Identity-Based Conflict
Lecture 11

Conflict Management

Rohee Dasgupta discusses the nuances, and often the compromises, that identity brings to the conflict management process.
Identity factors are increasingly recognized as a factor that can lead to or intensify socio-political or even armed conflicts.

How can proponents of conflict management take identity into account while planning interventions?
Two of the class participants begin the session with a presentation on the conflicts surrounding the Bakassi peninsula, which has been the epicentre of a territorial dispute between Nigeria and Cameroon for decades. The peninsula is located on the Gulf of Guinea in West Africa, near the border between the two countries. While its territory is not large, it's controversial history involves the legacy of colonialism, independence and various attempts at self-determination.
wikicommons |
As a result of what's known as the Scramble for Africa, what is now Cameroon and Nigeria were once German and British colonies, respectively. After the first world war, German Cameroon was split between France and Britain, with Bakassi administered by the British. The peninsula had previously been administered by the British Empire, though a number of competing claims existed as to whether it was British or German territory until WWI.

Tensions escalated when both countries achieved independence in the early 1960s, with the various sections of British Cameroon voting in a referendum to join with either Nigeria or Cameroon. The southern region, which included Bakassi, voted to join Cameroon even though the population hosted many people who considered themselves to be Nigerian and favoured union with the neighbouring country. Though outright war never broke out over the region, there were scattered skirmishes and firefights over the peninsula throughout the following decades

The conflict reached a new height in 1993, when Nigerian troops sent 500-1000 troops onto the peninsula, which led Cameroon to apply to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 1994 to decide the case. The verdict came in 2002 in favour of Cameroon, meaning that the 300,000 Nigerians on the peninsula (90% of its population) would have to exchange their citizenship for Cameroonian passports, keep their passports and be treated as foreign citizens or relocate to Nigeria.

The 2006 Greentree agreement, which stipulated that Nigeria remove its troops and provide for a transition, did not prevent an insurgency that lasted until Cameroon established full control over the peninsula in 2013, with sporadic violence taking place since.

Our presenters use this case study to ask the question: how to manage a conflict like this, with so many complex historical and contemporary factors? The ICJ and the UN supported the Cameroonian claim, but the identity of the Bakassian people themselves was not taken into account. International bodies as well as both countries involved treated this as a territorial conflict, but this may have failed to stop the insurgency from happening because the locals may have seen this as an identity conflict instead, one that required far more nuance.

Framing the conflict as territorial, the presenters claim, give primacy to colonial history instead of to the lived experiences of the people on the ground, which, in a way, allows for colonial decisions to dominate people's lives. The fact that so many Bakassi people left to resettle in Nigeria after 2006 spoke to how connected they felt to their identity. But even Nigeria may have capitalized on the issue at the people's expense – while the country claimed to champion the Bakassi population, they did not provide sufficient infrastructure for incoming migrants and may have focused more on potential oil deposits around the peninsula.

All this to say: this might have been framed as a "triumph" or bilateral relations, and of the ICJ for producing a verdict that was eventually carried out, but people on the ground have been lost in the shuffle. For many, this population is invisible. Current conflict management strategies may be said to have failed them and contributed to an insurgency – an awareness of identity dynamics, as well as building them into peace processes, may help predict these factors and work to address them before they spin out of control.

The Origins of Conflict Management

"Today's lecture is on the complexities of conflict management," says Rohee Dasgupta, our instructor at Saint Paul University. The Bakassi crisis is an excellent example of the nuances involved, and the consequences that may ensue when an intervention isn't thought all the way through.

Conflict management is often contrasted with other approaches to ending conflict, such as conflict cessation, which focuses on ending the firefighting, conflict resolution, which attempts to move away from zero-sum peace deals in order to address all party interests, and conflict transformation, which aims at transforming the relationship between the parties, as well as the parties themselves. Conflict transformation is currently the model that's promoted most in the peacebuilding field, though many acknowledge that total transformation can be optimistic and may be better approached as a process rather than an end result.

