For seven months in 2016, police in the northern Nigerian city of Jos refused to patrol the Anguwan Rukuba neighborhood, despite the need for action against rampant drug dealing. The boycott stemmed from an attack that burned down the area’s police station after a special anti-narcotics unit had arrested 10 suspected drug dealers. In the absence of law enforcement, crime rose and residents became increasingly afraid to go about their daily lives.

People displaced by Boko Haram, farm as part of a U.N. food program. The military and the government have proclaimed that the countryside outside Maiduguri mostly safe. Photo Courtesy of The New York Times/Ashley Gilbertson
People displaced by Boko Haram farm as part of a U.N. food program. The military and the government have proclaimed that the countryside outside Maiduguri is mostly safe. Photo Courtesy of The New York Times/Ashley Gilbertson

The case illustrates the complexities that often bedevil the most serious and well-intended efforts to establish or strengthen government institutions meant to serve citizens in areas prone to—or recovering from, or both—violent conflict. And it shows that such initiatives rarely take a clear, steady path from violence to stable and effective government.

While better governance in conflict environments can affect—preferably reduce—violence, it’s a two-way street: the effects of violent conflict on a society inevitably complicate development efforts. While that may seem obvious, it means reform-minded local officials and any foreign assistance programs aimed at supporting them must be prepared to adapt and pivot accordingly, to prevent a backlash that could undo months or years of hard work.

The interconnections of governance, law and security were the focus of a recent discussion at the U.S. Institute of Peace, co-hosted by the World Bank, among experts focusing on findings of the Bank’s 2017 World Development Report: Governance and the Law.

Rule of law reforms tend to alter the positions and interests of all those involved in the conflict.

The report makes a compelling case, complete with data and statistical analysis, that better interaction between government and its citizens can improve security and reduce violence in societies grappling with conflict. But experience with rule of law reform on the ground tells us that the reverse can be equally true: lingering – or resurgent -- conflict can have a direct impact on efforts to strengthen governance.

The report authors cite “robust empirical evidence,” for example, to declare that “more police and more police presence have been shown causally to lead to declines in crime.” But what if the actions of police, as in the case of the neighborhood in Jos, Nigeria, spur a backlash?

Strategic Thinking and Compromises

Recognizing this two-way relationship is pivotal for practitioners in three ways.

First, it can benefit strategic thinking on how to ensure that improvements such as new or reformed institutions are sustainable. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the international community spent years and significant resources to help the country establish a state-level court after the end of the war. Once the institutions were set up, foreign donors and assistance organizations withdrew from the country, thinking their work was complete.

But ultra-nationalists in the government of the Bosnian Serb entity, Republika Srpska, quickly seized on lingering tensions from the war and tarred the court as an instrument used by Bosnian Muslims to subjugate the country’s ethnic Serbs. In 2015, Republika Srpska pushed for a referendum to challenge the authority of the state judicial system. While a backlash from international officials and the absence of support from neighboring Serbia for the move put the referendum on ice, Bosnian Serbs continue to hold it over the heads of the country’s institutions, seriously undermining the sustainability of the court.

Neglecting to heed how conflict can affect governance also can leave assistance organizations unprepared to recognize the compromises that often are necessary to achieve a state where strong institutions constrain violence. In pursuing the intended end state, a country must pass through a series of transitional stages. Some phases that naturally occur in any transition may appear indistinguishable from reversals in progress. The result could prompt rash responses that could worsen the situation, or it could destroy support for the kind of long-term commitment required for real advances.

State and Security Weaknesses

In Burkina Faso, the weakness of the state and security services recently drove the government to tacitly allow powerful self-defense groups to act as law enforcement. While the government’s monopoly over the use of force is a key element of a functional state, any attempt to stamp out these new groups could destabilize the country, leaving it even further from achieving peace and security.

Lastly, the failure to recognize how conflict and institutional reform interact may result in underestimations of the extent to which governance reform can fuel the very conflict it seeks to contain. Institutions are not built in isolation; conflict dynamics after the end of war are intense and permeate the society, including its institutions. Reform efforts based entirely on assumptions of logic and rational dynamics would miss the fundamentally emotional undercurrents in a highly tense environment before or after war.

Moreover, rule of law reforms tend to alter the positions and interests of all those involved in the conflict, as each side seeks to gain more power than the other by capturing key positions or control over institutions. So the power struggles unleashed by reforms of institutions after the end of armed conflict can, ironically, push conditions back to the brink of violence.

As professionals and officials consider the recommendations of the 2017 World Development Report, it is important to keep in mind some of the lessons that have emerged from the field of peacebuilding over the years. Working towards strong and effective institutions that can manage conflict requires long-term perspective and involvement and a willingness to adapt to complex environments where movement doesn’t always occur in a straight line.

Above all, it requires a certain dose of humility about the ability of outsiders to support institution-building and a recognition that lingering conflict may continue to threaten institutions in the immediate aftermath of armed conflict.

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