Since the end of World War II, we have experienced a shift in conflict dynamics, from inter-state to intra-state conflicts. In 2016 alone, the world witnessed 47 intra-state conflicts. Today, wars are fought within state borders between a multiplicity of actors over the distribution of political power and national wealth both at and between the center and subnational governance levels. Marginalized groups are vying for greater autonomy at the local level, while those in control of the state—be they majorities or dominant minority groups—seek to consolidate political power at the center. Such intra-state conflicts with subnational dimensions are among the most protracted and violent conflicts.
Countries undergoing political transitions also have to confront the nature of their governance structure and intergovernmental arrangements between different layers of authority. Most recently, this has been obvious in the context of the Arab Spring. Libya’s conflict, for example, is strongly defined by regionalism, with most political and military leaders mobilizing support along regional lines. The ongoing constitution-making process—viewed as a critical step toward elections and the end of the political transition—has been hijacked by regional disputes. Political elites are unwilling to relinquish the power they hold locally and are pushing for a referendum law that requires regional majorities (rather than a national majority) to approve a new constitution. In its current form, the constitutional draft privileges a strong central state over a federal system with many devolved powers, and would most likely be rejected in such a voting arrangement. In turn, this could trigger renewed disputes in an already protracted transition process. Thus, designing acceptable and sustainable subnational governance arrangements is crucial to preventing a relapse into violent conflict.
This point is also apparent in Yemen. Here, a failure to formulate subnational governance arrangements that accommodate various competing groups has been a key trigger for the conflict that ended what might have been the only successful negotiated transition of the Arab Spring. Yet the constitutional draft emerging from the National Dialogue Conference (NDC) proposed a federal state in which South Yemen was assigned just two of the six federal states and failed to award meaningful political autonomy to the Houthis. As a result, a Houthi insurgency plunged the country into a civil war in 2014, which has since drawn in external actors with their own sectarian and regional geopolitical rivalries and also rekindled violent conflict between northern “centralizers” and southern “separatists.” To leverage the potential of sustainable subnational governance arrangements as a conflict prevention mechanism, the negotiation process of such arrangements has to be based on broad support and buy-in from all stakeholders.
Attempts to redraw internal boundaries and intergovernmental systems reshape the balance of power, creating “winners” and “losers,” and are therefore inherently politicized. Gaining a better understanding of the merits and risks of redesigning and strengthening subnational governance arrangements and of other institution-building initiatives that impact the nature of these arrangements is critical for international partners engaging in efforts of conflict prevention, particularly the World Bank and United Nations.
To that end, the World Bank’s Fragility, Conflict, and Violence Group has analyzed the merits of subnational governance arrangements as conflict mitigation mechanisms, identifying critical lessons learned along three dimensions; process, content, and context.
Regarding process, the political settlement has to be inclusive, providing all main stakeholders the opportunity to shape institutional arrangements that adequately reflect the balance of power. The content of political settlements that include subnational governance arrangements has to ensure that institutional arrangements effectively address the drivers of conflict, are entrenched in constitutional guarantees, and take into account the financial implications of proposed arrangements.
While the eventual success or failure of conflict mitigation through subnational governance arrangements is ultimately a question of the political will of local conflict parties, support from international partners remains a critical factor in ensuring a context that is conducive to success throughout the negotiation, implementation, and functioning of governance structures that create and sustain resilient institutions and are responsive to citizens’ needs.
Simona Ross is with the United Nations Support Mission in Libya; Stefan Wolff is with the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security at the University of Birmingham, England.