Afghan National Unity Government in a comparative perspective

So Afghanistan has a Government of National Unity (GNU). Indeed, it has had one for over 100 days now in the aftermath of a protracted election, mired by fraud, violence, and subsequent indeterminate run-off. There is much we do not know of what exactly constitutes GNU in Afghanistan and understandably, considering that it is still at its infancy. Moreover, speculating on its sustainability and effectiveness is also rather immature. Perhaps putting the Afghan GNU in a comparative perspective can shed some light on what prospects await. The fundamental question to pursue is whether Afghan GNU is another ad hoc arrangement or a permanent feature that will be embedded in our political landscape?

GNU as a power-sharing resolution

The concept of GNU as applied to Afghanistan and many other countries is most vehemently defended by Arend Lijphart who coined the term ‘consociational democracy’1. It is a democratic model that prescribes power-sharing as a remedy to emerging political conflict. I have previously alluded to the fact that Afghanistan is founded on power-sharing and has exercised consociational democracy at its informal sector2 for ages. However, the consociational democracy as prescribed by Lijphart and the power-sharing mechanism that is implemented in Afghanistan is quite foreign.

The model advocated by Lijphart consists of four fundamental principles: a shared executive; mutual veto power to all social groups; proportional representation in government; and federalism. It is too early to say whether all these principles are to be executed in Afghanistan. It is clear that GNU is ushered out of the failure of the majoritarian form of democracy also known as the ‘winner take all’ as was illustrated in the case of Afghanistan.

On the surface this inclusive power-sharing model seems to imply a ‘win-win’ situation for all parties concerned in a divided society. There is a general consensus on what results out of power-sharing mechanism and the Peace Research Institute of Oslo (PRIO) project description is most noteworthy in the context of Afghanistan as they define power-sharing to be an “institutional arrangements designed to reduce the threat of conflict by giving all the belligerents in positive cooperation arrangements and a set of mutual guarantees of security and basic interests”3.

Over hundred days later, looking at the situation in Afghanistan it can hardly be argued that the power-sharing mechanism achieved any of the above objectives. Yes, the power-sharing reduced the threat of conflict between the two candidates camps. Certainly institutional arrangement is still being laid for their cooperation in order that both camps can achieve guarantees of security and interests. But if we are to consider power-sharing mechanism as a fundamental feature of consociational democracy, we must ask, what about the people? Surely, such a democratic model does consider the fate of the people and the PRIO description must account that in Afghanistan the power-sharing has exacerbated the conflict; the belligerents have been powerless or reluctant to have positive cooperation; and the mutual guarantees of security and interest of the people is viciously undermined.

Perhaps it is unfair to put the power-sharing objective in this greater context, for it was a narrow resolution proposal to an election dispute and mandated to create a Government of National Unity consisting of those who participated in the election process. This democratic model required first to share power amongst the stakeholders of the last decades and then discuss peace with the insurgents. I doubt Lijphart or any other political analyst believes that democracy precedes peace. Notwithstanding the utter fallacy, lets pick out recent examples around the world in order to better learn where do we stand.


On 27 December 2007 Kenyans went to the polls to elect between the incumbent Mwai Kibaki representing the Party of National Unity and presidential candidate Raila Odinga leading the Orange Democratic Movement party. Three days later the Electoral Commission of Kenya announced that the president Kibaki had won the race which immediately triggered country-wide protest by the supporters of Odinga claiming fraud and various other irregularities. The protests turned into riots and amalgamated to sectarian violence resulting in over 600,000 in internally displaced and 1500 death4. The situation propelled the “International Community” to get involved and diffuse the situation. A group of distinguished African leaders formed a panel presided by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan who suggested that a re-election or recount would further inflate the conflict. It was necessary to get out of this crisis and to move forward Annan profusely argued; it was imperative to form a Government of National Unity.

Under pressure internally by the heavily operating NGO industry as well as the fear of isolation regionally and internationally, President Kibaki agreed to the formation of the GNU. After two months of deliberations, the leaders of both parties signed an agreement of coalition government (the Grand Coalition) that consisted of a whole new political power structure. The Executive power was divided between Kibaki who retained the presidential post and creating a new executive post of Prime Minister for Odinga whose capacity was to coordinate and supervise the affairs of the government5. It took another two month and much political maneuverings between the new Prime Minister and the President on the formation of a government. There was intense negotiation on who to appoint and how to share the cabinet posts. The result was an abhorrently unprecedented cabinet.


