Foreign involvement in constitutional reform processes: DRC, Rwanda, Kenya

I’m very interested in the role of outside actors in a country’s political development. A term paper for a recent course gave me a chance to research this role as it applies to constitutional reforms. I ended up with three case studies of recent reform processes: the DRC, Rwanda and Kenya. I won’t bore you with the full paper, but comparing the three yielded some observations that you might find interesting.

First, the rough overview of each:

  • DR Congo: A peace process in 2002-2003 brought an end to DRC’s war (kind of), and created a transitional government. One key task for the transitional period was to create a new constitution and then hold elections. Foreign diplomats and staff from multilaterals and NGOs were heavily involved in drafting the constitution: “They ‘corrected’ the various drafts judged too undemocratic; they ensured that Congolese representatives duly followed international ‘advice’ (including threatening to cut off all aid should Congolese politicians remain firm on their positions), and they posted ‘experts’ in various institutions to help with the technical side of the process.” (From Autesserre’s excellent book.) Massive resources were brought in to run the referendum, which was no small task in a country the size of the DRC but lacking in significant infrastructure. Many voters lacked a basic understanding of what the vote was about (see here for more). Ultimately it was approved by 84% with a 62% turnout. Many of the “democratic” provisions insisted upon by the international community have amounted to little. For example, Kabila has continued the DRC’s dictatorial tradition and the country has seen little of the decentralization that was envisioned.
  • Rwanda: The 1993 Arusha Accords laid out plans for a transitional period, which included a new constitution. The 1994 genocide derailed such plans, but the RPF came back to them in 2000-2003. A constitutional commission held a public consultation process, though it was characterized as “highly supervised popular participation” and there were concerns that it failed to create any real discussion about Rwanda’s future. The draft was overwhelmingly approved by referendum (93% “yes” with 87% turnout) in May 2003, though opposition parties complained that the timeline was too short for an actual debate: the vote was held two weeks after the final text was released publicly. Donors and other outside actors played little role in this process.
  • Kenya: The short version of Kenya’s constitutional reform story starts with the violence that followed the disputed December 2007 presidential election, and the power-sharing agreement that brought it to a close. The new coalition government took up the task of reforming power structures in earnest, with the former rivals (Odinga and Kibaki) both campaigning for the draft, which was approved by 67% of voters in August 2010. But the long version of Kenya’s story starts at least in the early 1990s, when donor insistence on multiparty elections opened political space for reformers. Although this led to increasing calls for constitutional changes, the president (Moi) and the dominant party (KANU) held onto power throughout the 1990s. When Moi retired in 2002, Kenyans elected their first president from another party (Kibaki from NARC) — but the constitutional reform process fizzled out when Kibaki reneged on his promise of a new constitution and voters rejected the watered-down draft he submitted for referendum in 2005. The 2007/2008 post-election violence gave new momentum to the process. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, donor involvement remained low (compared to their involvement in the DRC) but it was constant: they largely funded civil society organizations that would agitate for change. During the 2010 referendum, USAID and others funded neutral civic education (though opponents to the draft complained that it was not neutral). Kenya even became the site of a proxy US culture war, as US conservative Christian groups funded the “no” campaign (see here for more).

Of course, these descriptions fail to capture the complexity and depth of these reforms in each country. Still, I think that comparing these histories can be interesting. A couple similarities: First, all three countries responded to donor pressures and allowed for multiparty democracy in the early 1990s (as many African countries did). In Kenya’s case, this created political space for a slow-growing reform movement. In Rwanda and DRC’s cases, it was merely a precursor to (though not necessarily the cause of) widespread violence. Second, all three countries pursued the recent reforms in “post-conflict” contexts — though the nature of those conflicts varied greatly. Third, all of the cases underwent some form of drafting process followed by a popular referendum.

The similarities pretty much end there. The DRC is an example of heavy outside involvement. It was unrealistic to think that the DRC could draft a constitution and hold a referendum in the timeline envisioned by the peace process. There was no state capacity and there were certainly no constraints on executive power (well, no constraints that didn’t involve guns). Rwanda was an opposite case in some ways: very little outside involvement, and reasonable state capacity given that the RPF waited 6 years after the genocide before starting the process. Yet, it bears similarities to the DRC in that it lacked political forces to balance the RPF. The resulting constitution did much to help entrench the RPF regime. Kenya provides a middle case because foreign actors focused their efforts on ensuring that the process moved forward, rather than on dictating the content of the text itself. USAID and other donors funded civil society groups, supporting the growth of alternative sources of political power — a key component of a democratic state, but one that was underdeveloped in both Rwanda and the DRC during their reforms.

Given the differences, is there any lesson we can draw from this about the level of involvement that outside actors should have? It’s easy to argue that outside actors should do nothing that impacts a country’s political development, but this would be impossible. Everything a country does (economically, culturally, diplomatically, etc.) impacts the politics of other countries. So from these cases I would tentatively put forward the Goldilocks Theorem of Foreign Involvement: you can’t do too much or too little; you’ve gotta get it just right.