On conflict and peacebuilding in African states
War-prone countries won't simply elect their way to peace and stability
I: Thinking clearly about causes of conflict and how to end them
Last week I came across an RfA from the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) that neatly sums up the international community’s mistaken understanding of the causes of conflict in African states and how to end them. The RfA was not specific to Africa as a region, but the point stands:
This Request for Applications (RfA) seeks research that develops innovative methods to improve peacebuilding practice through the study and application of democracy and human rights training in conflict zones worldwide. Priority will be given to applications which identify the factors impacting human rights education, outreach, and practice in fostering democratic values globally and the critical role they play in preventing and resolving violent conflict.
After decades of progress in the post-World War 2 world order, global democracy levels in the 21st century are in stark decline. Authoritarian regimes have newfound political and economic strength, buoyed by a variety of factors including widespread attacks on basic human rights, corrupt judicial systems, and the erosion of independent media sources. Given the integral role that inclusive governance plays in a peaceful society, how can peacebuilding practitioners and policymakers combat authoritarian forces and contribute to strengthening responsive governance and rule of law systems? What can be done to support public participation in social and political processes as a core foundation to peacebuilding? Which techniques and approaches work best to train civil society members on the value and application of human rights as a peacebuilding tool in conflict-prone societies? How can global peacebuilding initiatives better connect with regional and local democratization and human rights movements to better prevent and resolve violent conflict?
Andrew Blum, formerly at USIP, did not buy the implied theory of change:
I don’t either. Furthermore, USIP’s RfA is representative of the dominant global approach to conflict in low-income states. In a nutshell, the “international conflict resolution industrial complex” creates perverse incentives for rebels by treating conflict merely as a breakdown of democratic processes. An illustrative example of the pitfalls of this approach is the egregious case of South Sudan where anyone who could organize young men with guns earned himself a right to join the national army as an officer and to attend “peace talks” in fancy hotels in Kampala, Nairobi, and beyond.
If USIP and others are interested in democracy promotion, they should go ahead and do so without tacking on orthogonal justifications — even through I would argue that it is time we stopped investing in “training” people to be good democrats (polls show we don’t need to keep doing that!), and spent more time helping electoral democracies deliver material benefits for voters. However, if they are really interested in preventing and/or ending conflicts, they should heed Blum’s call and figure out more plausible theories of change.
Readers interested in a quick and legible typology of the complicated and often intersecting causes of conflict should pick up Chris Blattman’s Why We Fight. In addition to reminding us that conflict is an aberration, the book outlines five reasons why societies might descend into conflict: uncertainty over capabilities and outcomes, inability to commit to bargains, intangible incentives (think identity, glory, etc), unchecked powers, and misperceptions/misjudgments of others’ motives.
Given the complex factors involved in most conflicts, democratic “good governance” is severely limiting as a means of prevention or resolution. It may sound nice to dream of societies compromising and electing their way to peace and stability. But that dream quickly looks impractical if one bothers to consider that not all armed rebellions are legitimate (i.e., represent communities’ real aspirations for better self-government) or have necessarily divisible incompatibilities (how do you compromise with someone who wants to kill you because of your ethnicity?)
Many rebellions are borne of elite delusions of grandeur and narrow quests for pillaging natural resources. As a corollary, some conflicts can only end when rebels are militarily defeated by stronger states.
All states, whether well-governed or not, have potential for conflict. The United States, Germany, Japan and others have organized armed groups that at various times have sought to rebel against the state. One of the reason these countries have not descended into conflict like, say, the Central African Republic (CAR) is because their respective governments are strong enough to defeat would-be insurgents/rebels before they got going.
States can be awful perpetrators of violence. However, history teaches us that, especially when it comes to the types of communal conflicts that are common in Africa’s conflict-affected states, strong states are the great pacifiers.
II: On “artificial borders,” weak states, and conflict in Africa
Few conflicts in Africa feature organized militaries facing off in battlefields. The modal conflict has loosely organized armed groups with tenuous ideological/political justifications for war. Very few armed groups even seek to topple governments in the capital, instead fighting to control important point resources and illicit trade routes. Consequently, most conflicts feature layers of localized communal disputes, national politics, and international religious/ideological struggles (see graph below). Once conflicts get going, states typically struggle to contain them, let alone end them. With a few dozen technicals and men with AK-47s, rebels can cause serious damage in many African states.
So why are (some) African states weak and susceptible to insurgencies and widespread communal conflicts?
