Is Civil War in Africa Unique?

Paul Staniland raises important questions in his review of Philip Roessler’s latest book (highly recommended):

I just finished reading Philip Roessler’s excellent book for my graduate Civil War seminar. Already a fan of his 2005 piece on electoral violence, I learned a lot from the new book and highly recommend it. But, just as when reading major work by Will Reno, Reno and Chris Day, Jeremy Weinstein, Paul Collier, Jeffrey Herbst, and others, I had the reaction that “This looks nothing like the places I study.” At least in the stylized world of African politics presented in these projects (I have no idea if this is accurate), Hobbesian insecurity preys on all in the absence of any real institutions, ethnic balancing and calculation dominates any other form of politics, and regimes are held in place by fluid, shifting alignments with “Big Men” rooted in local power bases.

As a result, we get shambolic and weak central regimes prone to either coups or revolts, and rebels easily bought off by patronage or co-optation. Weinstein highlights the inability of ideological rebels to overcome waves of material resources that eliminate discipline or politics, Roessler’s regimes are simply what Skocpol calls an “arena” for political competition between social actors rather than possessing any institutions or interests autonomous from social forces, and Reno’s civil wars (with the exception of “reform rebels”) are simply a grim game of bargaining over patronage between states and insurgents that are more similar than different.

Is Africa that different?

Roessler, indeed, argues that Africa has a “unique institutional structure” in which external conflicts are rare and internal disorder common. If Africa is indeed unique, it is hard to know how arguments rooted in the African context can travel beyond Africa.

Read the whole thing here.

I would argue that there is not a uniquely African civil war story. Weak states everywhere, including in Africa, are gonna weak state.

A more useful analytical delineation is what Staniland suggests:

At minimum, I’m becoming increasingly convinced that research on civil war needs to become at least partially bifurcated into work on its dynamics in very weak states (the representation of African conflicts dominant in the literature, plus Afghanistan and a few others) versus those in medium-capacity states (India, Colombia, Indonesia, Russia, etc) that possess large, centrally controlled conventional an

Think of the Nigerian Civil War between 1967-1970. The Biafra War involved a relatively strong state facing a relatively well-organized and disciplined secessionist army — much in the mold of middle income conflicts. In the same vein, countries like Kenya and Ethiopia have managed to quell rebellions in Mt. Elgon & the south coast, and in the Ogaden, respectively, in ways that would look very familiar to Staniland.

Completely anarchic conflicts involving collapsing states and incoherent hyper-localized rebellions — your stereotypical African conflict, if you will — are a unique historical experience rooted in the states that did really fall apart in the late 1980s to early 1990s (pretty much in the midst of Africa’s continental economic nadir). It is instructive that these states were concentrated in the Mano River region and Central Africa, some of the regions worst affected by the socio-political challenges of Africa’s lost long decade (1980-1995). income

And given recent economic trends in Africa (see image), it is not surprising that conflicts are becoming rarer in Africa (much in line with Fearon and Laitin). I would also expect markedly different kinds of conflicts should they emerge. There is a reason Boko Haram has never posed an existential threat to the Nigerian state, very much in the same way that India’s Maoist rebels are a peripheral matter.

I always remind my students that the Africa they know is more often than not the Africa that existed between 1980 and 1995. We all need to update.

Tyler Cowen Goes to Lagos

MR’s Tyler Cowen (also Professor of Economics at George Mason) recently spent six days in Lagos. Here is what he has to say about Africa’s biggest and most economically dynamic city:

A trip is often defined by its surprises, so here are my biggest revelations from six days in Lagos, Nigeria.

Most of all, I found Lagos to be much safer than advertised. It is frequently described as one of the most dangerous cities on earth. Many people told me I was crazy to go there, and some Nigerian expats warned me I might not get out of the airport alive.

The reality is that I walked around freely and in many parts of town. I didn’t try to go everywhere or at all hours, and I may have been lucky. Yet not once did I feel threatened, and I strongly suspect that a trip to Lagos is safer than a trip to Rio de Janeiro, a major tourist destination. (In my first trip to Rio I was attacked by children with pointed sticks. In my second I found myself caught in a gunfight between drug lords). Many Lagos residents credit the advent of closed-circuit television cameras for their safety improvements.

