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date: 06 March 2021

State Formation and Conflict in Africafree

  • Didier PéclardDidier PéclardDepartment of Political Science, University of Geneva


Dominant narratives and theories developed at the turn of the 21st century to account for the links between state formation and civil wars in Africa converged around two main ideas. First was the contention that the increase in civil wars across the continent—like that in many parts of the globe, including South Asia and Central Europe—was linked to state failure or decay. Violent conflict thus came to be seen as the expression of the weakness, disintegration, and collapse of political institutions in the postcolonial world. Second, guerrilla movements, once viewed as the ideological armed wings of Cold War contenders, then came to be seen as roving bandits interested in plundering the spoils left by decaying states, and their motives as primarily, if not only, economic or personal, rather than political. However, recent research has challenged the reductionism that underlay such accounts by looking into the day-to-day politics of civil war, thus moving beyond the search for the motives that bring rebels and rebel movements to wage war against the established order. Drawing on this literature, this article argues that violent conflict is part and parcel of historical processes of state formation. Thus, in order to understand how stable political institutions can be built in the aftermath of civil war, it is essential to study the institutions that regulate political life during conflict. This implies a need not only to look at how (and if) state institutions survive once war has broken out, but also to take into account the institutions put in place in areas beyond the control of the state.


During the last quarter of the 20th century, states around the globe have come under increased pressure. In Africa in particular, this trend has manifested itself in a double crisis: First, neoliberal policies developed by the international financial institutions (IFIs) as a response to the 1980s debt crisis imposed an agenda of deregulation marked by cutbacks in state funding in the name of budget orthodoxy. The measures that came to be known as the Washington Consensus (Babb, 2013; Williamson 2004) had direct consequences on state (infra)structures, as well as on states’ capacity to provide services to their populations. They also affected, albeit to a limited extent and without any structural changes, the networks of clientelist redistribution upon which (post-)colonial African states were built, weakening some of their major legitimation channels (Hibou, 1998). The end of the Cold War also compounded this functional crisis, since it suspended crucial financial, technical, or military support for several African states. Second, and partly as a consequence, many states underwent a severe crisis of legitimacy, expressed in its most dramatic fashion by the rise and spread of rebel movements’ taking up arms against their government and by the related spread of civil wars across entire regions of the continent.

This formed the basis upon which several “narratives of crisis” developed in order to account for what was considered to be, or was constructed as, the apparent weakening of state structures and control. In many of the narratives, the validity of the state as a frame of reference for organizing and regulating social life in postcolonial Africa was put into question. In a historiographical survey covering 40 years of research on the state in Africa, Crawford Young thus suggested that it was time to “close the historical parentheses around the African postcolonial state,” arguing that, since the early 1990s, “the webs of conflicts, violent social patterns and governmental dysfunctionalities in many parts of [the continent] ma[d]e the state a far less dominating, agenda-setting actor than in the first post-independence decades” (Young, 2004, p. 24).

This echoed earlier perceptions whereby, against the backdrop of the purported “disconnection” (Bach, 1991) of the continent from the globalized world, states in Africa have been portrayed as threatened by “failure” (Rotberg, 2004) and “collapse” (Zartman, 1995), as endemically “fragile” and “weak” (Jackson & Rosberg, 1982) and as on their way toward “shadow” (Reno, 2000) or “quasi-” (Hopkins, 2000) states devoid of legitimacy, administrative capacity, and actual presence on the ground beyond the immediate perimeter of state capitals and administrative buildings. In the wake of 9/11, “failing and collapsing states” were “progressively interpreted as a potential source of international instability” (Raeymaekers, 2005, p. 2). Therefore, academic and policy discourse about state failure, collapse, and reconstruction in Africa became inescapable (Milliken & Krause, 2002).

Beyond their success and the dominant position they acquired in many academic and policy circles, however, state failure discourses have come under increasing criticism for at least three sets of reasons. First, building on a very normative perspective, they tend to measure up degrees of state-ness (from “collapsed” to “failed” to “fragile” and “weak”) against the Western state model taken as a yardstick and a norm (Hagmann & Hoehne, 2009; Hagmann & Péclard, 2010; Raeymaekers, 2005). In the process, states in Africa are always “identified as failed [or weak, fragile and collapsed] not by what they are, but by what they are not, namely, successful in comparison to Western states” (Hill, 2005, p. 148). Second, state failure discourses tend to naturalize the state and consider it as a somewhat ahistorical object, rather than as the result of complex historical processes (Bayart, 2009). However, as Migdal and Schlichte noted, “The goal of social scientists should not be to isolate a snapshot of the state and try to explain vectors that produced that static picture, a process that [Norbert] Elias called Zustandsreduktion; rather, they need to identify the contours of the ongoing processes of change─the dynamics of the state” (Migdal & Schlichte, 2005, pp. 19–20). Third, state failure discourses have been extremely instrumental. They have given rise to “a cottage industry devoted to outlining indicators of fragility for use in large cross country comparisons” (Hoffmann & Kirk, 2013, p. 4), which in its turn has fueled the interests and agendas of Western donor agencies, diplomats, and foreign policy experts who, in the name of “anti-terrorism” and “development,” engage in “state-building” and “reconstruction” in Africa (Chandler, 2006; Duffield, 2001).1

Debates around state failure echo two earlier types of debates that dominated 20th-century African historiography. Both are strongly interrelated and partly overlap and, if they have had a particular salience in the African context, they touch upon broader theoretical and methodological issues that relate to the historiography of the state in general and exemplify the “difficulty” of studying it (Abrams, 1988). In many ways, they have structured the study of the state in Africa ever since it became a topical object of academic study in the context of late colonialism, nationalist mobilization, and independence.

