Tag Archives: Sudan

What’s Going on in Chad?

20 Aug
Rond point de l'Armée in N'Djamena, Chad. By Ismouz.

Rond point de l’Armée in N’Djamena, Chad. By Ismouz.

Chad’s been in the news recently primarily because of Boko Haram and the subsequent ban on the Islamic face veil. In June and July, several attacks in N’Djamena and on Lake Chad islands killed around 55 people. Despite N’Djamena’s physical proximity to Boko Haram areas in Nigeria and Cameroon, these were the first major attacks in Chad by Boko Haram following Chad’s entry into the international coalition fighting the group. These attacks have happened against a political backdrop of extreme poverty, government repression, and a history of armed conflict. Among the many problems that Chad currently faces, probably none of them alone are existential threats to Deby’s regime or the harbinger of impending mass violence, but Chad faces a uniquely toxic cocktail of political, economic, and social problems.

Social Fragmentation

Chad is 45% Christian, but since independence, Christians have been largely shut out of political power. It’s not that they’re second-class citizens, as most people besides a small elite have been shut out of political power, but even Christian elites have few political prospects.

There is also discord within the Muslim community. Historically, Chadian Islam has been dominated by Sufi sects, but recently there’s been an increase in more conservative forms of Sunni Islam, partially due to increased funding from the Gulf. The government, and its allied religious leaders, has cracked down on these forms of Islam, claiming they promote violence and are anathema to Chadian tradition (some of these religious leaders are using Boko Haram attacks to settle scores with rival Salafists, who in Chad have almost always advocated peace). While Chadian imams have traditionally preached against violence, there is a danger “moderate” Muslim authorities could become complicit in a large-scale government crackdown. Additionally, these imams might come to be seen as government puppets, lose credibility, and thereby create a power vacuum that could be filled by more radical individuals.

There is a major gap, both in terms of wealth and government attention, between rural and urban areas, leading to significant discontent and frequent clashes between farmers and pastoralists. The Toubou in Chad’s far north are particularly neglected, but they are generally disorganized and it seems unlikely they’d launch a large-scale rebellion (however some analysts worry that after the defeat of jihadist forces in northern Mali, they’ll link up with the Toubou) due to a lack of capacity and the strength of Chad’s armed forces. In these areas, traditional authorities have generally kept the peace, but when they have been weakened, either by the government or other external factors, violence and crime have generally increased.

Civil society only became a force in Chad after the ascension of Idriss Deby to power in 1990. However, it’s never become a major player for a few reasons. The government associates it with the opposition and Christians, so any activity is generally seen as a direct challenge by the government, and sometimes even a Trojan Horse by Christians to gain political power. There are few forums for political activity not organized by international NGO’s. Independent media does exist, but it only reaches a small number of people, whereas government-controlled media has a mass audience. Print media is dominated by Southern Chadians, further earning the ire of the government.

International Relations

Recently, after many years of essentially being an international pariah (partially because of his close links with Gaddafi, who was also in the process of being rehabilitated at the end of his rule), Chad has reinvented itself as a key counterterrorism partner for Western countries. This shift in policy began in 2008-2009. In the last three years, Chadian troops have served in Mali (under AFISMA), CAR, and Nigeria. In Mali, Chadian forces distinguished themselves in desert warfare, and lost around 30 soldiers. Following these losses and what Deby felt was insufficient support (diplomatic and material) from the international community, Deby chose to withdraw Chad’s forces in Mali. Chad’s intervention in CAR, however, was a disaster. Chad was accused of backing Seleka, then pulled back support from Bozize late on, and Chadian troops massacred Central African civilians. However, Chad has redeemed itself in Nigeria. It has successfully cleared large areas of Boko Haram, and has been recognized as the most effective fighting force in the conflict.

The US and France are Chad’s major allies when it comes to counterterrorism. Chad is a member of the US’ Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Partnership and the US has been slowly expanding its presence in Chad. The US already runs many air operations in Central Africa out of N’Djamena (like assisting in the search for the Chibok girls), but is quietly moving toward establishing a more permanent base. Though Chad had previously been cited for using child soldiers (in 2010, 2011, and 2013), it controversially received a waiver in 2013 and since hasn’t appeared on the State Department’s list of countries using child soldiers. The US has trained Chadian soldiers and intermittently donates equipment to the armed forces. France bases its 3,000-strong regional counterterrorism force in N’Djamena, with 1,200 soldiers permanently stationed in Chad. France has two bases in the country. Though France has previously come to Deby’s rescue, Hollande is trying to move away from propping up strongmen and toward fighting terrorism, securing borders, and supporting small teams that can prevent hostage-taking or free hostages.

Chad’s relationship with Sudan is also crucially important. Chad and Sudan were de facto enemies, and supported rebels (the JEM and various Chadian rebellions, respectively). In 2006 and 2008, rebellions sponsored by Sudan almost overthrew Deby (requiring French support in 2008). However, in 2010, the two governments came to an agreement, and ceased supporting cross-border rebel groups. The alliance was solidified by the marriage of Deby to the daughter of Musa Hilal, a key player in the Sudanese government in Darfur (who has since defected from the NCP, so that’s a relationship to watch). Without Sudanese support, it’s highly unlikely an insurgency would have the capacity to seriously challenge Deby, and since 2010, there’s been no renewed insurgencies or problems with Sudan.

