How does decentralisation affect local-level conflict dynamics? Decentralisation can be a useful conflict-mitigating mechanism, but can also generate new tensions in communal, ethnic and religious relations. This paper by the Centre for Research on Inequality, Human Security and Ethnicity (CRISE) examines grievances, demands, and identity in the context of decentralisation in Nigeria and Indonesia Decentralisation processes need to address inequalities between groups and have in-built conflict management mechanisms if they are to improve rather than worsen conflict situations, or to avoid triggering new tensions in previously stable communities.
Indonesia and Nigeria are democratising following authoritarian military rule. Nigeria has a federal system of government with autonomous sub-national and local governments, but there was a shift towards political and fiscal centralisation under military rule. Indonesia is a unitary state with a central administration where significant powers have been devolved to district level. Grievances about the nature and extent of centralised rule and horizontal inequalities (inequalities between groups) have long existed in Indonesia and Nigeria. They form a backdrop to the decentralisation programmes.
The relationship between decentralisation and conflict is not linear, but complex. In both countries the case studies selected clusters of decentralised units that had experienced violent conflicts and units that had not:
- Conflict tends to become violent where there are large groups who identify with coinciding rather than cross-cutting group identities, and strong perceptions of unequal access and opportunity around which negative group- based sentiment is mobilised. This can interact with or be exacerbated by decentralisation.
- Decentralisation has responded to longstanding grievances by providing opportunities for the expression of diversity and better attention to local needs. However, several components of its implementation can interact with identity politics and conflict dynamics in the regions.
- Significant structural and institutional change will have ripple effects and can result in new tensions. Poor implementation of the decentralisation process can exacerbate these tensions.
- Decentralisation can: stimulate demographic changes through sub-national splitting of administrative units; provide for local autonomy and participation in decision-making; and create incentives for local elites to compete for power and resources by mobilising group identities.
- Decentralisation tends to result in violent conflict where there are large groups who identify with coinciding rather than cross-cutting group identities, and strong perceptions of unequal access and opportunity.
- Decentralisation can mitigate local pressures and promote peaceful management of conflict, particularly where tensions were pre-existing and grievances had already reached boiling point.
It is particular forms of implementation that triggers violent conflict, rather than decentralisation in itself. This is demonstrated by examples of relatively peaceful experiences in the case studies:
- The worst case scenario is when decentralisation is implemented in ways that exacerbate perceptions of injustice and horizontal inequality, failing to extend possibilities for autonomy and self-governance.
- Decentralisation can help reduce conflict by providing self-autonomy and an institutional framework for managing local-level tensions, as long as the process is implemented as promised to local peoples.
- The conflict outcomes of decentralisation depend on the extent to which the implementation and management of new local political, governmental and institution-building processes consider potential conflicts.
- Effective interventions are required to manage social tensions stimulated by decentralisation, and to channel inter-group tensions into productive outcomes.