Winning Colombia’s Peace: A Great Perhaps?

Colombia’s narrow rejection of a historic peace accord with the FARC has cast doubt upon the country’s future. What hope now for peace?

[This article was originally published in the Tuesday 4 October 2016 edition of The Daily Maverick and is republished here with their permission.]

After four years of negotiation, on 26 September 2016 the Colombian government and the country’s largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), signed an agreement in Cartagena which it seemed would bring an end to fifty-two years of armed conflict that had claimed more than 220,000 lives.

President Juan Manuel Santos said on the occasion, ‘Colombia celebrates, the planet celebrates, because there is one less war in the world. We will achieve any goal, overcome any hurdle, and turn our nation into a country we’ve always dreamed of – a country in peace.’ His counterpart, the guerrilla leader Timoleon Jimenez, known by his nom de guerre ‘Timochenko’, used the occasion to apologise to ‘all the victims of the conflict’.

Despite considerable negotiating effort and the suffering endured to bring the fighting to an end, getting citizens behind the agreement has proven more difficult.

The deal went to a national plebiscite on 2 October 2016, allowing all Colombians, not just politicians, the final say on what had been agreed. Against expectations, in a low voter turnout of just 40 per cent, a tiny majority (50.2 per cent, only 63,000 votes out of 13 million ballots) voted against it.



Despite its length and complexity, the 297-page Peace Accord left many finer details on the table. It also committed the government to substantial expenditure at a time of economic and regional uncertainty. And a majority of Colombians believed it let the FARC off the hook for past crimes.

The Accord comprised five elements: a series of provisions to end political violence through disarmament and reintegration of former guerrillas; justice for victims of the conflict; an end to FARC involvement in the drug trade; rural development; and provision for the FARC to re-enter politics.

Each on their own, these elements would have been difficult to deliver. Taken together, the task was enormous.

Signature of the Accord set in motion a 180-day timetable for the (estimated) 7,000-strong FARC to assemble its forces at 28 gathering points across the country. There they would have been required to hand over their weapons to a UN monitoring and verification force. The guerrillas were then to enter reintegration programmes, with those accused of war crimes being dealt with by a transitional justice system.

The theory is straightforward; the practice would have been much more demanding.

There would have had to have been a transparent understanding of the location and numbers of both fighters and weapons amassed by FARC since it started out as a peasant army in 1964, a stumbling block of disarmament and demobilisation operations worldwide. Rumours of retained weapon-dumps would have inevitably abounded and some FARC guerrillas may have simply chosen to join the rival leftist National Liberation Army (ELN) rebels, who were not part of this agreement, or instead turn to violent crime rather than reintegrate, taking both their weapons and tactical knowledge with them.

A significant number of former guerrillas were set to join a new corps of bodyguards created to protect former FARC leaders, whom the government was obligated to protect under the peace terms. This cadre of FARC militants would have remained armed and organised, although under the theoretical control of the post-conflict Defence Ministry.



Perhaps the most controversial issue was in the provisions for transitional justice. An amnesty to all FARC members was proposed for the crime of ‘sedition’ (not war crimes), which meant that they would not have been liable to arrest on demobilisation. Some 29 pages of the Peace Accord were dedicated to the text of a political crimes’ amnesty law, suspending arrest warrants for FARC members. It also proposed that members of FARC, the armed forces, and civilians who confess to war crimes would have stayed out of jail, being instead subjected to ‘restricted movement’ and community service.

This proved a major sticking point. Former President Alvaro Uribe, who upped the fight against the FARC during his two terms in office (2002-2010), headed the ‘no’ campaign. He argued that the government had made too many concessions to secure the peace agreement, arguing that this approach would promote impunity. A slim majority of Colombians too have clearly baulked at the apparent equivalence afforded to FARC with the Colombian armed forces and police.

The transitional justice scheme also called for civilians who were involved in supporting illegal armed groups to confess in order to avoid jail. This seemingly innocuous provision proved highly controversial, because a significant number of Colombians had been forced to make extortion payments to various paramilitary groups during the conflict, and many were worried that they could stand accused of collaborating with armed formations.

The economic dimension of legitimisation

FARC’s engagement in the cocaine trade funded the expansion of guerrilla activities in the 1990s. It also enabled the government to highlight FARC criminality. As military officers have noted, ‘with coca, there will never be peace’. Increased cocaine revenue—combined with planned cuts in government spending—could allow FARC or its successor political parties to, if they so chose, literally buy elections, achieving (via the peace process) objectives they were unable to win on the battlefield.

After a significant reduction from a peak during the 2000s from 700 tons of cocaine in 2001 to 165 tons in 2012, drug production has again been on the rise. By the end of 2015, the US Department of State calculated that there were 159,000 hectares under coca cultivation, an amount close to the 2006 levels. The failure of community-led eradication—which accounts for most of the increased coca cultivation—sounds a warning bell. Aside from the problem of drug cultivation, land rights—and the lack of attention given, by successive governments, to poor rural communities—has been one of the major underlying drivers of conflict in Colombia and were the first element of the Accord agreed on. Again the challenges of delivering this part of the deal would have been immense. With six million people displaced by the conflict, land claims may number in the hundreds of thousands.

Untangling this complex issue will require not just a quick and efficient system, but one that is seen to be just and fair. The drug situation contrasts with the economic constraints currently facing Colombia.

Indeed, the commodity downturn could not have come at worse time for the country. The fall in global oil prices since 2015 triggered an 18 per cent drop in government revenue for 2016 alone. This income stream is unlikely to recover quickly, particularly if the ‘new normal’ of significantly reduced commodity prices is a reality. We may be witnessing the demise of the oil economy in Colombia, as old wells are exhausted and sustained low prices have frozen fresh exploration.

