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By: ANTHONY DiROSA
The politics of ethnic and cultural identity are of major concern to peacebuilders and policymakers when understanding how to stem the risk of armed conflict and mass atrocities in regions plagued by intercommunal violence. According to Diana Felix da Costa at the Norwegian Peacebuilding Center, one such place is Jonglei State, South Sudan, where ethnic cleavages that divide tribes are a major focus for international and national policymakers seeking to specifically target and contain such risk factors. Jonglei State represents a setting where tribal groups are defined by multiple identities but marginalized as a whole for the actions of a few. These inter-group distinctions are significant as the cattle-keeping Murle, who are endemic to the lowlands of Pibor county, embrace a distinct identity compared to the agrarian Murle living in the Boma. Although the Murle share an overarching ethnic identity, it’s hard to view or treat them as a unified group. As the risk of violence and mass atrocities has been escalating in Jonglei recently due to fresh SPLA (Sudan People’s Liberation Army), Yau Yau rebel and Lou Nuer militia fighting, comprehensively understanding the scope of ethnic and tribal identities, specifically within the Murle culture, has never been more crucial to both Juba, the UN and international actors. Doing so may be a crucial ingredient in formulating responsive solutions to both inter-Murle violence and the more widespread fighting between Yau Yau rebels and SPLA/ Lou Nuer forces.
The Murle are an ethnic group that originally migrated from Ethiopia to southeastern Jonglei hundreds of years ago, before moving further north and settling around Pibor. They are a largely pastoralist group that live in the flat open lowlands of Jonglei, while a smaller group of farmers inhabit the Boma Plateau and surrounding areas. According to Diana Felix da Costa’s fieldwork in Pibor County, although these Murle enclaves associate with a larger collective ethnic identity, they are known to associate and dissociate selectively in situations where it may be advantageous or when their collective security is in jeopardy. This makes sense when understanding the differences in lifestyle from the lowland Murle, which is oriented around cattle, and in Boma, where Murle people live an agrarian lifestyle and have no cattle. While cattle raiding lies at the core of much of the violence occurring in Jonglei state, there is no evidence that the largely agrarian Murle near Boma are involved. Regardless of their guiltlessness they are vengefully targeted by rival clans simply because of their Murle identity. Thus, amongst the Boma Murle a new term of self-identification, “Ngalam”, meaning “without cattle”, has been increasingly used as a means of dissociating themselves from the cattle-raiding Murle. The fragmentation and inter-group violence within the Murle community is even more pronounced as Murle from Boma often report incidents of child abductions and rape on behalf of their Murle neighbors from Pibor. On the other hand, Murle from Boma have aided their fellow in-laws from Pibor and Maruwo Hills when these sub-groups faced conflict from rival groups in their areas. Diana Felix da Costa postulates that this may be an example of in-group survival, especially given the sense of marginalization and insecurity the Murle feel within South Sudanese society.
From these examples it’s understandable why da Costa believes that Murle identity construction is both situational and interactive. Murle identity seems constructed relationally and is subject to changes according to specific interests and circumstances according to da Costa. The Murle also negotiate, accept and challenge identities that are projected onto them by others. On the other hand, there is evidence that Murle identity can also be fixed, as a Ngalamit is viewed, by the Murle, to always be a Ngalamit. These crucial micro-level idiosyncrasies make it hard to view them as an unified ethnic group. Likewise, it’s important to differentiate between the lowland and highland Murle, but also more specifically between the minority of lowland Murle behind the raids and the majority who are not, according to da Costa. Furthermore, not all Murle support cattle raids, child abductions and violence, just as all Lou Nuer or SPLA forces don’t support raids, child abductions and indiscriminate violence against civilians.
