OE Watch Commentary: On the surface it sounds like a fairly reasonable way to reduce conflict: provide warring elites with high-level political positions and/or large sums of money to prevent them and their followers from fighting. However, as the accompanying article from African Arguments relates, this “buying peace” policy, as it is sometimes called, is fraught with problems, the main one being that it does not treat the underlying causes of a conflict, leading to any cessation of hostilities often being only temporary.
The article’s author points to South Sudan as an example where mediators attempted this strategy of buying peace. In this case, the deal was between President Silva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar. Machar had been vice-president in July 2011, when South Sudan became independent, and stayed in the position until 2013 when internal government tensions erupted into civil war. The 2015 peace agreement returned Machar to the vice-presidency, but any thoughts of this action buying long-term peace were relatively short-lived as the following year Kiir dismissed Machar and fighting resumed. Some view the attempt to buy peace by having Machar join the government as a failure. Since 2016 more rebel groups have joined the opposition, causing the conflict to spread with UN estimates placing the number killed at tens of thousands, around two million displaced, and seven million in need of humanitarian assistance.
Interestingly, despite this disaster, mediators are once again trying to stop the bloodshed by bringing the warring parties to the table with appeasements and rewards, or in other words, a repeat attempt to buy peace. The author points out that this is not likely to be successful for the same reason previous efforts to buy peace did not work, specifically a failure to address root causes of the problem. As an example of this the article points to a different, although related, conflict in South Sudan between the Shilluk community and President Kiir. Many Shilluk joined the South Sudan Democratic Movement to fight Kiir’s fledgling government over disputed land in the country’s Upper Nile region. The militia’s leader, Johnson Olony, agreed in 2013 to end hostilities, and in return, he and some of his men were awarded positions in the military and government. However, the basic disagreements over land that led to the fighting in the first place were not addressed. Meanwhile, relationships became frayed between Olony and other parties in the government, with the tensions eventually compelling him to return to the rebel fold where, as a leader once again, he helped rally supporters to resume the fight over their grievances.
The accompanying article points out additional problems with the policy of buying peace. One of these is that in the process of rewarding the elites, accountability and justice for the less powerful is often ignored. Thus, a history of violence against the masses might simply be dismissed. Yet another problem with trying to buy peace is that there is a strong chance it only lasts as long as there are resources to pay for it and that when the money runs out, the fighting could resume.
A better approach than a buying-the-peace policy would, to summarize the article, be twofold. The first approach involves shifting the emphasis away from rewarding the elites and more towards addressing the underlying grassroots grievances driving the conflict. The second approach is ending the rewards for waging war by finding the funding and then cutting it off through measures such as arms embargoes, asset freezes, and travel bans. By providing disincentives to conflict as opposed to the failed policy of buying-the-peace incentives not to fight, South Sudan might finally emerge from the violence that has engulfed it. End OE Watch Commentary (Feldman)
In a bid to end this bloodshed, mediators are once again trying to bring warring parties to the table. They are largely relying on similar tactics of trying to appease military leaders and offer them rewards to cease hostilities. Recent experience, however, should have exposed to them the unsustainability of trying to “buy peace”.
Ultimately, buying peace by offering rewards to warring elites is doomed to fail. It is anathema to democracy and allows dictatorship. It benefits only those at the top and, unless every power-broker is satisfied, which is impossible, it only encourages factions to split to demand what they believe they are due.
As things stand, there is little prospect of a meaningful peace treaty being signed. But if different and concerted forms of pressure were exerted on those benefiting from conflict and obstructing negotiations, the warring parties’ calculations could finally change. The strategy of buying peace has not and cannot work. It is only when the financial resources and benefits of fighting dry up that we might finally move a step closer towards building a meaningful and sustainable peace.