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Restoring and maintaining order in fragile polities

It is impossible to establish the basis of stable politics and lay a firm foundation for prosperity without ensuring that the state has a monopoly over the use of coercive force
Armed militias in the Democratic Republic of Congo

In a recent article, I argued that to establish and maintain peace and stability in especially fragile post-war environments in Africa, is not simply a matter of identifying technical fixes such as the introduction of multi-party politics, organising competitive elections, and putting in place functioning legislatures. Examples from the Great Lakes region show that, in the aftermath of violent conflicts, prospects for re-establishing and maintaining peace and stability and putting a country on the path to long-term prosperity depend largely on creating a conducive context within which political actors operate. So, from what we have observed, what strategies could we say have proved useful in promoting long-term stability and laying foundations for prosperity?

One of the most over-sold strategies for stabilising instability-prone countries is the introduction or re-introduction of multi-party politics. This is usually kicked off by holding elections in which different groups compete, as soon as wars or violent conflicts have ended. Experience suggests strongly that this must be avoided. Far more important than holding competitive – adversarial – elections is building consensus around what to do about urgent needs and tasks and how to handle them, and also about the general direction in which the country and society in general should be steered. Violent conflicts leave deeply scarred and divided communities. These must be reconciled. Political contestations among the political elites who represent directly and indirectly the very communities that need to be reconciled simply opens old wounds and perpetuates quarrels that ought to be brough to a definitive end.

Ending quarrels which lie at the root of violent conflict requires time. As post-genocide Rwanda has shown with its Village Urugwiro process in the late 1990s, which many credit with laying the foundations of today’s political stability, it also requires the avoidance of potentially destabilising contestations. This calls for deliberate and continuous consensus building. Building consensus must precede the resumption or introduction of political competition, not least because, mishandled, competition could re-ignite old divisions. Consensus ensures that would-be competitors for power work together rather than against each other, which in turn ensures acceptance of their decisions by the wider population. Consensus building does not necessarily mean appointing people to cabinet or to positions of power. Far more important is consultation among wider political forces, taking care to include especially those with great potential for causing disruptions, on matters of national importance. Rwanda offers a fitting illustration of this.

As soon as the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) ended the genocide against the Tutsi and took over government in July 1994, it embarked on a search for consensus on how to ensure that the politics of exclusion and the use of ethnicity as a political platform are brought to a definitive end. The Fundamental Law promulgated on June 26, 1995 provided for and facilitated political pluralism and power sharing among the different political parties. The Arusha Agreement of 1993 signed between the two protagonists, the RPF and the Mouvement Revolutionnaire National de Developpement (MRND) and other political parties provided for multi-party politics. Also, the power-sharing arrangements provided for non-members of political parties to participate in running the country as independents. In recognition of its role in liberating the country, the Rwandan Patriotic Army was allocated seats in the transitional assembly.

Nonetheless, although it was accepted that political parties be involved in the country’s management, the formation of party structures below the district was prohibited. A distinguishing feature of the new dispensation was the determination by all actors to end the divisionism of the past and nurture an egalitarian society in which citizens would enjoy the freedom, each to pursue their ambitions and fulfil their potential for self-realisation. Alongside these changes was a collective aspiration to use home-grown approaches to tackling the numerous challenges facing the country.

On May 9, 1998, a series of debates bringing together Rwandans from a wide range of backgrounds began, chaired by the then President, Pasteur Bizimungu. They sought to identify home-grown solutions to the country’s problems and produced many important decisions. Among other decisions, the new constitution would be based on nationwide consultations to ensure that the institutions emerging out of it reflected the wishes of the general public. There was broad agreement that political parties had an important role to play in the country’s politics. However, they had to be managed carefully, “to promote a healthy democratic environment”. Youth and women would be represented in parliament. Out of the debates emerged the decision to introduce the gacaca courts to deal with the heavy backlog of genocide-related cases, decentralize power, responsibility and resources to local authorities, and incorporate traditional practices (imihigo, ubudehe) into modern administrative practices. Ultimately, the debates led to the cementing of a political system based on national experiences and lessons learnt, at the centre of which was the imperative to pursue consensus.

On June 4, 2003, a new constitution providing for a firm legal basis for equitable power sharing was promulgated and adopted. It provides for a multi-party system. However, it does not allow for the “laissez-faire approach” where political parties operate without “certain restrictions”. In addition, the constitution provides for proportional representation in line with the principles of power sharing and the imperative to end winner-takes-all politics which in the past had facilitated political exclusion. Further, it compels political actors to share the most important political positions in the country. According to article 58, the President of the Republic and the Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies must belong to different political organizations, while article 116 (4) demands that members of the cabinet be selected from political organizations on the basis of their seats in the Chamber of Deputies. Meanwhile article 116 (5) stipulates: “a political organization holding the majority of seats in the Chamber of Deputies may not exceed fifty (50) per cent of all members of the cabinet”.