Chad has also had a somewhat ambiguous relationship with Nigeria recently. While Buhari has cautiously welcomed Chadian help in fighting Boko Haram, he has been careful not to give them too much credit or leeway. Both countries have reported there is little to no coordination between their forces in the fight against Boko Haram.

Government Structure

Since independence, governance in Chad has been kleptocratic and reserved for a small elite. Deby’s regime is also quite repressive. Opposition MP’s only have a few seats in parliament and the judiciary is loyal to Deby. Opposition politicians and government critics are routinely arrested. A democratic opposition does not really exist; opposition leaders may make perfunctory statements about democracy, but they would likely implement a similar system of governance, only they’d be the beneficiaries..

To prevent alternate power bases from developing, Deby frequently reshuffles his cabinet and military leadership. The Deby regime is heavily dependent on Deby’s Bila-Bideyet clan, which is a sub-group of the larger Zaghawa, who have filled many key positions in the security forces and government. Furthermore, some of his family members hold top positions. Beyond ethnic ties, the government is heavily reliant on patronage to buy fealty.

That patronage is largely funded through oil revenues, which only began flowing in the early 2000’s. Oil has had a major effect on the Chadian political scene. It has allowed Chad to dramatically strengthen its military, which prior to 2008 was poorly equipped and trained. The strength of the army has allowed Deby to disregard calls for reform, repress domestic opposition, and gain international prestige (and more money) through its participation in international counterterrorism efforts. A big reason all of this was possible was the stronger position in which Deby found himself. He faced serious armed challenges in 2004, 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2009, but since then, excluding a 2013 coup attempt that may have been invented by the regime, the government has appeared much more in control.

Oil revenues have been used for development, but these projects have mostly happened in urban areas to the benefit of the elite. The lack of benefits provided by oil revenues to the urban poor, rural populations, and oil-producing region has prompted protests, but these have been repressed. However, the number and intensity of protests may increase in the run-up to the April 2016 presidential election if no tangible economic benefits are provided to most of the population.

Recent Boko Haram Attacks and Government Response

Four suicide attacks in June and July in N’Djamena killed about 55 people. The perpetrators were widely suspected to be Boko Haram after the group threatened Chad in its released videos. In response, the Chadian government launched airstrikes against Boko Haram targets in Nigeria, attacked Boko Haram militants on Lake Chad islands, banned the full face veil (the niqab/burqa because one of the bombers was wearing the garment), and arrested suspected Boko Haram members (and unidentified “foreigners”). Religious leaders publicly supported the decision, but they probably didn’t have much of a choice. In the short-term it’s unlikely this leads for widespread support for Boko Haram, but Chad does risk alienating more conservative Muslims with its heavy-handed and probably ineffective tactics. Additionally, it’s unclear to what degree the regime will use the Boko Haram threat to crackdown on non-jihadist opponents.

Key Things to Watch

  • Inter-Zaghawa tensions: Probably the biggest threat to the Deby regime is a coup by Zaghawa allies, and any public break between Zaghawa elites and Deby could be a sign of an impending coup. Many Zaghawa are unhappy with Deby for his abandonment of the JEM in Sudan, who were mostly Zaghawa. Additionally, many elites, including some in his own family, seek to improve their position, and it’s unclear if patronage will mollify them. While Chad’s newly-strong army means an insurgency is unlikely to topple the government, a coup could happen either with the collusion of the armed forces or be timed to take place while they’re largely deployed in northern Nigeria. The last coup took place just before troops were about to come home from Mali. A coup probably wouldn’t descend into mass violence, but given the number of well-armed troops and foreign interests at stake, it’s possible.
  • Protests: Protests haven’t lead to major unrest under Deby’s rule, but it’s conceivable. Trade unions have organized medium-sized demonstrations in the past, and recently, partially because of Boko Haram, the prices of basic goods have spiked. This has caused smaller, more sporadic protests, but they could become larger as the election approaches. If protests do break out, it’s worth identifying the leaders and how the government responds.
  • Relationship with Sudan breaks down: There haven’t been any outward signs of the deterioration of the Sudanese-Chadian détente, but such a deterioration would have negative consequences on both sides of the border. It’s likely Sudan would sponsor another insurgency, but given the Sudanese regime’s relative weakness and the ease with which Chad put down the 2009 attempt, it might be a flash in the pan. However, there are still 350,000 Darfuri refugees in eastern Chad, and they would likely be in the middle of any conflict. Any accusations of support for proxy groups could be a sign the alliance is collapsing.
  • Boko Haram: At the moment, Boko Haram poses only a sporadic threat in Chad. However, if the group were able to launch more regular attacks and/or control territory due to popular support or unforeseen government weakness, the Deby regime would likely respond with massive violence, and that is something to watch for. At the moment, however, the government’s own repressive actions present a similar degree of danger as Boko Haram.