The extent to which states as political and social constructs have remained “exogenous” or, on the contrary, have been appropriated by African societies, lies at the center of the first debate. While the idea that states as formal political structures were imported in the wake of the colonization of the continent is not actually a matter for debate, the manner in which they did or did not take root in the African social soil is still heavily contested. For a wide range of authors, the (re-)current crises of the state in Africa are directly linked to its exogenous origins. States, the argument goes, were forced upon African polities in the wake of the colonial conquest. Because, in part, of the relatively short duration of colonial domination but, also, because of the resilience of precolonial cultures of power (Chabal & Dalloz, 1999) or of structural conditions of the exercise of power in Africa, such as low population density (Herbst, 2000), states have remained comparatively weak and inefficient, unable to fulfill the obligation generally expected from them. In this line of thought, then, the state in Africa has never been anything but “a pure import product” (Badie & Birnbaum, 1979). This argument has since taken many different shapes and forms, but in many ways, it is the foundation stone of the state failure discourse: the state as a foreign artificial body that African social and political organisms have so far not been able to integrate and digest, provoking several forms of “rejection.” The colonial state was, in this perspective, little more than a parenthesis—albeit a violent and exploitative one—and the formal state structure that it gave way to in postcolonial Africa remained an “empty shell” (Chabal & Dalloz, 1999, p. 7), which was rapidly filled, after independence, with precolonial ways of ruling.

Contrasting with the imported state perspective and its insistence on the shallowness of state structures in Africa, a different scholarly tradition focuses on the historical dynamics by which states were appropriated by African actors, social groups, and societies. French anthropologist Georges Balandier, with his seminal 1951 article on the “colonial situation” (Balandier, 1951, 2002), can be considered one of the founders of this school of thought. Balandier, drawing on Marcel Mauss’ “concern with analyzing society not as fixed forms but as a ‘total social phenomenon’,” considered colonialism “a relationship of power, deriving from a particular history and with profound but complex social, economic, political, and cultural meanings” (Cooper, 2002b, pp. 48–49). He laid the ground for a historical and political sociology of the state in Africa that regarded the postcolonial state, rather than simply as an import product, as the result of long-term processes of co-construction of public authority, or, as Bayart put it, of historical dynamics of grafting (Bayart, 2009).

The second debate concerns the relative strength (or weakness) of states in Africa. At its heart lies the issue of state autonomy and the distinction between private and public spheres. The poor performances of many African postcolonial states in terms of development, governance, and the rule of law is explained at one end of the debate by their purported lack of autonomy from society. Drawing on Weberian political sociology and the “legal-rational” state as the ultimate model of a well-functioning state, this perspective considers most states in Africa as deviances from this norm, thereby forgetting that Weberian ideal-types were never supposed to depict the actual and observable “reality” of regimes or states, but were constructed as heuristic tools for depicting an idealized and abstract type of domination (Erdmann & Engel, 2007; Pitcher, Moran, & Johnston, 2009). Away from this normative perspective, other authors have been following Mitchell’s view that “the elusiveness of the state-society boundary needs to be taken seriously, not [as] a problem of conceptual precision but [as] a clue to the nature of the phenomenon” (Mitchell, 1991, p. 78). While the image of the state has spread throughout the globe, there is extreme diversity in the ways in which states are enacted, in their practices. The difference between images and practices is what constitutes the “dynamics of states” (Migdal & Schlichte, 2005) and needs to be understood.

The link between violent conflicts—particularly civil wars in the post-Cold War era—and state formation in sub-Saharan Africa is at the crossroad of these debates. Civil wars in Africa have often been seen as the cause or the consequence of state weakness, fragility, decay, or outright failure. The debate over state failure itself emerged in the wake of analyses of the causes of violent conflicts, civil wars, armed uprisings by rebel groups, and other such instances of more or less organized violence. The upsurge in civil wars typical of the immediate post-Cold War era in Africa has been its—often unspoken—subtext. In short, violent conflicts are seen either as expressing the inability of African states to exert one of their fundamental prerogatives (namely, control over the monopoly of legitimate violence) or as the very reason why postcolonial states have “failed.” The problem with such a direct causal link is that it is reductionist and rests on a number of binary oppositions—between war and peace, state and nonstate actors, local and international, colonial and postcolonial—which produce an overly simple picture of a very complex nexus.

With the aim of challenging and moving beyond these dichotomies, this article proposes instead to look at how violent conflicts have been part and parcel of long-term processes of state formation in Africa. It concentrates on the manner in which statehood, understood as a historical and constantly changing process of institutionalization of power relations, is “negotiated” (Hagmann & Péclard, 2010) during and after conflict. Drawing on recent discussions of the role of state-building in peacebuilding, the first section proposes general reflections on statehood from a non-normative perspective. The second section reviews the historiography of civil wars in 20th-century Africa and shows how the study of “rebel governance in civil war” (Arjona, Kasfir, & Mampilly, 2015) has allowed research to move on from debates around the causes of civil war, which were nearing a situation of deadlock, to studying the modalities of political life during conflict and its consequences for state-formation processes. The third section presents and discusses the contributions and limits of the “rebel governance” literature, and the conclusion offers some avenues for further research on the relations between violent conflict, legitimacy, and state formation.

