Managing ethnic conflict during transitions

Peace & Security20 Dec 2013Saskia Baas

The fresh eruption of violence in South Sudan illustrates once more the ethnic dividing lines within the countries’ government. In ethnically diverse societies, the division of power and wealth between different groups is a source of conflict, which can sometime turn violent, particularly during periods of turbulent transition. Theories on power-sharing, referred to as consociationalism, have helped to promote governmental stability and democracy but have not always achieved the desired results.This has also been the case in South Sudan, which gained independence two years ago and is trying to develop as a post-conflict state. What lessons can be learned to maintain stability in South Sudan?

Sharing power in deeply divided societies

In political science, many scholars have developed ideas on the political management of ethnically divided societies, which have evolved into consociational theory (see box).1 Power-sharing has also become a central element of conflict settlements for divided societies. Consociationalism safeguards plural representation in divided societies, meaning that all distinctive population groups are included, rather than all parties. In 1969, political scientist Arend Lijphart elaborated four mechanisms: a) grand coalitions, b) mutual veto, c) proportionality, and d) segmental autonomy (see box). 2

Recovering from conflict

Violence may occur in ethnically diverse societies that have been stable for decades, as happened after the 2007 elections in Kenya. 3 But societies recovering from conflict are even more vulnerable to inter-group violence, as they have to manage ethnic divisions while dealing with the tasks of post-conflict reconstruction. 4 This is particularly difficult during turbulent periods of transition, as was the case in Kenya. The findings in South Sudan show that simply including ethnic minorities in politics is not sufficient to address their concerns. To avoid conflict, the pre-election period should be closely monitored. Furthermore, for consociationalism to succeed, attention should be given to minorities’ autonomy at lower levels of governance and – with states under pressure to provide jobs – to advocating proportionality in the allocation of civil service positions.

Box 1. Four segments of consociationalism

Grand coalitions are alliances between the elites of different segments of the population that contribute to stability. Mutual veto means that each group has the right to object to decisions, allowing the ruling majority to be controlled by minority consensus. Proportionality entails the proportional division of positions in state representation, legislation, services, the allocation of funds and other positions in the state apparatus. Finally, segmental autonomy requires that each group in society should to some degree be free to arrange their own affairs. Federalism is the most common example of the latter, but in reality, this cannot always be put into practice.

There is agreement that consociationalism promotes stability and democracy in heterogeneous societies on the verge of independence. Although the theory was first applied to Western countries, it has increasingly been tested in ethnic conflict situations around the world. In practice, however, consociationalism has not always achieved the desired result. Makdisi & El-Khalil reject the idea of a consociational power‐sharing deal in Lebanon because they hold it responsible for the continued pillarization of Lebanese society.  Ethnic and sectarian identities turned into markers for violence and threw the country into civil war. 5 It did allow for a relatively high level of freedom of expression, key aspects of modern democracies (parliamentary elections, multiple political parties) and the non-dominance of any one single group. But rather than leading to a mature democracy, it resulted in a constraint democracy that that did not provide for equal political rights among Lebanese religious communities and, consequently, among Lebanese citizens. 6

Most peace settlements designed to end civil wars in divided societies contain power-sharing provisions that are at least partially derived from consociational logic. 7 An almost full translation of consociationalist theory  can be found in the institutional arrangements laid out by the 1995 Dayton Agreement for post-conflict Bosnia. 8 The political system built on sharing central power between representatives of major ethnic groups, while a confederal organization of state functions guaranteed the autonomy of the different segments within the country. A mutual veto was guaranteed for issues that were declared “destructive of the vital interest” of any other ethnic group. The proportionality of representation of ethnic groups is explicitly part of the constitution, but was restricted to the appointment of state officials.9 Although most scholars agree that the consociational arrangement has helped prevent renewed violence in Bosnia, it is considered a controversial agreement under EU law. In 2009 the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the arrangements violate EU human rights law in a number of areas, including restrictiveness, or positive discrimination to advance equality. As such, the consociational system forms an obstacle for the country’s accession to the EU, and will have to be revised before Bosnia can pursue EU membership. 10

Although some aspects of consociational arrangements may be problematic, the core idea of consociationalism – power-sharing between elites of competing groups – has remained a central aspect of policies aimed to address ethnic conflict.