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

2015 Mass Atrocity Forecasts

12 Jan

In my last post, I looked back on how my predictions fared in 2014. While there are a couple different ways to measure success, all in all I was a little under 50%.

Here are my predictions for 2015. Like last time, I’ll not do a simple yes/no, but rather a percentage of how likely a mass atrocity is to happen. By mass atrocity, I mean 1,000 deaths caused intentionally by a discrete combatant group against another discrete noncombatant group. I’m including more countries than I did last year, and hopefully this will offer more accurate forecasts.

  • Nigeria (95%)
  • Iraq (95%)
  • Syria (95%)
  • Pakistan (75%)
  • Afghanistan (70%)
  • South Sudan (70%)
  • Sudan (65%)
  • Mexico (55%)
  • CAR (50%)
  • North Korea (50%)
  • Somalia (30%)
  • DRC (30%)
  • Libya (25%)
  • Gaza (25%)
  • Cameroon (20%)
  • Ukraine (10%)
  • Rwanda (10%)
  • Lebanon (10%)
  • Burundi (5%)
  • Yemen (5%)
  • Chad (5%)
  • Guinea (5%)
  • Kenya (5%)
  • Ethiopia (5%)
  • Burma (5%)
  • Eritrea (5%)
  • Zimbabwe (5%)
  • Mali (5%)

Explaining my forecast for each of the 28 countries here would be tedious and probably unnecessary, so I’ll skip it. However, I’ll select a few countries where my risk prediction doesn’t generally line up with the consensus in the atrocity prevention community.

In Nigeria, Boko Haram has probably already committed a mass killing in 2015, and across the border in Cameroon, Boko Haram is also active, though the chances of a mass atrocity are lower if not insignificant.

Pakistan and Afghanistan are not countries on the traditional atrocity prevention agenda, but that has more to do with uneasy relationship between anti-atrocity advocates and the U.S. military than the countries’ risk. Their respective Taliban’s both committed atrocities last year, and it seems likely that trend will continue.

In Mexico, it’s never a question of absolute casualty figures but how those casualties are categorized. Because there aren’t clear numbers on how many cartel members die as opposed to civilians, it’s hard to know whether more than 1,000 are killed by a specific drug cartel, even if thousands will almost certainly die in 2015.

In the DRC, like Mexico, more than 1,000 are highly likely to die. However, the splintered nature of armed groups in the country’s east means I think it’s more likely than not no single group will kill 1,000 civilians. The situation’s not dissimilar in Libya, where there is rampant violence, but it is committed by a myriad of militias.

Israel probably committed a mass killing in Gaza last year, and while confrontations between Hamas and Israel seem to operate on two or three year cycles, there’s still a decent chance Israel ‘mows the grass’ again this year.

While Rwanda is often praised as one of Africa’s most efficient governments, this sheen of good governance masks a political powder-keg. Whenever the elite coalition Kagame has built fractures, the struggle to fill the resulting power vacuum will likely result in mass violence. The same principle applies in Zimbabwe and Eritrea.

Finally, Burundi and Burma are two countries that have been high on the atrocity prevention agenda that I rated at only 5%. In Burundi, it seems the government has repressed the opposition enough that ruling elites are unlikely to be threatened during the 2015 election. There are some parallels here with Burma. While the treatment of the Rohingya minority is horrendous, it seems Burma’s elites have settled on forcing emigration rather than initiating a mass killing, which would be more politically risky.

Looking Back on My 2014 Mass Atrocity Forecasts

2 Jan

A year ago, I took a stab at predicting which countries would experience mass atrocities in 2014 (defined as 1,000 noncombatant intentional deaths caused by discrete group). My predictions were fairly accurate, if not perfectly so. Here’s what I predicted. I’ve put “YES” next to places that did experience atrocities and “NO” next to the countries that didn’t. For the countries where it’s simply too hard to know, I’ve put a “?”. I don’t want to get too in-depth into how I determined whether atrocities occurred, but I have some explanations in the footnotes for countries that are hard to judge one way or the other.

  • Syria (95%) – YES
  • South Sudan (85%) – YES
  • Iraq (85%) – YES
  • CAR (75%) – YES [1]
  • Sudan (60%) – YES
  • Afghanistan (50%) – YES [2]
  • North Korea (50%) – ? [3]
  • Mexico (35%) – ? [4]
  • Nigeria (30%) – YES
  • Burma (20%) – NO
  • DRC (20%) – NO [5]
  • Egypt (10%) – NO
  • Mali (5%) – NO
  • Venezuela (5%) – NO

To judge how accurate I was, one measure is to see each case as containing 100 points. If an atrocity did happen, then I get the number of percentage points that I predicted (for example, I get 95 out of 100 for Syria) and if one did not happen, I get the result of subtracting the number of percentage points I predicted from 100 (for example, I get 80 out of 100 for Burma). Because my predictions were not just yes/no, this method helps account for the probabilistic aspect. Measuring this way, I did very well, receiving 920 out of a possible 1200, excluding Mexico and North Korea because of the inconclusive judgments. However, that score should really be 920 out of 1400, because civilian deaths in Gaza during the Israel-Hamas conflict constitute a mass atrocity. Similarly, the Pakistani Taliban committed a mass atrocity. A mass atrocity may have occurred in Somalia, but the numbers don’t seem high enough to definitively say for sure.

