Statebuilding and Peacebuilding in Contexts of Identity-Related Conflicts: A Necessary Collaboration

Statebuilding and Peacebuilding in Contexts of Identity-Related Conflicts: A Necessary Collaboration

Identities have historically played a role in African conflicts. Religion, ethnicity, language, and race have long divided populations as they compete for economic resources, political power, and access to opportunities. Globally, Bosnia, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka provide examples of identity conflicts. In Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, and Rwanda demonstrate the dynamics of such conflicts as they relate to governments and societies and how these conflicts have worsened relationships. At their root lie strong feelings of marginalization and the exclusion of groups from political processes and economic resources—for instance, Muslims in Kenya; the Jassawa in Plateau State, Nigeria; the Tamil minority group in Sri Lanka; and the Christians versus Muslims in Maluku, Indonesia. In some cases, these long-held grievances have engendered extremist responses, attacks on individuals of particular identities, or even demands for secession.

Although progress is being made on broader state building efforts, it is important to ask how peacebuilding can take place when the state is perceived as biased, partisan, unfair, and favoring some groups over others. How can peacebuilding reduce violence and at the same time address injustices and improve fragile relationships when the state is directly or indirectly responsible for increasing violence, perpetuating injustices among different identity groups, and contributing to the worsening of their relationships? In the absence of international oversight and a large international presence at national or subnational levels, how can peacebuilding work in such a climate?

An in-depth approach to this problem requires engaging with the state, particularly at the subnational and local levels. These go beyond the capitals to state and provincial governments, local governments, and leadership at the district, ward, and even village levels. The importance of local governance structures can be seen in Ethiopia, where their strength makes possible the solution of 90 percent of crimes at the community level.1 It is particularly important to understand state building at these levels of governance because that is where the impact of the conflict is mostly felt, where the economic, security, and psychosocial needs are most real and evident, and where perpetrators commit gross violations of human rights. In Somalia, for instance, Balthazar proposes that internal and external stakeholders engaged in state building efforts should prioritize the needs at the bottom by creating sources of revenue rather than focusing on the “legalistic and procedural aspects of state building at the top.”2

“The state” broadly refers to actors or institutions of governance that are accorded judicial, executive, and legal powers. These institutions also include ministries and government agencies at the different levels of society. Through them, the state is responsible for providing “a decentralized method of delivering political goods” to persons living within its territory,3 as well as for providing security for its citizens, effectively and efficiently managing public resources, and meeting their basic needs.

Beyond capably performing these functions, the state must also be seen as legitimate, engaged, and actively involved with its citizens. In the course of state building in Rwanda, for example, the government has been successful in providing security and other basic services, such as public education and health. Primary school enrollment rates have increased (from 70 percent in 1990 to 150 percent in 20084), and life expectancy at birth rose from 33 years in 1990 to 50 years in 2008—improvements all supported strongly by international aid and support.5 Good governance is also necessary for state building, as evidenced in Sierra Leone’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) report of 2004, which stated that “unsound governance provided a context conducive for the interplay of poverty, marginalization, greed, and grievances that caused and sustained the conflict.”6

According to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), state building is an “endogenous process to enhance capacity, institutions, and legitimacy of the state driven by state–society relations.”7 Based on this definition, the goal is essentially to improve the relationship between the state and its citizens. To achieve it, the state’s capacities must be developed and its relevant institutions made effective. Capacities refer to the skills and knowledge fundamental for the state to have to improve its relationship with citizens and effectively meet their needs, and institutions must respond to the specific needs of citizens and communities. More importantly, citizens must see the state as legitimate in its efforts, thereby accepting the government and its authority—something that can easily be broken when the state has failed to protect and provide for citizens of a particular race, religion, or ethnicity. In societies with multiple identities, this legitimacy must be apparent to all groups.

In cases where the national government has lost its legitimacy, Branson proposes, strong local governance can restore it by meeting communities’ calls for peace, security, and justice.8 Legitimacy cannot be achieved, however, when one specific group controls political power and access to economic resources to the disadvantage of others. In the case of Rwanda, for instance, Takeuchi notes that “the 2003 constitution, which is generally characterized by democracy and a multi-party system,”9 contained in it key provisions that ensured the sustained control of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) despite the constitution’s emphasis of a multi-party democratic system, thus undermining the state’s own legitimacy. The dissolution of opposition parties and the work of all state institutions in promoting President Paul Kagame and intimidating the opposition parties thus characterized the state building process, particularly in 2003.10 These developments suggest that Rwanda has been more successful in building state capacity than in building state legitimacy.

Of equal importance is that the state building process must be context specific and home grown, and it must take into account the peculiarities and specificities of the actual citizens. In addition, it must be inclusive as well. As Bruzzone duly notes, the public in Somalia see state building as highly influenced and “contaminated” by external actors, which thus weakens the credibility of the process.11 In response to such perceptions, the state should push forward the notion of inclusivity in political processes so the state is continuously and constructively engaging with its citizens and remains legitimate.12

As also noted by the OECD, peacebuilding and state building processes in post-conflict countries are challenged by little or no citizen participation.13 A decentralized structure of governance will essentially improve participation and accountability, as citizens are closer to their elected officials, and not only during election periods.