Deciphering Murle identity is doubly important given the context of both intercommunal violence and the more widespread militia based combat between the Murle backed Yau Yau movement and the state backed Lou Nuer youth rebels. It is important to note that amongst the three main forces fighting in Jonglei, major ethnic and tribal affiliations lay at the core since much of the rank and file of the SPLA is made of Lou Nuer, a historic rival of the Murle. Recent news out of Jonglei indicates that local Murle leaders are planning to convince Yau Yau, who is also a Murle, to end his rebellion against the government in Juba because of their shared ethnicity. This potential leveraging of Murle identity to promote peace comes at an important juncture where SPLA soldiers are indiscriminately targeting Murle civilians on the assumption they are Yau Yau supporters. There is both a strong incentive and ripe opportunity for the Murle and the international community to capitalize on ethnic and tribal affiliations to help assuage the violence that has wreaked havoc on Jonglei. Doing so would reverse the recent history of unsuccessful negotiations, porous peace agreements, botched local disarmament campaigns and a failure to enforce and follow-through with community driven recommendations for peace.
Peacebuilding initiatives must take these initial steps to understand the dynamics of Murle identity on top of addressing the root causes of violence and mass atrocities in. These acts are fostered by an environment lacking basic state security assistance and free flow and access of humanitarian aid. They are also fueled by the weakening of traditional authority and dispute resolution mechanisms and the manipulation by local and national elites of local grievances and ethnic identities, according to da Costa. Since fighting began to intensify around March 2013, over 100,00 civilians have been cut out off from humanitarian assistance and 120,000 forced to flee their homes. As the international community turns its attention to South Sudan’s current worsening crises, it is indeed important to understand the outstanding grievances and deep-seeded motivations behind such violence and to work to ensure these issues are addressed. What’s equally important is that external policy prescriptions be crafted by first understanding the nuances of the Murle identity so that peacebuilding and conflict resolution initiatives can harness them for peace.
Complexity Theory in Peacebuilding Initiatives & Mass Atrocity Prevention
A new take on the importance of locally owned peacebuilding initiatives by Dr. Cedric de Coning, who heads the Peace Operations and Peacebuilding Research Group at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI), suggests a different approach to how international peacekeeping can ensure stability by helping spur self-starting, organically based peacebuilding efforts owned by local actors. Much of de Coning’s perspective is informed by complexity theory, or the study of how order, structure, and pattern arise from extremely complicated, apparently chaotic systems. According to de Coning, this theory can help shed light on the process of self-organization in societies where a variety of mechanisms and processes develop to manage peace processes. At the heart of this process in peacebuilding is bolstering the resiliency of social institutions, that is the ability of institutions to absorb and adapt to the internal and external shocks and setbacks they are likely to face. The author believes that “if a society is fragile it means that there is a risk that it may not be able to manage its own tensions, pressures, disputes, crisis and shocks without relapsing into violent conflict.” Institutional resiliency should be seen as a means conflict prevention that ought to be prioritized not only in peacebuilding operations, but also mass atrocity prevention efforts.
Given the importance of organically built institutional resilience in shielding post-conflict societies from shocks, a major function of external peacebuilding operations should be safeguarding, stimulating, facilitating and creating the space for societies to develop sustainable capacities for self-organization, according to de Coning. At the same time, peacebuilding operations must be mindful of the sensitivities of promoting a process of self-organization externally; too much external interference will undermine self-organization. The reason for this, as de Coning argues, is that external intervention removes the feedback loop that a system would otherwise need to help it self-organize, react and adapt to crises. Interventions often remove the need for a local social institution to react, thus depriving the local system from an opportunity to learn how to deal with such problems itself. Oftentimes peacebuilding and international assistance follow a linear logic; the more aid and resources thrown into a conflict setting, the more successful the operation will be. But complexity theory’s non-linear logic posits the opposite: that there is a point to which peacebuilding actually stops helping, and contributes to the very fragility it’s supposed to prevent. Case studies and past experiences demonstrate that externally-driven reform processes are not wholly sustainable.