There are a few problems with this metric for success, though. First, my numbers success rate is considerably boosted by the very high probability (the “No Shit List”) and the very low probability cases. If I remove the cases where I predicted probabilities above 80% and below 20%, and add in Pakistan and Gaza, my score comes out to a much less impressive 375 out of 800, even though by the standards of forecasting international events, it’s not bad.

The results of my projections have both optimistic and pessimistic ramifications for the ability to forecast atrocities. On the one hand, being a little less than 50% accurate in medium-risk cases is much better than the standard 65%-80% false positive ratio that’s common even in the best performing models (though it’s easier to outperform statistical models in one year than five). Additionally, with the exceptions of Pakistan and Gaza, no episodes of atrocities occurred in countries with probabilities less than 30%. On the other hand, in every case that I listed a probability that an atrocity would happen and it did, the country had been experiencing large-scale violent conflict at the beginning of 2014. One of the two cases I missed was also the one not experiencing large-scale violent conflict then.

Therein lies the problems. It’s fairly easy to predict where atrocities will occur for countries already experiencing mass violence. While it is certainly useful to predict anywhere where atrocities will occur, the real prize of forecasting is to identify the cases where atrocities will occur that aren’t obvious to the casual observer. Because mass atrocities are such rare events, that’s frustratingly difficult.

In my next post, I’ll put up my mass atrocity forecasts for 2015.

Update (1/16/15): Earlier today I realized that in analyzing my predictions I had missed the chance to analyze whether I had been overly optimistic or pessimistic about mass atrocities in 2014. I’m particularly interested to see if I avoided the bias that generally has forecasts over-predict the likelihood of rare events, which atrocities are.

I’ll do this by adding up the percentage points I predicted in total (and divide my 100) and then compare that to the actual occurrence of atrocities. If we exclude the atrocities that happened that I didn’t predict, I predicted there would be 5.4 mass atrocities in 2014. Within my prediction sample, there were actually 6 mass atrocities. So I was pretty close. My accuracy here was helped because each country that had a mass atrocity in 2014 in my predicted list also had one in 2013.

However, if I include Gaza and Pakistan (as I probably should), I was less accurate, again predicting 5.4 atrocities when 8 actually occurred. For whatever reason, I bucked the trend and under-predicted the number of atrocities that would occur in 2014.

Clarification (1/4/15): For this post, I defined a mass atrocity as 1,000 deaths in a single year. While this is partially consistent with other definitions for a mass atrocity used by The Early Warning Project and my thesis, it doesn’t clarify the conditions for when a mass atrocity continues over multiple years. The convention is that 1,000 is required in the onset year, and then if the number of deaths drops below a much lower threshold for a few years, then the mass killing episode ends. For example, by the Early Warning Project’s definition, a state-led mass killing episode continued in Myanmar last year, even though as far as I can tell, the casualty numbers were well under 1,000. For my predictions, because I’m only looking at one year at a time, I’m thinking about whether death counts will reach 1,000 each year. Neither definition is better than the other, but for the purposes of my predictions, the 1,000 threshold every year makes more sense.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                     

[1] Though the numbers aren’t entirely clear, it seems very likely that more 1,000 noncombatants were killed by anti-balaka forces (and possibly ex-Seleka forces too) in 2014.

[2] By July, more than 1,500 civilians had already been killed, with 74% of those caused by anti-government forces (mostly the Taliban). The total number had risen to over 3,000 by November, with the Taliban responsible for 75%.

[3] Obviously, the North Korean regime isn’t releasing data on its prison camps, but investigations by Amnesty and the OHCHR makes it seem very likely more than 1,000 civilians died in 2014. However, the lack of data makes it impossible to know for sure.

[4] Like North Korea, there’s just not enough data to say. It’s not that we don’t know that huge numbers of people were killed by organized crime, but it’s unclear how many of those count as civilians (cartel members are combatants in this case). It seems likely, but one can’t be sure.

[5] While the civilian death toll almost certainly exceeded 1,000 in 2014, to my knowledge, no one single group can claim to have killed more than 1,000 noncombatants.

The Sachs-Prendergast School of Activism

2 Sep

*The following is a guest post by my brother Timmy Hirschel-Burns.

