Field notes: Civil war in a strong state

Three years ago Jeannie and I applied for two Ugandan research visas ($200 each) in advance of our first survey in the north. The visas passed through a human subjects review and the Office of the President (since we were working in the war zone) and arrived in the mail a few months later… with $200. It turns out that research visas were one per project, not one per researcher, so the Ugandan government cut me a cheque. This is an African state that works.

I think I would have kept and framed the cheque if we hadn‘t been so desperate for cash at the time. (We were running the survey on our student loans, were $30,000 in debt, and living in what can only be described as a concrete hovel. It’s sole virtue was that we were sandwiched between the houses of an army major and colonel, somewhat advantageous when there is a conflict ongoing–however distant from town it may be.)

One of the unusual aspects of the conflict and humanitarian crisis in northern Uganda is that it has occurred in the context of a strong state and not a fragile one. The government has a significant presence in the north, including administrative structures, police, and mostly-functioning schools and health systems. To be sure, such services are sometimes underprovided or mismanaged, but by many standards (certainly regional ones) the state is well organized and effective. In central and southwestern Uganda, where there has been peace and relative prosperity for over 20 years, the growing state bureaucracy would make even Max Weber proud.

Another sometimes positive sign is that the Ugandan government often seems disinterested in foreign agencies and experts. They tend to avoid UN and NGO meetings, and seem only partly interested in their activities; meddling by outsiders is dismissed rather than decried; national consultants and experts are employed at least as often as international ones.

Some of this behavior (especially the lack of coordination with humanitarian agencies) might reflect indolence rather than independence. In general, however, I see a real sense of self sufficiency. Why consult a so-called foreign expert when you can get the job done yourself? I wonder if the ethic extends back to Museveni‘s bush war, when none of the Great Powers were interested in supporting his fledgling movement. Discipline and self-sufficiency were his only path to victory. (Incidentally, Dani Rodrik has a nice comment on a Zambian intellectual’s recent derision for outside experts).

If Uganda is such a strong state, it raises the question why a conflict was able to persist so long. How does a rag tag band of guerrillas consistently defeat one of Africa’s more disciplined and professional armies? Most theories credibly question the government’s interest and resolve in ending the conflict. Looting eastern DRC occupied much of the army’s attention in the 1990′s, and battalions of ‘ghost soldiers’—soldiers paid on paper, but don’t actually exist—supposedly left government forces woefully outmatched by the rebel group. Since the Acholi dominated the former government army and politics for so long, some argue (very plausibly, but admittedly without much real proof) that the government was actually interested in subjugating the Acholi by letting them effectively kill and displace one another.

For me this illustrates the dangers of a strong state as much as a fragile one. Attention to conflict in fragile states occupies much of the civil war literature, but there are no such easy causal links. It seems to me that persecution or subjugation of a minority (and, in the extreme case, ethnic cleansing) is only possible with capable organization and coordination. A sad and damning black mark on an otherwise remarkable government and President.