04 November 2015

Symposium on Constitutions and Conflict Management in Africa

On Friday, October 16, 2015, the Strauss Center hosted a symposium entitled Constitutions and Conflict Management in Africa.  The symposium focused on new research published in the book Constitutions and Conflict Management in Africa: Preventing Civil War Through Institutional Design edited by Dr. Alan Kuperman, an Associate Professor at the LBJ School and a Strauss Center Distinguished Scholar.

Dr. Kuperman’s edited volume is the result of years of research by the Constitutional Design and Conflict Management Project (CDCM) at the Strauss Center, funded by a Minerva grant from the Pentagon.  The book includes seven case studies that examine the relationship between constitutional design and stability in Burundi, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, Sudan and Zimbabwe – and the first database of constitutional design in all African countries.


The book uses a spectrum to define African constitutional designs, ranging from integrative (promoting a unified national identity) to accommodative (promoting separate identities for subnational identity groups based on proportional representation, quotas, veto power, or autonomy).  The CDCM’s goal was to identify whether various types of constitutional design protect countries against “shocks” – such as disputed elections, environmental disasters, or refugee crises – that increase the chance of instability.  The CDCM’s research shows that the majority of African countries have integrative constitutions.  Towards the end of his opening remarks, Dr. Kuperman suggested that the United States should not push African nations to radically transform their constitutions for the sake of accommodation, which would be liable to exacerbate instability.  Instead, the international community should promote marginal reform of existing integrative constitutions, by complementing them with liberal institutions such as the separation of powers, independent electoral commissions, and term limits.


The first group of panelists discussed the CDCM’s methodology.  In addition to Dr. Kuperman, the panelists included Dr. Joseph Siegle, Director of Research at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies at the National Defense University, and Dr. Christof Hartmann, Professor of Political Science at University Duisburg-Essen in Germany.  There was consensus that there is no perfect methodology for measuring political stability or even constitutional design, given the frequent discrepancies between a country’s de jure and de facto political institutions.  Furthermore, Dr. Siegle pointed out that an integrative constitution does not necessarily equate to a centralized government.  Nevertheless, Dr. Siegle and Dr. Hartmann praised the book for applying consistent metrics to highlight the pattern of integration in African constitutions.


The second group of panelists included Dr. Nic Cheeseman, Associate Professor of African Politics at Oxford, Christina Murray, Professor of Human Rights and Constitutional Law at the University of Cape Town and a member of the UN’s Mediation Support Standby Team, and Dr. Marina Ottaway, a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and a specialist in political transformations in Africa, the Balkans, and the Middle East.  Dr. Cheeseman argued that the relationship between accommodative reforms and instability is complex.  Similar to Dr. Siegle, Dr. Cheeseman emphasized that the process and timing of accommodation, rather than the degree of accommodation, may have the biggest impact on stability.  Prof. Murray provided insight into the difficulties of writing accommodative constitutions.  Using South Africa’s post-apartheid Government of National Unity as an example, Dr. Murray explained how governments in divided societies must often convince the general public of the necessity of a new, inclusive constitution.


Dr. Ottaway then discussed the possible implications of the book’s research on US policy.  Dr. Ottaway argued that after years in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US government has become averse to engaging extensively in foreign political transformations.  While reaffirming the value of the book’s research, Dr. Ottaway cast doubts on whether we could expect a significant shift in US policy towards African governments in the coming years.  Dr. Cheeseman and Dr. Murray chimed in, adding that, in general, academics cannot hope to have a direct influence on an individual policy issue.  Rather, the panelists agreed, shifts of consensus in the academic community at large often contributes to gradual policy transition.  Dr. Kuperman concluded by thanking his colleagues for the praise and constructive criticism and expressing his hope that continued research in the field of constitutional design may contribute to greater stability throughout Africa.


All of the panelists’ commentaries will be published in a roundtable on Dr. Kuperman’s book, in a forthcoming issue of the journal Ethnopolitics.


The panelists (left to right): Joseph Siegle, Marina Ottaway, Nicholas Cheeseman, Christof Hartmann, Christina Murray, and Alan Kuperman.

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