Opinion

Why Nations Fail

The unending warfare in Africa

By Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson
March 15, 2012

Sierra Leone is not the only African nation that has been ravaged by civil war. They have been all too common, and any explanation for African poverty that does not come to grips with these all-too-frequent civil wars is bound to be incomplete. Though the number and death tolls of African civil wars have been declining, they are still ongoing in many parts of the subcontinent, including in various parts of the Niger Delta, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, Sudan, South Sudan, and of course Somalia.

A recent book by William Reno, Warfare in Independent Africa (see here), is a must-read for anybody wishing to understand the never-ending cycle of civil wars in Africa. Among the many useful theses in the book the most notable concerns the transformation of the nature of civil wars in Africa — or more appropriately in sub-Saharan Africa. Reno identifies earlier movements as anti-colonial and majority rule rebels, who fought colonial powers throughout the subcontinent and minority rule governments (e.g., in South Africa, Namibia, and Zimbabwe). Consistent with the vicious circle of extractive institutions and the pattern in Sierra Leone we saw in an earlier blog (see here), the successful rebels simply took control of the extractive institutions themselves. Thus it was natural that another round of rebellions, led by what Reno calls reform rebels, aimed at replacing these regimes would follow.  Typical examples include Yoweri Museveni in Uganda and Meles Zenawi in Ethiopia. But the vicious circle was not to be broken so easily, and these rebels, when successful, did not change institutions underpinning poverty and the widespread inequities in the subcontinent.

But over the last two decades most civil wars have been fought by what Reno calls warlord rebels (and on which a key reference is Reno’s own book Warlord Politics and African States; see here), and parochial rebels. These rebels have little ideological commitment. Sometimes, like Charles Taylor in Liberia or Foday Sankoh in Sierra Leone, they are fighting to line their pockets. Sometimes, like Joseph Kony whose Lord’s Resistance Army has been killing indiscriminately in Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Sudan, it is not clear at all what they’re fighting for. Like both sides in Sierra Leone’s conflict, many of these warlord and parochial rebels use child soldiers (because they do not have the ideological basis to attract a regular force) and are responsible for many of the recent atrocities. Reno deserves a lot of credit for putting the spotlight on these rebels and helping us understand their breed.

The deep explanation for the emergence and persistence of such rebellions is still unclear, however. Reno writes (p. 246):

“One of the core messages of this book is that warlords and parochial rebels do not fit easily into a simple scheme of state collapse and ungoverned spaces. The argument in the preceding pages is that the regimes in Africa that base their authority most thoroughly on the manipulation of access to patronage opportunities, have been very effective in disrupting the organizing strategies of ideologues, and have made deployment of rebel commissars considerably more difficult than under colonial or apartheid regimes.”

But ultimately this argument is not totally convincing. Take Sierra Leone, where the civil war erupted under Joseph Momoh who followed Siaka Stevens as president. It is difficult to imagine how Momoh could have had greater ability to disrupt the organizing strategies of ideologues than did the apartheid regime in South Africa; Momoh did as little as Stevens to build state institutions and could not control any part of the country against ragtag rebels. A more plausible explanation for the emergence of warlord and parochial rebels would again be the vicious circle of extractive institutions. The corrosive effect of years of extractive rule is both to create a large army of highly discontented young men and an environment in which state institutions are so weak that they can easily be taken over by rivals, thus motivating ruthless opportunists such as Taylor and Sankoh. If so, in contrast to Reno’s claims, the emergence of this new type of rebels would have a lot to do with state collapse — both as cause and consequence.

Another fascinating question that Reno poses is also central for understanding the nature of civil wars in Africa and the future of the subcontinent. While civil wars have been exceedingly common, national wars have been rare. Rebels have contented themselves with seizing national institutions, with no appetite for expanding their control beyond national borders, even though these borders are artificial, only drawn haphazardly by colonial powers, and generally only weakly defended. What explains this peculiar and historically unique pattern? Reno links it to the all-too-quick willingness of international organizations, including the Organization of African Unity, to recognize rebels such as Charles Taylor who took control of (some) national institutions, and to their hostile attitudes to any change in borders — perhaps because of an implicit domino theory maintaining that once some borders come down, all of them are at risk. Yet Reno offers no concrete evidence supporting this intriguing theory. At the end, an alternative and simpler explanation remains equally if not more plausible: warlord and parochial rebels can leverage the weakness of African states to wage deadly civil wars and sometimes even take the capital city; and the same state weakness makes organizing an international war, and holding on to territory once conquered, much more difficult.

At the end, Reno poses two vital questions, one on the origins of the new types of rebels roaming many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, the other on the peculiar sacrosanct nature of international borders coexisting with frequent civil wars. Even if his answers are not fully convincing, this book should be widely read and should have a durable impact on future studies for the new questions it raises and the new hypotheses about one of the most important problems facing the world’s poorest region.

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