Tag Archives: Coup

Conflicts to Watch in 2013 (Part I)

1 Jan

The Council on Foreign Relations and Foreign Policy have both come out with lists of potential conflicts to watch in 2013.  Both provide good summaries of potential global hotspots, but instead of concentrating on potential geopolitical struggles, I’d like to take a brief look at the conflicts that will likely be important for civilian protection advocates.  While the conflicts in the DRC and Burma, for example, are always at the top of the civilian protection list, I’d like to focus on six conflicts that have the potential to 1) impact civilian populations and 2) take a very different form in 2013 than they did in 2012.  Here are the first three.

Sudan

The insurgencies in Blue Nile and South Kordofan are likely to continue, and the government’s heavy handed response is also likely to stay the same.  While these two issues are currently the country’s two biggest humanitarian crises, they might not even be the biggest problems in 2013.  Growing divisions within the NCP caused what appears to have been a coup attempt in November, and combined with the return of #SudanRevolts, Bashir now looks far weaker than he has in years. Jay Ulfelder’s 2013 coup forecasts puts the chances of another coup in Sudan at number two worldwide, an event which is likely to not only initiate major power struggles within the Khartoum elite, but also involve various factions fighting it out on the ground.  There is also a real danger of a low-intensity war between North and South Sudan along the border, as the North continues to bomb within Southern territory.  In South Sudan, cattle raids between the Dinka, Lou Nuer, and Murle tribes are accruing huge casualties, and there are no signs that the South Sudanese governments will seriously address this crisis.

Afghanistan

Afghanistan has been in the news for years as one of the most violent places in the world, but in 2013, it’s only going to get worse.  In short, U.S. policy in Afghanistan has been a total failure, and the Afghan government does not look ready to govern on its own once U.S./NATO forces begin their draw-down, and eventually leave in 2014.  Afghan security forces are ill-trained and unable to function independently, the government is impressively corrupt, the Taliban remains strong, and Pakistan continues to meddle.  All of these factors point to an uptick in violence in the coming year.  There are few positive signs for 2013.

Mali

Designating Mali as the new Afghanistan is simplistic, but like Afghanistan, Mali is a hot mess.  In March, junior officers angry at the government’s inability to properly supply soldiers fighting a Taureg rebellion in the north mutinied, and then, perhaps accidentally, seized the state.  A few weeks later, Tuareg rebels succeeded in pushing Malian forces at of northern Mali and declared the independence or a new state, Azawad.  Since then, there has been another coup against a prime minister who pulled too hard on the leash held by the original coup plotters.  Despite facades of democracy, the real power in Mali rests in Kati, an army town outside of Bamako.

In the north, things are even worse.  Following the defeat of the the Malian army, the situation in the north collapsed into yet another civil war, as the MNLA, a secular Tuareg group, battled Ansar Dine, an Islamist faction.  The Islamists eventually gained the upper hand.  The struggle for Azawad is a complex mix of ethnic and political affiliations, and this deadly, multifaceted conflict has had a disastrous affect on the civilian population.  The conflict has caused a full-fledged humanitarian crisis, with hundreds of thousands becoming either refugees or internally displaced.  On December 20th, the UN Security Council voted unanimously to back the creation of the international force to retake northern Mali.  The plan, according to both Susan Rice (who called it “crap) and Daniel Drezner, has some problems, “…the Security Council has pledged to send peacekeepers on a timetable that makes academic publishing seem speedy, without any idea of how it will be funded, staffed, or operate with indigenous forces, married to vague calls for political action to lay the groundwork for said peacekeepers.”  With or without an intervention force, the lack of any real progress toward a political solution will mean a long, deadly year for northern Mali.