Development and mass atrocities both interest me, and the articles I read are mostly about these two issues.  A few months ago, I realized that I could go from an article on corn production in Kenya to political conflict in South Sudan, but a major figure would be present in both articles.  Really, this was not one person, but two; Jeffrey Sachs and John Prendergast had melded together in my mind.  While this could be written off as subconscious sloppiness with little relevance to the real world, I think there are important parallels between Sachs and Prendergast.  Development and mass atrocities have much in common, and Sachs and Prendergast are among the leading figures in their respective fields.  Although Sachs’s ‘bookworm on a mission’ persona contrasts with Prendergast’s ‘cool guy out to save the world’ image, their methods are extremely similar.  That these two similar figures both became perhaps the most publicly recognizable person in their field is not a coincidence, but rather can shed light on how we approach developing countries-African ones in particular-, what types of activism gather attention, and how the shortcomings of these two figures can be avoided.  First, I will present some of the similarities between Sachs and Prendergast, and then I will discuss their broader significance.

Moral outrage– A constant theme for Sachs and Prendergast is their moral outrage about the suffering of individuals around the world.  In The Idealist, Nina Munk describes how after seeing how AIDS victims did not receive medicine in Zambia, Sachs was so appalled he decided to dedicate himself to ending poverty.  His shock is again apparent when he visits the Millennium Village in Ruhiira, Uganda, where he spends much of the visit muttering to himself about how outrageous poverty is.  Munk describes how after speaking with a doctor, “Sachs shook his head in disbelief; he was personally offended by the situation.  ‘They can’t go on like this,’ he said.”  Prendergast also puts his moral outrage at the center of his actions.  In Not on Our Watch, co-authored by Prendergast and Don Cheadle, they describe a visit to a visit to a refugee camp for those displaced by violence in Darfur.  They write, “As we listened to the stories of the refugees who fled the genocide, we sensed what it might be like to be hunted as a human being…Enough is ENOUGH.”

Westerners hold the solution– Sachs and Prendergast both frame poverty and mass atrocities, respectively, as something the West allows to happen.  Prendergast focuses on Samantha Power’s idea that we must be ‘upstanders’ to genocide rather than bystanders in The Enough Moment.  Munk also describes how in Ruhiira, Sachs reacts to what he sees by saying, “This is how we allow fellow human beings to die, by doing nothing.”  Of course, when Prendergast and Sachs say “we,” citizens of Darfur or Uganda do not really factor in.  Rather, the “we” they see as key to stopping genocide and poverty are Western citizens and policymakers.  Their policy prescriptions almost always follow this idea.  For Prendergast, the solution tends to come through Western-led diplomacy, peacekeeping forces, or in the case of the DRC, ending the purchase of conflict minerals.  For Sachs, Western-led aid interventions are at the center of his strategy.  Their seminal projects highlight their position at the center of solving mass atrocities and poverty.  Prendergast’s Enough Project and Sachs’s The End of Poverty both hold titles that emphasize finality.  Prendergast has had enough of mass atrocities and his organization will stop them, while Sachs knows how to end poverty and will describe how in his book.

Celebrity affiliations– A major feature of both Sachs and Prendergast’s work is their collaboration with non-expert celebrities in an effort to draw popular appeal.  Bono writes the foreword to The End of Poverty, Sachs starred in the MTV documentary “The Diary of Angelina Jolie & Dr. Jeffrey Sachs in Africa,” and he has worked with Tommy Hilfiger.  Prendergast co-wrote two books with Don Cheadle, co-founded The Darfur Dream Team with basketball star Tracy McGrady, and has worked closely with George Clooney, Ryan Gosling, and Ben Affleck.

Negative reaction to criticism– Both Prendergast and Sachs have a reputation of taking criticism very personally and having relentless faith in their ideas.  Prendergast has had high profile arguments with Mahmood Mamdani and Alex de Waal, while Sachs has long-running feuds with Bill Easterly and Dambisa Moyo.  While all prominent figures will have critics and public debate can be valuable and constructive, in these debates Prendergast and Sachs’s tone is often noticeably defensive and aggressive.  A memorable scene in The Idealist describes Sachs screaming at parisitologist Christian Lengeler on an airplane over their differing views on malaria control.  While they have reacted poorly to criticism, Sachs and Prendergast have also shown unwillingness to examine their ideas.  Sachs failed to have the Millennium Village Project properly evaluated (although to his credit he did give Nina Munk fantastic and seemingly uncensored access).  Prendergast has consistently pushed the idea that Dodd-Frank 1502, the legislation aimed at preventing the purchase of conflict minerals that he lobbied extensively for, led to the demise of M23.  However, Christoph Vogel argues that the only evidence to support this theory is a report commissioned by Prendergast and his colleague Sasha Lezhnev.

While some of these similarities are particular to Sachs and Prendergast, many can be applied to other prominent activists, campaigns and organizations.  Sachs and Prendergast are leading figures in a particular school of activism, and I think this is where the similarities between Sachs and Prendergast have the largest implications.  At the heart of the similarities between Sachs, Prendergast, and similar activists is their theory of change: they need to draw Western attention to problems in developing countries, Westerners will care more about these issues, their moral outrage will lead to more resources and money focused on the problems, and these resources and money will solve the problems.  This theory of change which is so prominent in Sachs and Prendergast also pervades Power, Kristof, Invisible Children, and a major portion of prominent activism, and I think this is where the problem lies.

