Governance lessons from the Ghani – Noor rift

Around late December 2017, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani dismissed one of the provincial governors, Atta Mohammad Noor, who rejected his dismissal and continued to stay in power in northern Balkh Province. It was claimed to be a resignation; counterclaimed to be a forced one. The forced resignation of the Governor leading to a stand-off between the provincial powerholder and the central government caused a public distress and brought to forth many different internal conflicts within the country. The administrative/political stand-off that has continued for months now has stirred all kinds of discussion about corruption, ethnic division, and the legitimacy of the Afghan national unity government. We should remember that in the past one and a half decade, the politics of Afghanistan has been in similar situations many times and have found a resolution of some kind, with the most recent one leading to the formation of the national unity government. Once the hype of this administrative/political stand-off passes, there are three ‘governance’ lessons to be learned: use of local knowledge to expand legitimacy, inclusive central administration, and decentralization of authority and responsibility.

Ashraf Ghani

President’s ‘good governance’

In his inauguration speech, President Ghani made a promise of ‘good governance’, the meaning of which depends on who is interpreting it and what issues are given most value. The President’s version of ‘good governance’ entailed among other initiatives inclusion of young and educated persons in high government positions, reforms in the bureaucracy of the government, quality public services, initiating large economic projects, and boosting individual representation of citizens in the state.

Whereas the central government has to some extent delivered on some components of the promised good governance, there are examples of failure too. Appointment of some uneducated, unqualified people in high government positions has attracted large criticism against the central government. One large electricity project that was supposed to pass through an area of a minority ethnicity did not happen, contributing to a feeling of exclusion for some pockets of populations. The president’s local governance policies, although looks good on paper, are untested through time in the context of Afghanistan, and may bear more results in the years to come, given he remains as president for another term.

One of the criticisms against President Ghani, extending to his governance, is his tight grip on decision-making. For one, the Afghan government is highly centralized with the president signing major decisions even at the district level. The president follows (has to follow) the government’s hierarchical bureaucracy in which obedience of the subordinate is an essential component of its functioning. Moreover, President Ghani is known to get involved in as many administrative decisions as he can. Given he single-handedly cannot make all those decisions, people close to him influence and contribute to some of those decisions. It has apparently created a ‘circle of decision-maker’ around Ghani, who have a significant influence on him. To clarify, this circle is not ‘minister’s council’ or top government officials. It is those surrounding him on a daily basis in his office. Whereas changing the hierarchical bureaucracy of the whole of government is a long-term process, it is feasible to shape the ‘circle of decision-makers’ in a way that is representative of all stakeholders in the country.

The rift on governance

The central government and the provincial powerholder may agree on some of the above ‘good governance’ initiatives, but there are signs of disparity on the type of governance and the form of citizen’s representation in the state.

One of the values of a ‘good democratic governance’ is to enable individual citizen representation in the state. In the case of Afghanistan, the central government interprets it as getting rid of the communal representation mainly manifested through the country’s ethnic divide. In a communal representation, gatekeepers can become strong power holders, act in self-interest, and become an island of power – something the central government argues against the provincial governor. On the other hand, the provincial power holder can argue the same (Central government representing some, not all communities/ethnicities) against the central administration. At the bottom of this debate is historical ethnic suspicions that need to be addressed at the central government level, for which I offer recommendations at the end of this post. But before that, we would like to do two things: briefly describe Governor Noor’s response to the rift suggesting he has more interests to stay within the state and unpack his governance mechanism that may hint to some local governance lessons for Afghanistan.

Governor’s ‘good governance’

While following the central government’s hierarchical bureaucracy, Governor Noor has also established a form of networked governance to maintain the security of the province and strengthen his political position. A networked governance does not necessarily require obedience as part of the functions of governance, while the outcome is achieved through the strength of weak and strong ties within the network – something in which Governor Noor has become proficient.

Through his networked governance, Atta Mohammad Noor’s has kept the communal representation intact in a network and gained control of the major communal nodes. With him as the central node of communal representation, the governor has become a power holder. As his loyalty swings in the pendulum between the state and the citizens, so do his interest in the self, the group (ethnicity & party), and the citizens. Whereas he has to follow the bureaucracy of the central government and provide services to the citizens of the province, and he shall also keep membership of his political party and safeguard his economic interests. He has become proficient in his mix-method governance in the context of Balkh with his in-depth knowledge of the province and the people in the province, he has ensured relatively better security in the province (compared to other volatile provinces) and supported some provincial development.

Replication of this model requires a person like Noor, who has good knowledge of the context and the capability to translate that into useful authority and improved outcome. Some similarities exist between the model in Balkh and Gol Agha Shirzoy’s Nangarhar and Ismael Khan’s Herat. None were sustained for political reasons. The long-term viability of such model in societies aiming for democracy may not be feasible, but it does hint to some short- to mid-term governance mechanisms leading to an improved state of affairs to allow true individual citizen representation in the state. In the long-term, the networked governance mechanism Governor Noor has created can exist only with a strong power holder at the center. Any change in the central node slowly disintegrates the network and may cause a temporary disorder.

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Governor’s response to the rift

The response of Governor Noor to the stand-off has been interesting. When such conflicts arise within a state (assuming the state is the principle and citizens are agents), agents typically respond in three ways: ‘Voice’, ‘Exit’, ‘Loyalty’. ‘Voice’ involves many forms of political participation including demonstrations and protests with the aim of improving the state of affairs. ‘Exit’ is a form of self-exclusion from the state. ‘Loyalty’ is staying in an unsatisfactory condition in the expectation that ‘someone will act or something will happen to improve matters’. In contrasts, non-loyalty is remaining in a condition without expecting any improvement. Governor Noor’s response to his ‘forced’ resignation has been a combination of Voice-Exit-Loyalty [1] – protesting his resignation, threatening to exit, but still keeping his loyalty to the state. Previous events have shown that he has more political and economic interests to remain ‘loyal’ to the state than to ‘exit’. Person of his political standing will definitely ‘voice’ to change things rather than completely ‘exit’.

Governance lessons: The lessons for the central government are:

  • In the short-term, the ‘circle of decision-makers’ around President Ghani needs to be expanded, inclusive of all ethnicities, and be transparent. At the moment, there is a state of distribution of government offices to specific groups of people under the name of inclusion. The true inclusion process has to proliferate within the offices at all levels of authorities and responsibilities.
  • In the mid-term, contextual knowledge (of a province or a district) is an added value to local governance. The central government should recruit those in provinces and districts who have a good contextual knowledge and have the capacity to translate the knowledge into authority and good governance.
  • In the long-term, to boost meaningful representation of individual citizens in the affairs of the state, democratic mechanisms of participation should be ensured through elections at the very district and provincial level. So long as individuals cannot see the effect of their representation in the district and province, large groups will take shaped based on ethnicity and religion to make their voice heard in the Arg – which appears to be too far from individual citizens.

Unpacking the Ghani-Noor rift from a governance perspective has the advantage of reframing the debates in a way to improve the conditions, rather than feeding into the divides that do no good to none.

By: Enayat Najafizada & Maisam Najafizada

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