Securing reform? Power sharing and civil-security relations in Kenya and Zimbabwe

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Logo In this blog, Alexander Noyes tells us about his recent research, which explores the relationship between power sharing agreements  and Security Sector Reform (SSR). In many transitional countries, SSR can play a crucial role in making situations more stable and democracy more feasible. But can power sharing agreements help SSR where it matters most? Alexander is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Politics and International Relations at Oxford University.   His research on the topic was published this year in African Studies Quarterly. The full version of the article can be accessed here.


While international actors use power sharing to resolve a vast range of conflicts in Africa and view state security reform as critical to achieving a durable peace, there is a distinct lack of studies that examine the relationship between power sharing and security sector reform (SSR). In the cases of Kenya and Zimbabwe from 2008-2013, I argue that two main factors determined the divergent security reform outcomes of the respective power-sharing governments: the degree of political influence possessed by actors within the security sector and the strength of content on security reform within the power-sharing agreement.

Power sharing is increasingly used by the international community as a tool to end conflict, from Bosnia to Afghanistan to Liberia. In recent years, the use of power-sharing governments to settle conflict has been particularly preponderant in sub-Saharan Africa. From 1999 to 2009, power-sharing agreements, also known as unity governments, were utilized in eighteen African countries to resolve a multiplicity of conflicts, ranging from high-intensity civil war, as in Sudan, to lower-grade electoral violence, as in Kenya and Zimbabwe. In some cases, as in the semi-autonomous island of Zanzibar in 2010, unity governments have been agreed to even before elections take place in an effort to defuse poll tensions.

In many of these conflicts, the security apparatus of the state has played a prominent role. In Kenya and Zimbabwe, for instance, the security sector was involved in—if not directly responsible for—widespread political violence surrounding both countries’ disputed elections in 2007-08. The Kenyan police were implicated in 36 per cent of all fatalities and the security apparatus in Zimbabwe was responsible for an overwhelming majority of the violence that spread across the country.

In such cases, the depoliticization and reform of the state security sector is crucial to achieving a durable peace, improving governance, and aiding democratic consolidation. If reforms are not undertaken during the tenure of unity governments, any short-term gains secured by a power-sharing deal will likely prove fleeting, as security officials will remain as political instruments or continue to employ their influence in the political sphere.

Although political polarization and other conflict legacies can stifle reform, power-sharing governments and the conflicts from which they emerge have the potential to generate propitious opportunities for SSR, particularly where the security apparatus has been involved in political violence. As the deleterious role of the security sector becomes apparent, domestic, regional, and international actors often urge parties to include SSR in the negotiated political agreements and pressure unity governments to enact security reforms and other institutional changes that impact security governance, such as constitutional review processes.

Despite this link between power sharing and security reform, there is a paucity of academic studies that examine the relationship between the two phenomena. Drawing on the cases of Kenya and Zimbabwe, I seek to fill this gap and better understand when unity governments formed in contexts of low-grade electoral violence in Africa will facilitate or forestall state SSR.

In the cases of Kenya and Zimbabwe, the historical role of the security forces and their balance of power with civilian actors shaped the prospects for SSR. In Zimbabwe, the rise of ‘security politics’ gave the security sector a high degree of political influence, which prevented the inclusion of strong SSR content in the power-sharing agreement. This combination of high political influence and weak SSR content resulted in little movement on state security reforms in Zimbabwe under power sharing. In Kenya, a ‘diffusion of violence’ over the past two decades gave rise to the practice of ‘militia politics’, which led to a low degree of political influence in the security sector, namely the police, and allowed strong SSR content in the agreement. In contrast to Zimbabwe, low political influence and strong SSR content facilitated considerable, if slow and incomplete, progress on state SSR in Kenya under the coalition government.

My journal article illustrates the importance of both the political influence and SSR content variables in advancing SSR: lower degrees of influence are necessary but not sufficient unless coupled with strong SSR content in the agreement. The implications of the findings are clear: A low level of political influence within the security sector and robust SSR content in the agreement are the most favorable conditions for reforming the security apparatus. Under such conditions, unity governments can generate significant opportunities for SSR.

Unfortunately, such conditions usually prevail where SSR is needed least. Kenya may prove to be the exception in this regard, as a unique set of circumstances shaped a unidirectional relationship between the police and the political sphere, making police reforms essential but also plausible. Zimbabwe, on the other hand, demonstrates that, as one might expect, where SSR is most desperately needed is where it is least likely to advance.

However, given the finding of the study that the content of the power-sharing agreement has considerable potential to drive reform, negotiators would be wise to push vigorously for concrete SSR content even in cases where security leaders possess medium-high degrees of political influence. Such content could enable pressure from domestic and international actors to overcome the security sector’s protestations and force members of the unity government to uphold their promises and implement SSR.

While the article argues that the SSR content of a power-sharing agreement can play a fundamental role in advancing security reforms, there are clearly limits to such catalytic potential. Post-conflict unity governments are extremely volatile and fragile, with their outcomes dependent on a broad range of contingent factors that are nearly impossible to forecast. Even if strong SSR guidelines are included in a deal, the persistence of informal security arrangements, lack of political will, and other unforeseen impediments—such as crises of governance or renewed conflict—may neuter their potentially positive impact.

State security forces continue to play a critical and often deleterious role in conflict in Africa, as illustrated by Côte d’Ivoire in 2010, where the security sector kept the incumbent President, Laurent Gbabgo, in power even though he had lost an election. The bullet once again defeated the ballot. While calls for power sharing proliferated after the disputed election, the idea was ultimately jettisoned and Gbagbo was removed from office through a combination of international and domestic force.

Although the case of Côte d’Ivoire may have slowed the wave of power sharing that has flowed across the continent in recent years as a response to electoral deadlock, the lack of a viable substitute for ending violent conflict guarantees that the model will continue to feature prominently in mediator’s toolkits. As such, understanding the likely security reform outcomes of unity governments remains more important than ever.

2 thoughts on “Securing reform? Power sharing and civil-security relations in Kenya and Zimbabwe

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