The unbelievable lightness of some African states

Anjan Sundaram writes in Foreign Policy about the dangers posed by rebel group M23 in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  They are fighting in a conflict that he says “threatens to redraw the map of Africa.”   M23 are “powerful” , “well-equipped and professional.”  They put on “a remarkable show of force over the weekend to move within a few kilometers of the provincial capital, Goma.”  After Sundaram’s article was posted, M23 went on to take over Goma and then started making noises about continuing all the way to Kinshasa, 1000 miles to the East, to take over the country.  This prospect was deemed credible in various news articles covering the conflict.

Well, you might think, surely this must be a very powerful rebel group, with tens of thousands of disciplined fighters, if they can roll over units of 40,000 strong Congolese army, backed to some limited extent by units of the 17,000 strong UN peacekeeping force, and plausibly threaten to go all the way to Kinshasa?  Nope.  According to Sundaram, “In the end, some 3,000 Congolese soldiers, backed by hundreds of U.N. peacekeepers with air power, were unable to contain M23 forces numbering in the few hundreds” (emphasis added).

Jeffrey Gettleman in the NYT puts the total number of rebels somewhat higher, at less than 3,000.  And certainly, relative to the Congolese troops, M23’s core troops appear to be more disciplined, competent, and possibly better armed as they may be just a proxy for the Rwandan military.  But still, this is another example of how remarkably weak some subSaharan African states are when it comes to military and police capabilities for defending the regime.  In another recent example, in March a small number of disgruntled soldiers in Mali who apparently intended only to protest found that the President had simply fled in anticipation that they were coming to arrest or kill him—so they changed course and decided to name themselves the government.

What is striking and surprising here is just how easy it can be to take over some African states, or large parts of them.  The post-independence historical record provides numerous examples where dozens or a few hundred armed men have done it.  This is generally just assumed to be the way things are in Africa, but when you think about it it is actually really puzzling.  Being the president in African countries (and many others besides) can be an incredibly lucrative deal.  Why don’t these rulers, in their own self-interest, take some of that money and use it to build crack units, presidential guards, or strong and loyal army divisions that would protect their hold on power against two dozen putchists, or a hundred or a couple thousand rebels armed with rifles and maybe some mortars?

I don’t think we have really good explanations for this in the relevant Pol Sci literatures.  Maybe the most promising hypothesis is that African presidents are so afraid of coups and attacks from inside their regime that they don’t want to support the construction of any organization that would be competent at using force.  Keeping the military weak  may lower their coup risk somewhat, but effectively trades coup risk off against higher risks of rural rebellion, insurgency, and foreign depredations such as we are seeing in Eastern Congo.

The best papers I know of developing this argument are by Phillip Roessler —see in particular “The Enemy Within” and “Irregular Regimes, the Commitment Problem and Preemption: The Internal Dynamics of Africa’s Great War.”

This may be a big part of the story but by itself it doesn’t explain the considerable variation across subSaharan states.  Not every country in the region is like DRC.  Quite a few are not especially fragile in military terms.

But what distinguishes the strong and the relatively weak African states?  The ones that have had a lot of coups and/or civil war are not systematically more ethnically diverse, or larger in land area than the rest.  They are not much more likely to have had one or another colonial legacy (although former Portuguese and Belgian colonies have been somewhat more civil war prone).    Countries with larger populations have been somewhat more at risk for civil wars, but are not much different from smaller African countries when it comes to coups.  Beyond saying that it has something to do with quality of leadership, which isn’t very helpful, I don’t think we know why some subSaharan African states are so badly defended, year after year.



















15 Responses to The unbelievable lightness of some African states

  1. Cyrus November 23, 2012 at 7:13 pm #

    Maybe we need to open up the search for answers to consider external interference. The Enough Project puts US military assistance to Rwanda in the hundreds of millions per year, for example, and it seems the Kigali government has channeled this effectively into building a formidable military as well as proxy organizations such as M23. The DRC has, in contrast, UN troop presence with wavering will to defend Congolese territory and highly conditional assistance to the FARDC. I don’t know if Kinshasa could use domestic resources to create a force that could compete with M23 even if it wanted to. The result of these contrasting levels of success in cultivating external resource flows with few strings attached is a radical imbalance in military capacity along the Congo-Rwanda border.