Furthermore, de Coning believes many international peacebuilding operations too often impose their own culturally and historically informed versions of institutions, norms and models, which limits the room for locals to develop them based on their histories and cultural idiosyncrasies. Furthermore, peacebuilding operations usually underestimate the difficulties associated with transferring these institutions, norms and governance models to the local contexts. This is often combined with a inability to recognize how arduous, time-consuming and rife with challenges the process of rebuilding a state’s institutions is, as the process from fragility to stability is full of uncertainties. Peacebuilding experts would be wise to understand how their own histories and challenges in consolidating their own states’ institutions can help lend insight onto ongoing peacebuilding projects. As de Coning aptly states: “the art of peacebuilding thus lies in pursuing the appropriate balance between international support and home-grown context-specific solutions.”
The author’s focus on institutional resiliency is doubly important given the importance of strong institutions and rule of law in disincentivizing mass atrocities and localized violence in conflict prone settings. Likewise, the large overlap between the work being done in the mass atrocity/ genocide prevention community and the peacebuilding tends to be mutually reinforcing. The mass atrocity prevention community could certainly benefit from components of de Coning’s take on complexity theory. The transference of peace initiatives from international to local ownership is a trend more frequently advocated for in the conflict prevention community recently. Locally led reconciliation efforts in Kenya were instrumental in forestalling mass atrocities during the recent election cycle. Peace efforts in Nimba county, Liberia were more also successful once outside actors relinquished control and gave greater ownership of the process to local leaders. Local ownership of peace initiatives oftentimes gives more legitimacy to the process in the eyes of the locals, (as opposed to Western imposed mechanisms) as tribal leaders and elders already command the respect and trust of their communities.
Alternatively, in Bosnia, local reconciliation efforts were only able to take off when international and external actors consistently pressured and prodded local leaders. Similar difficulties with local ownership were found in Kosovo, where a push by international actors for greater local ownership of the peace process led to internal mistrust, corruption and ambiguity at the local level about how to proceed. There are dangers to ceding control of conflict prevention initiatives to local actors without looking over their shoulder. The proper balance, for both peacebuilding and mass atrocity prevention experts, probably lies somewhere in the middle where local ownership is coupled with international standards and oversight. It is important to view local ownership not as an‘ either/or’ question, but rather a careful balancing act that is mindful of the miscues associated with overreliance on external assistance as well as the lack of stewardship. While the motives of both external and domestic actors should be questioned throughout the process, sustainable peacebuilding requires both contributions from international and local actors united in achieving the same goals.
By JARED KNOLL
Cullen Hendrix and Henk-Jan Brinkman authored a candid but comprehensive report in September 2012 for the HLEF forum on Food Insecurity in Protracted Crisis, to compel greater focus on the interdependent forces of food insecurity, violence, and genocidal processes. Last month, they expanded their findings and published them in a revised paper, Food Insecurity and Conflict Dynamics: Causal Linkages and Complex Feedbacks, in which they focus on salient and emerging cases in the Sahel region of Africa. The questions which need considering are, “What lineages exist between food insecurity and conflict?”, “What role can food security interventions play?”, and How can food security-related international policies be crafted in such a way to prevent genocidal processes?” The authors argue for the possibility of responsible interventions and effective policy to transform violence and insecurity into stability and peace, given the international community’s willingness and commitment to encouraging peacebuilding with mindfulness to food security.
Food insecurity, violent conflict, and genocidal processes are interconnected and each support and exacerbate the others, the report argues, with conflict itself being a cause of food insecurity, and food insecurity potentially causing and increasing conflict. The real complexity comes into play when, in some cases, a food security intervention can resolve and even transform conflict by alleviating grievances and desperation, but in other cases it can escalate the violent efforts of a rebellion that would otherwise have insufficient resources to wage war.
- Chronic food insecurity: a persistent lack of food, either due to empty markets, or food prices too high for a population to afford it. Can lead to grievances against the state, which may lead to rebellion and open conflict.
