When War Does Not Make the State: the Case of the Central African Republic

11 Jan

I spent a large portion of this semester puzzling over the implications of Charles Tilly’s famous phrase, “war made states and states made war”. Tilly’s analysis of European state-building is obviously brilliant, but what of his claim in Coercion, Capital, and European States that the positive relationship between war and state capacity holds throughout much of human history? How might this apply to the Central African Republic, a country with a history of coups, and over the last 20 years, numerous rebellions, but where the state ranks among the world’s weakest?

To briefly recap the essence of Tilly’s theory, he’s trying to understand the formation of modern administrative states in Europe. He argues that rulers facing the prospect of increasingly destructive wars with rivals sought ways to pay for larger armies and protect their fiefdoms. A combination of borrowing and taxation occurred, and the by-product of the two (particularly the latter) was state bureaucracies, which eventually began to provide public goods. Tilly acknowledges that state-building processes look very different outside of Europe, but still that in general, war produces state capacity.

In States and Power in Africa, Jeffrey Herbst constructs a Tilly-inspired theory of state-building for Africa. Herbst argues that Tilly’s central premise applies, but that low population densities across Africa made territorial competition largely unnecessary. Post-independence, a strong norm against altering colonial borders furthered this dynamic. Because Africa didn’t have the same threat environment as Europe, states were not built to the same extent.

Neither of these theories hold up in the Central African Republic. Since independence, there have been three coups and two insurgencies that resulted in the toppling of governments, outnumbering peaceful transitions of power. More often than not, external actors sponsored the ascendant opposition. Even though CAR’s borders haven’t changed, there’s still the puzzle: why do leaders facing violent overthrow not build up a violent capacity capable of protecting their throne? Why have they largely avoided taxing their citizens in a standardized manner to fund the armed forces?

My answer to these questions is that the relative dominance of international actors in the CAR means that Central African leaders can never expect to maintain power through force alone. Instead of investing in strengthening state violent capacity, it makes more sense to build alliances with external powers. These alliances are what give Central African leaders the financial and military means to stay in power. In short, if enough foreign powers no longer support a Central African President, they will likely be overthrown sooner or later.

(If you’d like an explanation of how I evaluated my hypothesis and why I believe certain counterarguments are insufficient, please see the paragraphs below the page break)

I am not implying that we should, in the words of Edward Luttwak, “give war a chance” (which Herbst would probably agree with). Foreign powers will not cease their involvement in Central African politics anytime soon, and even if they did, it’s unlikely a well-functioning state would suddenly appear. Even if it were not the dominance of foreign powers that prevented war from building the state, some other dynamic might. Therefore, I am much more convinced by theories such as Miguel Centeno, in which violence can lead to state-building, but only in the presence of certain scope conditions, which have not been present in many times and places. For this reason, I don’t believe the CAR to be unique in terms of the lack of relationship between violence and state-building. Finally, I think it’s also worth considering whether there is something unique about the history of African governance or central African governance that breaks the link between violence and state-building, but that’s beyond the scope of this project for now.



For my hypothesis to be correct, three things have to be true: that foreign powers are dominant in the CAR’s politics, that Central African leaders rely on external military force, and that Central African leaders do not invest in strengthening violent capacity because they are unable to compete militarily with international actors. The first claim is not so hard to prove. The CAR has had perhaps the most peacekeeping missions of any country in the world, and is therefore, as Louisa Lombard titles one of her chapters, the “world champion of peacekeeping”. Major decisions for the country are made by foreigners outside the country’s borders (nice example via Wikileaks), and without the involvement of international institutions, the Central African state would cease to exist in its current incarnation.

The second claim, that Central African leaders rely on external military actors, is also fairly obvious. For the first 35 years post-independence, the French were ever-present, playing a decisive role in three of the five changes of power during this time and an important role in a fourth. Libya also played a large if intermittent role since the 1970’s, sending both troops and desperately needed funds to prop up embattled Presidents. In the last two decades, Chad, often in conjunction with other regional powers, has played a large role in country’s politics. Chadian President Deby has both sent troops to support Central African leaders and contributed directly to their downfall.

The final claim, that Central African leaders do not seek to invest in domestic armed capacity because they can’t expect to maintain power through force alone is slightly more difficult to demonstrate because there is not, as far as my research has found, a smoking gun. However, a quick review of the travails of past Presidents would seem to confirm the claim. David Dacko twice came to power with French support, and the second time he was flown into the country by French paratroopers. Much-maligned President Jean-Bedel Bokassa came to power without much foreign help, and attempted to state-build. Even after 13 years in power, during which he proclaimed the Central African Empire with a lavish coronation ceremony, he was overthrown easily by the French. Andre Kolingba, who came to power following Dacko’s resignation, was forced into holding free elections in 1993 by France even though he knew he’d lose. Ange-Felix Patasse won the election, and attempted to diversify his international supporters, getting close to Qaddafi and Congolese rebel Jean-Pierre Bemba. However, his allies slowly deserted him, and he is eventually forced to beg France for support, but it never comes. A largely Chadian force led by Francois Bozize overthrew him. Ten years later, history repeats itself, and Seleka overthrows Bozize, leading to an internationally-managed transition. Due to the frequency with which foreign powers assisted in overthrowing Central African leaders (despite attempts to state-build or diversify military backers), it would follow that Central African leaders realize the futility of investing in violent capacity.

There are a few alternative explanations that could explain the puzzle presented in my research question. It could be that the existence of strong international norms of sovereignty in Africa and the decline in inter-state competition resulting in territorial conquest decreases incentives for leaders to build states, as argued by Herbst and Tilly. However, this does not fully make sense, because even if other countries are unlikely to gobble up portions of the CAR’s territory, the frequency with which leaders are overthrown violently provides significant incentives to invest in violent capacity. Another potential explanation is that leaders fail to strengthen the armed forces because of the threat of coups. However, other leaders before have faced the same risk and still managed to build states. And again, in the context of violent threats to leaders’ rule, failure to build armed forces due to coup fears will only happen if the leader can count on external forces to protect them from rebellions.

A third potential alternative explanation comes from Miguel Centeno, who argues that wars only build states if there is a certain existing level of organizational capacity that can capitalize on warfare. This view is strengthened by the fact that the CAR had very few citizens with educational degrees in 1960. However, there were French advisers in every ministry at independence, and many have remained. There are about 20,000 civil servants as well as 10,000 individuals employed by the security sector, which does not speak to an overall lack of potential capacity.

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One Response to “When War Does Not Make the State: the Case of the Central African Republic”

  1. scott January 12, 2017 at 8:50 am #

    Have you read Rebecca Hardin on concessionary politics in CAR? I think someone else uses it in a chapter in the Making Sense of CAR edited volume. Really useful way of understanding how post-independence leaders treat the state and typical state functions differently there than in most other places.

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