The roots of instability in fragile political environments

Efforts seeking to enhance political stability must not remain blind to the broad context within which political actors operate and how it ultimately impacts on their ability and willingness to maintain peace and stability
Central africans go to the polls, December 2020

One of the more enduring conundrums in politics in Africa is how to stabilise countries struggling to overcome long legacies of violent politics. It is common for countries emerging out of wars to slide back fairly quickly, or to remain mired in low-intensity insurgencies for years after the main wars have ended. South Sudan, Mozambique, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of Congo come quickly to mind as salient examples of countries which peace eludes or has eluded for years following episodes of widespread political violence or civil war. Yet others, such as Rwanda, overcome long legacies of violent politics and achieve remarkable levels of political stability. Others, though, overcome such legacies, only to become associated once again with elevated risk of sliding back into instability. Uganda is now seen as a country whose future is uncertain with the risk of future instability seeming to be on the rise. What accounts for these differences? History provides us with some pointers.

Failure to establish inclusive systems

Contexts that allow for stability to take root and endure for the long term have been absent in many parts of Africa for much of the post-colonial. African countries generally gained independence as multi-party democracies. Competition for power among different political parties was seen as guaranteeing political stability and prosperity for the long term. However, flirtation with competitive politics did not last.

The switch to single-party rule, which was extolled as superior to pluralism, was premised on a single argument: multi-party politics was divisive. It was therefore not conducive to the twin tasks of nation building and the search for political stability and prosperity. Arch-advocate for single-party rule, the late Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, argued that the foundations of democracy are firmer where there is one party that is identified with the whole nation than where there are different parties, each representing only a section or sections of the community.

By the 1980s when pressure for multi-partysm took centre stage, however, single-party rule had long been discredited. In place of unity, it had engendered power monopoly by some groups and exclusion as well as oppression of others. In so doing, it had catalysed conflict driven by pursuit of power and plunged many countries into political instability and economic stagnation or decline. Although following the return to multi-party politics in the late 1980s Africa has been generally stable and less prone to things like military putsches, multi-party politics has not always lived up to the claim that it promotes or enhances stability and is therefore likely to lead to prosperity. This is evident from the disputes, some of which are usually violent, that tend to break out after competitive elections have been held in a number of countries.

It is true, however, that in several countries both single-party rule and multi-partysm created or preserved the exclusion of significant political actors from accessing power. Both proved unable to engender situations in which would-be political foes could work together in pursuit of the common objective of creating politically stable and prosperous societies.

Disregard for contextual peculiarities

Governments operate within contexts with specific features that differ from one country to another. The nature of a particular context ultimately determines how they operate and how effective they become at doing those things that are essential for preventing political violence and instability. Observations drawn from processes of breakdown in countries with a history of violence in East Africa and from subsequent reform and reconstruction efforts allow us to arrive at some conclusions about factors that lead to and drive conflict and instability. What are these?

There are cases where adversarial multi-party politics was (re)introduced in environments where the preconditions for it to germinate and thrive were generally absent. In some cases, it was forced on contexts where it was not feasible, given prevailing strains and stresses within society. This still happens. It is not surprising that, in such contexts, electoral disputes have been common, sometimes leading to violence.

In other cases, political actors find their way into public office through processes that are not transparent. The opacity of the processes they use does not allow for their political rivals and other contenders for power to visualise the possibility of doing the same through free and fair competition. Electoral disputes deriving from claims that incumbents have rigged their way to power emanate from situations of this kind, whereby incumbents subvert processes and procedures to ensure they hold onto to power at all costs. In Kenya and Tanzania, disputes of this kind have led to post-election violence in the past, while in Uganda and Burundi they have led to all-out war.

Also, the conduct of the winners towards the losers, and their opponents and rivals in general, matters a great deal, regardless of whether power has changed hands through ‘revolution’ or elections. Indeed, it matters whether those in power seek to build inclusive systems in which people generally feel they count, or exclusionary ones that relegate rivals and opponents to the status of secondary citizens and lock them out of decision-making and positions of power and influence. Political exclusion of the kind that was practiced in pre-genocide Rwanda, where a significant proportion of the population was for the most part locked out of decision making, usually incentivises those who are excluded to take extreme measures that engender instability.

