Pulling the Strings

Mind control is harder than finding a doorway behind a filing cabinet.

Paul Collier is pimping his War, Guns and Votes idea of creating rules under which the international community will tacitly support the use of military coup as a method of achieving political change again, this time in the context of the Ivory Coast. He says:

In much of Africa, the national army is the force most feared by presidents. Leaders go to considerable lengths to keep the army happy, but coups are still common. Because neither African governments nor the international community want to encourage coups, they have taken the line that the military should simply stay out of politics at all costs. This is understandable, but misguided: it’s better to set guidelines as to the very limited circumstances under which the ousting of an incumbent ruler would be legitimate.

His argument is essentially that this could work directly (by the army forcing Gbagbo out) or indirectly (the threat of being forced out, coupled with international pariah status and frozen bank accounts induce Gbagbo to leave power voluntarily).

His ideas are interesting, of course, but it seems to me that they depend on an assumption that either outsiders can control the coup leaders, or that they will operate in a benign manner – deposing Gbagbo and returning the country to democracy either out of the goodness of their hearts or out of fear of further coups. I’m dubious. History is littered with examples of where external powers have encouraged or supported an alternative to a bad leader, only to watch in horror as their role as Dr. Frankenstein creates a monster far beyond control.

Armies tend to be run and staffed by people who believe in strict hierarchy, discipline and autocratic models of leadership. I would imagine that they would therefore be just as prone to undemocratic behaviour as the leaders they depose. And once in power, won’t they be tempted by the endless possibilities to line their own pockets or to provide patronage to whatever groups support them? Are they less likely to be corrupted by power, even absolute power? I doubt this.

Direct military intervention has problems as well, of course, as does leaving things for an internal solution. I’m not sure which approach is best. All seem distinctly unsatisfactory.

3 thoughts on “Pulling the Strings

  1. Duncan

    January 12, 2011 at 5:20pm

    Collier appears to neglecting an appreciation of the probable consequences of his proposed military coup: countries that experience a military coup are far more likely to see a repeat performance. Success breeds imitation. The next time(s), the result may not be to his liking, and then what?

    Since, in recent years, Africa has virtually ceased deviating from the norm in terms of how leaders exit power (with the balance between regular and irregular means shifting in favour of the former), it would be a shame to encourage measures likely to reverse this trend.

    I would also add that Western powers encouraging military coups in sub-Saharan Africa to achieve wider policy objectives has an exceptionally poor track record.

  2. Matt

    January 13, 2011 at 10:22am

    I think Collier’s assumption is that the indirect force will always work before the direct force (i.e. that Gbagbo will leave before the threat of a coup gets too great), and that people are assuming he’s actually advocating the coup. That said, I still think it’s extremely risky, and perhaps a bad time to start trying out theories from Wars, Guns and Votes.

  3. Ranil Dissanayake

    January 13, 2011 at 12:05pm

    I think you’re right, but as you say it’s a huge risk, and one that makes too many assumptions about the predictability or rationality of human behaviour for my comfort.

    As an aside, will there ever be a good time to experiment with his ideas? They are so potentially ruinous for so many lives and so politically difficult to defend, I don’t think that the ‘rules’ he talks about can ever be made explicit, and if implicit, it will require a few ‘good’ coups but also a few ‘bad’ coups before norms are established.

    I put this one below even Charter Cities for implementability, because at least the latter can be implemented in a more watered down version without destroying the basic concept.

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