The Role of Local Traditional Actors in National Governance Processes During Conflict

Essay, 2008
6 Pages, Grade: 1,0

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by Marc Bonenberger

In the social sciences the state is theoretically defined as a political association with effective sovereignty over a delimited territory. It is an institution or a set of institutions which have been invested with a legitimate monopoly over the means of physical violence to exercise authority over both its territory and the population resident therein. Furthermore it is also in control “of the monopoly of taxation as well as the monopoly of setting and enforcing rules and regulations that are binding for every citizen” (Lambach 2007: 33). Therefore no political authority can exist above it.

Usually the state exercises the monopolies by itself or by agents who act on its behalf, but it can also legitimize private acts of violence, taxation or rule-setting. It happens, however, that a state has certain difficulties to implement its rules, to collect taxes or to enforce its monopoly of violence. When it faces this kind of deficiency a state is described as “weak”. When it is unable to exercise authority and its monopolies it is labelled as a “failed” or even as a “collapsed” state. Since the beginning of the 1960s cases of state failure occurred almost always in the so called Third World, and here most likely in Africa (in fact 15 of the 24 cases or nearly two thirds happened in Africa). That also European states can fail showed the example of Bosnia-Herzegovina from 1992 to 1995 (ibid: 33, 37).

When a state is weak or has failed the political space it leaves open is filled by different non-state actors who are driven by different motives and follow different strategies. These private actors are either formal or informal in nature. They form, as Neubert (2007) calls it, “islands of order” in areas where no public services are available (4). The formal private sector comprises, among others, companies – especially from the mining and extracting sector – who provide some kind of formal organisation in their range of operation and non- profit organisations (NPO) like humanitarian aid and refugee organisations who as well can acquire – even though often not intended – quasi-state functions within their camps (see Neubert 2007: 5). The informal private sector can be divided into two groups: The first consists of warlords, rebels or violence entrepreneurs, i.e. groups who are often associated

with anarchy or complete absence of order but who in fact can very well create an island of order similar to the NPO-refugee camps or protected company sites in their own camps. The so called local “traditional” actors constitute the second group of the informal private sector. The most prominent are traditional leaders such as local chiefs or “kings”, councils of elders or community groups such as youth organisations, who all gain legitimacy due to tradition: “Local “traditional” actors combine elements of self-organisation, which we would link to the non-profit-sector with elements of a local level authority, which may be in lieu of some state functions on this level” (Neubert 2007: 3). They are already long and well established within society and have been or are regaining power particularly in weak or failing states (ibid.: 3f).

In my present paper I will focus on these informal “traditional” actors. As I have mentioned above in weak or failing states they can take over functions which, under normal conditions, are reserved exclusively to the state. When they fill the gap left open by the state informal non-state actors most likely are involved in standard-setting and thus assist or replace the state in governance processes.1 I will therefore examine how and under which conditions informal “traditional” actors take over the role as standard-setters in conflict zones. It is clear that due to limited space I cannot provide as many and detailed examples as the topic would deserve. In lieu thereof I will only provide two: one in the rural desert regions of northern Mali and one in the urban regions of south-eastern Nigeria. The first example addresses the Tuareg Rebellion of the 1990s which ended in the establishment of a traditional chiefdom ruled by Tuareg elders. The second example is a case where a community group – the Bakassi Boys – does not replace the state but supplement state functions while the official institution is still in place but is no longer able or willing to fulfil its duties.

As I have mentioned above the first example concentrates on the conflict in Northern Mali of the 1990s when Tuareg-Nomads rebelled against the Malian state. Along with the Moors the Tuaregs live in the scarce and arid environment of the Sahara in the northern parts of Mali. Together both ethnic groups represent only 10 % of Mali’s population (Krings 2004: 374). Because they form a distinct minority against the sedentary groups in the more humid south of the country they have been marginalised by the Malian as well as by other states of the region (Klute & Trotha 2004: 113). Particularly for that reason in the beginning of 1990 various Tuareg groups raised against the Malian government with the aim of achieving autonomy or forming their own nation-state. The rebels organised themselves in the Mouvement Populaire pour la Libération de l’Azawad (MPLA). Fighters were recruited easily from the ranks of migrant workers and refugees from the two severe droughts of 1972/73 and 1984/85 (ibid.).

A first result of the fighting was the signing of a peace treaty between the government of Mali and the MPLA – now renamed into Mouvement Populaire de l’Azawad (MPA) – in January 1991 which became known as the Treaties of Tamanrasset. The peace agreement granted a special status for the north of Mali, which was practically equivalent to autonomy for the Tuareg. However, peace was treacherous: Among the various Tuareg groups represented in the MPA only the Ifoghas from the Adagh in Northern Mali managed to take over leading positions within the movement and therefore succeeded in making it a tool for their political ambitions. This domination of the Ifoghas led to the split of the MPA into several subgroups along tribal lines which then continued their struggle against Mali (Klute & Trotha 2004: 115).

Things went worst in 1994. Not only did the Mouvement Patriotique Ganda Koy (MPGK) – a militia of former Songhai members of the Malian army – openly propagated the murder and expulsion of Arab and Tuareg nomads which in return resulted in the intensifying of the attacks of the various Tuareg rebel movements. But also one of the Tuareg splinter groups, namely the Armée Révolutionnaire pour la Libération de l’Azawad (ARLA), began a “war within the war” against the MPA whose members were regarded as traitors since the signing of the peace treaty with the Malian state. In the resulting civil war thousands of civilians fled the region, hundreds were killed (ibid.: 117ff, 127).

Eventually the conflict could be solved by the mediation of Tuareg elders. They saw themselves responsible for restoring the peace and began negotiations among the Tuareg factions of the MPA and the ARLA and between the Tuareg and the Malian state. The elders succeeded in regaining control over the young fighters which in the end resulted in the signing of a peace agreement. The Programme d’Appui à la Réinsertion socio-économique des Ex-Combattants dans le Nord du Mali (PAREM) was installed by the international community which supported the young fighters after they were demobilized.


1 For that reason I disagree with the definition of the World Bank who states that generally in governance processes “authority in a country is exercised for the common good”. This does not mean that informal non- state actors are never consistent with good governance. But, for instance, in the case of violence entrepreneurs who can also act as standard-setters this most likely cannot be said about them. See: [11.05.2008]

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The Role of Local Traditional Actors in National Governance Processes During Conflict
University of Basel  (Institut für Soziologie)
Seminar: Governance, power and politics: the role of non-state actors
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ISBN (Book)
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Role, Local, Traditional, Actors, National, Governance, Processes, During, Conflict, Seminar
Quote paper
Bachelor of Arts Marc Bonenberger (Author), 2008, The Role of Local Traditional Actors in National Governance Processes During Conflict, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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