So if you’re an experienced traveler, and tempted to visit Africa’s largest and arguably most dynamic city, don’t let safety concerns be a deal killer.

Read the whole thing here.

I have never been to Lagos, and look forward to fixing this in 2017. So far my experience of West African (commercial) capitals is limited to Dakar, Accra, Lome, Conakry, Nouakchott and Monrovia (I like them in that order). Dakar edges Accra only by a whisker, mostly on account of the seascape. I have spent way more time in Accra, and therefore my ranking might also be a function of my knowledge of Accra a little too well.

Accra beats all other cities on food. It has the most variety, and nearly all of the offerings beat the bland stuff that we East Africans consume. The grilled tilapia and banku is unbeatable.

Oh, and I must admit that I have a slight preference for Senegalese jollof. My wife insists that Ghanaian jollof is the best jollof (ahead of both the Nigerian and Senegalese variations). I look forward to sampling Naija jollof so we can finally settle this disagreement.

How to avoid the resource curse, or how Norway spends its $882 billion global fund

This is from the Economist:

This week the “Pension Fund Global” was worth Nkr7.3 trillion ($882 billion), more than double national GDP. No sovereign-wealth fund is bigger (see chart). It owns over 2% of all listed shares in Europe and over 1% globally. Its largest holdings are in Alphabet, Apple, Microsoft and Nestlé, among 9,000-odd firms in 78 countries.

In designing the fund, Norway got a lot right. Its independence is not constitutionally guaranteed, but it is protected as a separate unit within the central bank, overseen by the finance ministry and monitored by parliament. It is run frugally and transparently; every investment it makes is detailed online.

Other funds might copy those structures, but would struggle to mimic the Nordic values that underpin them. Yngve Slyngstad, its boss, says growth came “faster than anyone had envisaged”, and that a culture of political trust made it uncontroversial to save as much as possible. A budgetary rule stops the government from drawing down more than the fund’s expected annual returns (set at 4% a year). The capital, in theory, is never touched. Martin Skancke, who used to oversee the fund’s operations from the finance ministry, attributes the trust the institution enjoys to relatively high levels of equality and cultural homogeneity. It also helps that many rural areas recall poverty just two generations ago.

Consider this your regular reminder that the “resource curse” is not a universal phenomenon. See also Botswana, the United States, Chile, Canada, and Australia.

More on this here.

Some Africanist inside baseball

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European logging firms are financing rebels in CAR

According to Global Witness:

CAR’s trade in timber – the country’s number one official export – has assisted the war effort. Logging companies have paid millions of euros to armed groups to ensure that they can continue operating. Under the cover of conflict they have also been stripping out CAR’s rainforests.

Throughout this period, European companies have continued to offer CAR timber for sale on EU markets, which Global Witness believes violates the EU’s flagship timber law, the EU Timber Regulation.  China is another major market for CAR wood, but has no regulations in place that could help halt the import of illegal or conflict timber.


At some point in the video an officer in one of the French firms involved says:

“But it’s Africa. It’s so common we don’t pay attention. It’s not really a concern. It’s not a war where they attack white people. It’s not a war we have to avoid.”

This honest assessment of the situation in CAR highlights one of the reasons why wars in places like CAR or Liberia and Sierra Leone in an earlier time tend to be so intractable.

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

Research shows that sources of finance determine the industrial organization of rebel groups and their propensity to commit atrocities against civilians (see also here). The ready availability of shady firms like Tropica-Bois and Société d’Exploitation Forestière Centrafricaine (SEFCA) make it possible for rebel leaders to raise funds for their war effort in the international commodity market. This in turn makes it possible for them to buy arms and recruit locally, but without maintaining strong ties with the very communities in whose name they raise arms (call it the rebel’s resource curse). The resultant incentive system is one in which CAR warlords can obtain material benefit from the rents on illicit trade without capturing Bangui, as long as their maintain access to the global market of timber.

