Adam Branch's Presentation on “Promoting Inclusive and Equitable Political Settlements” Global Resilience Innovation Platform Summit, IDRC and the World Bank on 15 May, 2013, Nairobi-Kenya

Presentation on “Promoting Inclusive and Equitable Political Settlements”

Global Resilience Innovation Platform Summit, IDRC and the World Bank.

May 15, 2013

Nairobi, Kenya.

by Dr. Adam Branch

This panel has been asked to speak of knowledge gaps. Now, the idea of a gap presupposes the existence of a structure around that gap, a firmly established, existing framework that simply requires completion. The idea of a knowledge gap takes the existence of that framework, or paradigm, for granted and as widely agreed upon—and so implies that achieving accurate, usable knowledge is a matter of replacing the unknown with the known and completing that framework.

I want to start by asking if this metaphor of filling knowledge gaps is the most appropriate one for addressing the problem under consideration.

I ask this because, at the Institute where I work, we have built our research and graduate education agenda—largely through the assistance provided by IDRC Think Tank Initiative core funding—around trying to help correct what we see as a troubling trend that characterizes much of the social research conducted in Africa today. In this trend, growing out of the international political economy of research, research questions are generally posed from outside the continent, while intellectual work within the continent is relegated to providing answers to these questions posed by others. This trend, what our director has called the rise of a consultancy culture, is troubling intellectually because it threatens to undermine further the autonomy of academic production and research in Africa; and it is troubling practically because it excludes those who are most affected by the problems facing African societies from a role in turning those problems into questions requiring research, and thus in proposing solutions.

It is little surprise, then, that this crisis in research has arisen simultaneously with the increasing popularity of a discourse that declares Africa’s problems to be intractable—as, at best, being susceptible of being managed or contained, but not resolved. If, however, we view the supposed intractability of Africa’s problems not as a reflection of the unfathomable depth of those problems, but rather as testament to the inappropriateness of the commonly proposed solutions, then the essential importance of enabling autonomous research in Africa becomes clear.

Therefore, it might be productive to think not only in terms of what gaps need to be filled within orthodox knowledge paradigms of resolving political violence, but rather whether those dominant paradigms need rethinking. At MISR, we argue that this process of critique and reconstruction can best be achieved by reflecting on Africa’s own historical experiences with ending—and failing to end—mass violence and building alternative paradigms out of those African experiences, dignifying them, instead of subsuming them to imported frameworks.

Of course, this is easier said than done, but this is what we are seeking to help advance through our “Beyond Nuremberg” research project, which we are also hoping to undertake with the support of the IDRC. Our project begins with the common observation that mass violence in contemporary Africa tends to display a cyclical character, as yesterday’s victims become today’s perpetrators. The dominant paradigm sees these cycles as caused by state fragility. That is, the state is given the function of mediating conflicts thought to be intrinsic to multi-ethnic societies, and so when the state is lacking in efficacy or legitimacy, it is thought that conflict is destined to break out. The solution to cycles of conflict, in this view, are political settlements among state and opposition elites, which should seek to acquire “good enough” public buy-in and then enable statebuilding.

The Beyond Nuremberg project, however, does not necessarily take state weakness as the underlying cause of cycles of violence. Instead, through historical inquiry into state formation, we see collective violence the as political responses to state formation, not as pre-political responses to state failure.

The point is to understand the ways in which the state has shaped society, and to understand that extreme violence in society often points to the need to fundamentally reform the state. This is because political violence in post-colonial Africa is typically intra-state violence, emerging from contexts in which the ethnicized political identities established under colonial rule have continued to be dominant in post-colonial politics. Mainstream political science frames the politicization of tribal or racial identities as an effect of state weakness, and is thus focused on the outcome, instead of the process, of state formation.

An alternative approach would seek to understand different historical routes of state formation. One place to start is the specificity of indirect rule colonialism, which worked by grouping populations into tribal homelands, each under the rule of a so-called native authority and customary law. From there, comparative analyses of different post-colonial experiences can help illuminate how the framework was set for cycles of violence in which different tribal or racial identities alternate between the roles of perpetrator and victim.

The key to resolving cycles of violence would therefore be not so much a matter of forging elite settlements to fix fragile states. Rather, violence can be ended only by going beyond the cycle itself. Therefore, if political settlements are going to contribute to sustainable and lasting peace, they would need to be designed so as to overcome, and not entrench, the political identities involved in cycles of violence.

Research can explore the ways in which political settlements enable the formation of inclusive communities of survivors, or further polarize exclusive communities based on victim and perpetrator identities. This research agenda might be further specified around three questions.

First, how is violence represented in political settlements? We would seek to understand mass violence politically through an investigation into the statebuilding processes in which it is embedded. Violence is seen to be caused by histories of political and social injustice, whether by those who seek to end it or by those who seek to perpetuate it. As noted, ethnic violence may be a political outcome of state formation, not a non-political response to state failure.

Second, what are the collective political identities forged through the settlement? We ask whether political settlements include all those who will live together in post-conflict communities as survivors, or divide those involved in mass violence between perpetrators and victims. Can a new political community emerge from the political settlement based upon the acknowledgement that all involved in the conflict have a legitimate right to engage in the process to end it? This provides an alternative to institutional focus of the state fragility discourse. We focus not on management by governance institutions but on participation and transformation of political communities.

Third, how is social justice stipulated in the political settlement, or how might the settlement set the stage for struggles for social justice? The emergence of inclusive political communities from the crucible of collective violence is by no means assured; because the endeavor to perpetuate political and social injustice provides the milieu for collective violence in the first place, ending conflict may require the exploration of forms of justice beyond a liberal economic order, forms that encompass social justice involving redistribution based upon the rejection of neoliberal orthodoxy. This involves a challenge to the idea of resilience; resilience represents individuals and communities as in need of empowerment so as to better adapt to risks stemming from unchangeable structures of domination and inequality. Social justice is premised instead on democratic struggles to change those structures collectively.

Answering these three questions can help sketch new paradigms, while by no means providing a one-size-fits-all “solution” to political settlements in Africa. Different paradigms of settlements should be developed based upon different politics of violence, different contexts and exigencies. While today, the dominant practice is to begin with the theory and then impose it on African practice, new paradigms can seek to theorize African experiences of conflict, peace, and justice and then use them as a basis for the collective pursuit of inclusive futures.

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