  2. Laura Seay November 23, 2012 at 10:29 pm #

    Thanks for this post; glad to see the topic being discussed. A couple of points that might help to clarify the DRC situation: first, like leaders in most African states, Kabila has a well-trained, equipped, and paid presidential guard that has saved him from at least one coup/assassination attempt as well as a military battle in Kinshasa in 2007. Some of these elite troops are deployed in the east, but their failure to protect Goma can be better understood by clarifying how governance & military command work in DRC. The Congolese army is not a unified whole that takes orders from a single chain of command culminating with the presidency. Instead, it consists of a number of largely autonomous brigades and units that almost all function as patron-client networks. It’s not a question of a single-round game with commitments being made by the leadership; it’s a series of simultaneous, iterated games played by actors with widely divergent interests & preferences operating under the banner of a unified “state” authority, but most of whom are acting not as agents of the state, but as actors in complex and interrelated patronage networks. This happens not only in the military, but also in the political structure, within the country’s rebel movements, and within the external regimes involved in DRC.

    In that framework, it’s not a question of Kabila’s commitment to building a strong military to protect himself; it’s an issue of his personal capacity and the limits imposed by his membership in or exclusion from various networks. He couldn’t build a strong military if he tried – and he has, which is why he’s remained in power so far. The issue here is less about commitment as an active decision of a centralized authority and more about constraints. Being in control of a centralized authority structure has its benefits, but there are many aspects to the concept of having authority in this context. I’d argue that M23 and the other actors in this crisis are mostly fighting to defend their patronage networks and to maintain/increase their access to the resources (broadly defined) that keep them running. M23 doesn’t need to capture state authority to do so, nor does Kabila necessarily have to hold on to the east to maintain his, though this certainly makes it much more difficult.

    In addition to Roessler’s work, you might find Will Reno’s of use on this. Charles King’s points about the benefits of not resolving conflicts is also helpful.

  3. Laura Seay November 23, 2012 at 10:35 pm #

    Meant to include:

    The FARDC failed in Goma because they were overmatched by the Rwandan forces who came to M23’s aid last week (troop strength skyrocketed by at least 1000 and maybe 2500 in 48 hours between Nov. 15-17). But the elite, well-trained troops also ran be abuse they’re not going to die for what isn’t the key issue here. Kabila can stay in power – and protect himself from a coup attempt – with those troops alive and defending him 1000 miles away in Kinshasa. Their ultimate commitment isn’t the protection of the state, it’s protection of Kabila and his provision for them. Losing Goma makes it harder, but their ultimate interest is still intact.

    • James Fearon November 24, 2012 at 1:04 pm #

      Laura, thanks this is interesting info. But I’m not sure if saying that he just can’t build a stronger army even if he tried, because the army consists of various patronage networks, is itself an answer. He has formal authority to dismiss generals who disobey orders, and a lot of resources he could use to pay others to step into those positions and disarm or otherwise keep quiet the unhappy clients of dismissed bosses.

      Maybe, given what you say about his security in the rest of the country, losing Goma isn’t so bad because it’s a way of getting more stuff from the internationals?

      re presidential guards: Yes, they are good for preventing coups if you can render them loyal, and that’s great for Joseph Kabila if he has managed this (his father didn’t, I think). But fairly often sSA leaders don’t or don’t seem to try very much. For instance, in Liberia in 1980 Tolbert was deposed and killed by 17 soldiers led by Sergeant Doe, who more or less just marched into the palace.

      • Theo McLauchlin November 24, 2012 at 3:25 pm #

        Well, sticks aren’t costless militarily, and carrots may have limits. Lots of rotating officers is itself pretty bad for military effectiveness in the short run. Extensive monitoring of loyalties incentivizes malicious denunciation, takes attention away from military tasks, and reduces cooperation among soldiers. Payment has its limits, as presumably the next president of Congo would have access to lots of money too and would be happy to reward officers who helped in taking power. The point is that confronted by the kind of military Laura describes, Kabila doesn’t have great options. In any case as Cyrus points out it’s unclear that Kabila has a favorable balance of money in eastern Congo.

