“Taking the Gun out of Politics”: Rethinking Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration

International experts inspect the results of Côte d’Ivoire’s disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration program. November 6, 2014, Bouaké, Côte d’Ivoire. (Abdul Fatai/UN Photo)

The United Nations Operation in Cote d’Ivoire is slated to close down by the end of June this year, and the UN Security Council has welcomed the “remarkable progress towards lasting peace, stability and economic prosperity” in the country. Speaking to diplomats and senior UN officials last month, Marcel Amon-Tanoh, the foreign minister of Cote d’Ivoire, highlighted the successful implementation of national reconciliation; disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR); and security sector reform (SSR) programming within that progress.

Cote d’Ivoire has indeed made remarkable progress in recovering from the decade of crises that began with the “Christmas Eve coup” of December 1999. Nonetheless, discontent lingers, occasionally sparking protests by groups who feel aggrieved at their place in post-conflict Ivoirian society. Perhaps the most visible sign of this is the spate of military “mutinies” that have erupted this year.

These mutinies started in January, when soldiers blockaded streets, government buildings, and border crossings, protesting allegedly unpaid dues and poor working conditions; they withdrew only after the government agreed to pay an undisclosed amount of bonuses. This was followed by a mutiny of Special Forces soldiers in Adiake in February, and soldiers again blocking the streets of Abidjan last week, prompting Ivoirians to take to Twitter with the exasperated hashtag #MarreDesMutins (“Enough of the mutinies!”).

The Limits of Traditional DDR

The lingering frustrations of the Ivoirian experience suggest failings in the design and management of DDR and SSR programming in the country, and in the academic and political understanding of what such interventions can—or should—achieve. Addressing these disparities will be essential to avoiding similar disappointments in current and future efforts to help build peaceful, just, and resilient societies in the aftermath of conflict. Not least among these efforts concerns Colombia, which is currently engaged in a major DDR program for former FARC combatants, after a half-century-long civil war was formally resolved in November 2016.

An initial assessment of events in Cote d’Ivoire does indeed suggest some lessons that can be applied in Colombia and other future DDR candidates. Between 2012 and 2015, about 70,000 former combatants were demobilized, and 40,000 others were integrated into the new National Armed Forces, which remains factionalized to this day. While this process was politically expedient at the time, the size of the army is now significantly larger than the Ivoirian security situation demands. Paying these soldiers was a drain on the government’s resources even before a fall in the global prices of cocoa forced an almost 10% cut in the national budget.

Yet Cote d’Ivoire is far from unique in experiencing this tension between fiscal responsibility and the demands of former rebels. One does not even have to leave the region to find similar stories. In Liberia, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Finance Minister Antoinette Sayeh had to confront ex-combatants’ annual demand for “Christmas”—the local slang for year-end cash bonuses—after DDR there was unable to change the expectation that these would continue to be paid (even to the demobilized, which is to say nothing of those integrated into the armed forces or police). In Sierra Leone, meanwhile, a program that initially budgeted for about 20,000 combatants received over 72,000 registrations and scrambled to find the resources required. In both countries, the sheer volume of cash handouts through DDR schemes probably contributed to high inflation.

Many academics and practitioners have dedicated considerable attention to evaluating past DDR, as well as parallel or related efforts at transitional justice, truth-seeking, and accountability, particularly in the context of the internal armed conflicts of the past two decades. The lessons learned have been incorporated into succeeding generations of DDR and SSR programming, such as in the formulation of the UN Integrated Disarmament, Demobilisation, and Reintegration Standards, or the acknowledgment that rehabilitation must accompany reintegration (hence, “DDRR“).

The conclusions of this work show that the issues stretch well beyond the budgetary concerns outlined above. Some of the earliest and most exhaustive critiques of DDR concerned the lack of gender analysis in its design, and/or gender mainstreaming in its implementation. Female combatants were found to be entirely excluded from the conception of early programming, and hence exploited or disadvantaged when such programs were implemented. This included the process in Sierra Leone, as documented by researchers such as Megan MacKenzie and Dyan Mazurana and Khristopher Carlson. The limited progress made since their observations was subsequently noted by Thomas Jaye in reference to Liberia. Rosalind Shaw also criticized the inattention paid to gendered and local concerns in Sierra Leone’s Truth and Reconciliation Commissions and Special Court, which operated in parallel to the DDR process.

These and other authors also noted a lack of effective communication strategies that could ensure relevant details about DDR were communicated to potential participants; relying on networks of fighters to manage the process in turn reinforces the patterns of power that exist within them. In Liberia, for instance, the UN had learned that women combatants may not be in possession of weapons and did not require them to hand in weapons to participate in the DDR scheme. But many women reported not having known this and having been sexually exploited by commanders before they were given such weapons to turn in.

