This paper presents evidence from four case studies suggesting that contrary to the early post-Cold War accounts of ‘barbarism’ and ‘senseless bloodshed’ – the violence that can be observed in many countries and locales today is about something.
The studies were carried out in Nigeria (Niger Delta), Sierra Leone, Egypt and Kenya (Marsabit County). Analysis of these studies shows that the triggers, manifestations and effects of violence in these countries – characterised as diffuse, recursive and globalised – cannot be captured by using the analytical tools developed to explain armed conflict within states.
- It is crucial not to dissociate situations of violence from political processes by, for instance, reducing them to manifestations of criminality, such as homicide and illicit drug trafficking, or reflections of social problems like rampant youth unemployment, the use of prohibited psychoactive substances, and gang culture.
- Given the complex and intricate relationship between violence and political order and power in violence-affected countries and locales, the room for outside actors to contribute to violence mitigation is limited. In effect, the evidence suggests that external interventions can help create – temporary – stability, but they are also vulnerable to not supporting comprehensive and lasting solutions. They also stand little chance of being welcomed and adopted by both governments and citizens in the target countries.
- Citizens shape and break political settlements by conferring or withdrawing legitimacy to/from rulers, including by taking recourse to violence. Hence, political settlement transformations operate at both the macro and micro level and policies need to support political processes at both levels simultaneously to advance toward the goal of effective violence mitigation.
- Violence mitigation should be understood as a long-term process involving both formal (state) and informal institutions, and affected communities and citizens. Interventions should be designed to operate across and between several fields of public policy, e.g. improving education, reducing youth unemployment, increasing citizen and human security, and protecting human rights.
- Outside support for violence mitigation (understood as a deeply political process) should aim at mitigating the risk factors associated with external involvement and interests, such as those of the transnational oil and mining companies in Nigeria and Sierra Leone. Rather than direct intervention this requires initiatives that help enable both local elites and citizen groups to build political settlements that are more peaceful and support development as they become less predatory and violence-inflected.
- Long-term and essentially indigenous processes of transforming political settlements in violence-affected countries and societies have to grapple with the key problem that the (strategic) use of violence – or its condoning – by both state and non-state actors is often a constituent element of the settlement. It is therefore paramount that violence mitigation efforts are effective with respect to taking violence out of the exercise of public authority and the struggle over the distribution of resources and wealth.
- The presented macro evidence from Nigeria and Sierra Leone suggests that counter-violence measures should aim for strengthening governance in relation to natural resource extraction, protecting the electoral/political process from violent interference, and to generally bolster accountability from the local through to the central/federal levels of government.
- As is highlighted in the work on Egypt and Marsabit County, counter-violence measures can be operationalised at the micro level by taking systematic account of citizen perspectives and the role that ordinary citizens play in forging and transforming political and social orders and in shaping political settlements. Reaching a state of political equilibrium that allows for a reduction in violence is not likely if the emphasis of policy is only or foremost on influencing elite behaviour.