Book Project

How Democracy Shapes State-Building: Elections and Armed Groups in Africa 

How do multi-party elections shape the state’s control over violence?  The conventional wisdom is that incumbents face strong incentives to collude with armed actors in order to secure victory at the polls with violence and intimidation.  In doing so, governments actively undermine their control over the means of violence.  While these studies have yielded important insights, they overlook a wide range of other ties that elected governments cultivate with armed groups.  In some instances, governments openly collude with armed actors, publicly providing them with money and weapons, while they do so covertly in others.  In other times and places, government tolerate armed groups, neither supporting nor trying to rein them in.  Still elsewhere, government officials violently crack down with wide-scale repression.  What explains government strategies toward armed groups?  Under what conditions do elected governments tolerate, repress, or collude (overtly and covertly) with these actors?  Studying different relations between elected governments and armed groups promises to advance our understanding of how democracy influences the state’s control over violence.

To tackle these questions, I study the relationships ruling party executives cultivate with armed groups in two African democracies- Nigeria and Kenya.  Because they are subject to regular multi-party elections and wield wide authority over where and when to deploy the state’s resources, ruling executives provide a useful lens into how elections shape incentives to expand or contract the state’s authority.  The book begins at the subnational level in Nigeria, studying how three different governors shifted their armed group strategies over time: the Bakassi Boys in Anambra State, the Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force in Rivers State, and Boko Haram in Borno State.  I then travel over to Kenya and scale up to the national level.  There, I study President Moi’s repression of Mungiki for a decade following the transition to multi-party elections in 1992, to a shift to covert collusion in 2002.  Evidence is gathered from a wide array of sources, including government documents, local news media, local NGO reports, election observation reports, and a rich anthropological literature.  The Nigerian case studies additionally draw on fieldwork observations and 150 semi-structured interviews with government actors, party members, state security services, civil society activists, journalists, academics, and voters, conducted during 10 months of field research over multiple trips between 2011 and 2014.  Similar evidence will be gathered during fieldwork in Kenya scheduled for summer 2019.

The argument can be broken down into three steps.  The first is that the primary goal of ruling executives is to win elections; their strategies toward armed groups are pursued with this in mind.  Second, to secure electoral victories executives work to (1) establish control over key institutions, specifically the party machinery, the state bureaucracies, and the legislature, and (2) build mass support.  While the importance of the party machinery, state bureaucracies, and legislature varies across contexts, they are often essential to gerrymandering, electoral bribery, distributing patronage, and creating an uneven playing field for the opposition.  Put differently, these formal institutions help ruling executives rig elections.  In addition to institutional control, executives also seek to build and maintain mass support because it makes rigging elections, as well as governing, easier and less costly.  The support base of armed groups, therefore, signals whether they are desirable allies or dangerous liabilities.

The final step in the argument is that an executive’s institutional control combines with the popularity of armed groups to shape government strategies.  In contrast to existing studies on armed groups and political violence in democracies, I find that executives only collude with armed groups (overtly or covertly) when their grip on key institutions is weakened.  Collusion, in other words, is a risky and second-rate substitute that executives turn to when they are unable to rig elections through formal institutions. Whether they publicly build alliances with armed groups or do so covertly depends on whether armed groups have wide support among voters (overt collusion) or are deeply unpopular (covert collusion).

The findings make three key contributions.  First, they challenge the conventional wisdom that elections motivate incumbents to share or outsource the means of violence with armed actors in order to win elections, thereby giving away the state’s monopoly on violence.  Collusion is only one among several strategies.  I show that under certain conditions (high levels of executive institutional control and weak popular support for armed groups), elections incentivize incumbents to rein in and dismantle armed groups, consolidating the state’s grip on violence in the process.  The findings thus advance our understanding of how multi-party elections shape the consolidation of state authority.

Second, the book develops a typology of government strategies toward armed groups that capture the dynamics of state-building, including overt collusion, covert collusion, forbearance, and repression.  This typology brings together insights from studies of insurgency, para-militaries, pro-government militias, criminal organizations, mafias, and party-affiliated armed groups, adding to a new and growing research agenda on armed politics.

Finally, the book sheds light on the occurrence of electoral violence.  Collusion between the ruling party and armed actors is responsible for much election-related violence, including targeted assassinations, voter intimidation and harassment, and generalized violence.  Yet theoretical understanding of what drives collusion is limited.  The book’s findings contribute to the broader study of electoral violence by revealing when ruling party executives covertly or overtly collude with armed groups to try to win elections, and when they do not.  In doing so, they also offer concrete suggestions for how policymakers, international donors, and civil society activists can strengthen the integrity of elections and deter politicians from allying with armed groups.