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Yesterday warlord, today presidential candidate: Ex-military leaders running for office in post-civil war societies

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Fofana Abraham, Henrik Persson, Anders Themnér

Policy note no 4:2019

In many African countries where civil war raged not so long ago, former warlords are today running for office in elections. This policy note assesses the effect that these warlord democrats have on democratisation and security.

Since the early 1990s, post-civil war democratisation has become the ‘go-to’ mechanism for resolving internal armed conflicts. In an African context, this has resulted in the rise of so-called warlord democrats (WDs) – the former military and political leaders of armed groups, who now take part in national elections. The political influence of WDs is seldom a function of the political parties and state institutions that they represent, but rather of their power as ‘Big Men’. Thanks to the economic resources, (ex-) military networks and political capital that they amassed during the earlier hostilities, WDs are well placed to shape the new post-war order being built. These dynamics have been observed in countries ranging from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) (Jean-Pierre Bemba), Rwanda (Paul Kagame) and Liberia (Prince Johnson), to Sierra Leone (Julius Maada Bio), South Sudan (Salva Kiir) and Mozambique (Afonso Dhlakama).

What effect does the electoral participation of WDs have on post-civil war security? On a general note, it is vital to stress that WDs are not per se irrational, reckless actors aiming to undermine the peace process. Violence and threat-mongering is commonly a means of sustaining power and influence in a context where other elites and peacemakers seek to marginalise WDs. In fact, in optimal circumstances, WDs can act as ‘peacelords’, supporting the consolidation of peace and democracy in societies riven by war. We have identified five key policy recommendations for how peacemakers can best relate to ex-military-turned-politicians. These recommendations have been derived from a comparative study of 10 WDs in seven African countries that feature in the edited volume Warlord Democrats in Africa – the DRC (Antipas Mbusa), Guinea-Bissau (João Bernardo Vieira), Liberia (Sekou Conneh and Prince Johnson), Mozambique (Afonso Dhlakama), Rwanda (Paul Kagame), Sierra Leone (Julius Maada Bio, Eldred Collins and Samuel Hinga Norman) and South Sudan (Riek Machar).

Capacity to misbehave and cost of belligerence One critical aspect to address is the capacity of WDs to misbehave. Here demobilisation is of significant importance. Without easy access to men and women who can be remobilised, it is difficult for WDs to engage in violence. For this reason, it is vital that WDs should not have access to non-state armed factions, ranging from rebel groups and cliques of loyalists in the security forces, to militias and large personal security details. While WDs usually retain some ties with ex-commanders and fighters, informal ex-command structures are more difficult to mobilise than organised armed groups.

On the other side of the equation, the presence of peacekeeping troops or strong security forces (who are under democratic control) can convince WDs of the high costs of employing violence. The societal acceptance of violent methods is also a factor that has an impact on the perceived cost of using violence, and can moderate the behaviour of WDs. In Sierra Leone, the strong popular support for the peace process obliged WDs to damp down their belligerency, in order to retain any chance at the polls.

No trade-off between democracy and stability A commonly held position among peacemakers is that there is a trade-off between democratisation and stability – i.e. democratic reforms can only succeed once the security situation has stabilised. However, by endorsing semi-autocratic regimes in the name of stability, there is a risk that peacemakers socialise oppositional WDs into becoming autocrats, rather than democrats. If ex-military-turned-politicians operate in a political environment where elections are neither free nor fair, and where threats and violence are employed against them, there is a risk that they respond in kind. It is therefore essential for peacemakers to re-evaluate contemporary strategies that condone democratic deficiencies in the name of stability, and truly and sincerely invest in the democratisation of post-civil war societies.