When Insurgents Rule


German Stamp featuring Amilcar Cabral, January 1978

by Zachariah Cherian Mampilly

During the liberation struggle against Portuguese colonialism in Guinea-Bissau, Amilcar Cabral and his PAIGC rebellion successfully convinced over sixty countries to recognize the nascent rebel government. Within the territory it successfully liberated from Portuguese control, the PAIGC built a government that provided basic public goods and even allowed a degree of civilian participation through elections. Like many other insurgent theorists including Mao Zedong and Che Guevara before him, Cabral argued that developing civilian governance was necessary to win popular support, and hence essential for both the military success of the rebellion as well as the legitimacy of the post-war government.

Building governments was not merely a strategy available to left-wing insurgencies. The Biafran secessionists established a government that gained recognition from a number of countries and even adopted a national anthem and a flag displaying the “half of a yellow sun”, made famous in Chimamanda Adichie’s novel. In Angola, the UNITA rebellion, a right wing rebellion supported by the United States, built a vast system for civilian governance that provided schools with a centralized curriculum, medical facilities and established a food production system for residents of its territory. More recently, the Afghan Taliban, despite the portrayal of the movement as Islamic nihilists, has also demonstrated a capacity to govern, developing systems of courts and taxation within areas under its control.

When attempting to battle a government with far more advantages, insurgent leaders must rely on civilian support for a variety of material and informational resources. How to win popular support is a key challenge for any insurgency. One approach that rebellions have consistently adopted is to provide public goods to the local population ranging from basic stability to far more substantial services such as keeping the power on, running the education or health systems, establishing a legal mechanism and police force, ensuring the food supply and so on. When insurgents engage in such activities we can speak of the emergence of a “rebel government” as the above examples demonstrate.

Why are some insurgencies able to develop legitimate and effective governments while others treat civilians with contempt? How do rebels go about organizing governments in the first place? Do rebel governments provide an advantage to insurgencies as they seek to overthrow a government? In my book, Rebel Rulers: Insurgent Governance and Civilian Life during War, I set about to answer these questions. Based on research within the rebel-controlled areas of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sri Lanka and Sudan, I provide an argument that explains the variation between these three rebel governments as well as detailed case studies of each.

The research process was, in a way, remarkably simple. The most difficult challenge was gaining access to various areas of the map controlled by different violent organizations. But once ‘safely’ ensconced within a rebel territory, I would ask community members how they went about addressing their basic needs. To whom did they complain if they had a dispute with a neighbor, or more frighteningly, with a rebel soldier? How did they educate their children? Where did they go when they needed medical assistance? I would then follow their lead to actual service provision sites within war zones and interview the relevant personnel, whether aid workers, church leaders, rebel lawyers, traditional authorities, community and business leaders, or committed health workers.

Rebel governments have been relatively understudied. Instead, scholars have tended to focus on why people take up arms in the first place, how would be insurgent leaders recruits followers and how they deploy violence against civilians, all undoubtedly important questions. But focusing on these more salacious aspects elides the non-violent components of insurgent behavior. Considering that even in situations of mass violence, only a tiny segment of the population actually engages in violence directly, and this is a real oversight. More problematically, the vast majority of casualties in contemporary wars are not caused by actual fighting, but rather by the breakdown of social and political order that results. Thus, ignoring insurgent governments has real implications for those concerned with civilian welfare during war.

The Libyan conflict demonstrates the significance of rebel governments and the problem of reducing participants in civil wars to heroes and villains. After NATO stepped in to preserve its territorial control, the Libyan rebellion soon found itself responsible for a population of over 1 million in Benghazi and the surrounding towns. As the war dragged on, the ability of the insurgency to govern its captive population became arguably as important as their ability to defeat Qaddafi militarily. Had rebel territory descended into chaos, civilian support for the National Transitional Council might have been fleeting as the population in Benghazi had been accustomed to relatively high levels of governance provision during the Qaddafi regime, despite their disdain for his autocratic ways. In response, rebel leaders came together to organize a civilian government that was able to provide a degree of stability to the civilian population, though not without some major difficulties along the way.

