5 Pieces on Trends in Violence and Contentious Politics

16 Jan

These five (well really seven) articles were the most eye-opening for me in the past year.

1. Edward Carpenter – The New Blitzkrieg and Keith Somerville – Ivory, Insurgency, and Crime in Central Africa: The Sudans connection

While these articles take on different topics, together they offer up a few lessons about the nature of modern warfare. In his article, Carpenter notes the high recent incidence of mobile rebel groups taking vast territory quickly in under-populated areas. These groups tend to operate by using Toyota pickup trucks with mounted machine guns and operate as networks, rather than the top-down hierarchies favored by yesterday’s rebels. These rebel groups have proved difficult to combat because they’re both physically and organizationally agile, and even when superior air power halts their advance, they tend to disperse even further, launching well-entrenched rural insurgencies.

Somerville’s article examines similar types of groups, but instead of focusing on their military tactics, he highlights the ways in which they involve themselves in illicit economies across borders. Armed groups from Darfur to Cameroon trade in ivory, and this trade is both based on a long history of trading between semi-nomadic groups and the more recent rise of armed groups on the margins of weak states. Somerville’s research demonstrates that these armed groups have both deep local roots and an international reach. Particularly in the Sahel, vast spaces do not have strong government presence, providing ample opportunities for networked groups to sustain themselves. Any solutions have to take this reality into account.

2. Jay Ulfelder – The Political Power of Inertia

The dynamics Jay describes in this piece are not new, but their historical lack of recognition, particularly among the NGO community, makes his argument a worthy inclusion. When we think of how to lessen the potential for violence in sub-Saharan Africa, we tend to think in terms of big, explosive events: mass atrocities, wars, and political transition. All of these, however, are very rare events. The vast majority of analysis predicting dramatic political change turn out to be wrong.

This bias of always predicting or imaging how to produce sensational change belies that for the most part, change is subtle or doesn’t happen at all. And when they do happen, they often prove to be momentarily blips that quickly recede and the status quo ante re-entrenches. Bureaucratic logic prizes stasis over change and humans tend to be creatures of habit. All of this means that while it is not futile to plot how to make change, we have to be aware that it very rarely happens (at least in the way we imagine). If there is one upside here, it is that violence will likely not emerge in most countries not currently experiencing it. If Jay’s right, and inertia is an underestimated political force, then working to achieve un-dramatic change in countries teetering on the brink is an advisable course of action.

3. De Waal et al. – The epidemiology of lethal violence in Darfur: Using micro-data to explore complex patterns of ongoing armed conflict

In their analysis of violence statistics in Darfur, de Waal and his fellow researchers come to a surprising conclusion. While the conflict had traditionally been portrayed as one between an Arabizing government and African tribes, they found far more complexity. Some of their most interesting findings were that the Sudanese Armed Forces engaged in armed confrontations with every other armed actor, including other government agencies and allied Arab tribes during the studied period. The Arab tribes, generally portrayed as aggressors against the Fur and Zaghawa, actually had more casualties caused by inter-tribal fighting than all the African tribes combined. While the violence did have some patterns, like that it tended to have clear high and low intensity periods, it appeared somewhat random. It looked much less than political violence and more like banditry, where every armed actor sought to take advantage of every other through violence.

While de Waal et al. are careful not to overclaim, it is not unreasonable to expect other warzones to exhibit similar patterns. While Darfur, admittedly, may be an extreme case because of the lack of formal governance and the sheer number of armed actors, it’s possible scholars of violence have traditionally overstated the degree to which identity and ideology affect the execution of violence. Warfare may in fact largely follow the logic of violence, rather than the logic of politics. If this is true, violence prevention strategies have to focus more on preventing the conditions that allow violence to happen (poor governance, illicit economies, poverty, etc.) than getting combatants to strike political deals.

4. Nils Gilman – The Twin Insurgency

Gilman’s article is the most theoretical on this list, but it still provides concrete ways to better understand trends in contentious politics. Gilman’s main argument is that the modern state is facing a “twin insurgency”. From above, the state has to deal with an emerging class of plutocrats who feel they have no duty to pay taxes or otherwise act in the interest of any state. For this select but powerful group, the ideology of nationalism is unimportant and states only exist to be wielded for personal profit. Even more insidiously than disengaging, they actively use their economic power to limit the ability of governments’ to collect revenue from its citizens. From below, “comes a series of interconnected criminal insurgencies in which the global disenfranchised resist, coopt, and route around states as they seek ways to empower and enrich themselves in the shadows of the global economy. Drug cartels, human traffickers, computer hackers, counterfeiters, arms dealers, and others exploit the loopholes, exceptions, and failures of governance institutions to build global commercial empires.”

The implications of Gilman’s theory are enormous. In countries like Nigeria, it is not just the peculiar economic impact of oil has created elites uninterested in service-delivery, but that these elites are part of a global movement. Even the upper limits of successful institutional reform may not be enough to limit the corrosive power of internationally-connected plutocrats. The implications are similar for the insurgency from below. While globalization generally connects licit businesses and activities, it’s underbelly is an increasingly connected illicit world that makes it harder and harder to compartmentalize and attack. The lines will begin to blur between criminal enterprises, rebels, and terrorist groups, and these amalgamations will have increasingly internationalist goals (though not in the way Marx envisaged). Neither insurgency is a formal entity with the goal of capturing the state as 20th century insurgencies were, but both seek to keep the state at arm’s length. Without pushing it away entirely, both insurgencies seek to exploit the state’s power to achieve particular goals while carving, “out de facto zones of autonomy”.

5. Krasner and Risse – Well-governed failed states? Not an oxymoron!

Krasner and Risse write, “Failed states are supposed to be safe havens for terrorists, where anarchy, violence and chaos reign. This is the conventional wisdom.” They go on to explain why the conventional wisdom is wrong. They start with a theoretical point, nothing that pretty much all countries (with the possible exception of Denmark) have areas of limited statehood. By this they mean there are areas of the country where the state has less than complete (violent) authority. Therefore failed states are very rare (maybe only Somalia and DRC), while most other states have some degree of limited statehood.

Additionally, Krasner and Risse find that there is no link between service-provision/governance and the degree of statehood/government capacity. In short, there are well-governed failed states, where non-government entities, from NGO’s to civil society to kin networks, step in to provide services to residents. Furthermore, they argue there are three conditions that make service-provision more likely: legitimacy (acceptance by population of governing actor), task properties (simpler tasks are more likely to be completed), and institutional design (the strength of connection between external and local actors).

Krasner and Risse’s research has two central implications for peacebuilding work. First, increasing state capacity is not necessarily the most effective route to improving the lives of citizens, especially when states can be predatory actors themselves. Second, working with communities requires acceptance and a good working relationship with local elites. Finally, in states that are truly failed, and no indigenous capacity exists, it is advisable to perform relatively simple tasks that only require a few partners, and larger projects without indigenous partners are much less likely to succeed.

6. Honorable mention: Duncan Green – What are the big trends on conflict and fragility? Some great presentations at DFID


One Response to “5 Pieces on Trends in Violence and Contentious Politics”

  1. Deon May 14, 2017 at 11:34 am #

    Call me wind because I am abloeutsly blown away.

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