Philippines: Mindanao: The political psychology of peace

March 31, 2014

Nigel Roberts, former director of the World Bank 2011 World Development Report on Conflict, Security and Development Philippine Daily Inquirer

The signing of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro is a great achievement, and those who have worked hard to make it possible should be congratulated. But it’s just a start. Dozens of peace deals have been signed around the world since the end of World War II. Almost all of them falter at some point, and by my reckoning, almost half of them fail outright.

What can be learned from other countries’ experiences? What can be done to make sure this particular effort doesn’t go wrong?

Getting a peace agreement to stick is a lot harder than negotiating one. This shouldn’t surprise anyone: Those coming to power after long periods of violence face challenges they’re often ill-prepared for. Resistance movements usually have no experience of formal government. Existing state institutions are often weak, corrupt and resistant to change. Powerful opponents are always ready to undermine the agreement. There is always too much to do, and too much competing advice.

And then there’s the psychology of it all. There are the cynics, and there are the optimists—and the optimists often lose heart at the first real setback. I’ve seen this again and again. Take Somalia. Last September, donors gathered in Brussels and spoke of a “new era” for Somalia, and committed 1.8 billion euros to the country’s reconstruction—a massive amount, given Somalia’s terrible history. Two months later, the governor of the central bank resigned, saying she had been pressured to agree to various corrupt deals. Although nothing about Somalia had actually changed, the euphoria of Brussels evaporated overnight and donors began retreating from their commitments. They were reacting to their own excessive expectations—but this didn’t make their reaction any less real.

Against the odds, though, quite a few peace processes have taken root. How? What was common to South Africa after apartheid, Northern Ireland after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, and Timor-Leste after the Indonesian withdrawal?

In simple terms, the leaders in each case recognized their weaknesses, and came up with clear political strategies to get around them. They all did two essential things in the early days of peace: They built political coalitions that were broad-based enough to bring in or neutralize key opponents, and to ensure electoral success, and they crafted “signals of future intent” powerful enough to sustain the belief that something good might finally happen.

What are “signals of intent”? To understand the concept, we need to appreciate two things: first, that it takes a very long time to build the credible institutions that a new country, or a newly autonomous area, needs to operate effectively; and second, that you don’t have the luxury of time, and are at constant risk of losing your legitimacy. So, if you can’t create credible institutional performance overnight, you have to find a way to foreshadow it.

The signals that build confidence are those that cut to the heart of the grievances and ambitions that underlie violence. By definition, such signals are risky, and involve tough decisions. Like Northern Ireland’s decision to abolish the Protestant Royal Ulster Constabulary and replace it with a Police Service for Northern Ireland with its manpower split 50/50 between Catholics and Protestants. Or Liberia’s decision to combat rampant corruption by surrendering part of its sovereignty: It invited donor representatives to countersign every government spending order. No new government can take many such decisions, but nor does it need to. A couple of well-judged “signals” every few months can maintain a basic level of credibility.

If the Moro Islamic Liberation Front is to build support between now and the 2016 elections, including the support of the Moro National Liberation Front and powerful clans in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao outside the MILF’s Maguindanao and Maranao ethnic heartland, well-judged signals of intent will be essential.

One such signal is to reach out and bring others into the process of government—offering positions on the Council of Elders to the MNLF and to non-Muslim groups, appointing credible people to technical posts and inviting citizens to help track the use of budgets.

Such signals should also form the cornerstone of the Bangsamoro Development Plan. What they should be depends on who the vital political stakeholders are, and what they most want, need, or are aggrieved by. Figuring out the answers shouldn’t be done behind closed doors; it requires careful dialogue. One such signpost to a new future might be a concerted attempt to create livelihood opportunities for ex-combatants. Another could be a government risk-sharing incentive package for agro-industrial entrepreneurs. A third might be a symbolic effort to celebrate Mindanao’s Muslim heritage.

These aren’t the sort of “quick wins” that politicians and development experts tend to favor: Schools and clinics are undeniably good in their own right, but their absence doesn’t make people go to war, or destroy peace processes. Addressing core grievances and the expectations of the powerful should take priority.

The key is to understand the political psychology of peacemaking; confidence is everything. There is neither the time nor the capacity to invest in grand designs, and nor is this necessary. If the MILF can reach out to those who matter and can do a few important things well, it will build credibility and buy the time needed to navigate the first difficult years of Mindanao’s own “new era.”

Nigel Roberts was the director of the World Bank’s 2011 World Development Report on Conflict, Security and Development. He now advises governments and donors on post-conflict stabilization. He has visited the Philippines several times since 2009 at the invitation of the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process.

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