'Exporting peace' to the Great Lakes?

How are South Africa’s efforts to “export” democracy to African countries in the Great Lakes region faring?

In December last year, an important milestone was reached in the peace process in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) when Joseph Kabila was sworn in as the first democratically elected president of the country in more than 40 years.

In August 2005 Burundi observed a similar achievement in its peace process when Pierre Nkurunziza became president of Burundi following a series of elections. Both elections marked the end of transitional periods intended to usher in peaceful democratic governance in Burundi and the DRC, after years of violent conflict.
South Africa deployed about 3 000 peacekeepers to both countries under a United Nations umbrella, and its officials led peacemaking efforts there.

“Democracy promotion” across Africa is a key South African foreign policy objective. The department of foreign affairs’s official vision is, after all, “of an African continent that is prosperous, peaceful, democratic, non-racial, non-sexist and united and which contributes to a world that is just and equitable”.

But South African officials tend to view appropriate conflict resolution techniques and processes of democratic consolidation in terms of their own domestic experience, so that the peace processes in these two countries have strongly reflected a South African approach to transitions. This approach assumes that inclusive dialogue and broad-based national unity governments can lead to peace, since differences are negotiable. It also assumes that constitutional development can contribute to ending violence. Are these assumptions valid?

Key elements of the South African “model” promoted and replicated in Burundi included: negotiations and dialogue with all belligerents; the establishment of a transitional national unity government; the creation of a new integrated army; and plans for a truth and reconciliation commission.

The idea is that immediate electoral contests can be counterproductive in countries emerging from violent conflict, whereas elite power-sharing pacts can buy time and allow liberal norms to take hold. As elites grow accustomed to working together, so greater democracy can be enshrined in a permanent constitution.

Many problems have been identified with this approach. There are conflicts between civic values and actual conflict and the probability that participants will not share a common set of values, nor even value mediation itself. Such processes impose a liberal, rational ethos that could fail in conflict environments. Compromises that enable ceasefires could undermine much-needed new rights-based institutions later. Globally, efforts to promote democracy and human rights have reshaped opportunities and constraints facing elites, without necessarily leading to liberal democracy.

Since the signing of the Arusha Accord in Burundi in 2000 and the Pretoria and Sun City agreements for the DRC in 2002/03, there have been some hopeful changes in both countries.

The elections in Burundi in 2005, with the establishment of permanent institutions of governance and a new constitution, were acclaimed across Africa and the world. In South Africa reactions to the elections were overwhelmingly positive. Newspaper headlines announced: “South Africa hails new era of democracy in Burundi” and “Hope for Burundi”.

South Africa adopted a similar approach in the peace process in the DRC. While different interests and issues are at stake in the DRC, South Africans and their partners supported a process of extensive dialogue with different belligerents and stakeholders, leading to a negotiated settlement that included a broad-based power-sharing transitional government, the establishment of a new national army and democratic elections. South African reaction to the elections in the Congo last year was positive, but cautious, possibly because of the violence in the DRC between the first and second rounds of voting.

Despite the optimism surrounding the elections and the establishment of new governments in Burundi and the DRC, the experiences of both countries have exposed the limitations of a South African peace process “model”. Burundi’s new government has shown some autocratic tendencies, while armed groups are still present in parts of the country. In the DRC the new state is very weak and fighting continued in the militia-controlled east of the country after the elections, as does illegal foreign exploitation of minerals.

Some also believe South Africa’s diplomatic involvement in the DRC cannot be separated from its urge to secure access to minerals for South African corporations, while Mandela’s mediation role was critical to Tshwane’s involvement in Burundi.

The contexts of the conflicts in Burundi and the DRC and the patterns of authority in the two countries are different - from each other, as well as vastly different from the South African case.

But despite the limitations in the “export” of the South African model to both countries, some aspects of the transitional strategies have had positive effects in Burundi and the DRC. It is too early to declare a decisive end to violence in Burundi and even less so in the DRC but, importantly, positive changes have occurred in both countries.

Devon Curtis is a lecturer in the department of politics at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom

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