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WORLD FOCUS: The logic of civil war

February 16, 2017
By FRANK SHATZ , Lake Placid News

"One of the primary things I hope the audience takes away from my talk is a better understanding of the logic of civil war in Africa," said Philip Roessler, professor of government and the director of the Center for African Development at William & Mary, in an interview with the Lake Placid News and the Virginia Gazette.

Roessler was the guest at "Book Talk" moderated by Steve Hanson, vice provost for International Affairs at the College of William & Mary and director of the Reves Center for International Studies.

"South Sudan on the brink of genocide, Syria in ruin, pitched battles in Iraq to liberate ISIS-controlled areas. Few phenomena are a greater source of human suffering and international instability as civil war. Understanding the causes of civil war represent one of the most important policy challenges of our time. In two new books Professor Roessler offers new insights into the causes of civil war," states the introduction to his talk.

His talk focused on the intractability of civil wars in many African states. Roessler spent more than 18 months in Sudan conducting semi-structured interviews with more than 100 different Sudanese from top echelon in the government to tribal elders and rank-and-file members of the rebellions, to understand the events and dynamics leading to the outbreak of civil war in Darfur.

"This in-depth understanding of the events leading to the outbreak of the civil war in Darfur motivated me to come up with the central theoretical argument advanced in my book, 'Ethnic Politics and State - Power in Africa: The Logic of the Coup-Civil War Trap,' that rulers in ethically-divided states face a vicious trade-off between coups and civil war," Roessler said. "Existing scholarship rarely studied coups and civil wars together. They saw them as distinct political processes. My innovation was to bring coups and civil wars into one integrated theoretical model. And showing that coups and civil wars are in fact trade-offs."

Roessler explained that civil war is a function of the strategies rulers pursue to coup-proof their regimes from their societal rivals. In other words, seeing civil war as the lesser of two evils, rulers choose policies designed to prevent coups even if it means increasing their country's risk to large-scale violence.

From the quantitative analysis of the Darfur civil war, testing it across many African countries, Roessler, in collaboration with Harry Verhoeven, professor at Georgetown University, identified the Democratic Republic of the Congo as another typical case of rulers using coup-proofing strategies to protect their hold on power at the cost of civil war - in this case leading to Africa's Great War, the deadliest conflict since World War II.

He noted that one of the most important ways out of the coup-civil war trap is to put an end to the use of force as a means to political power. In fact, the African Union has adopted the policy and is collectively enforcing it, not to recognize groups that come to power by force. Coups and forcible seizures of power now trigger sanctions and a state's suspension from the African Union until democratically elected government is restored to power.

I asked Roessler about his recommendation to the Trump administration on how to handle the recurrent crises in Africa?

"One of the most important things the Trump administration can do is to continue the United States government's strong support and engagement with the African Union as well as with such regional organizations as the Economic Community of West African States," he said. "Adopting a policy that would enable them a much more robust posture in managing and preventing conflict in Africa. The U.S. should also engage with the African Union and other regional stakeholders to explore ways to ensure incumbents cannot exploit anti-coup procedures to actually further consolidate power in their own hands"


Frank Shatz's column was reprinted with permission from the Virginia Gazette. Shatz is a Lake Placid seasonal resident. He is the author of "Reports from a Distant Place," a compilation of his selected columns.



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