African states face structural disincentives against state-building. The most important of these is the post-1945 international system settlement that established a strong norm against the revision of borders. The Organization of African Unity’s tacit support for maintaining colonial boundaries further reinforced the norm. The net result is that to be a sovereign in Africa is to control the capital and have international recognition. Forget your ability to effectively project administrative control over all of your territory. The international system forbids formal annexation of “un-governed” spaces, even when neighboring states have the capacity or incentives to do so. For example, Rwanda or Uganda can never legitimately govern Eastern DRC. Similarly, Somaliland exists in limbo, despite being a de facto state.
The problem is not, as many like to claim, the artificiality of African borders. While I understand the squeamishness over borders drawn by imperialists, the fact is that all borders everywhere are arbitrary. Tunnels can be bored into mountains; bridges constructed over rivers; and roads and railways used to bind different political geographies into one unit. Through education, ethnic identity can be moulded by states with people “incentivized” to speak common languages (e.g. Tanzania).
Importantly, the so-called “natural” borders elsewhere arose from the normatively arbitrary timing of when conflicts ended. Those states then had to deliberately work hard to make the resulting boundaries seem “natural.” Crucially, they faced strong incentives to do so. Failure often resulted in state death from defeat by stronger states. African states currently face none of these incentives. The “permissiveness” of the international system towards weak states also enables an emergent global hierarchy of sovereigns where strong states (like France) maintain weak and dependent client states (like in much of francophone Africa); or weak states engage in proxy wars without any real threat of being invaded by adversaries. The permissiveness of the system means that the stakes of conflict from the perspective of ruling elites in Africa’s capitals is so much lower than it ought to be.
In short, state weakness in Africa is the fundamental cause of conflict in the region. From Mali to Somalia (see map) insurgencies have caused untold human suffering principally because of states’ inability to prevent the onset of conflict or defeat aggrieved armed groups before they transmogrify into full-blown insurgencies. Remember that for every rebellion that grows large enough to make the news, there are countless others that were nipped in the bud.
A good example of these dynamics is Mozambique’s conflict in Cabo Delgado that began in 2017. What started as localized violence motivated by claims of ethnic discrimination quickly acquired a religious flavor and became internationalized. Most of the youth recruited at the beginning were not die-hard ideologues but unemployed young men looking for work. Initially, the government had its head deep in the sand, casting the would-be insurgents as little more than garden variety criminals and refusing international help. Five years later, more than 3,000 have been killed and 800,000 displaced. It took the entry of a much better fighting force in the form of Rwanda’s army to contain the violence. Cynics would argue that the real motivation for inviting Rwanda was to secure gemstone and graphite sectors and the investments in the gas fields off the coast of Cabo Delgado. Either way, it is very likely that had Maputo had the capacity (or seriousness) to stop the violence before it spread the country would not have had to deal with an internationalized jihadist insurgency.
The islamist features of the Cabo Delgado insurgency also opens up another can of worms about in-country and global responses (subject for a future post). For now, let’s just say that these conflicts (see map) are a lot more likely to be internationalized by major powers and exploited by local elites and governments for specific short-term political ends. They have also become a lot harder to resolve as a result.
Another good example is Kenya. The country has so far effectively stopped escalation by putative insurgents in the Coast (the secessionist Mombasa Republican Council) and Western (Sabaot Land Defense Force) regions. Both rebellions were initially motivated by grievances over marginalization by the central government as well as localized disputes over land. Yet in both cases a strong and timely military response by the central government helped avoid civil war.
The claim here is not that state coercion should be the only response to (potential) conflict; or that dialogue has no place in peacebuilding processes. Rather, it is a reminder that we should not forget the structural conditions that create opportunities for conflict. It appears that, like in the field of development economics, scholars and practitioners in the conflict space have veered too far in the direction of seeking individualized solutions to structural problems.
III: Bringing the international system and states back in
While each country has unique conflict dynamics, there are general factors that might help African states reduce the likelihood of conflict onset or end existing conflicts. Below I discuss some of those factors with the understanding that conflict prevention/resolution must take states and the international system seriously.
Wake up the risks posed by rural under-government
The ongoing population boom and climate change are transforming the African countryside. Households can no longer rely on subsistence agriculture for their livelihood. Resources like water, farmland, and pasture are becoming ever more scarce. In the face of increasing deprivation and rising inequality in rural areas, it is not a surprise that some countries are witnessing incidences of communal violence (some of which morph into insurgencies) at much higher rates than before.