- Acute food insecurity: sudden lack of food, such as from a draught or crop failure. Can be a direct cause of rebellion, especially when scarce resources are distributed unfairly, but can also reduce a dissatisfied population’s capacity to rebel if militants cannot maintain logistics.
- Strategic denial: deliberate disruption or blockade of food, either from local sources or foreign aid. The report focuses on the case of South Kourdofan as an example, where two years ago the Sudanese army closed off the World Food Programme’s stockpiles, and somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 refugees were displaced to surrounding states.
These variances each require an entirely different approach; the report urges that interventions may have positive or negative impacts in each circumstance, depending on steps taken. Any policy-based solution is further stymied by the type of conflict. In a communal conflict with acute food insecurity, an intervention may be likely to transform the conflict, but in a civil one it can reescalate. In chronic situations, the opposite results can be true. Intervening in food prices can have a very different effect if the state in crisis is democratic, or non-democratic. This is all before taking into consideration cultural, historical and sociopolitical factors specific to a region.
Recommendations to “The International Community” for Peacebuilding and Prevention
- Act as a third party to negotiations, encouraging inclusive political processes and DDR.
- Ensure food security interventions address issues of inequality on as permanent a basis as possible, through measures such as school feeding programmes and agricultural extension services.
- Support development capacities and public administration systems by empowering access to social services in vulnerable communities.
- Take an outcome-centric approach with safety net systems, like food-for-work programmes, that focus on (re)building infrastructure and improving sustainable livelihoods.
- Aim to improve social cohesion by working closely with communities and encouraging participatory programmes, which can help reintegrate IDPs.
The Hendrix-Brinkman report and subsequent publication may not be breaking new ground or providing revelation, but it achieved what it’s meant to – comprehensively break down a highly complex set of factors contributing to violence conflict and genocidal processes, and make a call to policymakers in the international community to integrate a food insecurity lens. The authors’ recommendations aren’t complex or revolutionary – their stark simplicity should be a challenge for all members of the international community to turn knowledge into action.
The following is the final entry in a three part series on Kenya’s 2013 general elections and their implications for similar mass atrocity prevention efforts moving forward. The peaceful Kenyan election this past March was hailed as a major victory for those working to prevent a repeat of the mass atrocities committed in the aftermath of the 2007-2008 elections. From the perspective of the mass atrocity prevention community, Kenya did a commendable job in upholding their responsibility to protect populations from mass atrocities. The international community also succeeded in assisting national and local authorities throughout this process. Thus, both fulfilled their 1st and 2nd pillar responsibilities under the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) framework, which are, accordingly: that a state must uphold its responsibility to protect its populations, and that if that state is unable to do so, the international community has an obligation to assist. Lessons learned from the 2007-2008 atrocities catalyzed both domestic and international momentum to proactively address the risk factors and causes of potential violence. But does the Kenyan case study represent a true shining example of successful R2P application, as well as a model for future applications in unstable democracies? Or were there unique circumstances germane to this case and/or a large overhype of the risks that make this atrocity prevention success not as generalizable a model as some may think?
A True Model of 1st and 2nd Pillar R2P or an Aberration?
Kenya was certainly seen as a resounding success within the mass atrocity prevention community, but what are the lessons and best practices that are logically transferable to similar cases where there’s risk for political violence? In terms of the risk of mass atrocities, Kenya was indeed a unique case for several main reasons. Kenya’s government was first of all deeply committed to avoiding the same pitfalls suffered during the last national election cycle, where over 1,000 were killed and 350,000 displaced. These events prompted a political crisis, subsequent ICC indictments and led to the rapid destruction of more than half of the country’s GDP. Following this, Nairobi engaged in massive reforms, local and national conflict mediation efforts and greatly enhanced its police presence prior to the elections. These efforts fostered a narrative for a national violence prevention agenda that had not been seen in Kenya during past election cycles, essentially laying a strong foundation for creating a culture of accountability aimed at dissuading the incitement of political violence. In these five years, Kenya actuated a multidimensional peace industry that involved cohorts and partners from all walks of life, all invested in the same goal. It’s hard expect such an effort to replicated elsewhere in Africa where lack of resources, institutional capacity and political will would probably be in short supply compared to the Kenyan case. The feasibility of implementing highly coordinated tech campaigns in the DRC or Somalia is practically impossible compared to doing so in Nairobi, also known as the “Silicon Savannah”, as the disparities with infrastructure, resources and outside assistance are stark. But while the individual building blocks of peace were positioned to succeed in the Kenyan case, that doesn’t mean the blueprint of what worked in Kenya can’t be utilized in similar cases.