Other critiques center on perceptions of DDR among the broader population. They show that successful reintegration is unlikely when former combatants are stigmatized, and that public perception of demobilized combatants is likely to be negative if they are seen as being rewarded for their violence, or as being the subjects of ransoms or “blood money” paid to armed groups. (Again, these perceptions are particularly harmful for women, who may already be dealing with stigma on account of sexual abuse, which may be even harsher if their children are seen as being born of war.) Especially in the absence of reparations or compensation for victims of armed violence, DDR schemes thus tend to provoke resentment.

At a conceptual level, scholars have criticized the assumptions that come with describing a particular context as “post-conflict.” David Keen, an anthropologist and expert on Sierra Leone, argues that we must attend to observable patterns of continuity and change in violence, rather than such terms as “war” and “peace.” Keen writes: “What do war and peace have in common? Answering this question is particularly important if we hope to understand transitions: the transition from peace to war, and the transition from war to peace. Perhaps we can also take a cue here from the natural sciences: How can one thing change into another – a bulb into a plant, a liquid into a gas – unless it has already begun to resemble it?”

As our understanding of “peacetime” life evolves, the knowledge that patterns of violence characterized society even prior to conflict makes it clear that the restoration of an idealized status quo ante is not a suitable goal for international intervention in post-conflict contexts. Indeed, it is arguable whether such restoration is possible at all, given that individuals and communities who lived through war—whether or not they played a role in the fighting—will inevitably have been changed by the experience.

Is “Reintegration” Possible?

At a recent discussion on the reintegration of women ex-combatants in Colombia, one participant questioned this lack of attention to the broader societal context: Into what, she asked, are these ex-combatants being reintegrated? Were they, in fact, integrated into those communities before the conflict began? What were their roles in those communities, and do they desire to return to those roles? Even if they do, to what extent do those communities and those roles still exist? How have those communities coped with and been changed by the conflict, and to what extent will “reintegration” account for those changes?

Evaluations of DDR programming identify reintegration as the most challenging aspect of the process; disarmament and demobilization are seen as easier—both to implement and to monitor—precisely because they are technical tasks, carried out over a relatively short and well-defined timeline. Reintegration, however, requires the restoration of trust and social relationships; it is of necessity a slow process, whose results can only be evaluated over the medium or long term.

Cote d’Ivoire, it may be noted, did not even attempt reintegration: The R in the Ivoirian DDR scheme stood for “reinsertion,” a narrower and more easily measured goal. The potential for mutinies arises from the other form of “reintegration” practiced there: the incorporation of fighters from armed groups into the national armed forces. Force integration is often envisaged after civil wars where elements of the army splinter or side with opposing parties. In theory, this will result in a new “Grand Army of the Republic” (as it were), with soldiers from both the previous national military as well as the non-state armed groups.

In practice, such efforts have seldom gone well; it is hard to build trust between groups that were actively trying to kill each other in the recent past, and “integration” tends to result in a factionalized military with questionable loyalties, parallel chains of command, lingering suspicions, and poor interoperability. These tensions may give rise to new flashpoints: The Ivoirian mutinies are troubling, but still a better result than in Sudan, where a firefight between elements of so-called “Joint Integrated Unitspractically razed the entire town of Abyei in 2008.

Even where such conflicts do not arise, it is somewhat counterintuitive for the standing army to grow larger when the greatest threat to the state—the civil war—has been resolved. This is not only a strain on resources for the state, but a cause for renewed resentment. This month’s mutinies in Cote d’Ivoire were punctuated by an uprising by ostensibly demobilized rebel fighters in Bouake; having fought in the same conflict, they were upset to see integrated fighters getting new bonuses, or, as one ex-combatant grumbled, “Why don’t [the army] demobilize?”

Why Demobilize?

The question deserves serious consideration: Why are those who fought for non-state armed groups expected to stand down, when no such expectation attaches to state forces? This disparity in the status of state and non-state parties to a conflict demonstrates that the UN, as an organization of states, accords a strong presumption of legitimacy to state armed forces. That presumption, however, runs contrary to the political dynamics of intra-state conflicts, which are fought precisely to demand a share in state power. As the Bouake “re-rebels” demonstrate, a “solution” that cuts off access to such power incentivizes a return to conflict. Inasmuch as the ostensible goal of DDR is to prevent the recurrence of conflict, such an outcome is evidently counterproductive.

One flaw with this approach is that it is based upon an outdated understanding of the political economy of rebellion, dating back to the now-infamous “Greed or Grievance” thesis. DDR programming premised on this explanation discounts the political motivations of non-state armed groups, and assumes that they can be paid to abandon their weapons. DDR schemes derived from this state-centric model of security have as their primary goal the restoration of the state’s monopoly of force, a goal which fails to take into account that the threat of force is rebel groups’ primary source of leverage against the state.