The Coup in Sudan: Some Theories

5 Dec

Though the entire incident is shrouded in confusion, it appears as there was attempted coup in Sudan on November 22nd.  Though the coup did not have any real impact on violence levels or the situation of Sudan’s civilians, the potential impact of regime change on  in these sectors is enormous, and therefore it is an important issue to keep tabs on for civilian protection advocates.  The details of the event are still mostly unclear, and so while it is impossible to establish a comprehensive summary, there are a few ideas that I would like to put forward.  Inevitably, with time, the events of November 21st and 22nd will become more clear.

One theory regarding the incident was that it was simply a government hoax aimed to repressing dissent, and there was never a real threat to Bashir’s regime.  This doesn’t make sense for a few reasons.  Firstly, those arrested come from within the NCP, despite attempts to obfuscate.  Khartoum has no reason to publicize splits within the NCP if it doesn’t have to.  Secondly, the messaging in the early hours following the coup was confused.  Numerous government officials made conflicting statements about who was involved, who was arrested, etc.  Presumably, an government sponsored hoax would have been preceded by inter-agency cooperation and planning, and this seems not to have happened.  While this fact seems to almost certainly point to a putsch attempt, it at least indicates the severe lack of institutional organization within the regime.

While the coup has not led to overthrow of Bashir, it has significant analytical importance for examining the state of the Bashir regime.  Currently, Sudan is experiencing severe economic problems, which culminated in #SudanRevolts this summer.  Additionally, there are doubts about the health of Bashir, who is recovering from a throat operation.  Finally, the NCP is experiencing severe political divisions, with roughly the hard-line Islamists on one side and the reformers on the other.  These three factors, combined with the attempted coup, reveal the extreme vulnerability afflicting the current Sudanese regime.  Theda Skocpol, and other structuralists, has highlighted the importance of state collapse in precipitating revolutions.  Therefore, not only can regimes not fall without debilitating internal strife, but revolutionary movements can only exist if there are signs of state weakness.  If we accept this line of theory, we can expand her analytical framework to encompass coups, and conclude there could never have been an attempted coup without significant state weakness.  The regime is currently not fragile enough to crumble under its own weight, but it is weak enough to produce an attempted coup.

Despite obvious signs of state weakness, Bashir’s security forces responded promptly to the attempted putsch.  Though it seems clear the plotters were hard-liners from Al-Sae’ohoon, the government clumsily and belatedly tried to blame the opposition.  While the coup response was intended to strengthen and consolidate the regime, it seems to have only further isolated Bashir and his cronies.  One major question, however, is how active and deliberate was this coup?  Bashir clearly felt the need to crackdown, but was this because of an imminent coup or simply deep divisions within the NCP?  It is quite plausible that Salah Gosh was indeed organizing opposition within the NCP, but did not intend to overthrow the government.  Did Gosh really put everything on the line as the government has claimed, or was he merely working toward shifting the party’s policies in a more hard-line direction?  With the current information, it’s basically impossible to tell.

There, of course, is a long history of failed coups all around the world.  However, I think it is important, especially in the Sudanese context, to not merely dismiss the coup as a failure, but to place it within a broader context.  The current state weakness may indicate that this was a “dress rehearsal” coup.  What I mean here is that this coup was a first attempt to overthrow the government, which gives the opposition a reading on how the regime would respond to a later coup.  This can be interpreted in two ways.  Firstly, the opposition simply wanted to test out the strength of the regime, and therefore put a small group of individuals together to challenge the regime, with the knowledge that it would likely fail.  This model, however, seems overly conspiratorial.  Secondly, the weakness of the regime encouraged a small group of plotters to try to overthrow the government, but were unable to garner enough support due to others’ readings of state strength.  Opposing factions now know how the government will react to a coup, and may be able to create a larger, successful coup in the future.

