When ideas of peace meet politics of conflict

For instance, disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) of ex-combatants has become an integral part of international peace operations over the past 20 years and a key area of programmatic activity, yet even the very category of ‘combatant’ in DDR programs is problematic.

“The international distinction between combatant and civilian doesn’t make much sense in Burundi, where many people have been both at different times. In fact, armed movements used DDR programs as the basis for recruitment drives – promising potential recruits ‘attractive demobilization packages’ from international donors.”

In other cases, international actors keen to see regional stability and cessation of overt violence can be “instrumentalized” by a country’s ruling elites, such as in Burundi and its neighbor Rwanda, where funds and support were funneled to the security services to increase the control and repression of populations.

“Grand ideas of democracy and empowerment can get lost in conversions towards militarization that, on a short-term and basic level, meet with the international donors’ initial desire for security,” says Curtis.

International agencies have typically understood Burundi’s conflict to be along the same ethnic lines as Rwanda’s: the majority Hutu against the minority Tutsi.

These basic ethnic categories were deployed by internationals during peace talks, and ethnic power-sharing was promoted as the “anchor of the peace agreement”, says Curtis. “For a time, this succeeded in bridging ethnic divisions, as all political parties had to include representatives from each perceived ethnicity. However, it did not address other divisions in Burundi.”

“Also, at the time of the peace negotiations, inclusive power-sharing provided a perverse incentive to keep fighting if an individual or group didn’t get what they wanted. Violence continued to be a way to get a seat at the table.” Armed groups would continue to splinter – creating more and more subgroups that would then demand representation in the peace negotiations. “As soon as someone was brought in, another movement would break away, forming a new faction.”

This was in part an effort to gain power, but there were also tactics to keep the peace talks going indefinitely, for financial gain. “Burundian representatives were flown to the city of Arusha in Tanzania for talks, and paid per diem rates.” There is a well-to-do neighborhood in Burundi’s capital city nicknamed “Arushaville,” which is said to be built on the earnings of these protracted negotiations.

While the peace negotiations meant one thing for international and regional mediators and donors, they were viewed in different ways by Burundians. In fact, the very language of the international donor community can be coopted and reinterpreted for local gain.

For instance, networks of traditional elders, called the Bashingantahe, were considered a thorn in the side of the current regime in Burundi. “The regime implemented a ‘democratic decentralization’ program – something designed to appeal to donors – which established an elected government at the local level. It led to fierce competition between these newly elected local officials and the Bashingantahe elders, so the elders formed their own ‘NGO’ to appeal to international donors and to be able to attend donor-financed civil society forums.

“Everybody’s manouvering,” says Curtis. “These international ideas and labels are not imposed on a blank slate, but are forced to interact with existing political and economic agendas.

“I wanted to focus on Burundi partly because there are few strategic and economic considerations for the international donor community – so one would assume that they are going in with relatively unbiased good intentions. Yet, even in this case, peacebuilding programs do not bring about their intended effects. What does this mean for the even more ‘difficult’ cases such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo or Somalia?”

With funding from the British Academy, Curtis recently co-edited a book on peacebuilding ideas in different African contexts. She continues to consult with and advise the peacebuilding commission at the UN and the U.K.’s Foreign and International Development offices on a number of issues related to African peace and security.

Recently, in discussion with a network of African scholars, she has turned her attention to possible new approaches and ideas of peacebuilding: “International packages for peace tend to focus first and foremost on stability and electoral democracy, both of which are important, but which don’t affect the entrenched self-interest of ruling elites.  

“Questions of social justice and equality are expected to come later – but what if it was flipped so they were prioritized? There are very few success stories in international peacebuilding, and I’m concerned we’re in danger of learning the wrong lessons: that peace is too problematic, and that we should focus on narrower goals of counter-insurgency.

“I’d like to try and shift the debate towards questions of social justice and international solidarity. If we changed the notion of what is important in peacebuilding, I wonder what peace might look like then?”