Saturday, 24 November 2012

Returning to "Coup-Proof" with some stuff on coup-proofing

I have finally been poked out of blog-lethargy (blothargy?) by a very interesting discussion about the integrity of some African regimes in the face of rebellion. James Fearon was provoked by M23's seizure of Goma to muse:
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?
Fearon's intuition is then the same as mine--that the best explanation is the tradeoff between coup risk and rebellion, as developed in the work of, inter alia, Philip Roessler
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. 
But then he notes that Congo is a pretty extreme case in Africa. There are lots of countries that don't seem to have these recurrent problems. It is unclear what, structurally, differentiates these two groups of cases, according to Fearon.

One bit of brush clearing about what we're talking about. Laura Seay, in comments on Fearon, points out that Congo's President Joseph Kabila has in fact done a bit of what Fearon suggests: 

like leaders in most African states, Kabila has a well-trained, equipped, and paid presidential guard that has saved him from at least one coup/assassination attempt as well as a military battle in Kinshasa in 2007.

Goma is pretty far from Kinshasa, as Seay points out, so for the moment Kabila is fine. But clearly he would rather that Rwandan-backed (that seems clear enough) rebels not control a major town in the east. So there is indeed a bit of a puzzle. 

I'm going to try to think through the strategic dimensions of this a little bit, as a first cut. If we want to understand why some countries face these tradeoffs and others don't, I think our best bet lies in predictors of coup risk, and in generating comparative statics through a better characterization of the strategic situation facing leaders.

I think Fearon captures the demand side of things pretty well: presidents do have a pretty compelling interest security services that are (a) effective and (b) loyal, if they can get them. Now, the threat of a successful coup is worse for the leader than the threat of a successful civil or international war, because at least in the latter case, the president probably has a better chance to flee before he/she is captured. Hence the president has to ensure against coups first, rebellions/international wars second. In practice, there are coup-proofing techniques, such as divide & rule, or running multiple internal security agencies all monitoring each other, or relying on loyalists from a communal in-group, that can help reduce the risk of a successful coup, but weaken the army in the face of wars (international and internal). So the president tends to reduce effectiveness for the sake of not having a coup.

I would point out an additional problem attendant on rebellions: they disrupt the calculations of coup-proofing. If, from sources that are in the first instance outside the military, the likelihood that the president is going to get ousted suddenly and dramatically increases, soldiers have much more of an interest in defecting. This was a problem Mobutu Sese Seko faced in 1996-97, or Gaddafi in 2011. The problem in rebellion is then not just effectiveness per se, but also, quite often, loyalty too, and what a president does to keep loyalty against a coup plot might not be enough to keep loyalty against a rebellion.

In any case, the President has a clear preference for a strong & loyal army, and has lots of money, but money doesn't seem to translate into that strong & loyal army. We observe in reality security services are often not effective, and if they are loyal, it's only in the sense that they are not actually launching a coup right this second, not that they are willing to fight particularly hard, or not desert in the face of a rebellion (see Jeffrey Gettleman's masterpiece of sarcasm: In New Tack, Congo’s Army Starts to Fight). There are then three non-mutually-exclusive possible short-run explanations, as I see them:

(1) The problem is on the supply side, not the demand side. That is, the population of individuals willing to supply their military services loyally is too small to meet the demand.

(2) Even if those individuals existed, identifying them is going to be pretty hard. It would probably require credible signals of some kind, but it is unclear what kind of credible signals can be offered.

(3) Direct cash payment is not what is needed to secure loyalty. If I am a colonel, I can hope for a payoff from the next president, not just from this one. In any case promises of cash can attract mercenary careerists over committed professionals. If it is hard to identify one from the other, it sets up something like Jeremy Weinstein's information problem in rebel recruitment, applied to governments. So the money that African presidents have just isn't all that useful in building effective, loyal armies.

So these are some areas where I think we can clarify just what the problems are. I happen to think the identification problem is a seriously tricky and important one. In my paper "Loyalty Strategies and Military Defection in Rebellion," I investigate some of its consequences. I see the reliance on a core group, such as an ethnic minority, as a way of constructing a way of identifying loyalists from the suspect endogenously. A president believes that members of group X are particularly loyal; so promotes members of group X; so members of group X cannot easily defect in the face of a rebellion and hope for good treatment by the other side, being too tightly associated with the old regime. It is a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. This does, of course, alienate non-Xs, who will be more likely to defect, and as Roessler argues in a terrific paper, it can provoke rebellions in the first place. My paper shows how this played out in Syria in the Muslim Brotherhood uprising that culminated in the Hama Massacre of 1982, in a manner similar to the reliance of the Jordanian monarchy on certain East Bank groups in the Jordanian Civil War in 1970 (and also Saddam Hussein's Iraq), and in contrast to individualized reward-and-punishment approaches like the Shah's in Iran. I think some version of it has been playing out, horribly, in Syria again since 2011.

So, these are some strategic considerations. I think picking them apart will provide further insights into the short run.

But what makes one country more likely than another to have these tradeoffs in the first place? That is, what about Fearon's question about structural preconditions? In general, I suspect that if there are, indeed, structural predictors of the kind of coup-rebellion tradeoff that's at issue here--the specific problem of having a military too weak to deal with these kinds of challenges--that we'll find them in structural predictors of coups, not structural predictors of civil wars, if a coup is indeed the more important threat of the two.

Otherwise, I'm not really sure. Perhaps the mechanisms I suggest above can point us in the right direction on structural conditions. Perhaps the ethnic-identity piece depends on the president having close ties to a communal groups of a particular size (not too big, or else identity gets to be not very predictive of loyalties; not too small, or else it doesn't provide enough manpower), but even then, there are multiple ways to use group identities: Saddam relied on Sunnis specifically from Tikrit, for example. We could maybe look for structural conditions in which there is a large supply of individuals willing to fight loyally to overcome the supply problem. If we game this out, we can come up with some comparative statics. But this all remains a neat puzzle without an obvious answer.

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