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.

What next for Kenyan Policy on Somalia?

For two years it almost seemed too good to be true. Kenya had invaded Somalia and occupied Kismayo, a key Al-Shaabab-held city in southern Somalia without carnage visiting the capital Nairobi. The group instead opted for sporadic attacks against churches and police installations in the border regions of North Eastern and Coast. A few explosions rocked the capital, but these were never spectacular. Indeed, some of them appeared to have been motivated by local business rivalries and not some revenge mission by the Somali Islamist group Al-Shaabab. Within Somalia, the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) mission made quick gains that left Al-Shaabab backpedaling. With a few exceptions, the Al-Shaabab was reported to have been severely weakened and on the run. Before the recent uptick in bombings, Mogadishu was slowly becoming a reasonably peaceful boomtown.

scenes from the Westgate Mall

A scene from the Westgate Mall siege

And then Westgate happened. At around noon on September 21st three groups of armed men (and allegedly at least one woman) stormed the upscale mall in Nairobi and started shooting indiscriminately. Several hours after the attack started Al-Shaabab claimed responsibility via twitter. A day later, the Islamist group gave an alleged list of the gunmen, all men between the ages of 20-27. Six were from the US, two from Somalia, and one each from Kenya, the UK, Finland and Syria. More than 36 hours after the attack began at least 69 people had been confirmed dead, including one gunman and two Kenyan officers. A visibly incensed President Uhuru Kenyatta condemned the attacks, and reassured Kenyans of a swift response to punish the perpetrators. Just a few minutes earlier Al-Shaabab had claimed responsibility for the attacks, terming them a retribution for Kenya’s invasion of Somalia in 2011. The Kenyan Defence Forces, under Operation Linda Nchi, invaded Somalia following sporadic kidnappings and attacks along the Kenya Somalia border. The forces still remain in Somalia under the command of AMISOM.

So how will Kenya respond? There will be both short-term and long-term responses to the daring terrorist attack. The likely short-term response holds more risk, and may even jeopardize the strategic objectives of the long-term response.

Understandably, in the short-term there is going to be considerable public pressure for a swift military response from the government. In the coming weeks the government’s response will likely involve both domestic crackdowns in suspected Al-Shaabab havens in Kenya (most likely in Nairobi, the Coast and North Eastern regions) and military operations against Al-Shabab targets within Somalia.

eastleigh

police recover suicide bombs in a past operation in Eastleigh (Courtesy of the Star Newspaper)

Crackdowns within Kenya will come with a lot of risk. Depending on how they are carried out, the government could end up walking right into Al-Shaabab’s trap by alienating Kenyan Muslims and ethnic Somalis who make up the majority of residents in Coast and North Eastern regions of the country that border Somalia.

Ethnic Somalis (both Kenyan and Somali nationals) also make up the majority of residents in Eastleigh, a district of Nairobi that has in the past witnessed government crackdowns targeting cells linked to the Al-Shaabab militant group.

Kenyan security forces must therefore proceed with extreme caution to ensure that as few innocent civilians as possible are arrested or roughed up by security forces in any operations within the country. A repeat of reported cases of police brutality in North Eastern following the murder of army officers by gunmen would be a terrible mistake. It is also vital that the government stresses the unity of all Kenyans of all ethnic extractions against terror attacks. Any victimization of ethnic Somalis must be met with swift punishment.

Military operations within Somalia will likely involve significant cooperation with Mogadishu, pro-AMISOM militia in Jubaland, AMISOM and the US and may not be completely under the control of Nairobi. I suspect that Nairobi might push for a more aggressive hunt for the leaders of Al-Shaabab, including Samantha Lewthwaite a.k.a. the “white widow,” a British national that is rumored to have been the mastermind of the Westgate Mall attack. Lewthwaite, the widow of London 7/7/2005 suicide bomber Jermaine Lindsay, is suspected to be on the run in Mombasa, Kenya with her four children. Crucially, any military operations in Somalia must be informed by analysts’ observation that it might be the case that Al-Shabaab is a group on the decline that is just lashing out to maintain relevance.

jubaland

An outline of the Jubaland region of Somalia

In the long-run, Nairobi will most likely push for a more robust Somali solution to the security crisis posed by the lack of a functional state in its backyard. Top on the agenda will be the strengthening of the security apparatus in the administration of Jubaland, the Somali state that is on the border with Kenya (For a detailed analysis of the situation in Jubaland see here). The creation of Jubaland has long been a goal of the Kenyan government as a buffer against the chaos that has been Somalia for the last two decades. Despite obvious objections from Mogadishu, Nairobi has never publicly denounced this policy goal. The brazen attack in the capital creates even more need for a strong buffer region that can help the Kenyan security forces to deal effectively with a terrorist group that appears desperate and willing to do just about anything to remain relevant. The success of this policy will depend on Mogadishu’s ability to veto it, and support from Ethiopia and AMISOM.

