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The unbelievable lightness of some African states

- November 23, 2012

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.