There is nothing inherently wrong about many components of this theory of change.  The inequality and brutality that is present throughout the world should bring moral outrage, and Westerners can play a meaningful and effective role in producing change in the developing world.  What this theory of change lacks, however, is humility.  It fails to consider that Western popular attention may be able to do little to help, that these activists may not be the missing piece in the jigsaw puzzle, or that their moral outrage may not be enough to solve incredibly complex problems.  Perhaps they don’t know the answer, or the answer they thought they had was wrong.  They often can’t stop to consider power, institutions, history, and local knowledge because they have had enough of genocide, poverty needs to be ended, and they need to do it right now.  We do need to stop mass atrocities and end poverty, but it will be hard, it will take a long time, and it will take more than this type of activism.

I’m Not That Great a Forecaster: Looking back on my past predictions and learning how to improve

2 Jan

In early January of 2013, I wrote two posts that outlined six conflicts to watch for civilian protection advocates in the coming year.  Without any concrete methodology, I picked out Sudan, Afghanistan, Mali, Kenya, Syria (specifically violence in a post-Assad Syria), and Central Asia.  Arguably, I was wrong in five of the six cases if the criteria is that the violence had to get significantly worse from 2012 to 2013 in the manner that I predicted  (it gets even worse when you think about all 2013 conflicts I omitted; Nigeria, Egypt, CAR, and Iraq all experienced episodes of mass killing that have intensified since 2012).  I’ll briefly outline how I did country by country, address what I did wrong, and because it’s that time of year again, propose predictions for 2014.  If you don’t want to read the whole thing, feel free to skip to the bulleted predictions.

Sudan had a turbulent year, but it’s nothing really out of the ordinary for the troubled country.  #SudanRevolts returned in September and October and prompted a fairly superficial cabinet reshuffle, but not much else.  Violence continued to rage in Darfur, South Kordofan, and Blue Nile.  Although violence increased in Darfur and perhaps South Kordofan, it was not a radical departure for 2012.  In my last sentence of my Sudan section, I briefly mentioned South Sudan.  While the violence in Jonglei between the Lou Nuer and Murle ebbed slightly in 2013, any progress made in the country was obliterated by the crisis that began on December 15th and has enveloped the country.  It’s unclear how many people have died, but it probably constitutes a mass killing. Mali has certainly experienced some violence in 2013, but there is no way that it was worse than 2012.  The French-African intervention was fairly successful at expelling the jihadist-Tuareg alliance from Northern Mali.  Fairly successful elections went ahead and the leader of the initial coup, Amadou Haya Sanogo, has been arrested and will be put on trial.

Afghanistan is probably the only case I got right.  Civilian casualties increased in the first half (and possibly the second) of 2013, marking a reversal in 2012’s trend.  For every success there’s a failure, and Kenya is that failure.  The March elections went off smoothly, and so I was really wrong.  I was right to predict that 2013 would be worse than 2012 for Syrians, but it didn’t happen in the way I thought.  At the time, it seemed very likely Assad would fall, initiating a mass killing of Alawites in and around Latakia.  That didn’t happen.  Instead, massive violence continued against civilian populations throughout Syria mostly with the exception of Latakia.  Finally, like Kenya, I really got Central Asia wrong.  There was not significant violence in any Central Asian country (excluding Afghanistan) this calendar year.  Regime change could have potentially caused conflict, but those pesky autocratic regimes just won’t go away.

So how can I improve?  First, it would have helped if I had had a concrete measurement for what constituted conflict.  Second, it would have made sense to have had a constant metric for assessing why I thought conflict would occur in certain places.  Figuring out what my predicted conflict zones had in common and why they were different from other potential conflict zones would have improved my methodology, even if creating a model from a hunch isn’t the best social science (if someone wants to pay me to blog I promise my methodology will be more robust).  My analysis also would have improved if I had laid out specifically what changes I was looking for and how they fit into a larger historical narrative.  For example, while there was both a history of and a potential for political instability in Central Asia, my only data points were the 2005 massacre in Andijan, Uzbekistan and the 2010 violence in Osh, Kyrgyzstan.

So moving into my predictions for 2014, rather than creating a complete methodology of my own, I’m going to borrow two of Jay Ulfelder’s crowd-sourced forecasting projects as points of reference.  The first is the Center for Genocide Prevention’s online opinion pool (password needed).  The opinion pool aggregates the opinions of currently fifty individuals interested in atrocity prevention to create averaged probabilities about the likelihood of a particular event.  The questions are generally phrased like this, “Before X date, will an episode of state-led mass killing occur in Y country.”  The second is a wiki survey also originating from the Center for Genocide Prevention.  The results demonstrate how much more likely any particular country is to experience an episode of state-led mass killing than other countries during 2014.

In order and with percentages, these are the countries that I think are most likely to experience a mass killing (defined as more than 1,000 civilian deaths) in 2014:

  • Syria (95%)
  • South Sudan (85%)
  • Iraq (85%)
  • CAR (75%)
  • Sudan (60%)
  • Afghanistan (50%)
  • North Korea (50%)
  • Mexico (35%)
  • Nigeria (30%)
  • Burma (20%)
  • DRC (20%)
  • Egypt (10%)
  • Mali (5%)
  • Venezuela (5%)

My predictions are largely based on the crowd-sourced forecasts from Jay’s two projects, aren’t identical.  I’ll explain why, country by country, below.