Furthermore, the constitution provides for a consultative forum of political parties. Among other roles, it facilitates exchange of ideas by political organizations on major issues facing the country; advises on national policy; acts as mediators in conflicts arising among political organizations; and assists in resolving internal conflicts within political organizations upon request. Each registered party has four representatives and decisions arrived at through consensus. A significant contribution has been its provision of space for political parties which are not represented in parliament to participate in decision making on matters of national importance in a spirit of “national consensus which is equitable and inclusive, where all political organizations constituting the forum have equal voting powers”.  Equally important is its contribution to efforts “to avoid monopolisation of power by one political party”.

The stabilising effect of inclusive politics is also evident in post-1986 Uganda. After the National Resistance Movement seized power following 5 years of civil war, its leadership chose to co-opt potential rival political organisations into what became a no-party political system. The last 37 years of relative stability after the previous 24 years of upheaval are to a large extent the outcome of the early decision by the NRM leadership to avoid competitive, adversarial winner-take-all politics. The resulting ‘politics without opposition’ ensured that parliament remained largely free of the kind of acrimonious, distractive and often violent and destructive conflicts that now plague politics in the country since the restoration of adversarial multi-party competition in 2005.

The importance of opening up to competition gradually cannot be over-emphasised. This is because mechanisms for managing it must be firmly established first and then deliberately capacitated to perform their functions competently.  As we see in the evolution of Uganda following the shabbily-managed return to multi-party politics, if this is not done, risk of destabilisation remains significant. Inevitably quarrels will arise over the quality – including transparency – of electoral processes.

Political competition

The inexorable return to old quarrels over the transparency and fairness of electoral processes and their acceleration in Uganda in recent years, shows that preventing it and guaranteeing long-term political stability depends on establishing independent electoral commissions, instituting transparent and fair procedures, and encouraging – and where necessary compelling – all sides to respect them. Of course, every (African) country claims to have an independent national electoral commission. However, electoral commissions do not become independent simply because they are officially designated as such. Also, even where they are largely independent, it is not their independence that matters. What matters more than anything else is that they should enjoy high levels of trust within society, so that the electoral contests over which they preside produce outcomes that leave all contenders and their supporters reasonably satisfied that they reflect the broad aspirations of the voting public. Each electoral episode should produce a clear and indisputable winner, leaving their rivals no choice but to accept that they have lost. That said, clear and emphatic electoral victories do not necessarily produce or reinforce political stability. Of greater importance is for those on the losing side to be satisfied that they stand a chance of winning one day if they work hard, which in itself depends on free competition and respect for agreed rules.

Rules of the game

In politics, rules are important only in as far as the majority of contending elites have signed up to them and show commitment to upholding them. A context where rules enjoy the endorsement of a few is not conducive to the growth and entrenchment of political stability and the pursuit of prosperity.  In Uganda, after the NRM seized power, there was general agreement that the normal activities of political parties be suspended for an interim period in order to allow for consensus building and for all political actors to move together in the same direction. Ten years later, that consensus had broken down as evidenced by the defection from the ruling coalition, of significant dissenters. Parliament, which during the period of consensus had worked harmoniously, became hopelessly divided between multi-partysts and Movementists. Over the next 10 years, internal pressure for the rules to be changed had become so intense that it began to threaten stability and the harmonious relationships the government had cultivated and built up with the donor community. Restrictions on party activities had to be lifted to assuage growing public discontent and avoid possible conflict.

Rwanda is another salutary example of how broad consensus around the rules of the game can be conducive to stability and the pursuit of prosperity. As we have seen post-1994, politics privileges, power and responsibility sharing, consensus building over adversarial contestation, and bans on religion and ethnicity as platforms on which people seeking to gain power can base their political activities such as campaigns for office. This is partly what makes Rwanda’s electoral campaigns peaceful and orderly in ways that are difficult to imagine elsewhere in the region. It is also this consensus that, to an extent, makes it difficult for new political parties to enter the political arena if they are deemed, rightly or wrongly, likely to be disruptive in how they conduct their affairs.

Political inclusion

Important as it is, deliberate pursuit and achievement of consensus about the rules of the game is not enough. It must be supplemented by political inclusiveness in decision making and in conducting and managing public affairs. In countries such as Rwanda throughout the post-genocide period and in Uganda prior to the re-introduction of multi-party politics, laudable innovations have been used to promote inclusiveness in the interest of achieving stability as the foundation for the pursuit of socio-economic transformation.

