Conflict, Self-Interest, and Disaggregating the Pointy End of the State

The following is a guest post by Jonathan Powell. Dr. Powell is an Assistant Professor of International Relations at Nazarbayev University in Astana, Kazakhstan.  His research focuses on conflict processes, particularly aspects related to civil-military relations. He recently received his Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Kentucky.

James Fearon’s Foreign Policy article on the M23 rebellion leads to several points of relevance to civil war scholars. Fearon asks “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 putschists, or a hundred or couple thousand rebels armed with rifles and maybe some mortars?” He further claims that the “relevant poli sci literatures” fail to adequately explain these trends. Though perhaps in its infancy, there is a growing body of literature that attempts to explain the dynamics that Fearon has noted.

The ongoing inability of the DRC to combat M23 is paralleled by the country’s prior history, specifically the poor performance of the Forces Armées Zaïrois (FAZ) during the Shaba conflicts and the first Congo War. These failures are not a coincidence, and they are not due to an absence of a self-interested policy on the part of leaders such as Mobutu or Kabila. To the contrary, a self-serving policy of political survival would seem to be a suitable explanation for continued strife in the eastern DRC and beyond.

Leaders can suffer from many types of threats that are manifested by different types of actors, including foreign invaders, a popular uprising, military coups, insurgents, and even an electorate. One of the challenges for these “self-interested” leaders is to determine the most efficient policy that will keep them in power. Think of it as a civil-military problematique.

To answer the first part of Fearon’s question: leaders do take money and build “crack units, presidential guards, or strong and loyal army divisions.” See the work of Pilster and Bohmelt, and Jun Koga has a very promising working paper on this point, suggesting that leaders wishing to build up a presidential guard will largely have to limit themselves to doing so when coup risk is low.

To answer the second part of Fearon’s question, it is important to clarify that efforts to address the first concern (coups) often increase vulnerability to the second concern (rebellion). Fearon points to the excellent work of