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Intro to Peace and Conflict Studies

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I began taking courses towards the Peace, Conflict, and Social Justice concentration during the fall of my freshman year, but I did not end up taking the required “Intro to Peace and Conflict Studies” course until my very last semester. I was not the only one in this predicament: the class seemed to be mainly comprised of seniors fulfilling a major or minor requirement at the last minute, and freshmen taking the introductory course as a way to try out a new field.  Those of us doing things in reverse order were in an interesting situation, because we were learning about many topics that we had previously explored in detail in whole other courses, but were only first getting a broader, contextual understanding of.  One of the most thought provoking parts of the course was learning about the theory behind nonviolent direct action and its relation to theories of political power.  I have spent a lot of time studying the successes and failures of social movements in political science courses, and have also been involved in nonviolent direct action myself as an activist.

I’ve always had a gut feeling that nonviolent protest is a powerful political tool, and for a long time have been able to list off quite a few examples of its success.  But I never understood how and why nonviolent actors are able to beget change – I understood political power in the context of who has political control, not in terms of how state power is relational to civil society, who has to legitimize the government.  About midway through the semester I went to the Peace and Justice Studies Association annual conference, and spent a lot of time with both my professor, Lee Smithey, and George Lakey, a prolific activist and the creator of Swarthmore’s Global Nonviolent Action Database.  Talking with them about the theory I had just learned about as part of the class helped me experience the conference through a completely new lens, particularly when hearing papers about specific examples of nonviolent protest, such as the Arab Spring.  It was very cool to immediately be able to use newly acquired knowledge in a professional setting.  Later in the term, one of our class projects involved “tagging” and cataloging a number case studies in the Global Nonviolent Action Database, and then writing about one of them.  Below is my paper on a Beninese campaign for economic justice and democracy.

The Beninese students who began protesting and striking in 1989 against Kérékou’s struggling regime and the austerity measures put in place by the IMF had most likely not read Gene Sharp’s “198 Methods of Nonviolent Action” (1973).  Nonetheless, they used an impressive number of his prescribed approaches throughout their protests.  The students in Benin were upset that the government had failed to pay scholarship money to students and salaries to teachers and other civil servants, and began a series of strikes and marches, and distributed mass petitions and flyers throughout major cities.  Over a year after the striking began, the students, who were eventually joined by civil servants and other concerned citizens, achieved most of their initial goals of reinstating scholarships and salaries, and even attained secondary goals of releasing political prisoners (Global Nonviolent Action Database).  It is clear that the Beninese protesters were able to generate a significant amount of power – both political power, and the more literal manpower generated by their sheer numbers.  By refusing to grant legitimacy to the Beninese government’s decision, the protesters created an alternative kind of power, and were able to achieve their goals. 

While they never had “power over” the Beninese government, they protesters did amass a significant amount of social capital and communal “power to” demand that the government pay the promised scholarships and worker salaries (Bell 1999:100) Eventually, many towns ignored certain power structures completely, and some towns in Benin replaced mayors with their own elected officials (Global Nonviolent Action Database).  While this success is impressive, it is also important to note that the struggle had consequences to it: namely having two school years invalidated and not having another avenue for formal learning.  If the Beninese protesters had drawn from past nonviolent activists, and found a way to create new “parallel structures” and do “constructive work” throughout the length of the campaign, they could have found an alternative avenue of getting what they wanted, without having to sacrifice their education (Bell 1999:104).

The protesters in Benin began their campaign with widespread three-day student strikes, and eventually expanded their tactics.  Although they were living under Kérékou’s totalitarian regime, which disliked dissent and outlawed all opposing political parties (Global Nonviolent Action Database), success was possible because the tens of thousands of protesters delegitimized those government structures.  As Gene Sharp explains, nonviolent action has the potential to be politically transformative, because the government “depends on the people’s good will, decisions and support.”  He argues that political power is fragile and “always dependent for its strength and existence upon a replenishment of its sources by the cooperation of a multitude of institutions and people” (1973:8).  As Nancy Bell (1999) makes clear, political power is not a zero-sum game where the winner takes all, but rather the result of many small games of tug-of-war.  The campaign in Benin was successful not because Kérékou or the IMF team imposing austerity measures acquiesced, but rather because their political power had always been dependent on the tacit support of the larger community.

Even more importantly, the students, civil servants, and their supporters who took part in the strikes, demonstrations, and letter-writing had many of the “sources of power” outlined by Gene Sharp at their disposal (1973:11).  The teachers and professors who helped students lead the effort possessed a significant amount of authority within society, and were also generally well respected.  They had the skills and knowledge at hand to run a successful campaign, and skillfully chose what actions to take.  Moreover, by the time of the 1989 demonstrations, which were attended by more than 40,000 people, they had the human resources, and made up such a mass of people in the cities of Cotonou and Porto Novo that they became “mosquitoes that could not all be swatted” (Ackerman and Duvall 2002:23).  All of these were important sources of power, and built the foundation for the campaign’s ability to carry out sanctions against the Beninese government. 