Ethiopia, Djibouti, Somaliland, Puntland and Kenya all have reasons to support the creation of Jubaland, or in general, a more decentralized state in Somalia. Kenya, Djibouti and Ethiopia remain wary of a potential rise in Somali nationalism and any irredentist attempts that might follow to unite all lands that make up the so called Greater Somalia – which would include the Ogaden in Ethiopia, North Eastern region of Kenya, and Djibouti. This is not a crazy fear. Mogadishu once attempted this in the late 1960s in a botched operation (in the Shifta and Ogaden wars) that ultimately led to a military coup and the rise of Siad Barre to power (See Laitin, 1976 [gated]). Ethiopia has the most to worry about regarding this potential risk. The Ogaden remains at the periphery of the Ethiopian state, giving the Somali population lots of reasons to rebel against Addis Ababa.

In the recent past Kenya has experienced an increasing level of integration of the Somali elite into the Kenyan state. Prominent Kenyans of Somali extraction include the leader of Majority in the National Assembly, the Foreign Minister, the Industrialization Minister, the head of the electoral management body (IEBC), among others.

Furthermore, many Somalis both Kenyan and from Somalia have in the recent past made significant investments in Kenya, most notably in the real estate sector. A lot of the investments have been means of laundering money got from illicit activities (some say including piracy). Indeed the governor of the Central Bank of Kenya is on record to have said that he could not account for billions of shillings in the economy. With an estimated total of only 20,000 mortgage accounts, most of the Kenya’s real estate boom has so far been financed by cash.

Yes, a lot more needs to be done for the average Kenyan of Somali extraction in North Eastern region, but the Somali elite in Kenya have every reason to not rock the boat and remain wedded to Nairobi. This same elite has so far tacitly supported Nairobi’s policy regarding the creation of an autonomous region in Jubaland.

The powerful imagery of a picture that went viral showing a Kenyan police officer, who also happens to be an ethnic Somali, carrying a baby while shielding three adults as they ran for safety at Westgate is hard to miss.

A domestic outcome of the Westgate attack will likely be greater scrutiny of the police and intelligence forces. The Kenyan police have been exposed in the past for having looked the other way in exchange for bribes to allow gun-runners to do their thing along the country’s highways. President Kenyatta will likely call for a cleaning of house both at Vigilance House and at the NSIS headquarters. All security agencies will likely see closer scrutiny from the political class and calls to pull up their socks. The minister in charge of internal security, Joseph Ole Lenku, probably has his days numbered on the job.

The quest for greater security will be completed by the proliferation of small arms and light weapons in the country on account of civil wars and general insecurity in the border regions with Uganda, South Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia. According to a 2012 a study by the Small Arms Survey and the Kenya National Focus Point on Small Arms and Light Weapons, there are between  530,000 and 680,000 firearms in civilian arms across the country. The government must tighten its disarmament operations. Westgate has shown that AK-47s are not just the weapons of cattle rustlers, bank robbers and carjackers.

Will the reforms succeed? Very likely. The Kenya Revenue Authority is a testament to the fact that when it matters, the Kenyan government can reform key state institutions. The security sector is need of just such a reform drive. Insecurity is on the rise across the country, both from common criminals and organized gangs and terrorists. The Kenyan leadership appreciates that insecurity is not just bad in terms of risk to human lives. It is also bad for business.

If Mr. Kenyatta’s first term is to achieve even a modicum of success, the security sector must be reformed.

In all likelihood the president’s quest for a successful first term will outrank a few officers’ venal machinations within the administration. Police ineptitude in dealing with common petty and not-so petty crime creates loopholes for spectacular attacks like Westgate. Reform will therefore need to go beyond capacity building within the Special Forces and dedicated anti-terror units.

For regular Kenyans, life in Nairobi will never be the same again. It is almost impossible to imagine that things that most only read in the news could happen right at home; that a Saturday afternoon at the mall could turn into a ghastly massacre. It will take time before the capital, and the nation, finds its new normal, if at all it does.

blooddrive

Kenyans queue to donate blood at Uhuru Park on Monday Sept. 23rd (Source: The Standard)

So far Kenyans’ resiliency has been outstanding. People showed up in their thousands to donate blood. Buses in Nairobi lowered their fares to take people to blood donation points. More than 40 million Shillings has so far been raised through MPesa for affected victims. Never before in my life have I felt or seen this level of patriotism from fellow Kenyans.

I hope it sticks. Especially because the country will need it in the next few weeks and months as the government formulates and effects a response to the Westgate Mall attack.

Kenya at War

UPDATE II: John Campbell over at the Council on Foreign Relations discusses the extent of US and French assistance to the Kenyan invasion of al-Shabab controlled regions of Somalia. Check it out here.

UPDATE: Reaction to the Expert Comment from Middleton at Chatham House:

Middleton makes good points about the Kenyan invasion of al-Shabab-held regions of Somalia. The Ethiopian failure in 2006 and potential for a humanitarian crisis must certainly be part of the cost-benefit analysis on the Kenyan side. Failure to establish a secure buffer zone in Southern/Western Somalia and/or to defeat the al-Shabab will definitely have serious consequences.

