On Africa and Civil War

I just finished reading Philip Roessler’s excellent book for my graduate Civil War seminar. Already a fan of his 2005 piece on electoral violence, I learned a lot from the new book and highly recommend it. But, just as when reading major work by Will Reno, Reno and Chris Day, Jeremy Weinstein, Paul Collier, Jeffrey Herbst, and others, I had the reaction that “This looks nothing like the places I study.” At least in the stylized world of African politics presented in these projects (I have no idea if this is accurate), Hobbesian insecurity preys on all in the absence of any real institutions, ethnic balancing and calculation dominates any other form of politics, and regimes are held in place by fluid, shifting alignments with “Big Men” rooted in local power bases.

As a result, we get shambolic and weak central regimes prone to either coups or revolts, and rebels easily bought off by patronage or co-optation. Weinstein highlights the inability of ideological rebels to overcome waves of material resources that eliminate discipline or politics, Roessler’s regimes are simply what Skocpol calls an “arena” for political competition between social actors rather than possessing any institutions or interests autonomous from social forces, and Reno’s civil wars (with the exception of “reform rebels”) are simply a grim game of bargaining over patronage between states and insurgents that are more similar than different.

Some of this has deep resonance in the places I study – my work of wartime political orders and, now, “armed orders” more generally has definitely been inspired by reading work on African political violence.

But the visions of both states and armed groups in this Africa-specific literature don’t line up particularly well with what I think are the broad patterns of contestation in South Asia and much of Southeast Asia and the Middle East. Greedy, undisciplined rebels simply wouldn’t survive long, or have any incentive to stay in the fight, against the Burma Army’s “four cuts” COIN offensives or the tender mercies of New Order counterinsurgency; the state institutions of coercion that can be deployed by the Indian and Pakistani security managers involve hundreds of thousands of combat forces that don’t split and feud and fall apart; elite politics in countries like Cambodia, the Philippines, and Bangladesh do not simply revolve around ethnic politics; the Taliban, LTTE, Naxalites, NPA, Khmer Rouge, Viet Minh, PKK, and Kurdish pesh merga were/are not collections of greedy thugs simply trying to insert themselves into patronage networks or rebelling as part of a bargain to reinsert themselves into central coalitions.

Roessler, indeed, argues that Africa has a “unique institutional structure” in which external conflicts are rare and internal disorder common. If Africa is indeed unique, it is hard to know how arguments rooted in the African context can travel beyond Africa.

At minimum, I’m becoming increasingly convinced that research on civil war needs to become at least partially bifurcated into work on its dynamics in very weak states (the representation of African conflicts dominant in the literature, plus Afghanistan and a few others) versus those in medium-capacity states (India, Colombia, Indonesia, Russia, etc) that possess large, centrally controlled conventional and internal security forces embedded in bureaucratic institutions.

Trying to build arguments that apply to both categories may simply be impossible, or likely to descend into lowest-common-denominator claims that don’t advance much knowledge. My current book project has increasingly found itself situated in the latter cluster of medium-capacity regimes trying to manage violence driven by political, rather than pure military/functional, logics – which means, in turn, it won’t have much to say to much about most of Africa. As the field grows more mature, it seems like it’s time for more splitting rather than lumping.

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