States as Processes

State-building has played an increasingly central role in discussions about postconflict interventions in Africa and beyond. While the fragility of state institutions was seen as key to explaining the onset and the duration of civil wars, “building states” has come to be seen as the best way to “build peace” (Call, 2008; Paris & Sisk, 2008). This move came as a response to the criticisms that had been formulated about early peacebuilding theory and practice. Indeed, after the publication of the 1992 Agenda for Peace by UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, peacebuilding was developed as a set of technical solutions that hardly paid any attention to the historical specificities of each conflict context (Newman, Paris, & Richmond, 2009; Paris, 2004). This approach offered little or no reflection on what peace and conflict actually meant and instead reproduced a number of “peace orthodoxies,” thus contributing to the “bureaucratization” of peace (Goetschel & Hagmann, 2009) rather than providing an understanding for the deeply political nature of the search for peace and political stability (Chandler, 2006; Duffield, 2001). It treated “peace as an uncontroversial, ahistoric ‘end’, and peacebuilding as the means to get there” (Curtis, 2012, p. 9). By promoting political and economic liberalization without taking into account the institutional, political, and social context within which the reforms were to take place, it also risked leading to further insecurity or even fueling renewed conflict (Paris, 2004; Paris & Sisk, 2008). This led researchers and policymakers to consider legitimate and well-functioning institutions as crucial to the success of peacebuilding and, therefore, state-building as an essential precondition to lasting peace (Rocha Menocal, 2011).

Yet, definitions of state-building and peacebuilding vary greatly, and how exactly they relate is still an object of debate. As several authors have pointed out, the two processes are potentially contradictory (Call & Cousens, 2008; Paris & Sisk, 2008; Rocha Menocal, 2011), and bringing them together is not in itself a guarantee of a lasting peace. Rather, there are more “discontinuities” than direct links between the peacebuilding agenda and the exigencies of state-building (Balthasar, 2017). Besides, the literature (both academic and policy-oriented) on the peacebuilding–state-building nexus still largely relies on a “blank slate” approach (Cramer, 2006), that is, on the idea that there is a clear historical discontinuity between war and peace. As a result, war as an object of research and conceptual reflection has been neglected in the peacebuilding literature. Critics of the liberal peacebuilding model have focused on the dangers of a “toolkit” approach to peacebuilding (Newman, Paris, & Richmond, 2009; Paris, 2004), on the neo-imperialism implicit in international interventionism (Chandler, 2006), on the contradictions between state-building and peacebuilding (Rocha Menocal, 2011), on the potential incompatibility between the two (Balthasar, 2018), or on the need to take into account local actors and values in peacebuilding interventions (Paris & Sisk, 2008).

But research on peacebuilding has tended to neglect the ways in which relations and institutions of governance that were developed during war fit into long-term dynamics of state formation through armed conflict. Moreover, much of the literature on the peacebuilding–state-building nexus relies on a normative and prescriptive concept of states as structures rather than as processes, and on the idea that states are the product of conscious policies aimed at constructing the institutional infrastructure of governance rather than historical formations.

States, however, cannot simply be “engineered.” They are the results of long-lasting historical processes, including phases of violence, as suggested by the historical sociology of the state (Abrams, 1988; Bayart, 2009; Migdal & Schlichte, 2005; Mitchell, 1991; Tilly, 2003). In their seminal history of the state in Kenya, Berman and Lonsdale (1992, p. 5) aptly suggested to distinguish, for heuristic purposes, between state-building, defined as “a conscious effort of creating an apparatus of control,” and state formation, defined as “an historical process whose outcome is a largely unconscious and contradictory process of conflicts, negotiations and compromises between diverse groups whose self-serving actions and trade-offs constitute the ‘vulgarization’ of power.” While state-building constitutes the formal and institutional visible tip of the iceberg that is most often addressed in the peacebuilding literature, state formation refers to the variegated social conflicts that shape and give social meaning to political institutions and their relations to society.

Civil wars, accordingly, need to be seen as part and parcel of historical processes of state formation and not as the expression of states’ inability to maintain their monopoly over the use of violence, or as the result of their structural “weakness” (Jackson & Rosberg, 1982), their “collapse” (Zartman, 1995), and their failure (Bates, 2008). While the literature on state failure is limited by its very normative understanding of states (Hill, 2005), a perspective centered on the “dynamics of states” (Migdal & Schlichte, 2005), i.e., the way in which states are the constantly changing product of “negotiations” (Hagmann & Péclard, 2010) between state and nonstate actors involved in the institutionalization of power relations (Lund, 2006) during and after civil wars, provides for a better understanding of legitimate institutions and their formation.