Obviously, the chances that a mass killing will happen in Syria are very, very high (the wiki survey is definitely wrong in placing Syria 6th).  However, the opinion pool’s average probability that there will be a mass killing of Alawite civilians in Latakia province stands at 43%.  I think this is too high, and the real probability stands nearer 15%.  For a mass killing of Alawites to happen, the Assad regime would have to collapse or severely weaken.  Demonstrated by my false prediction of his doom in early 2013, Assad has proven surprisingly durable.  Civil wars tend to last a long time, so especially with the increasing fragmentation of the opposition, it’s doubtful Assad will be defeated anytime soon.

South Sudan, Iraq, and CAR all have ongoing conflict that will almost certainly include a case of mass killing, committed either by government or rebel forces, in 2014.  Iraq and CAR definitely experienced a mass killing episode in 2013, and South Sudan probably did, but the concrete numbers to confirm it don’t exist.  I pegged the chances of a future mass killing as slightly lower in CAR only because of the combination of the peacekeeping force and the higher potential for resolution than in South Sudan.

Jay Ulfelder, in his review of mass killing in 2013, wrote of Sudan, “…where the uncertainty is not whether the regime is engaging in mass killing but in how many parts of the country at once and targeting how many different groups.”  He’s right, and unfortunately civilians in Darfur, South Kordofan, and Blue Nile will likely continue to suffer in 2014.  In the opinion pool, a question asks the probability that Sudan will carry out a mass killing of anti-government activists will occur in 2015, and places the average at 31%.  I think this is far, far too high.  Despite significant anti-government protests, the body count has always remained low.  The Sudanese regime is intelligent in this respect, instead opting for mass arrests of protest leaders.  The scarcity of bloody street confrontations decreases the potential of igniting the paradox of repression.  It is also telling that the bloodiest anti-government protest this year happened in Nyala, South Darfur.  Khartoum is happy to take the fight to enemies in the periphery, but remains wary of the threat from the center.  If the government were to significantly weaken, there’s an increased chance it would unleash lethal violence against anti-government activists.  However, despite increasing organization from the political opposition and calls that the regime was about to fall, the NCP remains in power.

Afghanistan probably experienced a mass killing with the Tailban as the perpetrators in 2013, and there aren’t a lot of positive signs for the future.  In North Korea, it’s basically impossible to tell how many people are dying each year in giant concentration camps.  50% is simply a wild guess.

Drug violence in Mexico is out of control, but I’m hesitant to peg a high probability of a mass killing because it’s unclear what share of civilians vs. cartel members are killed in drug violence (in a tweet, Jay confirmed that cartel members count as combatants).  Bottom line: a lot of people will die in Mexico in 2014, but it may or may not constitute a mass killing.

Nigeria experienced a classic case of a counterinsurgent mass atrocity last year, and despite some international attention on the issue, there is still a decent chance it happens again.  Nigeria is 14th on the wiki survey for the chances of state-led killing (too low in my opinion) for 2014 but doesn’t appear as a question in the opinion pool.

Burma is a country that is very much in the news for people interested in atrocity prevention, but I’m more optimistic than other analysts about the prospects for 2014.  Burma’s counterinsurgencies against ethnic-minority armies are long-running, but have recently had quite low body counts.  I see no reason for that trend to stop.  The opinion pool predicts there is a 35% chance of a mass killing of Rohingya in 2014.  No single rioting incident has yet escalated to widespread killing (the Meiktila incident killed dozens, not hundreds).  Despite the massive persecution the Rohingya face, the levels of lethal violence have remained relatively low.  Without an obvious trigger, I think more slow-motion ethnic cleaning is far more likely than a full-blown mass killing in 2014.

DRC placed fourth in the wiki survey.  Perhaps this is a bit excessive, but not completely unwarranted.  The combination of a country in transition from autocracy to democracy, the prevalence of armed groups in the Kivus, and intrusive neighbors means the risk of a mass killing in the DRC remains relatively high.

Egypt also suffers from an unfortunate history.  Last year, the government undertook a mass killing in response to pro-Morsi demonstrations.  A similar scenario could repeat itself, violence in the Sinai could rapidly increase, or even less likely, a civil war that involves mass killing could erupt.  All of this is plausible, if not incredibly likely (Egypt is 15th in the wiki survey).

The situation is not absolutely analogous to the DRC’s, but Mali also suffers from a somewhat unstable post-major conflict environment.  The opinion pool average for a state-led mass killing rests at 13%.  I think this is too high (probably suffering from the bias that comes from forecasting rare events) because of the progress Mali has made since 2012, but not terribly so.  In the wiki survey, Mali is 3rd, which strikes me as overly pessimistic.

