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May 16, 2016 | Commentary

This post first appeared on the CDA Institute blog:The Forum and is republished with permission from the CDA Institute.

Whether it is in the slums of Nairobi, the port of Karachi, or the corridors of power in Bujumbura, in many fragile societies state security organizations serve the interest of ruling elites in maintaining political power or their own institutional interests. What they often provide little of is security for ordinary people. This depressing situation is the result of a complex mix of factors including legacies of violence, underdeveloped institutions, personalized rule, profit-making opportunities in settings of low growth, and high inequality, as well as high levels of political factionalism.

Against this backdrop, we can consider Security Sector Reform (SSR) primarily as a domestic or foreign initiative that aims to weaken the functional link between state security organizations and the threat or exercise of violence by political elites to acquire or retain power. Weakening this link is expected to improve security for ordinary people, which is an aim in itself and an enabler to greater individual and collective development. As a result, SSR interventions typically seek to increase the effectiveness of security forces and to reduce their lack of accountability.

Yet, terms like ‘effectiveness’ and ‘accountability’ gloss over the high political stakes of the required power transitions: getting state security organizations to service the interest of ordinary people instead of those of particular elites. This continues to confuse the conceptualization and design of SSR initiatives.

To answer the all-important question of how to get elites to accept greater limitations on their power, the role of security organizations in contestation for political power in fragile environments needs to be unpacked. Four insights in particular provide pointers for SSR initiatives: To start with, state security organizations form the basis of political power in most fragile societies. This means that the ability to provide security – or violence – often is a key currency for acquiring and maintaining political power. At micro-level, this can take the form of police being acquiescent of, or complicit in, youth militias on the payroll of politicians to intimidate or disrupt competitors – as for example is the case for parts of the Burundian national police and the Imbonerakure (the ruling party’s youth wing). At national level, it can take the form of factionalized security organizations that also serve as vehicles for patronage for competing elites, as for instance in Lebanon.

Because state security organizations are in the frontline of the exercise of political power, tweaking their missions, legal framework, budget, doctrine or accountability can be a matter of (political) demise or survival that is bound to elicit fierce resistance. Overcoming this requires SSR initiatives to consider alternatives as to how the interests these security organizations protect can be safeguarded, how stakeholder coalitions can be built that effectively influence elite constituencies and/or how the professional autonomy of security organizations can be strengthened.

Moreover, many fragile societies simultaneously feature a shortage and a surplus of the political power required for providing security. Shortage is about the uncertainty and instability of the power to rule. Alliances of power brokers compete violently for political control over populations, resources, or territory and in the process create collective instability and individual insecurity. Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia provide examples. The key challenge for SSRinitiatives is to create more power, not less of it. Yet, there is usually also a surplus of power in the sense that the power that does exist, is not accountably exercised. The result is that state security organizations often service the interests of political elites at the cost of ordinary people. Examples include places such as Kenya, Ethiopia, or Mali. Hence, just creating more power is not enough, it also needs to service ordinary people.

Problematically, the fundamental importance of security organizations to the maintenance of political power means that most democratic oversight and accountability mechanisms are chimeras. Alternative strategies that SSR initiatives can consider include nurturing the pride and professionalism of security organizations to increase their autonomy as a form of internal accountability, or to rebuild relations between security organizations and the general population by reducing enemy images and building confidence. Both are obviously high-risk strategies and will not get to the heart of the problem quickly.

Next, there is little institutional capability in many fragile societies to resolve conflicts between different elite factions peacefully. Institutional capability refers to the presence of transparent rules, neutral mediating organizations, social trust, and fora for dialogue. This means that state security organizations remain vital – but crude – dispute resolution mechanisms over which it is essential to retain as much control as possible. So, despite framing Ethiopia as a federation since 1991 with equal rights for its various ‘peoples,’ the ruling Tigray People Liberation Front is unlikely to surrender its control over the top ranks of the country’s military anytime soon. The creation of greater institutional capacity to mediate elite conflict in a more sophisticated and peaceful manner is difficult to pursue through SSR interventions, however, and points to the importance of parallel efforts to build political parties, strengthen customary governance, and improve the quality of tertiary education.

Finally, processes of transition and modernization in weak institutional contexts increase the importance of security organizations as instruments to retain the status quo. This is because the urbanization, technological progress, and transnational networks that come with these processes unleash new social forces and aspirations that the existing political order of fragile societies and its weak institutions are largely unable to accommodate or meet. This creates pressure on their interests that elites can either seek to suppress via security organizations (consider Egypt or Syria during the Arab Spring), or manage by retaining political control via security organizations while increase economic opportunity (consider Rwanda or Ethiopia). Hence, it is vital to understand the development-orientation of ruling elites when designing SSR initiatives.

In short, the purpose, organization, and performance of state security organizations is above all a political matter that must be considered in the context of the use of violence to acquire and maintain power. SSR initiatives must be designed from this basic premise. Yet, prevailing approaches, especially military-sponsored ‘train, equip and build programs,’ often fail to recognize this reality. One only has to consider the fate of the Iraqi army in 2014 to imagine the consequences.

A number of practical suggestions on how SSR initiatives can be improved are available in this recently released OECD report.


Erwin van Veen is a senior research fellow in Clingendael’s Conflict Research Unit.