In order to understand the complex relations between violent conflict and state formation, this article proposes to follow a non-normative, open-ended theoretical perspective based on four propositions (see Hagmann & Péclard, 2010). This by no means suggests that one should do away with norms; rather, one should study their social translation into “practical norms of governance” (Bierschenk & Olivier de Sardan, 2014; De Herdt & Olivier de Sardan, 2015; Olivier de Sardan, 2008) and the different shapes and forms these practical norms have taken over time. First, rather than being objects, states are historical processes. As Lund suggested, “treating the ‘state’ as a finished product gets in the way of understanding it. The state is always in the making” (Lund, 2018, p. 1200), and the outcome of the institutionalization of power relations is always undetermined. Second, the lack of a clear boundary between state and society is often seen as the root cause of institutional fragility, especially in Africa, because it translates into a neopatrimonial culture of power that is responsible for “many of the pathologies of African statehood” (Englebert & Dunn, 2013, p. 139). Yet, far from being a problem, the “twilight zone” (Lund, 2006) within which institutional politics in Africa operates is, as already noted, “a clue to the nature of the phenomenon” (Mitchell, 1991, p. 78). The effort of researchers should therefore be directed toward understanding the various degrees, shapes, and forms of the variegated overlaps between state and society rather than positing the overlaps as a normative deficiency of non-Western states. This is all the more important because the overlap between the spheres of the state and society has a long history in Africa. Indeed, core functions of the states, such as the provision of education, health, security, and rural development, were in most African colonial states delegated or outsourced to private actors: Christian missions provided education, health, and rural development, and all kinds of private militias were entrusted with the enforcement of colonial rule and the provision of “security,” but very often were restricted to protecting white and colonial interests. In other words, “in Africa and elsewhere, domination has long been exercised by entities other than the state” (Ferguson & Gupta, 2002, p. 993), and the devolution of state functions to nonstate actors has been a characteristic of public authority since colonial times (Hibou, 2004; Mbembe, 1999; Pitcher, 2002).

Third, states cannot be reduced to institutions, policies, and administrative practices; they are also made out of cultural and symbolic repertoires and exist through people’s ideas and representations (Blom Hansen & Stepputat, 2001; Gupta, 1995). Civil wars are important because they represent key moments when these elements are contested, put to question, and actively fought by violent means and new visions are put forward. Fourth, state-formation processes have to do with what Weber characterized as the passage from raw power (Macht) to domination (Herrschaft)— a type of authority that is based on obedience and recognition rather than sheer physical force (Weber, 1947). Indeed, the exercise of power by force and violence alone is not sufficient for the establishment of stable political orders. Research on authoritarian rule and “the rise of semi-authoritarianism” (Ottaway, 2003) in the post-Cold War era has thus shown that the durability of such regimes depends not only on their repressive capacity, but also on other elements, such as the cohesiveness of party structures (Levitsky & Way, 2010), or on their ability to build broad elite coalitions to sustain state power (Slater, 2010). Besides, as Béatrice Hibou argued, the “force of obedience” (Hibou, 2011b, see also 2011a) rests on the ways in which authoritarian regimes manage to respond to people’s aspiration to a “normal life” in the context of recurrent crises and the threat of political and military repression.

Understanding the “vulgarization of power” (Berman & Lonsdale, 1992, p. 5) central to state-formation processes thus requires studying the manufacture of popular consent that permits the establishment of stable political orders—or to account for its limits and the contestation of public authority that it can lead to. Violent conflicts represent moments of crisis when armed (actors) push for the (violent) redefinition of the social contract or the moral economy supporting the vulgarization of power. Therefore, civil wars, as a particular form of violent conflict that can be defined as “the coexistence within the national territory of different social orders that entertain a violent relationship” (Baczko & Dorronsoro, 2017, p. 322) offer a privileged site of observation for state-formation processes, as a recent paradigm shift in the literature on civil wars suggests.

Understanding Civil Wars

Since the last quarter of the 20th century, the origins of civil wars have been a constant object of debate. The end of the Cold War, contrary to a widely shared hope that it would bring lasting peace and security worldwide, led to a dramatic upsurge in widely publicized violent episodes, such as the failure of the peace process in Angola in 1991–1992 (Messiant, 1998), the maelstrom of conflicts that ravaged the Mano River states in West Africa (Reno, 1998), and “Africa’s first World War,” as Prunier (2009) described the Rwandan genocide and its aftermath. These episodes also called for renewed attention to understand the causes of such violence.

Ethnicity, especially in the wake of the Rwandan genocide, seemed to provide an explanatory grid for seemingly endless conflict (Gurr & Harff, 1994), as did an abundance of natural resources, such as oil or diamonds (Le Billon, 2001, 2005), or the growing scarcity of other natural resources, such as land and water (Goetschel & Péclard, 2011; Homer-Dixon, 1994). In view of the apparent “anarchy” (Kaplan, 1994) prevailing in the so-called new wars of the 1990s (Kaldor, 1999), the balance of arguments gradually shifted in favor of an economic approach. In this line of argument, the “greed” of rebel leaders in search of economic and political power was a far more important variable in explaining rebels’ motives and behavior than political “grievances” (Collier, 2000; Collier & Hoeffler, 2004). In other words, the new wars of the 1990s were no longer fought “with” or “alongside” the people in defense of clearly articulated political projects sustained by identifiable ideologies, but “against the people” by greedy rebels exclusively interested in getting their share of the economic and political cake (Kaldor, 1999; Kalyvas, 2001). While economic approaches rightly pointed to the interconnections between the availability of natural resources and the occurrence of conflict, the “greed vs. grievances” model has been widely criticized for its methodological and conceptual flaws (Marchal & Messiant, 2002), for its economic reductionism (Cramer, 2006; Duffield, 2001; Francis, 2006; Richards & Helander, 2005), and for failing to see rebels and insurgents as anything else than simple “bandits devoid of any political agenda” (Bøås & Dunn, 2007, p. 1).

