Shoring Up the Fragile State

Societies attempting to make the transition to democracy should start by establishing a consensus on basic values.


Why do some democratic transitions work while others fail? The answer has less to do with formal institutions and politics than with the dynamics within societies. In troubled state after troubled state — from Afghanistan, Nepal, and Sri Lanka, to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Nigeria, Egypt, Iraq, and Libya — we see those charged with helping transitions focusing on how citizens relate to their state (in trying to find just the right election rules, for example), rather than how citizens relate to one another. The importance of a functioning social covenant among citizens is all but forgotten.

A social covenant needn’t be formal, or even all that ambitious. It can be any working arrangement, whether written or not, that brings together a country’s various ethnic, religious, clan, class, and ideological groups to build a more socially cohesive state. A state supported by a strong social covenant will be better able to manage the stresses of transition and lay the basis for an inclusive and sustainable political process going forward. The key thing is that the major groups within a society must agree on a way to work together. Forged from negotiations between different groups, a social covenant builds a common identity, articulates shared values, and gives political society a basic sense of purpose. No successful state can exist without some societal consensus to undergird it.

In particular, fragile states, where social divisions are generally much greater than other states, need covenants. However much they differ in other ways, all truly fragile states have populations with little capacity to cooperate in pursuit of public goods and weak (or dysfunctional) institutions. Many such states have origins as colonial fabrications imposed on local populations. Viewed as artificial impositions, such states often fail to create common national identities, and typically have populations with stark differences in loyalties, values, and even languages. (Nigerians speak more than 500 different tongues. Their institutions, which do not reflect their own histories and accumulated experiences, are weakly embedded in society and have little legitimacy.)

Nothing tests a state like a change of regime: They create power vacuums and unleash powerful collective emotions. Competing political identities surge in importance just as the formal structures of government are least able to manage them. If a state isn’t already resilient, the stresses that come with regime change can easily lead to violence or even (in the worst case) rip the state apart, as happened in Somalia in 1991 and may eventually happen in Syria, Iraq, and Libya. Building social covenants injects legitimacy into the transition process, so that the state has a fighting chance at gaining strength, weathering the stresses of transition, and safeguarding its people’s chances for a freer, more peaceful, and more prosperous life. It also means that a more diverse set of voices will be represented and considered when making crucial decisions about a country’s identity and institutions.

Social covenants are hardly a new idea, of course. In fact, they have long played a crucial role in nation-building. Without them it’s hard to imagine the rise of some of the world’s first coherent nation states (in England, Scotland, the Netherlands, and Switzerland). The peoples of those places, as Daniel Elazar has written, "not only conceived of civil society in covenantal terms, but actually wrote national covenants to which loyal members of the body politic subscribed." In the United States, social covenants played a prominent role in the establishment of early communities (such as those created by the Puritans), individual colonies (especially in the north), and eventually the whole country. The Declaration of Independence is at heart a covenant that articulates a new relationship among a set of people sharing common values. Many cohesive nation states have informal social covenants that have evolved over a long history and which bring their people together around a common identity and set of values.

Perhaps the best recent example of how it can help to focus first on a "social covenant" is South Africa. Its transition succeeded despite decades of conflict and the long, sad history of apartheid. This makes it a model of sorts for other deeply splintered societies. (In the photo above, black and white South Africans dance during a march in Johannesburg in February 1990.) 

After start-and-stop negotiations that slowly nurtured relationships, the key representatives of whites (the National Party, or NP) and blacks (the African National Congress, or ANC) worked together to reach bilateral consensus on the key issues. Later, other groups joined the political negotiations. They included some, such as white, right-wing parties and several leading black parties, that had earlier refused to take part. In the last stage, international assistance helped to bring in the last holdouts (led by the mainly Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party).

The final agreement — the social covenant — forced everyone to make major concessions, placing constraints on the ANC, giving the NP a limited role in government for five years, and carving out a special status for the Zulu monarchy. Decentralization gave groups other than the ANC greater access to power at the provincial level. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established by the first post-apartheid government to deal with politically motivated crimes committed during the apartheid era. The work of the Commission was designed so that it promoted reconciliation and limited prosecutions.

Under the crucial guidance of ANC head Nelson Mandela and other leaders, the country achieved remarkable reconciliation among groups that had been in conflict for decades, and established a new national identity based on a highly tolerant, highly inclusive vision of South Africa as a multicultural "rainbow nation" that brought people together in a way previously not thought possible.