The old habit of maintaining administrative apparatuses that effectively ended on the outskirts of capitals and major towns is no longer fit for purpose. The African administrative state must be extended to the countryside. Admittedly, this is an area where many cash and talent-strapped governments will require significant levels of assistance. Works by Catherine Boone and others provide potential models of effectively governing the countryside on the cheap by grafting the central state on top of local social/cultural hierarchies. Furthermore, while the current international system inoculates states against territorial threats, other research suggests that state-building through the emulation of stronger states can be successful (if ruling elites have reason to be interested in state-building).
Directly tackle the international dimensions of conflicts
All conflicts in the map above are internationalized. For example, the Sahelian crisis can be partially attributed to the fall of Muamar Gaddafi’s regime in Libya and the deluge of arms and fighters that flowed into the region as a result (the region’s already weak and dependent states [on France] had no chance). The conflict has been further fueled by illicit cross-border trade in arms, drugs, and human trafficking. Similarly, Rwanda and Uganda have repeatedly been accused of having a hand in the conflicts in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
The international dimension of conflicts in the region calls for greater inter-state coordination. In this regard the East African Community’s intervention in the DRC is welcome. By directly asking Rwanda to be a part of the peacebuilding process, the EAC has opened up the possibility of a sustainable peaceful settlement. The conflict may not end tomorrow, but the common knowledge effects of official acknowledgment of Rwanda’s role in aiding the M23 rebels will undoubtedly shift the needle. In the Sahel, the conflict-affected states have struggled to coordinate their military activities to their own detriment. To stem the flow of arms and the illicit trades that fund the conflicts, Sahelian governments have no choice but to cooperate.
Aggressively localize all conflicts
The internationalization of conflicts makes them intractable not just because of supplies of arms and fighters but also because it reduces the likelihood of localized settlements. For example, the overt involvement of the United States and France in fighting insurgents in Northern Niger is certainly a great recruiting tool for international fighters who see themselves as fighting a much bigger global religious/ideological war. This reality limits the menu of options available to the Nigerien government.
Aggressively localizing conflicts (including by doing a better job of laundering foreign assistance) would focus attention on specific local grievances that trigger communal discord. Those can then be addressed by the state and local communities and where possible settlements arrived at. It is much easier to agree on grazing rights or water access than resolve global ideological differences.
This also means that African governments should pursue negotiations with armed groups whenever possible. The number one goal should be to end armed conflicts and avoid playing host to global religious/ideological wars.
Arrest the growing trend of using mercenaries
From Mali to the Central African Republic to Mozambique, African governments are increasingly relying on private contractors (or mercenaries depending on your perspective) to fight wars or protect political elites and key government installations.
This trend should stop. The use of mercenaries for military operations against insurgents is a bad idea on two fronts. First, it exposes civilians to unaccountable foreigner fighters thereby eroding civilian trust in governments’ intentions. Second, it disincentivizes government investment in coercive capacity thereby leaving them exposed to future insurgencies.
Six decades of French “support” have left Sahelian states too weak to protect themselves. Why would anyone want to repeat that history, this time with mercenaries?
If governments need foreign military assistance, they should channel it through the security organs of the African Union or lean on neighboring countries with more capable militaries. Here Rwanda’s intervention in Mozambique may serve as a model (depending on how the intervention goes). Another option might be to call in the African Union’s regional standby forces. Overall, the goal should not be to freeze conflicts in place in the name of peacekeeping or peacemaking, but to concurrently pursue military solutions and political settlements.
State fragility and conflict have enormous negative impacts on human welfare and are important impediments to sustainable economic growth and development. Preventing/ending conflicts should therefore be a top priority for all governments and international organizations. Precisely because of the stakes involved, the approach to ending conflicts should be grounded in reality. Importantly, practitioners should understand that state weakness (i.e., inability to deter rebellions or defeat them militarily) is a fundamental driver of conflict and that not everyone who rebels has a legitimate cause. Conflict-affected states cannot simply elect their way to stability.
One issue here is that the entire bilateral aid system in the US is built around contracting individual activities (either through grants with NGOs and universities or direct contracts with a handful of firms and NGOs) who have to report “progress” no matter how difficult the challenge or how far removed from existing evidence of root causes. This leads to the RFI you link to as well as any number of other, perhaps less egregious but no less flawed, programs getting funded to address every possible domain of development. One silver lining is that in food security, Feed the Future is shifting toward a “systems approach.” It is unclear if this is a branding exercise or something that recognizes the issues you raise but perhaps it could help shift the donor approach to addressing well-researched but poorly implemented programs.