A payments-based DDR model can still work, at least with those fighters whose motives in taking up arms were primarily economic. Yet the extent of genuine demand for DDR—as opposed to simply a demand for money—is hard to discern in such cases, and there is great risk of creating perverse incentives for future (or recurrent) rebellion. The most recent of the Ivoirian mutinies, for instance, was a protest against delays in payments of the bonuses that the government promised in response to the January uprising. Political scientist Alex de Waal warns that such “rent-seeking rebellion” is a self-perpetuating cycle; where it escalates beyond the government’s capacity or willingness to pay such rents, as in South Sudan, it becomes a “brute cause” for unchecked violence.

Armed groups are also increasingly unwilling to allow significant demobilization. In Colombia, for instance, FARC leaders and fighters have made it clear that they will resettle en bloc, revealing both reluctance among fighters to return to their pre-conflict homes, as well as a clear understanding that their struggle continues in a new form. (One commander explained to reporters that “we are not demobilizing, we are mobilizing politically.”) The FARC even oppose any use of the term “DDR”—they prefer to speak of “laying down arms,” with the implication being that these could be picked up again if the government does not honor its commitments.

A Sustaining Peace Approach to DDR?

Seen in this light, our models of successful DDR may have to shift. If DDR programming is to support sustainable and peaceful transitions in the aftermath of conflict, it must be conceived, designed, and implemented as a fundamentally political process, explicitly seeking to meet not only the material but also the political objectives of those involved, and building on the changes, networks, and capacities which have emerged or continued to operate even amidst the conflict.

In other words, there is both need and potential for a “sustaining peace” approach to DDR. Sustaining peace, a new paradigm for integrated UN action championed by Secretary-General António Guterres, focuses on restoring trust between governments and citizens as the key to preventing and resolving conflict. At the heart of this approach is the humility to study and learn from what still works, rather than approaching post-conflict societies with assumptions about how they functioned prior to conflict, or uncritically attempting to restore those allegedly peaceful conditions. The goal of such DDR schemes would not be limited to restoring a monopoly of force or preventing the recurrence of conflict—rather, DDR would be one part of a holistic process that supports the establishment of social and political justice.

It is important to emphasize that even the most successful DDR programming does not achieve 100% coverage. Rather, a number of fighters choose to self-demobilize, both during and after the cessation of conflict. Some of those persons do move to other violent or criminal occupations, but others are further able to either return to their homes or establish new ones—a process of self-reintegration, typically without any form of official support. They may even become a conduit for the reintegration of others, who learn from and follow their example.

A sustaining peace approach would build upon the lessons learned in the process of such self-demobilization and self-reintegration. Equally, it would study the coping and self-protection strategies adopted by communities during the conflict, and look for synergies between the needs of former combatants and the communities to which they may return, while also providing avenues to ensure that these interests and experiences are included in decision-making processes at national and institutional levels. Indeed, it may be more accurate to speak of such efforts as creative (re)construction: building a shared society together, on the basis of common norms and aspirations, rather than “demobilization” or “reintegration.”

Consider, for instance, the peace process in Northern Ireland. The Good Friday Agreement, which marked the formal end of this conflict, had elaborate provisions for elections and power-sharing, building on a clear commitment to eschew violence or be disqualified from the political process. It made no mention of demobilization or reintegration; the late Martin McGuinness, Irish Republican Army chief of staff, called it a process of “taking the gun out of politics.”

To be sure, even that phrase acknowledges the importance of disarmament, and a commitment to verifiable disarmament was a central feature of making peace in Northern Ireland as well. The question, however, becomes one of prioritization and sequencing. Between the sheer ubiquity of cross-border arms flows, and the demonstrably limited capacity of post-conflict governments and armed forces to maintain control (or even records and inventories) of their weapons, taking physical custody of weapons seems at best a temporary measure. (At worst, it is a Sisyphean exercise that incentivizes corruption.) The proliferation of weapons must be reversed, but it may be both more productive and more urgent to reinforce a norm—a la Northern Ireland—against the use of force for political goals. Disarmament becomes a rule of law function, to be achieved gradually in conjunction with the restoration of state capacity and legitimacy, rather than an imperative for state security.

It would be far too ambitious to expect DDR planning to extend to a comprehensive socio-economic-political transition strategy, and many of the actors and stakeholders involved may not be thinking in such grand terms either. It should be uncontroversial, however, to insist that UN engagement with post-conflict states and societies be based on precisely such a strategy, and that any DDR programming is embedded within that strategy. As the dual sustaining peace resolutions adopted by the Security Council and General Assembly in April 2016 declare, UN engagement must be coherent, transformative, and forward looking. Above all, it must avoid the fallacy of prescribing technical solutions for political problems.

Ameya Naik works with the Center for Peace Operations at the International Peace Institute. @kianayema