The Global Witness report adds to complaints about French intervention in the ongoing CAR conflict. In April news broke that more than a dozen French soldiers abused children in Bangui in exchange for food. The six children who came forward with the complaints were aged between eight and 15 and at the time lived in a center for displaced people in Bangui. The centre was under the care of French peacekeepers.

Tropica-Bois must be paying a lot of taxes to the French treasury, or oiling the electoral machines of key French politicians.

According to the UN Comtrade database  in 2013 wood comprised 40% of all commodity exports from CAR, second only to diamonds (45.8%).

The Anatomy of Tax Evasion in Africa

Africa Confidential has a great piece analyzing leaked documents from PwC, the professional services firm, showing the various arrangements that enable multinational companies to evade taxes in Africa. You can read the whole piece here (gated).

  • One of the measures PwC advised multinationals to take was to create a wholly-owned Luxembourg-based subsidiary which would hold the rights to intellectual property used by the rest of the group. The rest of the group would then pay licensing fees to the Luxembourg-based subsidiary which, by agreement with the authorities, would be granted tax relief of up to 80%……
  • A second tax avoidance mechanism simply involved the companies becoming incorporated in Luxembourg. In 2010, Luxembourg concluded an agreement with several companies of the Socfin (Société financière) agribusiness group, which was founded during the reign of Belgian King Leopold II by the late Belgian businessman Adrien Hallet. The companies chose Luxembourg as their base and made an agreement under which their dividends were subject to a modest 15% withholding tax, a lower figure than those in force where their farms are located (20% in Congo-K and Indonesia, 18% in Côte d’Ivoire).

The art of hiding profits

Altogether, Socfin subsidiaries in Africa [in Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Liberia, Cote d’Ivoire, and Cameroon] and Indonesia produced 123,660t. of rubber and 380,770t. of palm oil in 2012. The combined turnover of its main African subsidiaries reached €271 mn. in 2013. The list also includes the 100%-owned Plantations Socfinaf Ghana Ltd. (PSG) and Socfin-Brabanta (Congo-Kinshasa). Socfin also holds 88% of Agripalma in São Tomé e Príncipe and 5% of Red Lands Roses (Kenya).

  • A third mechanism involves cross-border lending within a group of companies. Companies registered in Luxembourg are exempt from tax on income from interest.

According to the Thabo Mbeki High Level Panel report between 1980 and 2009 between 1.2tr and 1.4tr left Africa in illicit flows. These figures are most likely an understatement. Multinationals, like the ones highlighted by Africa Confidential, accounted for 60% of these flows.

Alex Cobhan, of the Tax Justice Network, has a neat summary of the various components of illicit financial flows (IFFs) and how to measure them. He also proposes measures that could help limit IFFs, including: (i) eliminating anonymous ownership of companies, trusts, and foundations; (ii) ensuring that all bilateral trade and investment flows occur between jurisdictions which exchange tax information on an automatic basis; and (iii) making all multinational corporations publish data about their economic activity and taxation on a country-by-country basis.

Alex Cobham blogs here.

On the IMF and Ebola

Did IMF policies lead to the inability of the health systems in Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone to contain the ongoing Ebola outbreak?

There has been a lot of back and forth on this question in the blogosphere, the most prominent being posts over at the Monkey Cage Blog by Benton and Dionne on the one hand, and Blattman on the other.

It’s really hard to pin the total collapse of the health sectors in the Mano River Region on specific IMF policies. We don’t have counterfactual Mano River Regions that: (a) did not experience civil wars in the early 1990s, (b) did not have to implement structural adjustment policies (because of severe self-inflicted fiscal distress), and/or (c) reformed their institutions and systems of government to make them more responsive and efficient in providing social services before the outbreak in late 2013.

So the best we can do, really, is to speculate (see this informative post by Morten Jerven).

As Blattman argues, countries that required IMF help from the late 1980s did so because their central banks and treasuries had failed at managing their fiscal and monetary policies (the IMF was essentially a central bank of last resort). Which raises the possibility that perhaps we should blame these countries’ troubles on the Latin American countries that made everyone realize that the developing world’s debt in the early 1980s was unsustainable; or the world commodity crises of the 1970s.