“Dress rehearsal” coups have happened before.  Argentina in 1955 and Chile in 1973 both provide examples of an attempt by a portion of the armed forces to overthrow the government that failed.  In both cases, the armed forces united three months later and succeeded.  Could this happen in Sudan?  While the situation is not totally analogous, there are certainly similarities.  Like Argentina and Chile, Sudan is in a state of crisis and the public has a growing lack of trust in the government.  The initial attempt to seize the state seems to have been caused by the apparent fragility of the government, though it was too soon to actually gather support.  Ultimately, the failed coup attempt weakened the regime, and the armed forces saw that they would indeed be able to seize power.  In Sudan, we have a failed coup that included parts of the armed forces at a time of great state weakness, causing a backlash from the ruling faction.  In response to this coup, Bashir has seemingly isolated himself from both Islamists and the opposition by imprisoning the first and blaming the second.  A successful coup in the future certainly isn’t inevitable, but Bashir shouldn’t count himself lucky just yet.

* I am not a political scientist, therefore any comments or corrections on the theories presented in the last few paragraphs would be appreciated.

‘Til the Revolution Comes

5 Nov

*This is the first post of a two part series in reaction to my participation in the Women and Genocide in the 21st Century Conference organized by the Darfur Women Action Group.  This one will focus on realism in advocacy, and the second will focus on the dehumanization of perpetrators of mass atrocities.

The conference last weekend was full of many insightful perspectives and personal stories, but there was one assertion, repeated a few times, that really irked me.  The charge was that Omar al-Bashir is the root of all the problems in Sudan, and that until he is removed by the international community, Sudan will not improve.  During these moments, my mind wandered back to my dad telling me as sixteen-year-old about the dangers of manichean theories, or as he called them, “‘Til the revolution comes” arguments.  These lines of thoughts are not productive, as they downplay the agency of everyone involved and glaze over existing political scenarios.

Firstly, this  approach is simply not realistic.  The ICC has no mechanism to forcibly arrest Bashir, and rather relies on the cooperation of signatories to provide enforcement.  Even if countries refuse to arrest Bashir, the ICC indictment puts long-term pressure on Bashir, limiting his ability to interact diplomatically and decreasing his legitimacy.  The ICC is one way to bring about Bashir’s removal, or at least his restraint, but it is not the only way.   Placing all of our eggs in the ICC basket makes us forget all of the other policy and advocacy options that are available to us.

If the only way for Sudan to improve is for the ICC to apprehend and try Bashir, then us Sudan activists should probably stop reading the Sudan Tribune, forget where Abyei is, and play more golf.  This attitude gives advocates almost nothing to do.  We can ask Kenya and Egypt to take a tougher stance on Bashir all we want, but our chances of success are about as good as Obama claiming an endorsement from the NRA.  The belief that Sudan cannot improve with Bashir in power uses moralizing rhetoric to cover-up political realities.  Omar al-Bashir, is, without of doubt, one of the worst heads of state of the 21st Century (he might even be up there with legends), but he is also beholden to outside interests and powers.  Bashir needs certain things, like a steady supply of arms, cash, and oil.  In order to maintain access to these necessities, he has to be willing to negotiate.  He’s also clearly pretty good at it: it’s not easy to stay in power for twenty-three years.  Therefore, it is possible to use leverage against Bashir to improve conditions in Sudan.  Also, improvement in Sudan does not necessarily have to go through Bashir.  The government of Sudan, while repressive, is not all-powerful, and has a limited capacity to snuff out positive change (also, it as violence against civilians is always in the interests of Bashir).  Sudan can improve, even with Bashir at the helm, and advocates shouldn’t turn to fatalist language to rally support for the cause.

Relying on the international community to bring Bashir to justice implicitly overlooks the ability of Sudanese to make organic political change.  This summer, Sudan was rocked by #SudanRevolts, Bashir is running out of money, and his governing coalition is starting to fall apart.  Movements like Girifna have organized activists and put real pressure on the NCP.  In this scenario, the main actors are the Sudanese, and relying on the ICC as an agent of change is disrespectful to the many dedicated activists risking their lives to topple Bashir’s administration.  The international community can certainly hasten Bashir’s downfall through sanctions and diplomatic pressure, but ultimately it is up to the Sudanese to make political change.  Enforced political change from the outside won’t last, and so Sudan advocates must cease relying on the ICC as an all-powerful, semi-magical tool to bring about regime change.

