By Melanie Emr
Staff Writer

Renowned political scientist Arend Lijphart’s consociational model has long been viewed as a “formula” for reconciling ethnically cleaved societies. Its goal is to implement a sustainable consensus democracy in which agreements and compromises are formed inter-ethnically across all levels of government. This power sharing is a way for everyone to access a “slice of the national pie” so it is logically used as a form of post-conflict governance. [1] However, the attempts of international actors to implement consociational power-sharing agreements in Sub-Saharan African nations show varying outcomes because of the socio-political context in which they are implemented. As Lijphart himself puts it, coalescence is indeed distinct from compromise.

Lijphart’s model of a consociationalism calls for a government by elite leaders designed to produce a stable and sustainable democracy in an ethnically cleaved nation. [2] A main distinguishing feature of power sharing is the inclusion of all political cleavages in government. Successful consociational democracy requires elites to accommodate various demands of subcultures so that cooperation replaces cleavages between rival subcultures. This rests on the assumption of an inherent willingness to compromise because the elites are supposed to identify the “perils of political fragmentation.” [3]

This model of power sharing includes several principles that should ideally be included in post civil-war constitutions to produce a consociational democracy that reconciles ethnically cleaved societies. One principle of consociational democracy is a broad-based grand coalition that becomes a site of executive power sharing between the elites of the main political parties. Other principles include proportionality in providing for all major government positions and in the distribution of public means, as well as a minority veto that guarantees protection to minorities. As proportionality is a major factor of consociationalism, a power-sharing arrangement seeks to represent all key veto players in society emerging from civil war into a single peace agreement.

The case of Burundi is a classic example of consociational model at work. In 2004, an agreement that embodied the consociational model to its finest details succeeded in ending an almost decade-long civil war. However, it is important to note that an earlier failure at consociational governance in 1993 was what set off the catastrophic civil war in the first place, highlighting how differences in socio-political context could mean the success or failure of the power-sharing agreement instituted in the divided society.

After decades of military rule, Burundi attempted to transition to a democracy in 1993 by holding its first multi-party national election. The election involved two political parties, the Hutu Front for Democracy in Burundi (FRODEBU) and the Tutsi Union for National Progress (UPRONA). Although Tutsis dominated the military and comprised the majority of the societal elite, the proportional representation electoral system allowed the FRODEBU to win more seats in the national assembly. Fearing loss of security and access to power, the Tutsi resorted to using their dominant presence in the military to influence legislative decisions. [4] Because of this, Hutu President Ndadaye moved to reform the military. In response, the Tutsi officers launched a coup and assassinated Ndadaye, plunging Burundi into a civil war. The fighting that followed led to the formation of even more ethnically cleaved political factions. The 1993 agreement left the Tutsi as the unrepresented minority, which led to the coup d’état. This was a failure by international actors to incorporate all veto players in the transition process upon implementing a power sharing agreement.

Negotiators duly noted the hard-learned lessons of the 1993 attempt at a consociational peace agreement. In 2003, with the help of South African mediators, dialogue reopened between the two sides with the inclusion the Burundian military and the Forces for the Defense of Democracy (FDD), a Hutu militant group. The Burundi case reveals that the incorporation of “potential spoilers” such as the military and the FDD into power sharing was imperative to ending civil war. Despite the multitude of political factions, the inclusion of potential spoilers and a longer period of negotiations led to the success of the 2004 power sharing agreement, creating a state of trust building in society and allowing the democratic rather than autocratic entry of a single party majoritarian presidential system. [5]

According to Roeder and Rothschild, a strong state has the necessary resources to administer multiple ethnic groups and a legitimate authority to enforce the constitution. [6] However, this is often not the case in societies like Burundi with a history of armed politics. An external mediator—in this case the South Africans—must often impose a form of power sharing onto the conflict situation to provide a peaceful transition from authoritarianism into a unitary democratic regime. [7] In most cases, power-sharing institutions can offer short-term peace but not long-term democratic sustainability. As the Burundi case implies, simply having a model of consociationalism in place does not guarantee stability.

South Africa’s own experience with power sharing reflects a successful attempt at using consociationalism to bridge divides. Its transition from apartheid to multi-racial democracy consisted of a series of political pacts that eventually consolidated democratic reform. National, local and regional committees were established to provide sites of deepened political bargaining between supporters and opponents of apartheid. Negotiations in 1993 led to a multi-party process in which all parties reached an agreement on an interim constitution and set up the final pact. [8] By establishing the proper social conditions for formal institutions to survive, South Africa created a society confident in inter-ethnic cooperation. The South Africa example shows that “informal power sharing” must first flourish in the local society to sustain democracy. [9] If ethnic groups can learn to accommodate one another on a local level and form inter-ethnic organizations, they will have an easier time cooperating in higher levels.

