential to chance attackers deceived as party heroes depending on how it is approached. The first approach could be the provision of an authoritative response telling what is right and wrong while the second could be that which looks at what is the mandate of the sector, the situation in the country and how the sector is responding to the situation. The reader should then make a meaningful contribution in the on-going debate over the issue.  Drawing from the principles guiding this and the sister column in the sister newspaper, the Lesotho Times, this article chooses the second approach.

Civil society can either choose to be counter-hegemonic or buttress state narrative by manipulating society to identify with the world view of the powerful. When civil society educates people on democracy, and encourages them to vote, politicians applaud their role, similarly when they provide water, agricultural inputs, bursaries and other humanitarian interventions. When political education is taken further to empower communities to hold government accountable and when civil society exposes government’s balance sheet on human rights and accountability, they are labelled as politicians who oppose government.

In recent months, Lesotho’s opposition leaders announced that they were not able to come back home from their political mission in Botswana (SADC), reporting they feared for their lives. Civil society’s response to this situation was not unique from the usual engagement of the sector in governance.  After meeting with leaders outside the country to hear their story, the sector met government on the need to engage the opposition leaders.  Government acted by mandating Heads of Churches to facilitate talks, yet leaving civil society behind regardless of the sector’s pronounced preparedness to make a contribution and its expertise and skill in conflict and mediation.  In the current stand-off, civil society is not only ready to help but has communicated the same to the government.

Later, the country experienced a military situation where the Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) had an exercise “abducting” or “arresting” its members. The choice of “abduction” over “arrest” by civil society was informed by civilian appreciation that a defaced, powerful person imposing his or her will over one cannot be an “arrest”. Later this was reported as being an effort to dispel munity in the army.  When the army was subpoenaed on harbas corpus, it was revealed that some soldiers in the army custody were being tortured and others denied access to their ARV treatment. The army personnel exhibited disrespect to the courts and others inflicted physical violence against civilians.  Civil society did not only speak against the exercise, alerted international community of the situation but also approached government. When Maaparankoe Mahao was assassinated by the LDF, the government did not change its laisser-faire approach to the military’s behaviour.  When civil society’s efforts, including supporting the spouses and families of soldiers in custody, persuading government to denounce violation of human rights and condemn the killing of Mahao forthright if the killing was not part of an authorised exercise, the youth who define themselves as owners of this government attack civil society. Why?

In a clearly set programme, the youth of the ruling parties are on a crusade of de-campaigning civil society. The misrepresentation of civil society started when the Press Secretary at the Prime Minister’s Office said NGOs were brought to book by the Prime Minister, in a meeting that was otherwise a ground levelling platform and the most productive in setting the tone for interaction between government and the sector. The DC youth statement demeaning civil society as self-proclaimed human rights defenders and wannabes set the attack tone. Several youth attacks on civil society have been done and many radio stations have not seen anything wrong with this.  The recent phase of attack is a joint press conference by the youth leagues of parties in coalition.  But why attack civil society? Is it because it speaks badly against things the youth would otherwise want condoned?

Do these youths know the agreement of their coalition? If they do, would they, in their free will and choice attack civil society and still claim to be defending this coalition? Should civil society be attacked or supported when they want to facilitate dialogue between government and opposition leaders, when they speak against the violation of rights and demand government to fully account for Mahao’s killing, demands fully in line with the Coalition Agreement, A2 on peace and stability, A3 on democracy and respect for human rights, A4 on transparency and good governance and A9 on accountability? Could it be that the youth attack civil society because they are not aware of the Coalition Agreement? Is civil society saying, doing or demanding anything beyond what government committed on? If civil society demands government to do what it committed on, why is it attacked? Though logically it could be concluded that civil society is attacked to be silenced and discredited in an attempt to wow blind and unchecked citizens’ support for politicians in power, this may not be the only possibility hence the question should persistently be asked: why is civil society being attacked?

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