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Constitutional Design: Vital but Insufficient for Conflict Management

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In his classic Institutions, institutional change and economic performance, North (1990) observes that while many Nineteenth century Latin American countries adopted replicas of the United States Constitution, none produced similar results in terms of economic performance or stability. This, he argues, was due to different subjective attitudes and historical institutions leading to alternative enforcement mechanisms, interpretation of property rights, and norms. Hence, even states that adopt identical constitutional reforms will end up with widely varying outcomes depending on other institutional arrangements already in place.

North’s caution regarding the potentially limited impact of constitutional reform is an instructive starting point in drawing out lessons from the thoughtful assessment of the role of constitutional design in mitigating violence captured in Constitutions and conflict management in Africa: Preventing civil war through institutional design, edited by Kuperman (2015). The book’s analytic review of the inter-communal security implications of the constitutional design of seven African countries paints a mixed picture of the relative advantages of attempting to manage ethnic divisions either through accommodation (guarantees to identity groups based on ethnicity) or integration (identity neutral application of citizen rights). Of particular policy relevance, the book highlights the risks of the growing inclination to pursue accommodative solutions to resolve inter-communal divisions, as this may reinforce differences and perpetuate inter-group rivalries and resentments over time.

If constitutional design is insufficient by itself for managing inter-communal conflict in Africa, then what additional factors might augment its potential effectiveness? The question is particularly relevant for Africa, where over 90% of violent conflicts are internal, reflecting the deficiency of political structures to pre-empt and mitigate domestic grievances. This pattern of violence suggests that a determinative factor in conflict mitigation is the degree to which sub-constitutional institutions manage competing interests in a manner perceived as equitable and rules-based. In Africa, with its legacy of neo-patrimonial political power structures, the strength of institutional checks against abuses by the executive branch—indeed, often by the head of state—are particularly relevant.

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