Conflict management, on the other hand, is an approach that seeks to mitigate the negative effects of a conflict. In this paradigm, conflict may not be seen as something entirely destructive, though the destructive elements may need to be addressed or channelled so as to reduce their effect on the parties involved. This paradigm originally emerged in the field of organizational management, which often deals with conflict in business contexts.

When applied to the realm of international relations and conflict studies, conflict management styles intersect with a worldview known as political realism, which frames conflict as inevitable and often approaches management through a lens of realpolitik, power plays and the application of sanctions or rewards. This can amount to a reliance on zero-sum thinking, but conflict management strategies can also incorporate elements of resolution and transformation like a focus on interests or relationships between the parties.

In the managerial world, conflict management styles were famously depicted in a chart comparing two traits: cooperativeness and assertiveness, which intersected in five different strategies.
Thomas & Kilman | Kilman Diagnostics
There have been many practitioners and trainers who value collaboration above the other five styles, but pragmatic advocates of conflict management admit that sometimes you don't have all the resources necessary for a fruitful collaboration. Maybe a situation is decidedly low-stakes and so you can afford to compromise or avoid, or perhaps the other party is too powerful and so you decide to accommodate until circumstances change.

In many cases, though, like with the Bakassi dispute, realist struggles over land and political claims often lead to competition or, in the event of a loss, accommodation. While advocates of conflict transformation try to uncover ways to redo the board and reconcile hostile relationships, conflict management supporters may focus on the situation as it is, with a focus on moving forward and mitigating impact on one's interest, as compared to how it might be given a thorough but time/resource-consuming peacebuilding effort that has no guarantee of success. This is a major tension in the field.

These tensions also manifest themselves in discussions over short-term or long-term needs. Ideally these are discussed in tandem, but circumstances often prompt different parties to emphasize one sometimes at the cost of the other.
Taken from Kenneth Thomas article found below.
Factors like these can easily be analyzed in a top-down fashion, with players like the UN, guarantor states or alliances like NATO or the CIS predicting how they intersect with each other and how each will affect their interests – but, as with the West African peninsula, important identity factors might get lost in the mix. A number of these will be analyzed in the sections below.


When we speak about human security, we're often talking about how individual and group needs are impacted by political, economic, ecological, social and other types of factors. If an individual perceives a threat to their security and needs, then they may be more likely to act competitively in order to meet them – this can lead to violence, often in the name of providing for ourselves or our families. This can also be the case when a group we belong to feels threatened, leading individuals to band together to compete with or even attack other groups in the name of protecting themselves.

What makes this even more difficult is that, as first observed by sociologists Henri Tajfel and John Turner, all that's necessary for this process to start is the mere perception of threat. This means that even powerful groups that can provide for themselves can still feel threatened and act as if they were more insecure than they are.

While security is often thought of in terms of physical needs, identity conflict scholars like Jay Rothman and Donald Horowitz, who were discussed in our second lecture, have noted that large groups can violently respond to perceived existential threats. These threats attack our sense of self or belonging, or threaten to overturn our moral sense of the universe. These can be augmented by historical narratives, discussed in our third lecture, that cement a group's sense of victimhood or entitlement based on a biased but deeply experienced interpretation of the past.

The issue of insecurity is often at the heart of the tension between what is known as negative peace and positive peace. Developed by sociologist Johan Galtung, widely considered the founder of peace and conflict studies, negative peace refers to the absence of overt violence or threat. In such a situation, there may be a ceasefire but the underlying tensions surrounding the conflict may or may not also be resolved. Positive peace, on the other hand, emerges when these underlying issues leading to violence or threat are resolved, making a conflict redundant.