In March 2008 Zimbabwe held its tripartite presidential election that was marred by the same fraud allegations as in Kenya. The result for the first round of the election was declared on 2 May 2008 with presidential candidate Morgan Tsvangirai the leader of the Movement for Democratic Change at 47.9% and the incumbent Robert Mugabe coming second with 43.3%. Since neither candidate had obtained the required 50% threshold, a run-off election was scheduled for 27 June 2008. The time period before the run-off was taken as an opportunity by President Mugabe to use all state apparatus to batter the opposition supporters with immense violence resulting in over 80 dead and hundreds missing. As a result of Mugabe’s reign of terror, Tsvangirai withdrew and Mugabe won the race with over 85.5% vote. The illegitimacy of the run-off compelled the South African Development Community (SADC) and the African Union (AU) to step in and propose power-sharing mechanism through a Government of National Unity.

With the looming economic crisis and the appalled public perception, all parties reluctantly came to the table and an intensive dialogue ensued with the signing of Memorandum of Understanding and Global Political Agreement (GPA). Similar to Kenya, the GPA constituted division of executive power, coalition government and a new political power structure. Mugabe retained the presidential post with his two vice presidents and Tsvangirai became Prime Minister with his own two deputy Prime Ministers.

Soon the asymmetrical distribution of power became evident as Mugabe gave all the executive authority to the Cabinet that he controlled while the (Council of Ministers) that was chaired by the prime minister was toothless. Despite obtaining legitimacy for the GPA through the constitutional amendment in February 2009, It was nonetheless largely violated by expanding the size of the cabinet to 41 ministers instead of the GPA stipulated 31 and 19 deputies instead of the original agreement of 15 deputies and adding an extra 10 resident ministers known as provincial Governors. This generally dysfunctional cabinet became the largest in Zimbabwe history.

The result of the GNU in Kenya and Zimbabwe

It is very apparent that the GNU had immediate short term benefits as peace and stability was restored in both cases. Threats of violence evaporated as soon as the parties shook hand and took part in the infamous photo-ops with third party mediators. This resulted in mass optimism and scenes of jubilation across the parties. In the case of Kenya, the donor “confidence” was gradually restored resulting in relative economic stability. In the case of Zimbabwe the decades old economic crisis was not so easy to tackle but the GNU did manage to save the economy from the brink of collapse. These short term economic gains did not translate at the political front. Power-sharing mechanism became in actuality a stringent power-dividing line where an inclusive or government of unity was in name only. Political persecution persisted, security sector reform never materialized. There was gross lack of consensus on pivotal issues and GNU was thereafter operating very much in a neo-patrimonial fashion6

The regional context that led to the creation of GNU in both countries is also worthy of consideration. It is safe to say that without the regional/international interference, the GNU would have not been mediated by internal actors or peacefully resolved by the parties themselves. Therefore the conflicting role of domestic and extraterritorial interest is abundantly clear. In the case of Kenya, the African Union, United Nation, United States, Britain and Germany played significant role in mitigating the GNU. In the case of Zimbabwe, South Africa played crucial role in the creation of the GNU. In short, GNU was not an outcome of grassroots activism but was born out of external interest in the aftermath of an election disputes7.

It is necessary to touch on the whole concept of power-sharing. The very term power-sharing is frankly misleading and more appropriately should be regarding as power-dividing. The mechanism is foundationally an elite pact; that is a beneficial contract among the political elites who carve out strategically the power dynamics. Division of power is conceived within realist terms and where power does not exist, it becomes necessary to create it. It is therefore not surprising that cabinets of the GNU are invariably large with Zimbabwe having 64 cabinet ministers and deputy ministers and Kenya having a staggering 96 member cabinet8.

The role of the masses is also significant in the sustainability of the GNU. In both countries, the people welcomed GNU with great expectations but it was short lived as the performance of the GNU was less than satisfactory. This is most poignantly evident in Kenya where over 70% of the people were confident in the formation of the GNU only to six month later a staggering 77% believe that the government is not working9. The same lack of confidence was shared by the people in Zimbabwe although not so drastically as in Kenya.