Identifying underlying causes

While the political accommodation of ethnic groups is important, so is addressing any societal disparities that may exist between these groups. 11 When real inequality exists, for example in economic terms or regarding rates of unemployment, political accommodation may be a means to alleviate these problems, but not a solution in itself. Thus, the underlying causes of conflict need to be identified. Horowitz points towards the necessity to address the identities that underlie ethnic conflict. Promoting the organization of interest groups on the basis of other criteria than ethnic identities may reduce the framing of political dynamics in ethnic terms.

The consociational design thus offers opportunities for conflict resolution, but has its limitations. This has also been found in the context of South Sudan, a country that gained independence two years ago and has a long history of internal divisions.

South Sudan became an independent state in 2011, after a referendum on self-determination that was part of the 2005 peace agreement (see timeline).

Timeline: the fight against the ruling government

1983: John Garang from the Dinka tribe starts the South Sudanese Liberation Movement. The Equatorian population did not join, based on tensions in the early 1980s

1991: Riek Machar breaks with Garang and mobilizes the Nuer population to fight against the SPLM, joined by Lam Akol of the Shilluk tribe

2005: End of war with a Comprehensive Peace Agreement between Khartoum and SPLM, ruled by the SPLM, John Garang is appointed first Vice-President of Sudan

2005: John Garang dies in a helicopter crash. Salva Kiir, also from the Dinka tribe, is appointed Vice-President

2010: General elections in Sudan

2011: South Sudan becomes an independent state

December 2013: President Salva Kiir blamed soldiers loyal to his dismissed former deputy Riek Machar for an attempted military coup and the outbreak of violence

2015: elections in South Sudan

The peace agreement ended the civil war between the Sudanese government and armed opposition groups in the south of Sudan. Despite finding a common enemy in the Sudanese government, the southern rebels of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) were themselves also struggling with ethnic divisions within their ranks (see box).

Box 2. Ethnic contestation and the SPLM

South Sudan was – and still is – an ecologically and ethnically diverse area, encompassing a wide variety of ethnic groups, all with their specific modes of production, socio-cultural systems and languages. These different groups were all part of the SPLM, and conflicts over the division of power within the movement were a regular occurrence. As the SPLM remains the main actor in the newborn state of South Sudan, it is not surprising that these patterns of conflict persist until today.

The SPLM was led by John Garang who belonged to the Dinka tribe, South Sudan’s largest ethnic group. His leadership was contested throughout the war, both for his authoritarian leadership style and his alleged favouring of his own ethnic group. In 1991 Riek Machar broke ranks with Garang and mobilized his Nuer constituency to fight against the SPLM. Lam Akol, a Shilluk, joined his faction. Their movement fought against the SPLM with the support of the Khartoum government, which saw facilitating tribal militia as a low-cost counterinsurgency method.

Tribal militia emerged in a similar way among Equatorian tribes. 12 The Taposa, Lotuko, Mundari and Acholi tribes all formed militia during the war, with the support of the Khartoum government. 13 Their mistrust of the SPLM was rooted in major tensions between the Dinka and the Equatorian groups that had existed prior to the war in the early 1980s. 14 As a result, Equatorians were initially suspicious of the SPLM when Garang established it in 1983 and did not join the movement in large numbers. The movement’s presence in Equatoria was considered an attempt by the Dinka to gain control of the fertile Equatorian land. 15 Distrust towards the SPLM – and its armed wing the SPLA – was further magnified by the harassment of civilians and forced recruitment among Equatorian tribes.

