Whose legitimacy? The spectrum of authority in conflict settings

Marjoke OosteromMarjoke_Oosterom200

At last week’s World Conference on Human Security and Humanitarian Responses in Istanbul the issue of how forms of non-state authority evolve in (post)conflict settings was discussed in a number of panels. To humanitarian actors these remain challenging questions: With which non-state authority to engage and how? And how does engagement affect the legitimacy of the humanitarian agency and of the (non)state authority itself? During the conference I participated in a roundtable discussion on this topic, organised by Wageningen University. Two points stood out for me:

  • The dichotomy between state and non-state authority is unhelpful. Even the decision not to engage with one or any of them will affect local politics.
  • Who decides what is legitimate about state and non-state authority?

In a (post)conflict setting boundaries between state and non-state authority are blurred. This is why Koen Vlassenroot (CRG, UGent) spoke of local complexities or a ‘war complex’. Here, the state and the spectrum of non-state authorities are networked. State officials play a formal role while participating in the informal networks that constitute a war economy at the same time, formed by businessmen, military, and politicians. Elites and their families occupy positions across the divide. In the middle of all this, citizens navigate both state and non-state authorities for their security and access to livelihoods and services.  Be they armed militias, customary leaders, war lords, or simply individuals in a village who have commanded the respect of their community; citizens develop relationships with them.

picture of the customary place where the council of adult men meet in South Sudan

The ‘Aduva’ is the place where the council of adult men meet and discuss what actions to take when the security of the village is at risk. Among the Latuko of Eastern Equatoria (South Sudan) many feel that customary authority helps to keep them safe.

Are we asking the right question?
Concerning legitimacy, I wondered whether we asked the right question. Should we start with asking how ‘we’ (the highly diverse community of aid actors, donors, and researchers) are to work with ‘them’ (the spectrum of forms of authority), or should we start by asking how citizens at the local level see, respond to and engage with non-state authorities? Concerning interventions the question then becomes: how does engagement with any of these authority affect citizen perceptions of state legitimacy and the legitimacy of others?

My point here is that a local population living in a war complex is not a passive receiver of authority, be it state or non-state. Just like citizens who are targeted by humanitarian actors are not passive receivers of relief. The relationships between citizens and (non-state) authority can be seen as some sort of a social contract, as long as we recognise that it not a stable one. Nor is it necessarily a ‘good’ or accountable one, since ‘collaboration’ with armed non-state actors is often coerced. But in this relationship citizens have agency: some negotiation capacity and ways of working with or around these actors to sustain a life. Sometimes they are even able to push back.

Gemma van der Haar (WUR) correctly pointed out that within a population different groups or people may have various opinions on what legitimacy is. I’d like to add that citizens are not uncritical of the legitimacy of such actors. In fact, it not often the case that non-state authorities are either legitimate or not. People are willing to put up with a level of coercion and control if a certain level of security is ensured and or certain services are provided. This suggests that certain actions and behaviours are perceived as legitimate while others are not.

Whose legitimacy?
So, before ‘we’ do anything with non-state actors (whether it is to inform them, consult them, gain access through them, or actively involve them in implementation) we need to

a) understand local power dynamics, i.e. do a power analysis, and
b) understand the relationships between a citizenry and those actors.

This was also raised by Mareike Schomerus (LSE) in the roundtable: ‘We have to put the question of legitimacy on its head!’ Then we will be better positioned to judge how any of ‘our’ actions intervenes in local politics.

More to come, over the next two months I will write about these issues from South Sudan and Zimbabwe, where I work on the project ‘Power, Violence, Citizenship and Agency’. This debate will be continued online on The Broker by academics and practitioners. See also the Conciliation Resources site, where they’re about to start talking about local civil society and community approaches to engaging non-state armed actors.

Marjoke Oosterom is a Post-doctoral researcher at the Participation, Power and Social Change team at IDS.

Read a previous blog by Marjoke Oosterom

One Response to Whose legitimacy? The spectrum of authority in conflict settings

  1. […] people felt they had to rely on their own mechanisms for protection. Tactics have their roots in customary institutions and were used during the civil war. Both men and women were always looking out for signs of […]

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