In Uganda, after the National Resistance Movement seized power in 1986, it set up a government that combined significant participation by local communities in local governance structures, with a ‘no-party democracy’ or a single-party central state. The logic of the NRM’s commitment to ‘no-party’ government was to avoid competitive politics within a context of sharp ethnic, religious, and regional particularisms. After years of civil wars, autocracy and accompanying instability, during which the political elite mobilised support on the basis of religious and regional particularisms, Ugandans generally welcomed the changes the NRM brought in. Thus, an inclusive approach to political organisation was combined with significant constraints on competition. This served the country well at a time when a truce from the divisions of the past was necessary.

At the local level, the NRM introduced competition that allowed people to elect their own leaders and participate in decision-making. However, competition was kept within manageable limits. Further, a decision was made to reserve places for representatives of the disabled, women and youth. Uganda had never had a government more open to mass participation since independence. In many ways this was an important factor in stabilizing the country’s politics for many years following the end of the civil war. The emphasis on inclusion opened the way for large numbers of political actors to take up leadership opportunities at the local level and not focus on the limited openings at the national level. This acquisition of power and responsibility gave large numbers of people a stake in the status quo and in the general stability of the country. Consequently, it became difficult for insurgents to carry out acts of destabilisation. Local communities in different parts of the country were unwilling to collaborate with them. While these developments and those inside post-genocide Rwanda are not mirror images of each other, there are many striking similarities in terms of inclusion, reforms at local and national level, and their outcomes.

Also, in countries that are just emerging from violent conflict, a key contributor to stabilisation is an outright military victory by one of the contending forces. It helps if there is a decisive winner, as they are then in position to set the broad terms and framework within which a new dispensation can be crafted without risk of disruption from trouble makers. Here, the contrasting outcomes of civil wars in Rwanda, Uganda and the DRC serve as good examples. In Rwanda and Uganda, the decisive victories of the National Resistance Movement and the Rwandan Patriotic Front allowed them to take charge and create new contexts and impose discipline and order within which all actors intending to play a role in the post-war dispensation had to operate. That had the immediate effect of enabling the victors to lay out the context within which potential adversaries could be rallied to join hands with the victors in the identification of urgent tasks in pursuit of reform and reconstruction.

Internal and external security

It is impossible to establish the basis of stable politics and lay a firm foundation for prosperity without ensuring that the state has a monopoly over the use of coercive force. Achieving this monopoly has to do with the organisation of the security systems of the state. To create a viable state requires an integrated military with a clear and enforceable chain of command to ensure soldiers submit to the required standards of discipline. That said, loyalty and discipline cannot be secured without motivation through regular pay and adequate welfare. This point is well illustrated by the low levels of discipline and disloyalty to the state that are associated with the national army (FARDC) in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the water-tight discipline and resultant effectiveness exhibited by the Rwanda Defence Force (RDF). Also critical is the capacity of a state’s armed forces to prevent the emergence of rivals and, where they emerge, to eliminate or contain them. Otherwise, they become a resource for actors who are intent on destabilization. Equally important is the institutionalization of the armed forces to guarantee their subservience to civilian authority and loyalty to the state rather than to whatever individuals may happen to run it from time to time. In Uganda, the National Resistance Movement was able, after the civil war, to establish an integrated military within a relatively short period of time, a factor that played a key role in containing several rival armed groups. In Rwanda, the post-genocide government has created a military out of the Rwanda Patriotic Army (RPA) that seems sufficiently detached from its parent organization, the RPF, as seen from its formal disengagement from politics.


Adequate financial means are indispensable for any state that aspires to viability, stability and prosperity. The establishment of a revenue basis that is sustainable over time is therefore inescapable. History shows that the state of any country’s economy and prospects for raising revenue are fundamental to political stability, just as they have been in processes of state unravelling, as pre-genocide Rwanda.

Development partners

Is there a role for international actors in these endeavours? International actors, especially the donor community, play important roles in helping stabilise states and set them onto the path to prosperity. Aid can help sustain a state through economic crisis. Conversely, it can remove the pressure for a state to develop internal sources of revenue, thereby making future crises more likely. Therefore, ready availability of aid must not distract a country in pursuit of long-term peace, stability and prosperity from the imperative to achieve self-sustenance. Perhaps most important, no government should cede or outsource its responsibility for internal (re) organisation to development partners.

In conclusion, stabilising countries emerging out of violent conflict entails far more work and far deeper reforms than simply holding elections in which disparate groups compete, and establishment of legislatures in which their representatives haggle over matters that call for less adversarial contestation and more deliberate consensus building. In sum, it requires former adversaries agreeing what needs to be done in terms of institution building, managing society, revenue mobilisation and management of internal and external security among others, and doing it together, until it is deemed to make sense to return, gradually, to conventional, free-for-all politics.


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