Political accommodation during self-rule

In 2005 the war ended with the brokering of a peace agreement between the Khartoum government and the SPLM. Interestingly, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) contained power-sharing arrangements that were partially consociational in nature, as they addressed the unequal division of power in Sudanese politics. However, the arrangements addressed the contestation of power by the “Southern Sudanese”, through the SPLM, within the context of Sudan as a whole, but not ethnic tensions within South Sudan itself. The CPA stipulated a re-division of power in the central government in Khartoum, with SPLM members in governmental positions,  and guaranteed the autonomy of Southerners by creating a semi-autonomous government in South Sudan, ruled by the SPLM. This semi-autonomous government would have far-reaching territorial autonomy including a monopoly on providing security through both the military and the police. The various institutions comprising the security sector were formed out of the SPLA.

However, although the CPA guaranteed Southern representation in the central government of Sudan, it left the management of ethnic divisions among Southerners to be dealt with by the government of semi-autonomous South Sudan. With an abundance of tribal militia opposed to the SPLM and state institutions still at a rudimentary stage, this would have a major impact on the stability of the region. When SPLM leader John Garang – also at the time President of the Government of South Sudan –  died in July 2005, his successor Salva Kiir took the lead in the transition.

Karlijn Muiderman

Kiir’s strategy for accommodating ethnic minorities contained some important aspects of a consociational design, as it included former ethnic foes into the party and state structures. Leaders of the tribal militia were appointed to high positions in the government: Riek Machar was appointed Vice President, while others were given high positions in the executive or in the army. Low-ranking members of the militia were integrated into the security apparatus, where they were given salaried jobs, guaranteeing their representation in those sectors of the state apparatus. Kiir’s approach thus contained most features of a consociational power-sharing arrangement: the formation of a grand coalition and, to a degree, proportionality, while segmental autonomy was guaranteed through the highly federal character of governance in South Sudan. Yet violent and non-violent contestation persists in South Sudan, caused by several weaknesses in Kiir’s approach.

Lessons learnt from ethnic tensions in South Sudan

General elections were held across Sudan in 2010 and displayed the fragile nature of Kiir’s accommodation strategy. While both the SPLM leadership and that of the state and the army included representatives of minority groups, these representatives were either former militia leaders whose appeasement was required to prevent violence, or they were appointed by President Kiir, who selected individuals loyal to him. The strategy thus hinged too much on specific individuals, who now had to be kept in office whatever the outcome of the voting. This led to widespread irregularities during the elections, and new armed groups surfaced in the period that followed, after the contested results were endorsed nationally and internationally. 16 Thus, the potential of grand coalitions to mitigate conflict depends heavily on the selection of individual representatives of ethnic groups.

Research into the representation of Equatorian minorities in state institutions established that, while Equatorians recognized that members of their ethnic group were included in governance, 17 they had major concerns about the specific individuals who represented them. In Central Equatoria, many considered their governor – a former militia leader – to be incompetent and corrupt. This undermines the potential benefits of segmental autonomy, a principle advocated by many respondents as a mechanism to guarantee peaceful coexistence.

Another major point of concern among Equatorians was their apparent lack of access to job opportunities in the civil service. South Sudan does not as yet have a strong private sector See link
, which means that the state is the main source of salaried jobs. Dividing these jobs among ethnic groups on the basis of proportionality could help alleviate the feeling of unfair treatment and exclusion on the short-term, while private-sector development is crucial for increasing the number of opportunities available. Thus, proportionality is important not only at senior positions, but at all levels. Further, South Sudan is a highly decentralized state on paper, in theory giving ethnic groups a great deal of freedom to arrange their own affairs. But in reality, local governance structures are weak. While there is some trickle down of funds from the capital to the state administrations, the flow of resources to lower administrative units is severely limited. As a result, county commissioners and local administrators lack the capacity and funds to perform their tasks. In the Central and Western Equatorian States, administrators were positive about decentralization, but explained that this was effectively undermined by the lack of a clear process for dividing funds among states, counties and further down the administrative ladder. 18