It is evident that there are similarities and stark differences between the GNU in Kenya, Zimbabwe and Afghanistan. The fundamental context that Afghanistan should be measured is the peace democracy nexus. Peace and democracy are not substitutes and should be pursued simultaneously. however in fragile states it is a trade-off that is often made in times of crisis. While history has shown that it is possible to have peace without democracy, it is seldom the case where democracy reigns without peace. In the case of both African countries, GNU was engineered as a response to demand for peace and conflict prevention. In Afghanistan however, power-sharing under GNU was imposed from above by an international third party with the sole purpose of upholding democratic value of “peaceful power transition”.

While in Kenya and Zimbabwe, it was an incumbent president desperately seeking to hold on to power, in Afghanistan both candidates were “fresh faces” outside the government and operating in the outskirt of the political landscape. But there was an incumbent and it certainly was not the outgoing president Karzai. Indeed, the incumbent was an ideological system that has managed to survive over the last 13 years but was internally hollow, externally under armed opposition and overwhelmingly illegitimate. This ideological system is none other than the prevailing neo-patrimonialism, which is externally manufactured into democracy and sugarcoated in most bitter neo-liberal design. How did this system translate on the ground? Extreme Poverty, Vast Insecurity, Social Injustice, Cultural Degradation and Religious Defamation.

Despite such dire reality, this ideological facade was adamant to remain in power and in fact both candidates run on the “fundamental achievements” of the last decade. And after an election year consisting of much of the campaign jargon, vote/fraud, run-off and nationally degrading Kerry visits, democracy was restored. The process of forming the National Unity government became underway and is still under process. It must be said that this system was never under threat ideologically. Yes it is internally hollow and without foreign Aid unsustainable but much of the internal bickering were echoes for power-dividing. Externally, the Taliban were an armed opposition with the short-sighted goal to topple the regime and their previous reign in power was no frame of reference. The only area of concern was the legitimacy factor that Karzai government under the emblem of liberal democracy was increasingly being questioned across the country. No matter how fiercely the people detested the status quo, they failed to conceive of a viable alternative. Therefore, they hang on to the slightest hope of a better tomorrow despite the impossible odds.

This newly formed GNU has failed to realize that it is a product of national despair but since inauguration has jumped on the bandwagon of the same old neo-liberal rhetoric of false promise, prosperity, and progress. Tragically missing the fundamental P that the nation is desperately yearning for: peace. No, a public relation visit to a neighbouring country’s military apparatus is not a concrete long term peace strategy. It is not surprising therefore that now 100 days into the GNU in Afghanistan, we are witnessing a mounting insurgency and a growing dissatisfied populous.

There is still a chance for the newly formed GNU to steer the nation out of the storm. It requires first and foremost to unshackle itself from the politically ineffective, socially unjustifiable and culturally incompatible neo-liberal agenda and construct an Afghan owned and implemented policy of conflict transformation that is envisioning long term peace. The lessons of Kenya and Zimbabwe should be a reminder that power-sharing mechanism under Government of National Unity are often signed on the basis of short term objectives at the expense of long term goals. Therefore, the notion of GNU in Afghanistan becoming a permanent feature of its political landscape is dependant on the fundamental idea of laying an afghan seed of peace in foresight; peace not to last in months or years but decades and dare say centuries.


1tijphort, A., 1977. Democrocy in plural societies: A comparative exploration. New Haven: Yole Universily Press. Foro more succinct formulotion, see his ‘The power-shoring approoch’, in Montville, J.V., ed. 1990. Conflict and peace-malting in multiethnic societies. Lexinglon, KY: D.C. Heath, 490-509.

2Afghanistan: Peace is in its Social Foundation.

3PRIO Project on Power-slioring ogreemenls,negoliolions and peace processes,¡ect?o¡d=65122 lAccessedll December2014].

4Masunungure Eldred, and Mutasa Florence. 2011. The Nexus Between Disputed Elections and Governments of National Unity in Africa. Africa Insight. Vol 41. no.1

5Acting together for Kenyo: Agreement on the principles of partnership of the coalition government. 28 Februory 2008, Noirobi.

6Masunungure Eldred, and Mutasa Florence. 2011. The Nexus Between Disputed Elections and Governments of National Unity in Africa. Africa Insight. Vol 41. no.1

7Adusei. Lord A., 2010. Power shoring: An ugly porodigm shift in Africon politics. Modern Ghana News, 25 December. Avoiloble ot [Accessed I December 2014]

8 Ayittey, G,, 2010. An Africon solution: Solving the aisis of failed states. Horvord /nierno/ionoi Review, 14 April. Avalloble ol an<ofrtcan-solution

9 Konyingo, 2009,p.l2

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