It is important, then, to do the following:
• Interrogate the attitudes, views, and beliefs that shape the interaction and involvement of state actors with citizens.
• Address the biases and partisan views that have portrayed the state as illegitimate in the eyes of its citizens.
• Determine the necessary state capacities that exist for peacebuilding.
• Identify the gaps and limitations in capacities (particularly of state actors) and state institutions with regard to the causes of the conflict (marginalization, exclusion, uneven development) and how these can be addressed.
• Explore the implications of prioritizing the numerous security, economic, and psychosocial needs, even at the subnational levels.
• Identify cases studies from which much can be learned about the challenges facing the state in peacebuilding, particularly at the subnational level.

Beyond these requirements lies another important question: how do state dynamics and relationships play out in a federation where the relationships between the center and its federating units are limited by poor coordination, weak information sharing, and partisan sentiments? In addition, how much power should federating units be given in pushing peacebuilding agendas, and how much interference is needed from the center? According to a study on post-conflict societies, decentralization is necessary for sustainable development and long-lasting job creation,14 two ingredients essential for peace and stability.

Peacebuilding benefits from a decentralized approach, which requires both an involved, legitimate government that is representative of the people, and a strong, effective engagement with the grassroots communities. This necessitates the spread of more ownership, control, and decision-making powers to the bottom. This does not mean there is no space for the federal government to act, however; the government must be an adviser and, in collaboration with civil society, act as a strong check and balance on the state.

In conclusion, the foregoing issues require an analysis of state building as a medium for effective peacebuilding and a re-examination of how the state has caused divisions among groups. Borrowing from Balthazar and his work on Somalia, we can assert that state building can benefit from efforts to improve cohesion and unity among groups, especially those of different identities, but that the state must also address long-held grievances.15 It is important as well for governance structures to be inclusive at the lower levels.16 This rings true in the case of Rwanda, where, Takeuchi notes, ethnic cleavages remain a major challenge, and the dominance of the Tutsi in the power structures of the military and as the main beneficiaries of rapid economic growth in the country could increase the divide between them and the Hutu.17

While state building is a decades-long process, efforts can be implemented in the short and medium terms to improve the state’s capacity, increase its legitimacy, and ensure existing institutions are strengthened, alongside proper planning for longer-term efforts.

  1. N. Branson, “Analysis: Understanding and Engaging Local Level Governance in Fragile States,” based on a talk by Ken Menkhaus, Africa Research Institute, November 21, 2014.
  2. D. Balthazar, “New Approaches Are Needed for State-Building in Somalia.” Fair Observer, November 19, 2014,, accessed November 24, 2014.
  3. B. Maiangwa, U. O. Uzodike, A. Whetho, and H. Onapanjo, “Baptism by Fire: Boko Haram and the Reign of Terror in Nigeria,” Africa Today 59, no. 2 (2012): 41–57.
  4. These rates refer to total enrolment rates regardless of age, meaning, therefore, that the number of students enrolled in primary schools were not all of primary school age. See S. Takeuchi, “Gacaca and DDR: The Disputable Record of State-building in Rwanda,” working paper no. 32, JICA Research Institute, July 2011, 26–27.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Truth and Reconciliation Commission, “Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Sierra Leone,” Freetown, Sierra Leone, October 2004, 3.
  7. OECD, “Statebuilding in Situations of Fragility: Initial Findings,” August 2008,, accessed February 11, 2015.
  8. Branson, “Analysis: Understanding and Engaging Local Level Governance in Fragile States.”
  9. Takeuchi, “Gacaca and DDR,” 24.
  10. Ibid, 25.
  11. A. Bruzzone, “Somalia: Chickens Come Home to Roost: State Building and the Credibility Conundrum in Somalia.” African Arguments, posted November 26, 2014,, accessed December 19, 2014.
  12. OECD, “Peacebuilding and State-building Priorities and Challenges: A Synthesis of Findings from Seven Multi-Stakeholder Consultations,” International Dialogue on Peacebuilding and Statebuilding, April 9–10, 2010, Dili, Timor-Leste, 22.
  13. Ibid.
  14. K. W. Beasley, “Job Creation in Post-Conflict Societies” Silver Spring, MD: U.S. Agency for International Development, January 2006, 2,, accessed November 19, 2014.
  15. Balthazar, “New Approaches Are Needed for State-Building in Somalia.”
  16. Branson, “Analysis: Understanding and Engaging Local Level Governance in Fragile States.”
  17. Takeuchi, “Gacaca and DDR,” 31.
About the Author

Dorcas Ettang is an academic-practitioner completing a PhD in conflict transformation and peace studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. She is a former lecturer at the School of Social Sciences, University of KwaZulu Natal, and a programme officer and analyst with the African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes (ACCORD) in Durban, South Africa. Her areas of research focus broadly on conflict prevention, peacebuilding, conflict transformation, and nonviolence with a grassroots focus.

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