Ackerman and Duvall explain that “the use of a panoply of forceful sanctions,” coupled with “a strategy for undermining an oppressor’s pillars of support” allow nonviolent action to become a mechanism for taking power.  The campaigners in Benin used a wide range of sanctions against their own government and rulers, and were successful at doing so because they had all previously played an important role in the system they were protesting. In particular, teachers and civil servants operated at the lowest rungs of the governmental system, and brought many government activities to a complete hault by refusing to work.  This interesting interdependence between many of the protesters and Kérékou’s regime was both what helped prompt the action in the first place, and was also a big part of what made it successful.

Although the people organizing the protests played an important role in maintaining the stability of the Beninese government, they were far from elite, and represent a very nontraditional face of political power.  Bell writes about the many ways in which power can come “from below,” and argues that in the context of US society, ideas and discourse surrounding power have been built out of the experiences of white men, who have traditionally held positions of political dominance, while ignoring the “weak” in society, such as women and people of color.  In Benin, paralel assumptions of who can gain power existed, and students – who did not wield any formal political control – were able to rewrite those notions of who can be of political importance.  Borrowing from the work of Sharp, Bell (1999:102) outlines how Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. were both able to use resistance to build political power by refusing to grant legitimacy to repressive leaders.  The Benin protesters followed a similar model of delegitimizing government decisions, which likely played a significant role in their eventual success. 

Gandhi also outlines another important aspect to the success of nonviolent resistance, which is having faith in the method of protest.  He writes, “even as we believe in God in faith, so have we to believe in non-violence in faith…for full play, it requires unsullied purity and an unquenchable faith” (Gandhi 1987:123).  Faith played a clear role in the success of the Benin protesters, who continued to take nonviolent action – and to escalate their action – in the face of what appeared to be many repeated failures. The campaign took part over six separate segments, which began in January, 1989, and continued until March, 1990.  Although there were some interim successes – including the promise that certain grant payments would be fulfilled, the release of protesters who had been arrested during demonstrations, and the reinstatement of some civil service allowances – the main goals of the protest were not met until much later.  If the campaign had not believed in the power of nonviolent direct action they never would have continued their resistance for as long as they did, and had their eventual success.

Another interesting way in which the Beninese campaigners followed the advice of Gandhi was in how they truly did “hate the sin and not the sinner” (1987:124).  Many other social movements that have formed in the wake of failed economies and political instability have agitated for complete regime change, rather than the resolution of specific grievances.  The protesters in Benin did not try to overthrow Kérékou’s administration, but instead narrowed down their goals to what they viewed as immediate injustices.  Eventually, this led to a democratic election, which ousted Kérékou from power (although he was then re-elected five years later), but this was only indirectly related to the mass protests.  It is impossible to say whether or not a nonviolent campaign of a different nature would have still wielded the same results in relation to student scholarships and teacher and civil servant salaries, but the limited scope of the protest is still interesting.

Although the fight was ultimately successful, the students who led the movement did have to make sacrifices.  They missed two years of school, and many of them were fulltime activists throughout the run of the campaign.  Looking at other examples of people who have built “parallel structures” in the midst of nonviolent protest provides an interesting model to look at how the Beninese protesters might have been able to build grassroots, unofficial schools and universities that could have continued to run throughout the course of their strike. Bell explains that alternative and nontraditional structures “make the supposedly powerless less dependent upon the requirements and rules of those trying to dominate them” (1999:104). Because dominant institutions require larger society to “buy-in” to their legitimacy, those who subvert those institutions by creating something completely new can destabilize traditional power – and this can be a form of action in itself.   Gandhi, for instance, was able to build a parallel structure during his boycott of British cloth, by helping Indians weave their own textiles.  If the Beninese protesters had followed a similar model, they could have met their needs for education, without legitimizing or being dependent on the system they were protesting.

The Beninese students, teachers, civil servants, and their allies who striked and demonstrated against what they saw as economic injustice were able to change both national policy and IMF loan conditions through nonviolent direct action alone.  Although some of this speaks to the qualities of the protesters themselves – who had faith in what they were doing, and had the skills, knowledge, and human resources to carry out their actions – it is also a testament to the nature of political power itself.  Kérékou’s regime did not exist in a vacuum, but rather was dependent on larger societal support and the implicit backing of the citizenry of Benin.  When people began to question the legitimacy of the ruling power’s decision-making, the wall that held the government’s position of power up began to crumble.  The Beninese protesters were ultimately able to be powerful and effective because they had a considerable amount of power to begin with.

Works Cited

"Beninese campaign for economic justice and democracy, 1989-90." Global Nonviolent Action Database. (accessed November 17, 2012).

Ackerman, Peter, and Jack DuVall. "With Weapons of the Will." Sojourners, September 20, 2002.

Bell, Nancy. "Alternative Theories of Power." In Encyclopedia of Violence, Peace & Conflict. San Diego: Academic Press, 1999. 99-105.

Gandhi, Mohandas K. The Mind of Mahatma Gandhi. Compiled and edited by R. K. Prabhu and U. R. Rao. (Reprinted.). Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing House, 1987.

Sharp, Gene. "198 Methods of Nonviolent Action." peaceCENTER. (accessed November 16, 2012).

Sharp, Gene. "The Nature and Control of Political Power." In The Politics of Nonviolent Action. Boston: P. Sargent Publisher, 1973. 7-33.



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