The outcomes of the power sharing agreements in Burundi and South Africa reveal that a short-term peace and a long-term sustainable democracy are feasible if the interim power sharing institution can evolve over time into “more flexible institutions that promote crosscutting political allegiances and a cosmopolitan national identity.” [10] Time is needed to build confidence as the negotiations for majoritarian democracy unfold, since nations emerging from societies previously embroiled in conflict are fearful and insecure of the opposition’s motives. The goal of establishing a single party-dominant regime can incite fears of authoritarian dictatorship in a nation emerging from civil war. Thus, to create a sustainable democracy that identifies the incentives of power sharing, civil society needs to be integrated into state building. [11]

Another key issue in adopting power sharing is the psychological inhibitions to cooperating with the “devil.” [12]. In civil wars, a murderous military threat and one’s potential consociational partner in the grand coalition are the same. The armed military threat has historically been a symbol of hegemonic oppression. Thus, creating the proper institutions that “break” the symbol and reintroduce the armed opposition as a political party desiring peaceful compromise seems an insurmountable challenge. [13]

If power sharing is instituted in a socio-political context where the military is accorded veto player status to deepen the divide with the opposition, intra-elite cooperation will be hampered and democracy will be made unsustainable. The Zimbabwe case reveals how a power sharing institution that included both strong institutional veto players such as the military and partisan veto players such as the major political parties could lead to democratic deadlock.

Power sharing in Zimbabwe, where the leading political party controls the military, led to continued insurgencies. [14] The Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), relied on “repression rather than consensus to gain compliance” as oppositional challenges to its hegemony grew. [15] ZANU-PF used political violence with military support to maintain its hegemony and refused to open up political dialogue with new political players after signing the Global Political Agreement. The military “predatorily” safeguarded its central political role, deliberately obstructing opportunities for compromise and reconciliation. [16] Thus, the military control of the state reduces the willingness of key veto players to allow a more functional power-sharing agreement. [17]

The oppressive civil-military relationship and violent political competition failed to provide the right sociopolitical context conducive to consensus decision-making. Long-term sustainable democratic consolidation cannot occur when the central political power is entrenched in “militarized politics.” [18] In some cases, including even the armed instigators of civil war conflict into negotiations may be detrimental in nations where the state has historically been seen as a “predatory” site of power and financial gain. Allowing potential spoilers to access negotiations could turn them into sites of power and wealth rather than of peace making and grand coalition forming. Political leaders with close militaristic ties will often use power sharing as a tool of violence to access this table.

The case of Kenya provides a stark contrast to the case of Zimbabwe. Since Kenya had a clear separation between the state politics and the military, the institutional veto was nonexistent and negation was strictly between partisan veto players. Thus, the political atmosphere was less polarized and more open to accommodation, in contrast to the deeply politically polarized Zimbabwe case. This ensured that deals brokered by civilian leaders would be maintained. [19]

International peacemakers believe power sharing must be implemented following violent uprisings in order to bridge the ethnic divide. However, they must first analyze the socio-political context in which they plan to insert a consociational model. A long history of militarism and violence is deeply entrenched in such societies. This makes it particularly difficult to negotiate with the opposition. In addition, the role of the military is detrimental to any power sharing agreement since the leading political party affiliated to the armed forces often uses violence as an instrument of political gain. Finally, in order to provide a lasting, sustainable democracy where coalescence leads to compromise, peacemakers must be wary of the role key veto players have had in the conflict and analyze how their inclusion or exclusion from the negotiation table may serve to instigate further conflict in the future.

1. Spears, Ian. “Africa: The Limits of Power-Sharing.” Journal of Democracy 13.3 (2002): 123-136. Print.
2. Lijphart, Arend. “Consociational Democracy.” World Politics 21.2 (1969) 207-225. Web. JSTOR.
3. Ibid.
4. Lemarchand, Rene. “Consociationalism and Power Sharing in Africa: Rwanda, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.” African Affairs, 106/422 (2006): 1-20. Print.
5. Ibid.
6. Sisk, Timothy and Christoph Stefes, “Power Sharing as an Interim Step in Peace Building: Lessons from South Africa, in Sustainable Peace: Power and Democracy after Civil Wars, Philip G. Roeder and Donald Rothchild, eds., Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005, pp. 293 – 310, 316-317. Print.
7. Ibid.
8. Ibid.
9. Ibid.
10. Ibid.
11. Ibid.
12. Ibid.
13. Ibid.
14. Cheeseman, Nic and Blessing-Miles Tendi. “Power Sharing in Comparative Perspective.” The Journal of Modern African Studies 49.19 (2010). Print.
15. Ibid.
16. Ibid.
17. Ibid.
18. Ibid.
19. Ibid.

Image by hdptcar


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