I’m betting that Bashir will have lost power by the time I graduate from college.  This won’t happen because the ICC finally figures out an ingenious way to arrest him, but because the internal dynamics of Sudan’s politics and economics force him out.  Therefore, Sudan advocates need to plan for the day after Bashir leaves, but also remember that there is a lot of work to be done in the interim.

The Responsibility to Protect (the State?) in Mali

17 Oct

Ever since Tuareg rebels defeated Malian forces to create the de-facto independent Republic of Azawad in Northern Mali, foreign military intervention has been on the table.  Though it has not happened yet, the UN Security Council laid the groundwork for intervention a few days ago.  While most policy makers have stuck to stressing the need to fight extremism, commentators have also highlighted human rights violations by Ansar Dine, a Tuareg Islamist group with links to Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM).  Due to these human rights violations, R2P has also entered the picture (it may well not be cited if an intervention happens, but due to the possibility, its applicability should be analyzed).  However, despite numerous executions, destroyed cultural sites, and refugees, the situation in Mali has not reached the level of genocide or a mass atrocity, forcing us to either reinterpret Responsibility to Protect’s (R2P) mandate or discard it as an analytic framework.

The second pillar of R2P states that the international community has the duty to help states protect their citizens.  But in Mali, which state does the second pillar refer to?  Bamako has no control over Azawad, but the international community does not recognize the legitimacy of the Tuareg state.  So who does the international community have a duty to assist when in comes to protecting civilians in northern Mali?  By sanctioning an intervention under the guise of R2P, the international community would assert Bamako’s claim to Azawad, and that the Malian government alone can protect civilians in what used to be its territory.  An intervention would unwittingly reinterpret the doctrine as not only a mandate for civilian protection, but also one for territorial integrity.

This interpretation, however, has its priorities in the wrong place.  It implies that only “legitimate” governments (i.e. recognized) have the the ability to protect civilians.  This is not realistic in Mali’s case.  It is not as if a small rebel group temporarily seized a few towns; Bamako has fully lost control of northern Mali, and is no longer the governing power there.  While seeing Bamako as the government in Northern Mali doesn’t match up with realities on the ground, there are still other problematic implications with this view.  The perception that Ansar Dine is inherently dangerous to civilian populations falls back on the idea of the Islamist bogeyman, where Islamists are universally opposed to democracy and human rights.  To be sure, Ansar Dine is a brutal organization that has committed egregious human rights violations, but its presence in northern Mali does not equate to a genocide waiting to happen.  Secondly, the idea that a military intervention (also known as a war) is necessary to reestablish the control of a government (in which the leader of a recent military coup still holds power) over a territory it lost so that it can reclaim its role as the legitimate protector of civilians is so ludicrous it doesn’t merit further examination.

If R2P mandates an intervention to retake northern Mali, then that implies that not only does the the international community have a duty to help states eliminate a group within their borders that are committing mass atrocities, but that it also has a duty to regain territory held by a group that might commit mass atrocities in the future.  This precedent would lend “legitimate” governments, which includes a lot of brutal dictators, justification for crushing separatist forces, as they might kill civilians in the future.  Given the current debate over R2P vs. RwP at the UN, the doctrine doesn’t need any more problems that will hamper its ability to protect civilians.

Applying R2P to Mali implies that governments must control their territory so that they can protect their own civilians, and that if they lose territory, the international community has the responsibility to help governments regain it whether or not mass atrocities have been committed.  This interpretation does exactly what R2P isn’t supposed to: it uses R2P as a justification for military actions without an intent to protect civilians.  It’s better for the future of R2P if we call the intervention in Mali what it is: an intervention to remove Islamists as part of the global war on terror.