Why Rebels Collide: Factionalism and Fragmentation in African Insurgencies
On August 19, 2008, Michael Woldemariam, an Africanist Doctoral Fellow at the Africa Program of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, presented his doctoral research project entitled "Why Rebels Collide: Factionalism and Fragmentation in African Insurgencies." Woldemariam, PhD Candidate in Politics at Princeton University explains patterns of fission and cohesion among rebel groups in post-colonial Africa. His project aims to develop a comprehensive understanding of a phenomenon that has become ubiquitous in contemporary civil wars- the emergence of splinter groups. The event was moderated by Terrence Lyons, Professor of Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University.
Michael Woldemariam opened his presentation by introducing the main question addressed by the body of his research: why do some rebel organizations maintain a high degree of solidarity while others succumb to the vagaries of political factionalism? He also raised more specific questions concerning spatial and temporal variables in the splintering of rebel organizations. He emphasized that his intent is to develop a positive rather than a normative theory - one that is more general, and therefore not specific to any organization or country, but applicable to multiple situations and contexts. In doing so, he wishes to offer a theoretical approach and perspective which could constitute the first step in addressing previously unanswered questions of rebel fragmentation.
Woldemariam explains the importance of this question as being closely linked to patterns of state failure in late twentieth century Africa. In many of Africa's collapsed states of the 1990's, state failure was in part brought on by the inability of one or more different organizations or factions to seize and consolidate state power. Rebel organizations often split into several opposing camps, turning what should have been a successful political transition into endemic chaos and chronically failing state institutions. He does not claim that fragmentation of rebel organizations is a direct cause of state failure but simply suggests that both are related. According to Woldemariam, understanding cases of rebel fragmentation will help us to better approach the contemporary phenomenon of state failure.
Concepts and definitions
For the purpose of his research, he provides working definitions for two main concepts: rebel organizations and rebel fracture/fragmentation. Woldemariam has adopted the definition from PRIO Armed Conflict Dataset which defines a rebel organization as a non-governmental group of people, formally organized, having announced a name for their group. It should also have used armed forces and violence to further the objectives of the group. The group's military activity must be part of a planned political campaign rather than spontaneous violence, thereby distinguishing it from certain guerilla movements. In the same way, the group must be involved in military activity that has resulted in at least twenty-five casualties. This definition served as criteria for him to decide what groups should be included in his analysis. As for rebel fracturing, it is deemed to occur when a non-trivial portion of a rebel organization formally exits that organization and either establishes a new rebel organization or joins another existing rebel group. The strictness and specificity of these definitions has also played a role in his research, such as in the possible underreporting of occurrences of rebel group fracturing.
Existing theories and their shortcomings
Published civil war literature tends to treat rebel organizations as being constituted of a population subscribing to uniform preferences and a common identity. Woldemariam attempts to open this theoretical black box, taking a more complex look at rebel organizations and their internal dynamics. A general distinction drawn between new and old civil wars - new civil wars having emerged after the Cold War - classifies new civil wars as much more ideologically driven, and with a much higher tendency toward factionalism. However, Woldemariam points out the contradiction of this broadly applied distinction between new and old civil wars stating that even though there are more rebel organizations in the post cold-war era, there are actually fewer instances of fractioning.
Rebel fragmentation and the problem of cooperation
Woldemariam argues that fragmentation represents a breakdown in a previously cooperative relationship between a leader and organizational elites. His research suggests that cooperation in rebel organizations exists because the interaction between a rebel leader and organizational elites is based on an implicit or formal contract through which the leader provides benefits to organizational elites, and in turn, organizational elites recognize the authority of the leader and obey his directives. He argues that there are two paths to a breakdown of this cooperation. One is a preference divergence over ideology, policies and economic rewards, and the other is through commitment problems which occur when the leader cannot credibly commit to a stratagem. It is important to think about different paths because policy prescriptions will be different according to the type of breakdown.
Fragmentation and coups
Woldemariam poses an interesting question through his research: why one might choose splintering over a coup. He suggests that a coup may often be the less costly option; however, when a coup is unlikely to succeed, fragmentation becomes the preferred solution. In other cases, fragmentation could be the unintended effect of a failed coup as in the case of the SPLA in Sudan. His data also shows that in reality, the internal coup is infrequent and, moreover, rarely successful. This may be explained by the complicated nature of most African conflict situations and rebel organizations, rendering difficult the organization and conspiring of a coup.
Woldemariam concluded his presentation by reemphasizing how the variation in the fragmentation of rebel organizations represents an empirical puzzle: some rebel organizations collide while others do not. Indeed, in order to understand why rebels collide, we need to understand how and why they cooperate. Comparative case studies of rebel organization in the Horn of Africa are necessary in order to complete his research, and he will be conducting field work in the Horn of Africa for this purpose.
Drafted by Justine Lindemann.