Secondly, when advocating for mass atrocity prevention in nations where strong electoral management and effective governance are lacking, strong institutions are usually the first defense against fraud and instability. Kenya, who many see as a model for democracy amongst East African nations, had institutions that weren’t completely broken, but rather in serious need of fixing. In other fledgling democracies it may be hard to quickly repair and restore confidence in institutions in order to establish a foundation for a peaceful democratic process, that of which Kenya managed to achieve in a relatively short period of time. Thirdly, the main risk in Kenya was election-based violence, which means the roots of violence weren’t nearly as deep as other countries in the region like the DRC, Sudan, or Somalia, where mass atrocities are being committed in the context of civil wars and widespread militia-based fighting. A key wildcard in this case was the ICC’s involvement after the last general elections and the symbolic impact they had on dissuading violence. It’s easy to see that the Hague was a powerful antidote to violence in Kenya, just as it’s not in Khartoum.
Another factor that makes the model utilized in Kenya ungeneralizable to other R2P cases is that the Kenyan government was fully committed to atrocities prevention for a variety of reasons previously mentioned. Externally driven capacity building, robust civil society partnerships and various election observers were more than welcomed by Nairobi, which differentiates this from more classic R2P cases where atrocities are occurring in closed systems, like Syria or Sudan. Many allege that the general elections were a classic case of the dog that didn’t bark, and that over hype and exaggeration distorted the true risk of mass atrocities. It remains hard to prove how much of an effect various initiatives had on the risk of violence during the elections, which may render the exactitude of recommendations for future cases somewhat unclear. Whether there was over hype or not isn’t going to bug policymakers, citizens, or international investors when considering the alternative, inaction, but it does muddy the waters for the international community when seeking to replicate, with confidence, the ingredients of the Kenyan model. The Kenyan example was uniquely geared towards a strong possibility of peace, that doesn’t mean some of the preemptive efforts taken can’t be seen as a successful utilization of the R2P toolkit. Certain lessons in Kenya may be useful in helping assist unstable democracies where election violence is a serious concern, such as Zimbabwe, Madagascar and Mali in the short-term. The lessons and successes/failures in coordinating local early warning and response systems, pressuring political leaders to limit incitement, training indigenous media outlets to spread tolerance, and strengthening local capacities for peace, should be shared widely within the mass atrocity/ genocide prevention community.
Finally, part of the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ norm requires governments and the international community to work to ensure sustainable peace by addressing the root causes of violence. In fact, the International Commission for Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) Report from 2001, one of the foundational documents of R2P, considered this to be the international community’s most important obligation. To think that root causes of Kenya’s past atrocities have been completely addressed because of one short-term success would be dangerous and irresponsible. It is the obligation of the international community to assist Kenya in addressing these root causes in order to ensure long-term mass atrocity prevention. As Kenya exhales after a tense several months, the international community must begin this process while consolidating on gains made in enhancing civil society capacities and institutional accountability, particularly the judiciary. Newly appointed President Kenyatta must work to further establish trust in the electoral process, carry out constitutional reforms, continue the ongoing process of national reconciliation, and build upon the peace industry that helped carry Kenyan society through the recent elections. Not capitalizing on Kenya’s short-term victories in mass atrocity prevention would not only tarnish the generalizability of lessons learned for future cases , but would also amount to a failure by neglecting lessons of the past.
Photo: AP Photo / Ben Curtis