One disturbing accusation has dogged insurgent leaders even after chasing Qaddafi out of Tripoli and his recent execution in Sirte. Indeed, from the earliest reports coming out of rebel-controlled territory, accounts of black Libyans and especially sub-Saharan Africans being rounded up and abused have persisted. By some estimates, over a million black African migrants resided in Libya under Qaddafi. During his rule, Qaddafi sought to bolster Libya’s ties to its southern neighbors sending large amounts of bilateral aid to other African states and working through the African Union to position himself as a champion of Pan-Africanism. In addition, Libya has long drawn migrants from sub-Saharan Africa seeking work or transiting on their way to illegally crossing into Europe. Once the war began, some of these migrants were incorporated into the bewildering array of militias under the control of various Qaddafi sons and supporters that became the hallmark of the dreaded Libyan security apparatus. But the vast majority did not. This did not prevent the NTC from detaining and abusing large numbers of Black Libyans and Sub-Saharan Africans into the present day despite repeated criticism from organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International (if not from members of the NATO alliance who have sadly been quiet on this issue).

So what explains the NTC’s behavior regarding black Libyans and migrants? One possibility is that leaders of the rebellion simply lacked the command and control structures to prevent their cadre and other civilian militias from rounding them up. The difficulties that the movement has had in putting together a new cabinet is testimony to its internal fragmentation. During the conflict, the rebels were able to rally all factions against Qaddafi. But with Qaddafi gone, the once dormant divisions are now coming to the fore. This explanation is favored by those who called for the military intervention and positioned the rebellion as freedom fighters. To their credit, the NTC government did agree to abide by the Geneva conventions, a key move that generated tremendous goodwill among human rights activists.

But a more disturbing possibility exists as well. Another common practice embraced by insurgent governments is to engage in societal initiatives that sync with the popular will of the local population. For example, rebel governments have cracked down on prostitution, drug dealing or other (perceived) social ills within their territory, often ingratiating them to the local community. In the case of Libya, it is possible that the rebel command has allowed these attacks against blacks to continue in order to tap into the racist sentiments many Libyans feel towards Sub-Saharan Africans: a rejection of Qaddafi’s welcoming of black Africans into their country and other overtures towards Africa south of the Sahara. I don’t think that the leaders of the NTC have encouraged these attacks. Rather, they have chosen to not stop them from occurring for fear of losing popular support.

Either way, the dynamic in Libya demonstrates both the difficulty inherent in trying to establish a legitimate rebel government and the importance of insurgent governance practices on post-conflict outcomes. Having never resolved these issues during the fighting, the NTC continues to struggle with a factionalized structure that undermines their ability to form a new, legitimate post-Qaddafi government in Libya. As such, the treatment of black Africans is a possible bellweather of the new government’s support for human rights.

Similar struggles have bedeviled the efforts by the South Sudanese rebels to build an independent state. As I document in my book, patterns of governance that the SPLA rebellion adopted during the war continue to shape the behavior of the post-independence government.

Ultimately, the goal of the book is to center civilian governance by insurgents in analyses of war which too often accept depictions of rebel-controlled areas as spaces of chaos within which terrible things inevitably occur. This is a myth. Insurgent leaders have considerable leeway in determining the treatment of civilians and deserve scrutiny for their actions. My book provides a more three dimensional view of organizations often treated as mere purveyors of violence. Though all insurgent organizations are inevitably violent, sometimes abhorrently so, they differ from criminal mafias in that they often must care for the local population as well. By providing a critical account of how this occurs we can move beyond simplified treatments of insurgents as either terrorists or freedom fighters towards an understanding of their innate complexities.

About the Author:

Zachariah Cherian Mampilly is Assistant Professor in the Political Science Department at Vassar College. His research focuses on the nature of contemporary conflict processes, with an emphasis on Africa and South Asia. Based on field-work behind insurgent lines in DRC, Sri Lanka and Sudan, he examines the behavior of rebel organizations and their interactions with civilian populations. Of particular interest is the construction of institutions of governance by rebel organizations. He is also interested in the contemporary discourse on ‘terrorism’ and its impact on American foreign and domestic policy. He is the author of Rebel Rulers: Insurgent Governance and Civilian Life During War.