Beyond their obvious diversity, these narratives converged on two ideas. First was the contention that the increase in civil wars across the globe—particularly visible in the 1990s in large parts of Africa and, to a lesser extent, in South Asia and Central Europe—was linked to state failure or decay. Violent conflict thus came to be seen as the expression of the weakness, disintegration, and collapse of political institutions in the postcolonial world. Second, guerrilla movements and fighters, once viewed as the ideological armed wings of Cold War contenders, were then seen as roving bandits interested in plundering the spoils left by decaying states, and their motives as primarily, if not only, economic or personal rather than political (Collier & Hoeffler, 1999; Kaldor, 1999; Zartman, 1995). In the process, the very idea of warfare as a political project was put into question. But, as Paul Richards put it, “the main problem with such arguments is that they serve to set up a dichotomy between war as some kind of inherent ‘bad’ (the world ruled by instincts and base desire), and peace as an ideal ‘good’ (the world ruled by principle and law). With this kind of approach, war itself becomes the enemy—indeed, the common enemy of human kind” (Richards & Helander, 2005, p. 3).

Understanding the complex links between war and state formation therefore requires challenging such established dichotomies. First, rather than setting war and peace as opposites, it is more insightful to focus on the continuities from the one to the other. Indeed, “peacetime does not equate with nonviolence, and war cannot be defined as the mere opposite of peace” (Debos, 2011, p. 410). In contexts where violent conflict is always somewhere on the horizon, as in Chad, the concept of inter-war coined by Debos (2016; see also Arnaut & Højbjerg, 2008) aptly captures the continuity. But continuity does not equate with determinism. The inter-war portrays “a situation where war is always emergent, and where people are waiting for the next war while hoping that it will not break out” (Debos, 2011, p. 413). And the recurrence of war is deeply embedded in history, as in the case of the Lake Chad basin, where the violence of war is inseparable from the more insidious violence of the state and the economy (Roitman, 2004) that have been prevalent in the area at least since the beginning of colonization. Second, violent conflicts and wars are very often seen as external to, or in opposition to, the state. This is especially the case in analyses of civil wars of the post-Cold War era, which have been recurrently seen as the result of the onslaught of rebels on the state. But wars do not occur simply because political and military entrepreneurs resort to violence against the state. Rather than being external to the state, violence is deeply entrenched in the history of state formation. Imaginary, symbolic, or religious representations of violence as a repertoire of power have shaped both individual and collective representations of the state (Ellis, 2007; Grajales, 2016; Grajales & Le Cour Grandmaison, 2019; Martinez, 1998), and violence has been at the core of the exercise of power in colonial Africa, with important long-term consequences (Mbembe, 2001). Besides, understanding civil wars requires taking into account all the actors present and the relationships that shape their actions: armed groups, state security forces, peacebuilding and humanitarian actors, and civil society organizations (Lombard, 2016).

Since the mid-2000s, debates about civil wars have been moving from a single focus on the quest for belligerents’ motives and for the origins of warfare to an in-depth analysis of the political dimensions of life “inside rebellions” (Weinstein, 2007) during civil war. War-making since the end of the Cold War has not followed a single and uniform pattern. One striking commonality across many civil wars, however, is the fact that rebel movements exert control over sometimes vast portions of a country’s territory. Although the extent of the control and the depth of its impact on the levels of violence exerted by rebels differ (Kalyvas, 2006), the significance of armed groups goes far beyond their military strength. Consequently, they have come to be viewed not simply through the lens of their military power, but also as political actors exerting power over civilian populations (Arjona, 2008; Wood, 2003). Armed groups represent the de facto public authority in the areas under their control and they perform acts of governance in the new “order” they establish. It is imperative to understand the “(micro)politics of armed groups” (Schlichte, 2009) and “insurgent governance” (Mampilly, 2011), since “even in zones of civil war and widespread brawling, most people most of the time are interacting in nonviolent ways” (Tilly, 2003, p. 12). In other words, there is (social) life beyond the logics of weapons and war-induced violence, and rulers, be they “rebel” or “state representatives,” have an important role in the regulation of this (social) life (Kasfir, 2005).

However, the relation of rebel movements to civilian order and governance is anything but straightforward (Péclard & Mechoulan, 2015). Violence serves as a means for addressing grievances and thus legitimizes armed movements’ actions. At the same time, the use of violence also has delegitimizing effects. It casts a “shadow” of suffering and destruction upon the very population whose interests the movements claim to defend (Schlichte, 2009). To mitigate these potentially delegitimizing effects, armed groups need to make the violence socially acceptable and to “turn it into authority” (Schlichte, 2012, p. 723), that is, a socially accepted form of domination. The legitimacy of rebels during war as well as their ability to transform into political actors after the end of a violent conflict (de Zeeuw, 2008; Manning, 2007) depend on their capability to rule and to be granted recognition as rulers by the population under their control so as to ensure “civilian participation” in the war effort (Kasfir, 2005).

Based on this understanding, a recent historiographical shift has provided important insights into the organizational structures of (rebel) armed groups (Weinstein, 2007), into the emergence of alternative forms of social order in war-affected zones (Arjona, 2009; Kasfir, 2005; Mampilly, 2011), and into the conditions of collective action (Wood, 2003), as well as into the relationships between territorial control and the use of violence (Kalyvas, 2006). Taken together, and beyond their obvious diversity, these studies build a new, “re-politicized” narrative of state–society relations during wartime. They also offer new interrogations on the continuities between war and peace (de Zeeuw, 2008; Manning, 2007; Müller, 2012) and thereby contribute to a better understanding of state-building in postconflict contexts, since “variation in postwar regimes has wartime origins” (Huang, 2012, p. 3).

Indeed, civil wars, while being the cause of immense suffering on the part of civilian populations, do not simply destroy political orders. They oppose competing social orders (Baczko & Dorronsoro, 2017) while contributing to shaping and producing new ones (Arjona, 2008; Kalyvas, 2006; Péclard, 2011). Violent conflict is, in other words, part and parcel of historical processes of state formation. Thus, if we are to understand how stable political institutions can be built in the aftermath of civil war, it is essential to study the institutions that regulate political life during conflict. This implies a need not only to look at how (and if) state institutions survive once war has broken out, but also to take into account the institutions put in place in areas beyond the control of the state.