Guaranteeing minorities autonomy at lower levels of governance

The experience of South Sudan shows that simply including ethnic minorities in politics is not sufficient to address their concerns. For the upcoming elections in 2015, international actors could help improve the situation through a more timely involvement with electoral procedures – including those relating to the SPLM’s internal procedures for selecting candidates. For international involvement with elections in transitional countries to be effective, attention should extend well beyond election day itself and preferably include the complete pre-election period. 19

International actors can assist in societies with fragile private sectors and high unemployment rates both by stimulating private-sector development – alleviating the pressure on the state to deliver jobs – and by advocating proportionality in the division of civil service positions. Regarding the latter, they could help develop a policy that is consistent with human rights principles.

Finally, the need to give ethnic minority groups the autonomy to run their own affairs is often translated into a decentralization of power. In South Sudan and other fragile states, where state institutions are generally weak, international actors involved in capacity building tend to focus their activities at central level, but research has shown that this is insufficient in fragile states. 20 It is important to keep in mind that, to prevent ethnic conflict, power-sharing at lower levels of governance is equally important. Stability can only be achieved if institutions at lower levels guarantee minorities autonomy.

This article draws on academic theories and research, as well as the author’s research in South Sudan.


  1. Lijphart, A. (1969) Consociational democracy, World Politics, 21.
  2. See Lijphart, A. (1975) The Politics of Accomodation and Lijphart, A. (1977) Democracy in Pluralist Societies for his original idea.. See Lijphart, A (2008) Thinking about Democracy: Power Sharing and Majority Rule in Theory and Practice for more recent events and responds to criticism on the original theory.
  3. In Kenya, disputed election results led to violence between ethnic constituencies, killing over 1,300 people.
  4. Collier et. al. (2003) Breaking the Conflict Trap: Civil War and Development Policy
  5. Makdisi, S. & El-Khalil, Y (2013) Lebanon: The legacy of sectarian consociationalism and the transition to a fully-fledged democracy, Advocacy & Public Policy-Making and Institute of Financial Economics Working Paper Series, 14. The institute also held a panel on this issue, which can be viewed here.
  6. Rosiny, G. (2013), Violence and Security Power Sharing in Syria: Lessons from Lebanon’s Experience, German Institute of Global and Area studies Working paper, 223.
  7. Guelke, A. (2012) Politics in Deeply Divided societies, Polity Press
  8. Sumantra Bose (2005) The Bosnian State a decade after Dayton, International Peacekeeping, 12:3, 322-335
  9. Sofía Sebastián (2010) Statebuilding in Divided Societies: The Reform of Dayton in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding, 4:3, 323-344
  10. [1] International Crisis Group (2012) Bosnia’s Gordian Knot: Constitutional Reform.
  11. Donald L. Horowitz (2000) Ethnic Groups in Conflict. University of California Press, pp. 599
  12. Equatorian tribes is a label used for a diverse set of ethnic groups living in the three Equatorian states: Eastern, Central and Western Equatoria State.
  13. Allen, T. (1994) Ethnicity & Tribalism on the Sudan-Uganda Border. Young, John (2003).Sudan: liberation movements, regional armies, ethnic militias and peace.
  14. For an overview of these tensions, see Terje Tvedt, The Collapse of the State in Southern Sudan.
  15. Johnson, D.H. (2004) The Root Causes of Sudan’s Civil Wars.
  16. George Athor led a rebellion in Jonglei state after announcement of the election results in 2010. In 2011, a group led by Peter Gadet launched attacks against the SPLA in Unity State, demanding a more inclusive government.
  17. This research was conducted in the three Equatorian states in February 2011, May 2011, January 2012 and August 2012. The results have not yet been published.
  18. Interviews with administrators in Central Equatoria State and Western Equatoria State in February and May 2011
  19. Hyde and Kelley (2011) The Limits of Election Monitoring, Foreign Affairs.
  20. Brinkerhoff (2010) Developing Capacity in Fragile States, Public Administration and Development 30, 66–78 (2010)