In Tunisia, something akin to a social covenant was constructed years before the Arab Spring. The four major opposition parties came together starting in 2003 to reach a consensus on what they would do if they ever got political power. In their joint "Call from Tunis," they agreed on such things as the role of elections, religion, Muslim-Arab values, and women in society. These agreements, and the relationships built while forging them, allowed Islamic and secular leaders to overcome their mutual fears and distrust, and laid the groundwork for the relatively successful (though imperfect) transition that continues today. Everyone has understood the need for compromise — as shown by the recently approved post-transition constitution, which has been hailed by Islamists and liberals alike.

In contrast, most transitions provide no opportunity for the various groups within societies to develop relationships, build trust, and forge a consensus through compromise on how they will live together and develop their countries in the future. Instead, they rush into a competitive — and all too often zero-sum — fight for power through elections. This leads to an emphasis on the differences among groups before strong social ties binding them together have been established — with often tragic consequences.

Though Egypt entered the Arab Spring with a relatively cohesive and institutionalized state, its political leaders never attempted to establish a covenant. The country is now correspondingly mired in a transition fraught with ongoing sectarian political conflict. First the Muslim Brotherhood and then the military sought to systemically exclude political rivals from any role in shaping the country’s direction. President Mohamed Morsi of the Brotherhood sought to grant himself sweeping new powers in November 2012. Then, he attempted to steamroll through a strongly Islamist constitutional draft that enforced a rigid concept of Egypt’s national identity and disregarded the concerns of large sections of the population. A year later, after taking power in a coup, the military sought to draft its own amendments of the Mubarak-era constitution with a panel that excluded most of the Islamists. The army cracked down hard on opponents, jailing thousands. Sadly, the rest of the region today resembles Egypt more than Tunisia.

One of the biggest challenges to forging social covenants is determining whom to include and whom to exclude. The "winners" of any regime change will look askance at the idea of working with members (or allies) of the old regime, minority groups that played no prominent role in the changeover, former extremists who want to join the process, and so on. Nonetheless, they should overcome their reluctance in the name of greater stability and legitimacy. In places such as Iraq and Libya, excluding members of the previous regime has weakened the capacity of the state, while excluding members of the former dominant ethnic or tribal groups has hardened social divisions and fed violence.

The more inclusive a new regime is, the more likely it is to be stable, sustainable, and successful. There is always the possibility, of course, that some spoilers may prove too dangerous, and will need to be isolated or confronted, possibly with force. While the process of forging a social covenant ought to clarify who these are, transition leaders will at times have to make judicious decisions to ensure that their coalitions are "inclusive enough" to succeed. Of course, the state must always have strict rules on violent rhetoric and hate speech, and its leaders, especially those from the same social groups as extremists, should take strong stands against violence and exclusionary actions and rhetoric. Violent radicals, exclusionary democrats, secessionists, and members of the former regime who refuse to accept the disposition of the new one will have to be contained or mollified to protect the transition. In Tunisia, a reluctance to take proper security measures against a radical Islamist movement came back to haunt the first government elected after the transition, when members of that movement attacked police officers, soldiers, and the U.S. embassy in Tunis, and assassinated two opposition politicians. Figuring out who should be "in the tent" and who must be kept outside it is one of the hardest tasks of transition.

Although domestic actors must do most of the work of transition, international actors can give substantial help in a few areas. Intervention in its various forms can be pivotal in supporting the negotiation process — as it has been in places as diverse as Mozambique, Guatemala, and the Philippines — and shaping the transition framework. More often than not, forging social covenants will require long discussions that gradually build trust, bring in more parties, find creative solutions and compromises, and design new ways of governing and handing over power. Foreign aid can fill the gaps created by short-term financial shortfalls, encouraging even would-be spoilers to "buy-in," and helping an economy reform, as has happened in post-conflict countries such as Sierra Leone and Liberia. Technical assistance can help improve the capacity of institutions so they can play more constructive roles than in the past. International actors can also provide information about the ways other countries dealt with similar challenges, helping local actors find solutions that fit their own contexts.

After agreements among the major groups have been reached, international actors can also prove pivotal in monitoring commitments. When trust between parties is low and local institutions are weak or missing, there is nothing like having an honest referee. In this capacity, international actors can enforce standards and agreements with rewards and sanctions; ask the World Bank or International Monetary Fund to monitor economic reforms; and even deploy troops as a security guarantee. Peacekeeping troops have played a pivotal role in places as diverse as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia, Lebanon, and Kosovo. Outside observers have been crucial to the legitimacy of elections across the globe. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, the international community has stayed involved for two decades to ensure the equity of policies.

Transitions are hard for any country. In fragile states, so much can easily go wrong to inadvertently strengthen authoritarianism or permanent instability while causing peace, freedom, and prosperity to suffer. Forging a social covenant between key groups as early as possible is a must if an inclusive political process is to take root and become widely accepted. Even if it remains unwritten, a covenant can play a decisive role in transforming the social relationships that form the bones to which the sinews of state are attached.

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