Armed Groups and the Politics of Legitimacy

The study of “rebel governance” has grown into a sort of subfield in the literature on civil wars.2 One of its main merits is that it has allowed research to move out of the theoretical and epistemological deadlock that two decades of debates around the causes of civil wars had led to. By moving the focus away from the search for causalities and bringing the discussion on the terrain of the regulation of everyday social and political life during violent conflict, it has made an important contribution to the study of “the micropolitics of civil wars” (Schlichte, 2009) and its relation to state formation.

Mampilly (2011), for instance, identified different levels of effective civil administration structures put in place by rebel organizations (ranging from low to moderate to high), based on three case studies: the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka (highly effective), the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) in Sudan (partially effective), and the Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie (RCD) in the Democratic Republic of Congo (ineffective). For Mampilly, “Variation in civilian governance provision by insurgents emerges from a combination of the initial preferences of rebel leaders and the interaction of insurgent organizations with a variety of other social and political actors active during the conflict itself. As a result, governance is, by nature, an evolutionary process in which the outcome cannot be predicted by a single variable” (Mampilly, 2011, pp. 15–16).

Several authors drew parallels between the performance and governmental-like functions provided by rebel groups and the origin of the bureaucratic state (Kasfir, 2015; Kingston & Spears, 2004; Tull, 2005). These authors argued that rebel groups replicate steps that lead to the rise of nation-states. This model is based on the idea that “state-building rebels” become wartime “democrats” for economic reasons, and that by the time the war has ended, rebels have developed representative institutions, have created a support base, and have gained legitimacy among the population living in the territory they control. This is a “banditry model of state formation” (Mampilly, 2011, p. 31). Kingston and Spears (2004) even use the terminology of “states within states,” while others speak of “quasistates” (despite lacking juridical recognition, these systems are in fact a replica of the sovereign state).

The argument that rebel groups embark on a trajectory toward statehood has its limits. The approach has contributed to creating a rather state-centric view, where the idea of the state is the model and basis with which to compare rebel organizational structures, thereby initiating a tendency to view insurgents as state-builders. This often leads to an oversimplified and normative dichotomy between the rebel organizations associated with embryonic state structures and rebel organizations viewed as warlords who do not engage in state-building. Additionally, scholars adopting such a view often see a state where it does not exist. As Mampilly noted, “Conflating rebel governance with state order forces analysts to awkwardly transpose the state-formation framework onto an actor that actively resists the state’s attempts to project order within its ascribed territory. . . . What is really an issue with rebel governance is not state formation but rather the formation of a political order outside and against the state” (Mampilly, 2011, p. 36).

If rebel governance shapes wartime social processes, such as activism and political organization (Wood, 2003), it also influences postwar dynamics. This is another reason why studying governance processes and patterns during civil wars is so important. Indeed, whether former armed movements are successful in their transition to legitimate political parties in a post-civil-war context is strongly linked to their ability to construct their legitimacy during conflict. Thus, Manning (2007), in her analysis of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Mozambique, focused on the interaction among the institutional context, the exact nature of the conflict, and what internal organizational dynamics are formed during the war. For Manning, the existing difficulties and challenges to intra-elite relations, as well as the strategies developed to obtain a voter base, influence how institutions affect party behavior and, ultimately, whether parties choose to adapt or to subvert the rule of democracy. In a similar vein, de Zeeuw (2008) argued that a successful conversion from rebel group to party depends on the motivation, structure, and leadership of a rebel movement, but it can also be influenced by other factors, such as the manner in which the conflict was settled (i.e., negotiations or military victory), and the local political and security context. Müller, for her part (2012), focused on the continuity between core features of rebel governments during the war and their politics in the postwar context, and the importance of war credentials for legitimizing state ownership.

The internal structure of armed groups also plays a role, and there is a debate regarding whether the organization of a former insurgency, or its leadership, determines if and how the group becomes a political party. Manning (2007) showed the relevance of relations between the institutional context and internal organizational dynamics within rebel groups. According to Manning, the issue of securing loyalty among civilians has an influence on how the institutional context affects party behavior, and, therefore, if parties choose to adapt or to subvert the democratic rules of the game. De Zeeuw (2008) added that different factors can facilitate or hinder political change: motivation and structured leadership are key. He distinguished between rebel groups organized in autonomous cell structures, which will have more difficulty in becoming political parties after war; rebel groups with centralized and personalized decision-making methods, which are less successful in their postwar transformation; and groups with decentralized, open, and collective decision-making processes, which are the groups best fit to transform into political parties. However, the type of conflict settlement, the domestic and regional political and security context, and the role played by international actors are equally important.

Understanding why organizations vary so greatly in their relations with civilians living in territories that they control is also a matter of concern. Kasfir, for instance, argued that insurgents choose to form civilian governments only when they believe it will help them win. Once they make their commitment, however, other factors, such as civilian response, come into play. Kasfir studied the relationship of the National Resistance Army (NRA) in Uganda with the civilian population, and he concluded that coercion is a central tool for insurgents when they aim to take control of a territory, but once the rebel group gains control, overreliance on coercive means will be detrimental and will limit the group’s ability to obtain popular support (Kasfir, 2005, 2015). While several scholars argue that many civilians give voluntarily to rebels, Kasfir concluded that civilian motivations for aiding NRA rebels were mixed: “Most peasants probably felt an underlying sense of coercion, even if they were not open about it,” since all of their activity was under surveillance by the NRA (Kasfir, 2005, p. 285).