But the alternative is worse. Al-Shabab elements kidnapped aid workers in Dadaab, in a clear signal that they are willing to disrupt humanitarian aid not only within the areas they control but also within Kenyan. In addition, it is important to appreciate the gravity of the al-Shabab threat to Kenyan security. If al-Shabab is allowed to continue operating within Kenya it may morph into a more dangerous domestic insurgency with a ready supply of disaffected groups – Kenyans in the North East who for decades have been neglected by Nairobi and have legitimate reasons to express those grievances by organizing around such a movement.

In addition, unlike Ethiopia in 2006, Kenya is in Somalia purely for national security purposes. Ethiopia had the baggage of the Ogaden War and the Somali-backed insurgency in its own Ogaden region. Plus it was very clear at the time that the US was bankrolling the Ethiopian war effort – the ICU obviously used this to develop a narrative of western-backed “Christian Ethiopia” invading a Muslim country. Al-Shabab, at least for the moment, does not have the advantage of defining the Kenyan military operation in their own terms

[It is interesting that neither the Kenyan parliament nor presidency has officially declared war on anyone. It is the internal security and defense ministries that have been running the show].

Al-Shabab has been severely weakened around Mogadishu. The ongoing famine has also served to weaken their control of Somalis’ hearts and minds. Their remaining stronghold is the port town of Kismayu whose capture will deprive them of an important supply route and source of revenue (via Indian ocean piracy). If there was ever a good time to try and defeat the group in the battlefield (especially since they have refused to negotiate with anyone), this is it.

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On Sunday the Kenyan armed forces moved into Western/Southern Somalia. The invasion was occasioned by recent kidnappings of tourists and aid workers near the border with Somalia. Al-Shabab, the proscribed terror group in Somalia, is suspected to have been behind the kidnappings, although it denies the charge.

The invasion is a clear signal of the failure of Kenya’s previous policy of strategic containment of the “Somalia problem.”

Source: Gado, Daily Nation

As of Tuesday the Kenyan army had advanced more than 100 miles into Somali territory, although bad weather has significantly slowed the advance. The target town is Al-Shabab’s stronghold port town of Kismayo. The DoD spokesperson Emmanuel Chirchir is reported to have said that “The troops are ready for anything. If it takes us to December they are willing to celebrate Christmas there.”

The invasion comes at a difficult time for the country and will no doubt generate significant economic and political consequences.

Inflation is at over 17%. The Kenyan Shilling is struggling against the US dollar. And the rate of economic growth appears to have slowed from a projected annualized rate of 5.6%. The increase in military expenditure amid high inflation, a severely weakened Shilling and calls for fiscal austerity will surely have a negative impact on future growth prospects. For more on this check out the Business Daily.

On the political side, success in routing al-Shabab will be another feather in retiring President Kibaki’s hat.

Failure might ignite a backlash against the country’s military establishment. It will be interesting to see how the political class deals with failure, since this is the first time that Kenya has ever undertaken a military operation of this scale. My take is that the military, as an institution, will take the fall in case of failure. Because of their ethnicized nature, previous lapses in security in the borders with Ethiopia and Uganda did not create that many problems for the pols in Nairobi. That said, this time might be different because of the nature and scale of the threat.

Of interest will also be how this military operation affects civilian control of the military.

Experience in many less institutionalized countries shows that heightened militarization results in diminished civilian control of the military – with the potential for coups.

I doubt this will be the case in Kenya. However long “Operation Linda Nchi” takes the result will be closer to the Tanzanian invasion of Uganda in the late seventies than to cases where military adventurism resulted in the overthrow of an incumbent (like in Siad Barre’s Somalia). Civilian control of the military in Kenya remains stronger than in most African countries.

Beyond matters of civilian control of the military it is important to consider what the repercussions will be for ordinary Kenyans. Many fear that the al-Shabab might strike Kenya where it hurts most – in Nairobi. This is a real possibility that one hopes the Kenyan government has planned for.

Also, in the event of a protracted war or a major terrorist attack by al-Shabab within Kenya there is the possibility of a backlash against Kenyans of Somali extraction. While this might happen among the masses I doubt that any of the major political figures will actively promote such a misguided reaction. North Eastern Kenya is an important voting bloc that the presidential front-runners in next year’s general election will want on their side (Mr. Odinga, the Kenyan Prime Minister is particular keen on this voting bloc). In this regard the fact that blatant scapegoating of Somalis will have negative political consequences is a source of mild comfort.

The editorial pages of the major newspapers in Kenya have all been solidly behind the invasion. Quoting the Business Daily:

Kenya’s foreign policy has at best been mild and at worst meek.

The nation has been out of the regional combats even when incursions took place in its territory, opting for peaceful resolutions.

This has happened in the Kenya-Ethiopia border during the Oromo wars and during the Ogaden War when Kenya opted for peace parleys rather than battlefield tussles.

But this dud non-aligned policy of the 1960s, exacerbated by the extinguished Cold War, holds no place in the current political order where terrorism and banditry has replaced conventional wars.

There were few options left for Kenya. One, they cannot let the al-Shabaab militia group continue to with their raids oblivious of our military power. Secondly, the sovereignty of our nation, and our pride was undergoing severe test.

The al-Shabab extremism must come to an end.