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Provoking Exit, not Loyalty, in Post-Conflict States

Sina Odugbemi's picture

You know the usual story: a political community is sundered by ethnic or sectarian conflict, things fall apart; after a hot season or two of killings and mayhem peace is negotiated, and the domestic political process resumes. The international community insists on elections. They are held in a rough and ready manner, a faction wins and forms a government. Then what happens? The winners start using the powers of the state to smash opponents anew and entrench themselves in power. Very often, the winners do this just because they can. I call them the new authoritarians. They have learned nothing and forgotten nothing. 

What they forget is that public opinion is the basis of legitimacy. As David Hume teaches in is seminal essay Of the first principles of government (1741) legitimacy flows when the preponderance of citizens in a state have three opinions:

  1. This government has a right to rule over me [depending on how they see the right  to rule]
  2. This government and the state act in my interest [including, we should add,  the interest of my identity group]; and
  3. My property rights are secure.

Creating this opinion in the minds of most citizens is a substantive challenge as well as a communication challenge. Substantively, in the words of John Stuart Mill, the state must be 'a fountain of justice', both in terms of distributive justice and inter-group justice. Second, citizens must see and believe that the state is a fountain of justice, and that requires pro-active public engagement and communication designed to shape public opinion.  The call is for an inclusive politics, especially one respectful of citizen voice. For without voice exit is tempting; the suppression of voice is the surest way to provoke a return to conflict. 

What the new authoritarians in many of today's post-conflict or fragile states forget is that widespread efforts to suppress voice, muzzle the press, and impose information hegemony are doomed to fail. First, no territory can be hermetically sealed. If deep divisions persist, ethno-sectarian media will find a way to flourish both within and outside the borders of the specific country. Wars of the airwaves will be conducted, including the use of digital media tools. Grievances will be stoked, and "We" versus "They" narratives entrenched, instead of 'One Nation" narratives. Second, the new authoritarians forget the power of "everyday talk" by citizens and its role in shaping public opinion. Just as you cannot stop citizens from meeting, you cannot stop them from talking: mosques, churches, temples, social clubs, workplaces, dinner tables - citizens will meet up and talk about the issues affecting their lives. If they are unhappy, they will share and elaborate grievances. In other words, the new authoritarians are provoking exit not loyalty. They are planting and watering seeds of conflict.


Photo Credit: Flickr user Spyros_Demetriou


Submitted by gouaf on
This should call into questioning the model of winner-take-all 'democracy' that is being forced on just about every corner of the globe. It's about more than just elections. And you definitely need to forget Hume, Stuart Mill, and start looking for endogeneous references. You can't cut and paste your way through state building.

This is an excellent post and at its core is the argument that "suppression of voice is the surest way to provoke a return to conflict". At we recognize the increasingly crucial role of independent media in post-conflict states. Neither the dead hand of state media, nor the pervasive and noisy commercial media - compromised as it usually is by concentrated ownership - does the the job as well as independent communicators do. Its often impossible for independent journalists to make a living in such fraught circumstances and they face harassment, jail or worse in many countries. But they are the natural allies of those would bring meaningful development to post conflict and fragile states. The best of them are extremely brave, moral and marginalized., though still in prototype has been 'live' for the past six months. It provides such threatened journalists, scholars, bloggers with a platform to publish - in English (and in future in their own languages) - thereby putting a spotlight on misbehaving regimes. Its becoming increasingly important that indigenous journalists do this job in an international vernacular, if only because old fashioned foreign reporting is on its last legs. The aim here is to provide a megaphone for thoughtful communicators and a modest income for those squeezed out by state and commercial media actors. There has to be a way for the international community to recognize these independent communicators and facilitate, yet not meddle in their work. To ignore the problems independent media has to confront is to facilitate the new authoritarians Sina writes about and hasten the rush for the exits. If this all sounds a bit theoretical consider the case of Ethiopia's recent crackdown on independent media Its worth knowing something about Addis Neger, an Ethiopian newspaper which was distinguished for its critical coverage of public affairs. Last year it became the target of criminal charges and intimidation by security forces, officials, and government supporters during its 26 months of circulation. Having been threatened with terrorism charges, its editor and reporters wisely legged it. They now in exile in Kenya and Uganda, their voice silenced. There is surely a role that those concerned about sustainable development could play here. Ignoring the problem like this is taking the easy way out. But long term there are few benefits in doing so.

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