The peace deal required the government to commit to a dramatic increase in social and infrastructure investment in the 144 municipalities most heavily affected by the war, almost all of which are FARC-dominated, as well as investing in the economic and social integration of former guerrillas.

The money would have to come from somewhere. If the deal had gone through there would have been further pressure to cut government spending, notably in downsizing the security forces. The prognosis was that defence investment would have been slashed by 40 per cent in 2017, along with a cut of up to ten per cent in the military’s operating budget. Even without these cuts, budget restrictions had already, by mid-2016, resulted in significant gaps within some Colombian military units, with some counter-guerrilla battalions operating at 50 per cent strength or less.

Even now, without a peace deal to fund, measures will have to be found to compensate for the fall in oil income.

The FARC’s return to politics was part of the peace deal, an ambition consistent with a philosophy of ‘combination of all forms of struggle’. The Accord proposed that the FARC be given a voice in the Senate on matters related to the peace deal, but not a vote, at least until the elections in 2018, when the guerrillas were guaranteed at least ten seats in Congress for their first two legislative periods.

Given the financial pressures on the government and the considerable cost of fully delivering the settlement, the FARC was being handed a powerful platform for a political re-launch. The Accord also provided no guarantees that the FARC would clearly renounce the use of violence, or of other illegal means—principally the subversion of electoral democracy, and the manipulation of social unrest—in order to accomplish its political goals. This, along with the sense of impunity granted to the FARC despite past crimes, seems to have been a major concern for those Colombians who ultimately voted against the deal.

Finally, concern over domestic political and economic stability has been compounded by the prospect of state collapse, significant violence, and humanitarian disaster in neighbouring Venezuela, which is in the throes of prolonged meltdown.

In July 2016 more than 60,000 Venezuelans, and Colombians previously living in Venezuela (including a significant number of FARC supporters and cadres), crossed the frontier into Colombia seeking to escape the crisis. In doing so, they placed significant humanitarian, security, and financial strains on Colombia’s departmental authorities and regional military commanders already operating at their maximum capacity.



Despite the referendum result, there are many positive lessons for others — including some groups and states in Africa — from Colombia’s transformation this century. Through assiduous governance and an empowered military, the Colombian government has been able to bring the war to the negotiating table, thus turning the country around in just fifteen years from a failed state blighted by narco-terrorism to one where the guerrillas had more to gain by suing for peace than continuing fighting.

Before the referendum President Santos ruled out renegotiating the deal. ‘I don’t have a Plan B because Plan B is going back to war,’ he said.

Following the vote, the president resolved that while he accepted the result, ‘I won’t give up.’ He noted that the ceasefire remained in place and that he had ordered negotiators to travel to Cuba to consult the FARC. Similarly Timochenko said the group remained committed to finding an end to the conflict.

Former president Uribe said that while all Colombians wanted peace, the deal needed wider input and corrections, observing, ‘We want to contribute to a national accord and be heard’. Thus—despite the referendum’s failure—peace negotiations will most likely continue.

But without compromise peace will remain elusive. Even with it, hard choices will have to be made.

Gabriel García Márquez was described on his death in April 2014 by President Santos as ‘the greatest Colombian who ever lived’. His country remains poised, as the Nobel Laureate wrote in The General in His Labyrinth, on the cusp of ‘a great perhaps’.

A Great Perhaps? Colombia: Conflict and Convergence, the book that this piece stems from, was released in November 2015 by Hurst Publishers, and is the most thorough examination of the war in Colombia to date. The Spanish edition will be launched in Bogota in November 2016.

Greg Mills is director of the Johannesburg-based Brenthurst Foundation. He is widely published on international affairs, development and security, an adviser to African governments, and the author of the best-selling books Why Africa is Poor: And What Africans Can Do About It (2010) and Why States Recover: Changing Walking Societies into Winning Nations, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe (2014).

David Kilcullen is one of the world’s foremost thinkers on counterinsurgency and military strategy. He is the author of The Accidental Guerilla, a Washington Post bestseller, CounterinsurgencyOut of the Mountains and Blood Year, winner of the 2015 Walkley Award for long-form feature writing. He was formerly Senior Counterinsurgency Advisor to General David Petraeus in Iraq and to the NATO Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. He is currently Chairman of Caerus Associates, a Washington-based strategy and design firm, and First Mile Geo, a geospatial analysis firm. He is also a Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation, studying insurgency and unconventional warfare. He has served in Colombia, Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia.

Dickie Davis is the Managing Director of Nant Enterprises Ltd and an associate of the Johannesburg-based Brenthurst Foundation. He served for thirty-one years in the British Army, reaching the rank of Major General. During his military career he served extensively on operations in Afghanistan, commanding the first UK Provincial Reconstruction Team in Mazar-e-Sharif, leading the ISAF Reconstruction and Development effort and as Chief of Staff of Regional Command (South). He is a Vice President of the Institution of Royal Engineers, Chairman of both the Royal Engineers’ Museum and the Royal Engineers Officers’ Widows Society, and is Honorary Colonel of the Royal Monmouthshire Royal Engineers (Militia). He holds a Master’s degree in defence technology and is a Fellow of the Chartered Management Institute.

Olusegun Obasanjo is a former Nigerian Army general who was President of Nigeria from 1999 to 2007. From July 2004 to January 2006, Obasanjo also served as Chairperson of the African Union. He currently serves as Chairman of the Brenthurst Foundation Advisory Board.

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