In light of the events of the early 1980s, a plausible simple defense of the IMF is that things could have been much worse (total financial collapse) if it had not intervened. In other words, that it is not clear whether, left to their own devices, highly indebted developing countries would have had an autonomous recovery in a manner that would have laid the foundation for their healthcare systems to be strong enough to identify and contain an Ebola outbreak in their respective remote rural regions in late 2013.

That said, IMF interventions – whatever the justifications – had consequences. The discussion in the blogosphere so far has almost exclusively focused on the fiscal effects of IMF policies (specifically with regard to social spending). But as Herbst has argued in “The Structural Adjustment of Politics in Africa,” there were political consequences as well:

……… there has been almost no attention devoted to what structural adjustment, if implemented, means for the way that politics is actually carried out in African nations. The failure to examine the long-term consequences of economic reform for politics is particularly surprising given that the major instruments of structural adjustment — public sector reform, devaluation, elimination of marketing boards—threaten to change not only the constituencies that African leaders look to for support but the way in which leaders relate to their supporters in the countries south of the Sahara.

……… The paper finds that structural adjustment makes the political climate much riskier for leaders while weakening the central apparatus of the state on which rulers have long relied to stay in power.

Time horizon concerns have significant effects on whether politicians choose to invest in public goods.  The obvious question then is: Without top-down procrustean IMF intervention back then, would highly indebted governments have avoided total economic meltdown via policies that were (relatively more) incentive compatible with their unique political economies? The studies highlighted by Dionne and Benton delve into some of the political economy consequences of SAPs, and the specific ways in which they impacted social service provision.

So going back to the question of whether the IMF reduced the Mano River Region’s capacity to handle Ebola, the simple answer is that we can’t tell for sure. The case for a direct causal relationship is weak at best. But there are also lots of possible causal mechanisms that indirectly implicate the IMF. There is a reason why so many smart academics criticized the implementation of SAPs.

The lesson here is twofold:

(i) Neither the Bank nor the IMF are omnipotent puppet masters able to direct public policy in developing countries. But the same developing countries also lack the ability to perfectly sidestep the policy prescriptions from the IFIs. They have agency, but in very tight corners.

and (ii) International intervention should always, to the extent that is reasonably possible, be embedded in domestic political economies. We (the royal we in development research & practice) like talking about self-enforcing this and that, but then prefer to play “neutral” and “apolitical” interveners all the time. Because we do not live in a world of benevolent social planners, there is seldom anything like a disinterested, value-neutral, and victimless intervention.

Ebola Cases Growing in Sierra Leone

According to FT:

The WHO estimates that as December 8 Sierra Leone had 7,798 registered cases, overtaking Liberia for the first time since the outbreak started. According to the Geneva-based WHO, the number of cases is still “slightly increasing” in Guinea, “stable or declining” in Liberia and “may still be increasing in Sierra Leone”.

More here.

Rwanda, 20 Years On

Caution: This is not an apology for President Kagame and his autocratic tendencies that have resulted in carnage and death in the DRC, Rwanda and elsewhere.

At a conference last year a US State Department official told a group of us that Rwanda was so polarizing that even at the Consulate in Nairobi the DRC crowd did not get along well with the Rwanda crowd.

It is not surprising why that might have been the case, or why the present analysis on the commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the 1994 genocide remains polarized.


If one just looks at the improvements made in advancing human welfare since President Paul Kagame and the RPF took power (see graph, data from the World Bank) it is hard not to arrive at the conclusion that ordinary Rwandese are unambiguously better off. The country is the least corrupt in the region and has also been consistently ranked top in the ease of doing business. But there is also the side of the Kigali government that most reasonable people love to hate: the murderous meddling in the DRC and the oppression and occasional murder of dissidents at home and abroad. Those who admire what President Kagame has done tend to emphasize the former, while his critics tend to emphasize his autocratic tendencies which have made Rwanda the least democratic country in East Africa (see below, data from Polity). Many wonder if the post-1994 achievements are sustainable enough to outlast President Kagame’s rule.