Finally, Venezuela is a bit of a stretch, but I decided to include it anyways.  Few atrocity prevention advocates are paying attention despite the high political instability and absolutist rhetoric coming out of the Maduro administration.  Though Venezuela appears 82nd on the wiki survey and isn’t in a region of the world that has been prone to mass killing recently, I think a political crisis resulting in a government mass killing is plausible if still very unlikely.

Correction: Jay Ulfelder wrote this in a comment, “One point of clarification about Syria and some of the other cases you discuss: in both the statistical modeling and the wiki survey, we’re looking at the risk that a *new episode* of mass killing will start, not the risk that the one(s) we’re seeing now will continue. So Syria could hypothetically get a very low predicted probability or rank if the models or crowd deemed it unlikely that the state would begin deliberately killing large numbers of civilians from a discrete group it isn’t already targeting now. Hence the question in the Syrian case about Alawites but not one about the groups the regime is killing in large numbers now.”  I didn’t realize that when I wrote the post.

Analysis, Activism, and My Experiences with the Two

8 Jul

A couple of weeks ago, Daniel Solomon wrote this in an email to me, “…I see myself as an analyst, an institutionalist, and an advocate; never as an activist, in the sense that my “theory of change” is intra-hegemonic (within the institutions of power), rather than counter-hegemonic. So, I approach my work on mass atrocities through that lens–morally problematic, perhaps, but as I see it, much more effective in achieving what I see as foundational goals. We can go rounds on this, but suffice it to say that when de Waal chides human rights activists for their proximity to power, I disagree, at least partially.”  While Daniel’s thoughts on a theory of change for atrocities prevention deserves its own blog post, these lines did get me thinking about how I identify personally as an activist or an analyst.  This post then is a rumination on that topic.

I first got involved with what can be classified as atrocities prevention in high school (though the phrase probably would have been lost on me then), though I had always been interested in international affairs (which, at an earlier age, was embodied in soccer) and human rights.  I participated in Amnesty International and this experience was important in influencing future decisions, but at that point, my understanding of the issues was minimal.  In college, I got involved in STAND, which ended up being the experience that really drew me into the atrocities prevention field.  I quickly became interested in involving myself further with STAND, but it wasn’t immediately clear in what way.  At first, I conceived of STAND in an activist context, but I never really found a role positioning myself as an activist in the broader anti-genocide movement.

There was a strong activist culture at Swarthmore and I shared a lot of the same values, but I didn’t really fit because I was interested in international rather than domestic issues.  I also didn’t have much experience with or enthusiasm for organizing work (and when I did try, I learned I wasn’t very good at it).  I found myself, for example, more interested in the politics and logic of nonviolent struggle rather than its actual execution.  I thought about starting a conflict minerals campaign at Swarthmore, but soon after that, I saw the David Aronson article that challenged the core tenets of the conflict mineral approach.  I’m not sure if it was solely this incident, but that article was certainly an important moment in making rethink my previous approach to genocide prevention activism which pretty much boiled down to this: learn that people are dying, and look up strategies to help without doing too much organizing, spending more than a few weeks on the project, or leaving Swarthmore’s campus.  This theory of change obviously has its limitations, and so the more I realized that, and the more I got involved in Swarthmore’s intellectual culture, the more I moved away from a purely activist mindset (not a pejorative, but just a descriptive term for lack of a better word).

Though many friends at Swarthmore like myself are interested in working with oppressed communities to help improve lives, international issues, and mass atrocities in particular present a special challenge.  The advocacy entry points are limited by borders, bureaucracy, apathy, language, and money in a way domestic issues aren’t.  Making changes then, simply becomes much harder.  Bec Hamilton’s Fighting for Darfur made me deeply skeptical of the ability of mass movements to affect positive change on atrocity prevention and demonstrates that an intention to do good is not nearly good enough when it comes to genocide and mass atrocities.  The barriers I mentioned mean that more time and expertise is required to influence and create atrocity policy in comparison to domestic policy (though I am no expert on domestic activism so I welcome any challenges to this conclusion).  This realization swept over me gradually, and so I began to change the way I looked at atrocities prevention.  Reading about the issues took up more of my time, and actually engaging academically with current events became important.  And so over time, perceived effectiveness influenced my personal preferences (I have a genuine intellectual interest in studying violence and international politics that goes beyond any specific goal) and vice versa to push me in more analytic direction.

Returning to Daniel’s quote: while I’ve thought a lot about how different approaches to atrocities prevention work influences outcomes, the dichotomy between activism and analysis is not entirely defined.  Personally, I came to atrocities prevention work in an activist mindset influenced by my then-theory of change and other influences, such as my grandfather’s history as a Holocaust survivor.  And while I seriously changed the way in which I think I can create change, my goal, to prevent atrocities, remains the same.  That goal is inherently activist as it seeks to change current societal conditions.  However, changing mass atrocities prevention and response largely involves getting involved with national and international institutions or creating other organizations that can work directly with communities at risk.  To do this, speaking the language of international politics scholarship is a must.  Therefore the methods to reach the goal of preventing atrocities are beyond the scope of what’s traditionally considered activists’ realm.