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Between myth and reality

Nine months after the 25th Amendment effectively ended the Fata status and started a new era of reforms and merger with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the prospects for democratic, prosperous, liberal and peaceful tribal districts still seem to face significant problems.

Local bodies and provincial elections are awaited. Peace is fragile. Reforms are still delayed for a National Finance Commission (NFC) share. The government seems deadlocked and unable to move forward. This has frustrated the people of the region. People thought that, with the reforms and the merger, things would change in unprecedented fashion.

The reforms were hyped up so much that the people of the tribal districts got caught up in thinking about their immediate dividends. This is all due to a disconnect between policymakers, and a lack of local ownership in economy, civil society and peace building for the region.

The local economy of the tribal areas is based on assumptions and superficial growth. Such trends have created a false economy for the area. Indigenous finance and commerce depend on local business, peace in Afghanistan and the NFC share. At the moment, all three are in limbo. And so are the tribal areas’ finances.

Indeed, the economics of the tribal belt is very important for the welfare of the people. However, it must be kept in view that in such a backward area, any advanced economic system will backlash. A region with weak economic indicators cannot leave unemployed individuals to survive on their own. With reforms, civil jobs in the tribal areas need tribalisation of the economy and of governance. Indigenous youth employment is direly needed.

And it is crucial that most of the jobs are given to locals. This contributes to their role in good governance, which is important before full-fledged governance returns to tribal districts. A socio-economic welfare system gives the people a palisade in lifting financial and political condition of tribal belt.

The civil society fills the gap between the general public and the political regime. It’s a common view that there is no real and indigenous civil society present in the tribal districts, since Islamabad or Peshawar based tribal persons make the majority of the existing post-conflict civil society. The international community with its liberal peace projects and finances usually drives many of them. This has obvious implications for the sustainability of the civil society in the core region of the tribal districts.

It is still unclear whether local people are involved in the civil society there. What has been witnessed till now is that the development of the civil society has been monopolised by NGOs based either in Peshawar or Islamabad. The post-conflict people, who are supposed to be in the hub of affairs with respect to receiving education, protection of human rights, civil empowerment, and practice of rule of law are either ignored or added nominally.

The sense that local people are represented by outsiders than themselves has given a sense of deprivation and disappointment to the indigenous populace. If projects and funds are injected directly into tribal society, it will boost the morale of the people there, encourage them to work efficiently for their own land with vigour and zeal, and strengthen the local civil society – which can then bridge the historical disconnect between the people and the government.

Local ownership of the peace-building process is another issue in the tribal areas. Islamabad is taking care of almost all aspects of peace and institution-building process without trickling it down to the local level and local people. This has raised questions about local involvement with indigenous acceptability of merger and reforms.

Since older institutions like maliks, jirgas and political agents failed to deliver, completely new institutions will replace them. This replacement is understandable, keeping in view the federal government’s keen interest in developing and reforming the erstwhile tribal areas. However, it’s perplexing in the context of informal local structures. It’s common practice that in post-conflict societies, the institutional governance structure is formed from the bud not only by national but also international supporters so that social, political and economic psychosis is avoided. But in doing so, local customs and traditions are compromised.

What is needed is the involvement of the local people for local ownership of the peace process, socio-economic and political reforms, which will turn more effective, cheaper and sustainable. In a highly dependent, politicised, marginalised, under-developed and ignored environment, the benign intentions and opinions of the local elites – Maliks – may be misleading.

With the reforms and the merger, an ambivalent form of peace exists in the tribal districts. Daily life is returning to normalcy and with the NFC share, the economy will start developing. However, the process of development is still at a snail’s pace and hence frustrating. Locals question that if the state was so slow in changing the fate of the people via reforms, why was it in such a haste for the merger and the ‘revolutionary reforms’.

Local elites are also exploiting the problems of the merger and reforms and seek to maintain sluggishness and inactivity. Delay in local and provincial elections, development of local law-enforcement apparatus, and training of khasadars are just a few instances one can mention here. Such uncertainty and delaying tactics benefit those who had opposed reforms and the merger.

This ambivalence has succeeded to create a disconnect between the locals and the federal government, reflecting an embryonic tribal society with a fragile peace and with less local involvement.

The writer is the director of the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Peshawar. Email: [email protected]