Further, the nature of the victory scored by the winner, be it at elections or war, is critically important. Whenever civil war breaks out, failure by any of the protagonists to score a decisive victory leads to protracted violence. For example, the absence of a clear winner in the DRC’s civil war and the consequent political settlements mediated by outsiders have left the country with limited capacity to move forward, as numerous armed groups continue to terrorise the countryside and perpetuate political instability, which has undermined efforts at reconstruction. In the event that adversarial political competition is embraced, when elections are held, unclear victories create space for other contenders for power to reject electoral outcomes, which could trigger violent conflict.

Control over the means of violence is important.  In the DRC, insecurity and failure by the state to secure control over the military and means of violence remain major threats to prospects for long-term political stability. The legacy of the post-Mobutu wars has created the dangerous situation of having several armed groups operating across the country with little or no control or oversight from the government in Kinshasa. This failure to establish a fully integrated military with the capacity to restore and maintain order is arguably the biggest obstacle to future possibilities of stabilizing politics and rehabilitating the economy.

The potential for economic crisis to damage or worsen relations between governments and their opposition is evident in the events that followed the end of Uganda’s general elections in 2011. In reaction to high inflation and rising costs of living, opposition groups embarked on their so-called walk-to-work campaign which they claimed was intended to force the government to take remedial action. Eager to prevent the damage the campaign was bound to inflict on its image and fearing an Arab-spring style uprising, the government took extreme measures to try and contain the situation. Clashes ensued between the security forces and opposition activists and their supporters. This led to avoidable deaths, injuries, destruction of property, and further deterioration in the already bad relationship between the government and the opposition. Further evidence of the disruptive effect of economic crises on government-opposition relations comes from Habyarimana-era Rwanda when falling coffee prices in the late 1980s galvanised its opponents to demand political change. The decision by the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) to launch its military campaign in 1990 had already been preceded by internal strife on which the then French President, Francois Mitterrand capitalised to pressurise the single-party government to open up to multi-party politics. Eager to maintain control over the fast-paced changes, the regime resorted to using violence against its opponents, which damaged prospects for maintaining the stability that had underlain its previously acclaimed economic management record.

How international actors conduct themselves matters a great deal. In fragile post-war situations, international actors can provoke trouble by pressing for competitive, adversarial multi-party politics and elections which can be a recipe for renewed instability. The 1980 multi-party elections in Uganda, only 8 months after the war that toppled Idi Amin had ended and after 18 years of civilian and military dictatorship, is a good example. The elections took place after 18 years of government without elections, 8 of them under a military dictatorship. Political parties had been proscribed way back in 1969 by the then Uganda Peoples Congress government. The Uganda peoples Congress itself had been dormant since 1971 when Idi Amin toppled the Obote government. The elections were therefore held in a context where participating parties had minimal experience of multi-party politics or none at all, and where the young post-war government had no experience whatsoever of organising elections of any kind. The outcomes were violent campaigns in which the military over which the government had little control, played an overtly partisan role. Unwilling to accept the results, one of the losing parties opted for war. Uganda’s experience supports the view that premature competitive politics may lead to a ruling group adopting repressive policies in order to suppress potential opponents before and after elections.

In conclusion, discussions about the causes of political instability in Africa tend to focus on the absence of political pluralism and functioning legislatures. That disregards the importance of the broader context within which political actors operate and how it ultimately impacts on their ability and willingness to maintain peace and stability. However, close observation shows that where contextual elements are not conducive to the establishment and maintenance of peace and stability, even where the most elaborate technical arrangements, rules, and regulations are in place, prospects for doing so are slim. In the end, efforts seeking to enhance political stability must not remain blind to the broad context and how it could facilitate or impede progress.



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