Book Review: Rebel Rulers. Insurgent Governance and Civilian Life During War by Zachariah Cherian Mampilly

By Juan Masullo J - 08 November 2012
Book Review: Rebel Rulers. Insurgent Governance and Civilian Life During War

Rebel Rulers. Insurgent Governance and Civilian Life During War by Zachariah Cherian Mampilly. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2011. 320 pp., £27.95 (hardback). 978 0801449130.

We generally assume civil wars to be anarchic and chaotic. We think about armed groups waging these wars as gratuitously and wantonly engaging in (only) violent interactions against the forces of the state and/or the civilian population. We regard areas controlled by them as “black spots” where authority, sovereignty and governance shine by their absence. Zacharian C. Mampilly’s book, Rebel Rules: Insurgent Governance and Civilian Life During War, successfully challenges this general understanding of internal warfare. Building on the empirical observation that many contemporary armed groups, in the pursuit of their broader goals, make efforts to develop systems of governance to generate civilian collaboration, he shows that non-violent interactions are endogenous to civil war dynamics and that armed groups in fact create social and political order in the territories they come to control.

Mampilly’s focus is on the behavior of rebel groups that attempt to develop systems of governance. (1) He is well aware that not every rebel group deems it necessary to gain civilian support and, therefore, not all of them make the strategic choice of controlling territory –a first-order condition for governance– and providing civilians with public goods and services. He is also attentive to the fact that even when rebel groups make the costly decision of pursuing civilian governance, success is far from guaranteed. The three cases the book analyses, areas where the author conducted extensive field research both during and after the conflicts, illustrate very well this reality: while in Sri Lanka the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) developed a comprehensive system of governance providing several public goods (including education and, to a lesser extent, health), in Sudan the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army’s (SPLM/A) governance was limited to the provision of security, and in eastern Congo the Rally for Congolese Democracy’s (RCD) attempts failed.

With the main objective of explaining variation in “rebel governance” along a noneffective – partially effective – effective continuum (pg. 15 – 18), the book asks the question of why some armed groups are able to develop effective governance systems while others fail in the attempt. In a theory-driven fashion and following an inductive process, Mampilly generates a set of hypotheses that are first tested separately for each of the three cases considered (chaps. 4, 5, and 6) and then analyzed within a comparative framework, including some evidence—based on secondary sources—from other contemporary conflicts (Chap. 7). To account for the determinants of variation, the author assesses factors that are present at the onset of war (e.g. state penetration; groups agenda; organizational structure) as well as others that are endogenous to the dynamics of the conflict and, thus, surface during the course of the war (e.g. conflict intensity; support/competition by transnational actors). All these factors, together, can affect governance strategies from below, within and above the group.

In a nutshell, the book’s findings show that four key dimensions of the political environment in which armed groups operate shape governance outcomes: (i) the history and legacy of state penetration and its social and political institutions; (ii) the group’s agenda and organizational structure; (iii) the competition for territorial control between different actors; and (iv) the relationship between the armed group and other local and transnational actors (pg. 234). For example, Mampilly shows how state penetration played a central role in explaining variation in the outcomes observed in Sri Lanka and Democratic Republic of Congo. In the first case, the Tamil population, accustomed to a Sri Lankan state that provided substantial public goods and services prior to the conflict, was well aware of its ability to influence political authority and forced the LTTE to establish a relationship in which support was given only in exchange for public goods and services. In addition, existing institutions created by the Sri Lankan state facilitated the armed group to position itself as a replacement to the government by appropriating the state machinery, reducing costs and increasing effectiveness. In contrast, in the case of D. R. Congo, the state had withdrawn from the regions the RCD-Goma came to control, leaving the administration of these zones to a multiplicity of non-state actors that the armed group never managed to co-opt into their governance project.

The stakes of Mampilly’s scholarly contribution clearly go beyond the realm of academia (Chap. 8). From a policy-oriented perspective, his message is bold: “Under an objective consideration of the organization’s governance system, certain insurgencies that meet specific criteria could be deemed a distinct category of international actors […] with a defined and limited set of rights within the international system.” (pg. 247). Challenging the normalized view that only states produce order, the author calls for non-state armed groups to be distinguished according to their desire and ability to develop effective systems to govern civilians, providing those that do with a limited degree of international juridical recognition. In his view, this would facilitate the coordination of activities such as humanitarian aid projects, transnational commerce, and border control. Moreover, it would serve as a positive incentive for armed groups to take more seriously the task of providing welfare to civilians in the territories they control.

Regardless of the extent to which we agree with this normative preposition, Mampilly’s argument is theoretically sound and empirically rich. His work draws our attention to a social dynamic of armed conflicts that only recently started to receive systematic attention by scholars in the field: rebel governance. Moreover, his book leaves us with useful theoretical (Chaps. 2 and 3) and methodological (Chap. 1 and brief Appendix) tools to continue exploring this phenomenon, as well as many other social dynamics that shape armed conflicts and that have crucial impacts on the daily lives of people caught in the middle of war zones.

However, some important aspects are left underexplored. Although the author is well aware of the fact that rebel governance can vary temporally and spatially within a specific case (note that he carried out field work in at least two different areas of his three cases), his findings are more robust when it comes to cross-national/cross-organization comparisons. Yet, as evidence in the field suggests, the dynamics of internal warfare (violence, control, recruitment, displacement, resistance, among others) are usually unevenly distributed over the territory. Thus, the same rebel group might aim to provide public goods and services in some local areas while following a completely different strategy in neighboring zones in the same country. Moreover, they can radically change their strategies and behavior in the same local area over time, for example, as a reaction to the ways in which local communities respond to their strategies. Therefore, within-country and within-group variation are left in need of more detailed exploration. Additionally, Mampilly leaves the reader wondering whether his findings can be extended to understand governance (and its variation) in other armed actors that, although central in some contemporary internal conflicts (e.g. paramilitaries), do not easily fit the category of “rebels”.

Juan Masullo J. is a doctoral researcher at the European University Institute, where he works on the intersections between social movement's and civil war's research. His dissertation explores civilian agency in civil war settings, with an especial emphasis on non-violent resistance as contentious collective action.

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