        More spitballing here:

      • Laura Seay November 25, 2012 at 4:18 pm #

        Thanks for replying. I think there’s a distinction in the way formal authority works in DRC that makes it extraordinarily difficult for any leader to have de facto authority. Yes, Kabila absolutely has the formal authority to dismiss disobedient generals, but whether those generals actually leave their positions and stop commanding their forces is another question entirely. If they refuse to do so, there’s very little Kabila can do to stop them. While the parallels aren’t perfect, it might be useful to think of this in comparison to feudal systems of raising armies through the aristocracy. Kings could ask, even demand that the Lords under their rule contribute troops and treasure, but before states were consolidated, the Lords had considerable autonomy in their response, especially when they were located further away from the central authority. “Formal” security in DRC functions very much like this; while there’s something called the national army that is legally under central command, that’s not the de facto reality of how it operates.

        I don’t think there are as many examples of leaders making little effort to prevent being overthrown as it might seem. Most post-independence African leaders have been security-obsessed, and even if they haven’t had full control over their armies, they made provision in other ways. French military bases in places like Cote d’Ivoire (with tunnels connecting to the presidential palace) or having Libyan paratroopers come in at the first sign of trouble are security institutions of a sort, just a different sort from what we think of as normal. These by and large work or at least serve to slow down or complicate attempts to take over the state; the vast majority of coup attempts in Africa fail even as the overall number and therefore the success rate is higher than it is elsewhere. I’d argue that Liberia under Tolbert is an outlier, and that Liberia under Taylor is much more the norm in terms of how African leaders try to protect themselves.

        There’s a related argument to be made that what the Congolese are undergoing right now is a process of state formation rather than disintegration, but that’s perhaps a bit too far off topic. Thanks for the thought-provoking ideas. And I hope you have a graduate student who might take on the task of modeling these processes!

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  4. Robert Hawks November 24, 2012 at 11:49 am #

    “Shannon, this whole country’s bought and paid for.”
    “You’re gonna have to buy it all over again.”

    • RW November 24, 2012 at 3:55 pm #

      Here’s the clip from Dogs of War you’re referring to (slightly out of sync): It supplies the, um, necessary punctuation between “…bought and paid for” and “You’re going to have to …”

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  5. David Tomlin November 25, 2012 at 9:08 am #

    “. . . Kinshasa, 1000 miles to the East . . .”

    I think that should be “West’.

  6. Profe November 25, 2012 at 9:46 am #

    Just think for a moment about the colonial re-drawing of Africa’s frontiers and how that affects your article. It maybe a factor to include with others.

  7. reader November 26, 2012 at 12:02 pm #

    At least some of the answers are provided, I’d suggest, by Jackson’s work:

    Robert Jackson and Carl Rosberg, “Why Africa’s weak states persist: the empirical and the juridical in statehood,” World Politics 35 (1982): 1-24.
    Robert Jackson, “Quasi-states, dual regimes, and neoclassical theory: International jurisprudence and the Third World,” International Organization Volume 41, Issue 04 (September 1987): 519-549.
    Robert Jackson, Quasi-States: Sovereignty, International Relations and the Third World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

  8. Nyos February 21, 2013 at 8:41 am #

    I’m an African. Lets not forget that rebels are usually not alone in their operations. They recieve backing in most cases from unlikely sources (Congo has 80% of the world’s cobalt reserves and this mineral still makes it way to our laptops and phones without the Congolese government getting almost nothing after rebels cash on them). Also, if you took time to notice, most coup ridden countries are not that rich. There are powers in this world that love keeping it that way.

  9. Nyos February 21, 2013 at 8:45 am #

    And its not about ‘The unbelievable lightness of African states’, its more of the poverty and problems faced by them. Militarizing aint cheap