So is Mr. Kagame a state-builder or your run of the mill autocrat whose achievements will vanish as soon as he relinquishes power?

ImageIn my view, I think that Rwanda is the best success story of state-building in Africa in the last 20 years. I also think that this (state-building) should be the paramount consideration for those who care about the Rwandese people and want to help them achieve greater freedoms. The fundamental problem in states like CAR, Sierra Leone or Liberia has never been the insufficiency of democracy. Rather, it has been the problem of statelessness. The contrast between Rwanda and Burundi is instructive (see both graphs, the two are neighbors with similar ethno-political histories. Rwanda has historically had a stronger state, though. See here and here). Despite the latter being the second most democratic state in the region, it has consistently performed the worst on nearly all human development indicators. Part of the reason for this is that Burundi remains a classic papier mache state confined to Bujumbura and its environs.

May be I am too risk averse. But I am scared stiff of anything that could lead to a recurrence of the horrors of the early 1990s stretching from the Mano River region to the Horn. As a result I am always skeptical of activism that takes state capacity (including coercive capacity) for granted.

With this in mind, the fight against autocratic rule in Rwanda should not come at the expense of the state-building achievements of the last 20 years. The international community and those who genuinely care about Rwandese people should be careful not to turn Rwanda into “democratic” Burundi in the name of democracy promotion. Interventions will have to be smart enough to push President Kagame and the ruling elite in the right direction, but without gutting the foundations of political order in Rwanda.

Absent a strong state (even after Kagame), the security dilemmas that occasioned the 1994 “problem from hell” would ineluctably resurface.

Lastly, I think the level of discourse in the “Rwanda Debate” could be enhanced by the extension of the privilege of nuance to the case. For example, if all we focused on were drones killing entire families at weddings in Yemen or the horror that is the South Side of Chicago we would probably get mad enough to ask for regime change in Washington. But we don’t. Because people tolerate the “complications and nuance of American politics.” The same applies to less developed countries. Politics is complicated, everywhere. And those who approach it with priors of good-or-bad dichotomies are bound to arrive at the wrong conclusions. One need not be a Kagame apologist to realize the need for a delicate balance in attempts to effect political change in Kigali.

Before you hit the comment button, notice that this is neither an apology nor an endorsement of autocracy in Rwanda. It is a word of caution regarding the choices outsiders make to accelerate political change in Rwanda.

Tyranny is not the panacea to underdevelopment. But neither is stateless democracy.

For background reading on the 1994 genocide in Rwanda see Samantha Power’s Problems From Hell; Mahmood Mamdani’s When Victims Become Killers; and Philip Gourevitch’s We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families.

The 2013 Resource Governance Index

The 2013 Resource Governance Index (published by the Revenue Watch Institute) is out. The top performing African countries include Ghana, Liberia?, Zambia and South Africa, with partial fulfillment. The bottom performing countries are Equatorial Guinea, Zimbabwe, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mozambique.

The 58 nations included in the report “produce 85 percent of the world’s petroleum, 90 percent of diamonds and 80 percent of copper.” Ghana, where we are doing some evaluation  work on extractive sector transparency initiatives, is the best performing African country on the list. Image

More here. 

And in related news, The Africa Progress Report was released last week. The report details the massive loss of revenue by African governments through mismanagement – either by commission and/or omission – of extractive resources. For instance:

The report details five deals between 2010 and 2012, which cost the Democratic Republic of the Congo over US$1.3 billion in revenues through the undervaluation of assets and sale to foreign investors. This sum represents twice the annual health and education budgets of a country with one of the worst child mortality rates in the world and seven million pupils out of school.

The DRC alone is estimated to have 24 trillion dollars worth of untapped mineral resources.

The most bizarre case of resource management in Africa is Equatorial Guinea, a coutnry that is ranked 43rd on the global per capital GNI index but ranks 136th on the Human Development Index (2011).

Below is a map showing flows related to Africa’s vast resources: