Confronting Ethnic Conflict in Africa: Towards a Theoretical Framework of the Conditions for Successful Third Party Intervention

July 07, 2004 // 9:00am10:00am

On July 7th, Jennifer De Maio a PhD candidate at UCLA and an Africanist Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center presented on a chapter from her dissertation, Confronting Ethnic Conflict Towards an Analytical Framework of the Conditions for Successful Third Party Intervention. Ms. De Maio's dissertation aims to critically assess the role of third party intervention in managing selected ethnic conflicts in Africa and to develop a response oriented framework for such intervention.

The threat of ethnic violence deserves international attention and focus. To investigate the question of whether intervention exacerbates or ameliorates conflict, De Maio supplemented statistical data with four case studies: Somalia (1988 1992), Burundi (1995 present), Sudan (1983 present), and KwaZulu Natal, South Africa (1994). In each of these cases, De Maio looked for the presence of certain socio psychological and institutional arrangement conditions conditions for success in third party intervention. Intervention success was defined as a termination of violence, a reduction of human suffering, containment of conflict, and promotion of stable governance.

De Maio identified five hypotheses concerning socio psychological conditions for success in third party intervention. 1. Commitment Intervention is more successful when third parties demonstrate credible commitments to the groups in conflict that they will enforce and uphold the terms of the peace settlement. 2. Incentives Intervention in ethnic civil conflicts is more successful when third parties use appropriate incentives in the negotiation, settlement, and peacebuilding phases. 3. Preventive Diplomacy Intervention that comes before the fighting starts has a greater likelihood of success than action taken once violence has erupted. 4. Negotiators Intervention is more successful when it employs highly respected negotiators. 5. Consent and Perceptions of Peace Intervention is more successful in managing ethnic wars when the third parties encourage warring groups to consent to peace and to perceive that the conflict should be managed by non violent means.

Five hypotheses concerning institutional arrangements for successful third party intervention were also identified. 1. Aid Intervention that incorporates sustained aid directed towards low income countries like the ones we find in Africa will have substantial potential for conflict prevention and management. 2. Institutional Choice Intervention strategies that adapt their proposed institutional arrangements to each individual case of ethnic civil conflict will be more successful. 3. Coordination and Cooperation Intervention is more successful when the third parties cooperate and implement a coordinated strategy. 4. Enforcement Intervention strategies that are accompanied by clearly evident mechanisms for the enforcement of agreements will be more successful in managing ethnic civil wars. 5. Regional and Subregional Actors In the case of ethnic wars that fall short of complete state collapse, intervention that comes from regional actors has a greater likelihood of success than action taken by international organizations. In severe cases, however, these regional actors must have legitimacy and capacity and must be supported by the international community.

In analyzing conflict interventions in the four case studies, De Maio found that, at this point in time, only one of the four could be considered a true peacebuilding success. Somalia had only 1 2 of the prerequisite conditions outlined by De Maio and it was recorded as "Not a peacebuilding success". Many of the conditions were found to be present in Burundi interventions but De Maio was hesitant to label the country as a peacebuilding success. Many of the conditions were also present in the Sudan interventions. However, due to concerns over the situation in Darfur, Ms. De Maio stated that Sudan could not yet be labeled a success. The only intervention that could be labeled a success was that of South Africa, where all of the socio psychological conditions and institutional arrangements were present.

De Maio's conclusion was that third party intervention has a greater probability of managing ethnic conflicts if it includes all 10 of the conditions outlined above. The presentation was then opened to questions from the audience. The first inquiry came from a former foreign service officer who asked how does one reconcile national interests with bottom up intervention strategies? De Maio conceded that it is difficult to reconcile the two given that without national interests there is no political will to intervene. However, she stressed that the best intervention strategies, those that create long term peace, are those that take into consideration the bottom level.

The event moderator commented that bottom up is important; however, conflict is often elite driven. The issue is immensely complex and the challenge is restoring a sense of national identity. He also noted that excessive dependence on enforcement could indicate that the base for long term is not there.

Temple Cooley, Program Assistant, (202) 691-4158
Howard Wolpe, Program Director

Upcoming Events


Sub-Saharan Africa: Energy Security and Growth

March 10, 2015 // 10:30am12:00pm

Experts & Staff

Wilson Center Photo Gallery

Browse or share photos from the Wilson Center’s events.

To Attend an Event

Unless otherwise noted:

Meetings listed on this page are free and open to the public. Reservations are not required unless otherwise noted. All meetings take place at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC. Please see map and directions. Allow time for routine security procedures. A photo ID is required for entry.

To confirm time and place, contact Maria-Stella Gatzoulis on the day of the event: tel. (202) 691-4188. Check this page for the latest updates and notices.