On the issue of violence, Mampilly contended that “the most important challenge for insurgency is how to resist the brutal efficiency of coercive tools if they hope to mobilize civilians behind their cause” (Mampilly, 2011, p. 50). This echoed Schlichte’s (2009) central argument that armed groups need to gain legitimacy in order to turn the power of violence into legitimate rule. While many analyses focusing on the violence of rebel groups have reduced a highly complex political organization to its criminal components, Schlichte looked at the broader set of interactions that insurgents engage in with local communities. He argued that armed groups are constantly negotiating the contradictions between their social legitimacy and the violence they use. Successful groups are those that are capable of overcoming the “shadow of violence.” “Converting military power into rule is their ultimate task. The success of armed groups in these attempts differs enormously” (Schlichte, 2009, p. 14).

Armed groups must therefore seek support. To do so, they use certain techniques and strategies, such as warrior habitus, collective interpretations of violence, and individual experiences of violence. Addressing the symbolic and spiritual demands of social actors also has a strong bearing on armed groups’ ability to mobilize support, as Hoffmann showed about General Padiri’s Maï Maï group in the Eastern DRC (Hoffmann, 2015). The armed group’s rhetoric, using heroic tales, symbols, speeches, and sophisticated doctrines, is useful for convincing people of the legitimacy of violence (Schlichte, 2009, p. 65). The insurgents must also adapt to the civilian response: “An ideology may provide direction, but its imperatives often have to be modified as guerrillas learn how to stay alive and how to use their immediate environment” (Kasfir, 2005, p. 34). Civilians are rarely only victims in war zones; they are neither passive nor invisible and can sometimes even manipulate rebel rulers. Just like sovereign governments, rebels must negotiate with civilians in exchange for their loyalty and in order to “appear” legitimate (Förster, 2015).

The struggle for legitimacy of rebel rulers in the eyes of the civilian population does not play out only at the local level. Rebel movements increasingly seek support, both symbolic and material, for their cause at the international level. Through such dynamics of “extraversion” (Bayart, 2000), the local and international dimensions of rebel rule are interlinked, as the case of Darfur paradigmatically shows (Jumbert & Lanz, 2013). As Schlichte noted, “On the level of discourses, the speeches and writings of insurgents have been part of one global discursive field in which armed groups themselves not only participated, but they also shaped self-perceptions and reactions by various international actors, ranging from single governments to churches, NGOs, and major international institutions like the UN” (2009, p. 197). He added that some armed groups gain “such a high degree of international legitimacy that their struggle to turn firepower into political domination cannot be blocked from outside” (Schlichte, 2009).

In other words, armed groups, like any social or political group, and regardless of the degree of territorial control they exercise in the areas they “govern,” do not operate in a social and political vacuum. Following Schlichte’s use of the concept developed by Norbert Elias, the groups are entangled in complex “figurations” of power that alternatively restrict, support, or shape their ability to “rule,” and they cannot simply impose their will or that of their movement. In particular, they have to take into account demands from three sectors: from below (civilian populations in the areas under their control), from within (they are always confronted with risk of rebellion from within the movement itself), and from above (the international community). In addition, they need to address different kinds of legitimacy—symbolic (such as belief systems or worldviews shared by certain social groups or communities) as well as “performance-centered” (Schlichte & Schneckener, 2015, pp. 416–419). The key variable in understanding both the dynamics of armed groups governance and the variations between the forms it may take, as well as its extent, is therefore legitimacy, understood not as a norm but as “an empirical phenomenon” depending on “people’s beliefs, perceptions, and expectations,” a “particular quality that is conferred upon a social or political entity by those who are subject to it or part of it, thus granting it authority” (Bellina et al., 2009).

Research on rebel governance has shown quite convincingly that the ability of armed groups to transform into political parties in the postconflict era depends largely on their success in overcoming the shadow of violence (Schlichte, 2009) by constructing their own legitimacy with regard to civilian populations and establishing institutions of civilian rule. However, this question has thus far been addressed mostly regarding armed groups themselves: Can they transform into state-builders, both during and especially after the end of a violent conflict? This is of course central, and the transition from armed movements to political parties is a key element of a sustainable transition from war to peace (de Zeeuw, 2008; Manning, 2007; Manning & Smith, 2016). However, there is a need to broaden the scope of reflection to the overall claims and grievances that armed actors mobilize in order to legitimize their actions.

In other words, we need to look at how the symbolic and material aspects of armed rule “survive” the end of hostilities, especially in formerly rebel-held territories, and how the survival affects long-term state-formation processes. This is important at two levels. First, while a focus on armed groups governance allows for a more in-depth and complex understanding of the political processes at play during violent conflict, the cultures of power developed in rebel-held territories, and especially the role of violence as a repertoire of rule, need to be taken into consideration, not only during civil wars, but beyond, as countries engage on the bumpy road following the end of open military hostilities. For instance, the return to violent fighting in South Sudan in December 2013, two years after the country’s hard-won independence and as a consequence of split within the SPLM/A, can be linked to the resilience of a culture of violence, whereby fighting is the privileged mode of “conflict resolution” (de Vries & Justin, 2014).