Positive peace, like conflict transformation, is often promoted in the field – sometimes at the expense of conflict cessation or management. Because, in an ideal situation, positive peace and transformation are the ultimate goal. But as they take a long time to develop, negative peace strategies leading to cessation or conflict are often implemented in the meantime – this is especially so when the parties involved feel insecure. Transformation, in short, may seem like a fantasy while people are suffering on the ground.

This can lead to conflict management strategies that emphasize protection over the restoration of relationships, a process discussed in our ninth lecture on reconciliation. While there are people who are in dire need of protection, emphasizing this aspect may take precedence over dialogue. Transitional justice mechanisms, discussed in our tenth lecture, is one attempt to bring both concerns together, with both legal and reconciliatory processes happening in parallel during the post-conflict reconstruction phase.

There is controversy over the degree to which these mechanisms can be implemented, or even designed, during the hotter phases of an armed conflict. Some point to the 2016 conclusion of the Colombian peace process with the FARC rebel group as an example of management, reconciliation and protection happening at the same time. Others, however, point to conflicts like the Syrian war as evidence that vulnerable groups, like the Kurds, are insecure to the point of making reconciliation laughable until the political realities on the ground change.


Patterns of security or insecurity are often the result of power structures, ones that can suddenly shift or give way and lead to entirely new security dynamics.

French theorist Michel Foucault spent a lot of time exploring the nature of power relations, and much of his work focuses on how discourses or narratives legitimize or delegitimize various sources of power. While he was speaking often of institutions in relatively peaceful societies, this dynamic of legitimization is very relevant in situations of conflict.

As mentioned in our lecture on historical narratives, different parties justify their claims to power over a people or territory using various discourses. In the Bakassi case, both Nigeria and Cameroon appealed to different mechanisms and narratives to support their claim, often at the cost of the locals themselves. International institutions like the ICJ and the UN are not neutral either – they bring their power to bear and give a sense of legitimacy to the side they support, which may make locals feel powerless and prompt them to take matters into their own hands, sometimes in the form of violence and insurgency.

When power gets mixed in with psychosocial factors like "us and them" constructs, then groups can start vying for power using the resources they have in order to address their felt insecurity. This can lead to cycles of violence that cause more insecurity, which then may lead to more attempts to take power, which leads to more violence.

One major intersection of legitimization and power is that of sovereignty, or a state's right to determine its own affairs without interference from other states. In a system emphasizing national sovereignty, which has been dominant in international relations (at least for colonial European powers) since the Westphalian treaties of 1648, states become the legitimate users of power. This means that regions, international bodies or ethnic groups have less power in determining their own affairs. Which leads to situations where Nigeria and Cameroon decide what is best for the Bakassi people without consulting them, and to the Bakassi people therefore arming themselves.

When states dissolve, though, various identity groups may emerge in order to consolidate their own power in the vacuum before normal state relations are established once more. This happened in the former Yugoslavia as well as in post-Soviet regions after the fall of the USSR. Identity and perceived threat intersect with this power vacuum and can lead to violence.

There's also the issue of acknowledgement of past harm, and who has power to legitimize that acknowledgement. The Armenian genocide has not been recognized by Turkey, the country which allegedly perpetrated it, and strained relations between the two countries have contributed to the sporadic violence in Nagorno-Karabakh, a contested region between Armenia and Turkey-allied Azerbaijan. The international community recognizes Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan, but the victim narrative generated around the Armenian people, heavily promoted by their diaspora, has nevertheless prompted major sympathy for the Armenian case. These are different types of power, with different consequences depending on the circumstances.
The state of the Karabakh conflict before the 2020 resurgence of the war.
| wikicommons
Power and insecurity issues, especially with regards to identity, require different approaches sensitive to their respective dynamics. Power is hard to address, as these structures are often deeply embedded and disturbing them can cause a number of unintended consequences. That, and powerful actors may be able to defend their interests, or even justify them under identitarian or even humanitarian grounds. Insecurity issues are often downriver from power, with unequal power structures affecting whether or not a given group feels safe or can meet their needs. But there's also the issue of perceived and existential threats to deal with, which may be separate from classical power structures entirely.


