From war to peace: five steps to support an interim government


From Iraq to Somalia or Liberia to Burundi, interim governments have played an important role in attempts to transition countries from conflict to peace.

Governments constituted on the basis of a power-sharing deal between different factions of a warring elite frequently introduce a larger, more complex system; many introduce a prime ministerial or vice presidential position to accommodate conflicting parties, clans and tribes.

This can have significant implications for the centre of government. If new positions are created, new institutions must be formed. Government has to quickly adapt to new requirements for supporting political leaders, enabling collective decision-making and coordinating government business.

Helping a political coalition work effectively together is a tough task for any government, let alone for low-capacity institutions in conflict-affected states. But it is precisely in these contexts that the task becomes even more important.

South Sudan is currently grappling with negotiations that seek to establish a power-sharing interim government. If successful, the country will become the latest in a long string of nations that attempt to bring peace through these means.

So what can central institutions do to ensure new interim governments have the best possible chance of success?

1. Be clear and consistent

The credibility of any power-sharing government depends on its ability to project a united image. The centre of government must be coherent and cohesive, whilst ensuring absolute clarity on the authority and accountability of different institutional roles.

This is arguably something that enabled the success of the National Transitional Government that brought peace to Liberia in 2003 after decades of civil war. Partly thanks to strong external mediation, the Government was coherently structured and precisely organised; roles were clear, distinguishable, and understood.

2. Integrate

Parallel systems and structures that support leaders during conflict do not disappear simply because a power-sharing government is formed. But the credibility and effectiveness of an interim government depend on these parallel structures being integrated into one professional system.

Leaders should be supported by civil servants rather than by their own politically-aligned supporters; this is perhaps one of the hardest things to achieve – personal loyalties run deep. And the allocation of civil servants must be carefully considered;: both to mitigate the risk of separate politicised camps developing within the civil service, and with a mind to what staff numbers can suggest about balances of power.

An example of just how important this is: after the Dayton Agreement ended the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1995, triplicate institutions were established in government to accommodate the three separate groups (Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats). Because of failure to integrate, inefficiency of the bloated and divided system led in 2014 to widespread protests, and bleak forecasts for sustainable peace unless this issue is resolved.

3. Introduce new procedures

Organisational systems and processes that can help identify and manage policy conflicts are much more important during the complexity and uncertainty of an interim government. At the same time, simple procedural tasks such as circulating papers for cabinet meetings become critical in a context in which everyone must feel they are receiving fair treatment and equal support.

All governments have to manage competing priorities and demands, but an interim government that consists of a greater number of parties able to veto or slow decision-making increases the importance of a reliable, consistent and non-controversial procedural framework for managing the day-to-day business of government.

This procedural framework, which should include detailed cabinet processes, joined-up procedures and very clear instructions for civil servants, should be defined in a new consolidated government handbook, as produced for the power-sharing government constituted in Zimbabwe in 2008. It is important that the whole procedural framework is re-presented, to signify to all parties that the entire government system has been amended to accommodate the new arrangements rather than bolt-ons being made to a pre-existing system.

4. Use objective evidence

Centre of government institutions can play a critical role as neutral facilitators of decision-making processes. With former rival factions brought together, there remains a high risk that decision-making becomes dominated by divided interests. Objective evidence should be sought, analysed and provided to help mitigate this risk, for example by a cabinet secretariat that asks for evidence to justify all recommendations to cabinet. This should reduce the space for factional disputes, as well as helping the interim government to consider the likely impact of decisions on conflict sensitive groups.

5. Build a culture of cooperation and inclusivity

During an interim period it also becomes more important than ever that institutions at the centre of government develop an administrative culture that promotes systematic dialogue and collaboration. The establishment of a power-sharing government does not signify the end of a peace process: it is when the detailed work of negotiation begins. The system must enable and encourage all parties to continue talking and negotiating, enabling power-sharing to become a tool for peace-building as well as just one for conflict resolution.

Interim periods are opportunities to expand participation in the transitional process beyond the signatories of peace agreements; centre of government institutions should therefore also work to support increased civil society involvement in decision-making processes. The situation in Iraq currently demonstrates the consequences of failing to bring wider groups into the political process.

Hopefully the same will not be seen in South Sudan. But internal and external support will be needed to give any power-sharing government there the best chance of enabling peace.