Second, narratives of economic, social, political, and cultural marginalization are often key in armed groups’ strategies of legitimation and in establishing rebel rule. The manufacture of consent by rebels is thus based on the mobilization of grievances against the state and the promises by rebels to address them. Studying these narratives and analyzing how, and to what extent, they continue to shape the postwar period both in terms of discourse and in terms of concrete policies, or how they continue to shape the “images” and “practices” of the state (Migdal & Schlichte, 2005), is key to understanding the relations between war and state formation.

Conclusion: War and State Formation

In his seminal work about the history of state formation in Europe, Tilly famously argued that “war made the state and the state made war” (Tilly, 1992, p. 42). The need to fund increasingly more technological and expensive warfare encouraged rulers of early modern Europe to a greater centralization of military and financial power, mainly through taxation. This in turn laid the ground for the development of state apparatuses and bureaucracies to administer the new means of coercion and capital. In the process, civil administrations and civil servants who played a central role in the development of the state capacity began to lay claims on the state, leading, “as a sort of by-product,” to a “civilianization of government and domestic politics” (Tilly, 1992, p. 206; see also Leander, 2004). The question of whether, and to what extent, Tilly’s argument can or cannot be applied to societies outside Europe in the contemporary world has triggered extensive debates. Tilly himself was cautious about any linearity between early modern Europe and postcolonial states in the 20th century. He noted that “states that have come into being recently through decolonization or through reallocations of territory by dominant states have acquired their military organization from outside, without the same internal forging of mutual constraints between rulers and ruled.” Therefore, he added, postcolonial states experience a degree of “disproportion between military organization and all other forms of organization” never experienced in European history (Tilly, 1985, p. 186).

While it is methodologically challenging to apply a strictly Tillyan perspective to the interactions between war and state formation in Africa because of the lack of historical distance (Hassner & Marchal, 2003, pp. 597–607), there are two issues related to Tilly’s arguments that may play out in the African context. The first goes back to one of the key debates about the relative weakness of African states. Drawing partly on Tilly, Herbst saw some of the main reasons for the relative failure of African states in the fact that they did not experience processes of centralization and consolidation through war similar to that of European states. Low population density and the scarcity of labor meant that precolonial African states fought over people, rather than land. This resulted in polities where territorial control was not the key to power, where interstate conflict was rare because there was no need to fight for the defense of well-defined borders like those in Europe, and therefore where there was little incentive for the development of a strong administrative apparatus able to raise the capital needed for coercion (Herbst, 2000). Leander, for her part, went one step further when she argued that the last phase of globalization has strongly accentuated the “drift toward external state-building,” which, in turn, has fundamentally altered the links between violent conflict and states, to such an extent that “war no longer makes states” (Leander, 2004, p. 79). This is due, in short, to the growing privatization of capital and security imposed by international players, which renders any bargaining between state and citizens unnecessary as it tends to displace the quest for legitimacy outside of the polity of the nation-state. Thus, “the prospect that wars could civilianize states is bleak” (Leander, 2004, p. 78).

The second issue allows the debate to move further, because it focuses on the kind of state that war has produced since the end of colonial rule. This is what Cheeseman, Collord, and Reyntjens set out to do in their study of the interconnections between war and democracy in East Africa. They showed that, contrary to interstate conflict, civil wars have negative consequences for democracy and that, in the five countries they surveyed (Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, Kenya, and Tanzania), “sustained political violence has contributed to weaker and more pliant political institutions, less cohesive inter-elite relations and the militarization of the political sphere” (Cheeseman, Collord, & Reyntjens, 2018, p. 57). Can the argument made about East Africa be extended to the whole continent? A possible answer is that violent conflicts have been simultaneously the cause and the symptom of three central dynamics in the history of state formation in Africa.

First, most civil wars in independent Africa have been about the seizure of central power, and secessionist wars have been the exception rather than the rule, a situation that contributed to making African borders paradoxically more stable than European ones in the last century. Wars, in other words, have been about the control of the “gate” (Cooper, 2002a); therefore, they have contributed to the concentration of power in the hands of the “gatekeeper,” while at the same time constituting a privileged way of conquering power, since gatekeepers tried to restrict all other avenues of social and political mobility. Second, violent conflicts, from the liberation struggles of the 1960s to the civil wars of the Cold War and post-Cold War eras, need to be seen in the long history of the extraversion (Bayart, 2000) of the political societies of the continent. While these wars have a strongly local character and while their local history still largely needs to be written,3 their international dimension—from the international solidarity of the liberation struggles to the support of the Cold War superpowers, and to the integration of armed groups as well as states in international networks of illegal trade of natural resources in order to finance the war effort—has profoundly shaped the political economy of African states. Third, civil wars need to be seen in the light of the factional struggles that have been at the heart of the dynamics of state formation in Africa. The postcolonial African state, as Bayart has argued, “operates as a rhizome rather than a root system. . . . It is . . . an infinitely variable multiplicity of networks whose underground branches join together the scattered points of society” (Bayart, 2009, p. 220). Violent conflict has been one of the modalities through which the different “buds” or the “rhizome state” have formed, have developed, and have been brought together in processes of institutionalization of power.


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  • 1. The Fragile States Index (formerly Failed States Index) proposed by the Fund for Peace is the paramount example of this “cottage industry.”

  • 2. See Kasfir (2015) for an attempt at defining this new subfield and Kasfir, Frerks, and Terpstra (2017) for a more nuanced version. Schlichte and Schneckener (2015) broaden the scope of the discussion to the issue of legitimacy.

  • 3. For an excellent step in that direction, see Morier-Genoud, Cahen, and Rosário (2018).