Even in cases where power and security are engaged with, as during periods dominated by transitional justice mechanisms, there's still the work of reconciliation to take into account. This leads to the third factor relevant to today's discussion of conflict management: dehumanization. As discussed many times throughout this class, particularly in cases of genocide, systematic dehumanization had to take place before mass violence could be conducted.

Dehumanization is often a result of perceived insecurity, as feeling deprived of key needs is known to affect our cognitive ability to empathize with groups that we perceive as threatening. If there are various groups who are triggering each other with threatening behaviour, or if they are being triggered by persistent historical narratives and memories of collective trauma, then it may be difficult to see the other side as human.

Another huge factor to take into account is that the group being dehumanized may in fact be a scapegoat, as discussed in our fourth lecture on René Girard's mimetic theory. The Jews in the Nazi period came to stand in for the collective humiliation of the German people, and the sufferings that country endured in the post-Versailles European order were taken out on the Jews and others in the death camps.

Reconciliation or the transformation of relationships may be a far cry in some circumstances, or at least something that might not be possible for quite some time. That said, steady humanization might be possible in the meantime, and this requires assisting groups to see other groups no longer as threats. But this requires a long, drawn-out process, often involving truth commissions or dialogue or time to grieve. But the goal here is coexistence, even if only in the form of a negative peace.

The construction of a common identity is one strategy that's been attempted in order to facilitate this process. An interesting example was in Rwanda, where the truth and reconciliation commission (TRC), the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) and various local processes like the gacaca courts attempted to de-emphasize tribal identities like Hutu and Tutsi in favour of a common Rwandan identity. Rohee claims that this has seen some successes, but only time will tell if it sticks.

Other attempts at collective nation-building proceed from the idea of narrative identity, developed by French philosopher Paul Ricoeur. These can include the formation of positive symbols that can be embraced by all citizens, as well as the telling of stories, the recognition of harm and various other forms of acknowledgement built into institutional structures. Transitional justice mechanisms often attempt to mediate a society into a new normal, one in which various groups don't feel the need to resort to violence in order to meet their needs.


When a minority identity group is involved, there may be calls for self-determination that are overlooked by larger actors involved in the conflict management process. This call for self-determination may come from a sense of entitlement a group has over their political agency or long-term destiny, or it can come as a response to perceived threats or structural discrimination. Whether a group expresses their desire for independence violently depends substantively on the internal and external factors involved.

Internal factors involve how the group in question is perceived by their host state – think of the relationship between the Spanish government and the Basques or the Catalonians, between the Canadian government and the Quebecois, or how East and West Germans viewed each other upon reunification. Salient divisions making up the relevant groups could be religious, ethnic, linguistic or cultural, though these can intersect and make it difficult to determine the underlying factors. Sometimes the differences are ideological, as in North American social conflicts during the Cold War between conservatives and suspected Communists, or in Ukraine between those who support or oppose the Donbas separatists.

Another internal factor to pay attention to is whether these groups have access to certain resources. This could refer to the resources that are necessary for human flourishing, the deprivation of which is often referred to as structural violence. But this can also refer to the presence of resources that could fund rebel groups, or the presence of arms. Resources can also generate grievances, especially when certain benefits are seen as bypassing groups who live in a region that possesses them.
Claims to self-determination are also impacted by external factors, either international or transnational. There may be outside bodies that legitimize a group's claim – for example, the Muslim Rohingya people of Myanmar's Rakhine province are referred to as such by the UN and the international community, while he local government has referred to them as outsider Bengali Muslims from Bangladesh. International pressure has also affirmed the identities of groups like the Taiwanese, Kosovar Albanians, Palestinians and Eritreans.

Religious organizations can also work to affirm the presence or rights of particular ethnic, linguistic or religious groups. The Vatican was one of the first countries to recognize Croatia during the collapse of the Soviet Union, and Ismaili leaders like the Aga Khan work advocate for Shia Muslim minorities in regions like Pakistan, Iran or Tajikistan.

Claims to self-determination can be supported or undermined by the proximity of a "mother" country as well. Kosovar Albanian claims to Kosovo, for example, were supported by nearby Albania while Kosovar Serb claims were supported by Serbia. These parent states, however, can exert influence in ways that inhibit a given region from acting on their own volition – an example is how much influence Turkey has in Northern Cyprus, sometimes to the irk of the local Cyprian Turks.

Then there are issues of the diaspora, where wealthy ethnic members can send back money or other resources in support of their group's claims in a developing region. They can also lobby their host countries in an effort to apply international pressure back home. Resources sent in from the international Tamil community were used during Sri Lanka's civil war, and various Armenian diaspora groups advocate for their narratives to be accepted at the international level. These diasporas can have a huge impact, though local needs may sometimes conflict with the needs elevated by the diaspora. And given the disparity of resources in favour of the diaspora, sometimes their narratives or approaches win out.
The Tamil Tiger flag seen in Ottawa, Canada.
| flickr
Insecurity, power, dehumanization and self-determination are just a few of the factors that complicate the conflict management process, as well as broader peace processes in general. There is no shortage of other factors that affect the success of an intervention, like the identity of the practitioners involved, the spectrum of identities playing within affected communities, the kind of rhetoric used by local leaders, the effects of large-group trauma, cognitive biases, and other psychosocial factors, the legacy of colonialism or globalization, the interests of powerful world players, the ability of aid and trade to prop up failing governments, the questionable legality of certain interventions (Iraq, Crimea) and more.

While it lies outside the scope of today's lecture, there's also a growing discourse surrounding what's becoming known as authoritarian conflict management (ACM), an alternative to the liberal peacebuilding model that focuses on top-down control of power, narrative and other factors as a means to maintain stability in conflict-prone regions. Although this is a new direction explored in the literature, it may signal an area of growing concern in the years ahead, one that requires major attention.

Which is all to say that this is not a simple process. But conflict management proponents say that, even though we can't always address all these factors in the necessary ways, we can still work with what we have to mitigate the destructive effects of conflicts on the ground. Even if it doesn't amount to the type of restoration envisioned by supporters of conflict transformation, it may still result in less loss of life.

While there is a lot of discussion over the degree to which interventions can be developed pragmatically, researchers and practitioners often agree on one thing: any attempts to initiate a peace process that are blind to how identity intersects will all the factors mentioned above may end up entrenching grievances, exacerbating perceptions of threat and contributing to a conflict's intractability.
Rohee Dasgupta teaches conflict studies at St. Paul University; her research interests include identity, cosmopolitanism, security and anthropology.

Josh Nadeau is a freelance writer and dialogue practitioner.
He studied identity-based conflict at St. Paul University in 2021.

Banner photo by Tim Pierce on mioromag
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Further Reading
Conflict and Conflict Management: Reflections and Update
Kenneth Thomas (1992)
Journal of Organizational Behavior 13.3, pg. 265
Managing and Settling Ethnic Conflicts
Stefan Wolff (2004)
in Managing and Settling Ethnic Conflicts, Hurst & Co Publishers Ltd

Dealing with Complexities of Identity Conflict: Contentious Narratives and
Possibilities of Their Transformation
Borislava Manojlovic (2010)
Human Security Perspectives, 7.1
Individuals, Groups and Intergroups: Theorizing About the Role of Identity in Conflict and its Creative Engagement
Jay Rothman and Michal Alberstein (2013)
Ohio State Journal on Dispute Resolution, Forthcoming, Available at SSRN:
Working toward the De-essentialization of Identity Categories in Conflict and Postconflict Societies: Israel, Cyprus, and Northern Ireland
Zvi Bekerman, Michalinos Zembylas and Claire McGlynn (2009), Comparative Education Review, 53.2