What will make the Libyan rebels' government-building attempts successful?

Guest blogger Laura Seay interviews the author of a book on governance by rebel groups about what Libya's National Transitional Council will need to do to build a stable government.

Benoit Tessier/Reuters
France's President Nicolas Sarkozy welcomes Mustafa Abdel Jalil (C), chairman of Libya's National Transitional Council (NTC), and Mahmoud Jibril (R), the head of Libya's rebel NTC, prior to the opening of the "Friends of Libya" conference at the Elysee Palace in Paris today.

With the National Transitional Council (NTC) taking over in Libya, interest in how rebel movements govern is perhaps at an all-time high. Lucky for all of us, Vassar political scientist and my friend Zachariah Cherian Mampilly has a book on precisely this topic out today. "Rebel Rulers: Insurgent Governance and Civilian Life During War" is a fascinating exploration of three rebel movements: Sri Lanka's LTTE (aka, the Tamil Tigers), South Sudan's SPLM/A, and DRC's Rally for Congolese Democracy (RCD).

I cannot recommend Mampilly's book enough. If you are studying, thinking, and/or formulating policy about insurgency, governance, and state reconstruction, Rebel Rulers is a must-read. Mampilly did insane fieldwork behind rebel lines with all three of the movements during their wars. The book is an incredible work of comparative study and you're not going to find anyone better-informed on how rebels govern anywhere else.
Even better? You can get 20% discount for a limited time by buying the book at the Cornell University Press site. And, yes, there's a Kindle edition available for the e-book fans.

I had the opportunity to ask Zachariah a few questions about his book and its relevance for today's questions about Libya:

TiA: What was the most surprising thing you learned in researching Rebel Rulers ?

Mampilly: As an undergraduate in the late 90's, I was regularly confronted by works on the "collapse" or "failure" of the African state. By the time I arrived at UCLA for graduate school, Paul Collier's work had initiated a boom in scholarship on the criminality of insurgent organizations. The problem with both literatures was that they didn't conform to the reality of what I was witnessing on the ground but were more a fantasy of how the West perceives post-colonial countries, i.e. weak and corrupt governments overtaken by violent criminal warlords.

But on my first trips to to Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan, and Sri Lanka in the early 2000s, I was struck by the relative normalcy of towns under insurgent control. Despite the difficult conditions which ebbed and flowed with the rhythm of the conflict, civilians continually tried to return to something resembling their normal lives. Instead of looking to the state to provide support, they turned to a variety of non-state actors and networks to meet their basic needs, sometimes effectively. What I came to realize is that the Hobbesian assumption that only the state can stave off anarchy continues to underlie academic understandings of social and political order. But in many other societies, there are various sources of social – religious groups, traditional authorities, NGOs, corporations, armed groups, etc. – that become especially relevant in times of war. Arguably, these should be the focus of our analysis (versus simply documenting the many ways in which post-colonial states fail to live up to their Western counterparts).

TiA: In the book, you note that rebel governments must consider the needs and positions of civilians as well as their group’s internal divisions and the role of transnational actors. In this respect, what makes one rebel movement more successful than another?

Mampilly: There is a complex interplay between the actions and capacity of rebel leaders and the realities of contemporary battlefields. We've swung from one model that interpreted everything through the ideological orientation of the leadership to a more recent focus on the economic, political and/or geographical conditions that seem to predetermine civil war outcomes. The reality is somewhere in between. Rebel leaders do face a number of constraints initiated by a variety of actors and circumstances beyond their control. But they also make consequential choices.

Take for example the LTTE under Prabhakharan. At several points during the conflict, he seemed to misread the degree the international situation had changed after 9/11 and how this had direct impacts on the viability of the insurgency. Due to restrictions on diaspora fundraising and limits on rebel mobility outside of Sri Lanka, the LTTE leader probably should have accepted an autonomy offer in the early 2000s that would have been celebrated by the Tamil community, especially in contrast to the bloodbath that ended the war (and the Tigers) in 2009. But these calculations can be extraordinarily complex to make, especially since as I describe in the book, rebel leaders are engaged in so many negotiations (violent and non-violent) with so many different actors each operating according to its own logic.

We also shouldn't underestimate the role of chance, personalities, and other seemingly random events that can have determinative impacts on civil war outcomes. Again to take the LTTE, most analysts agree that the military tide turned following the defection of his No. 2, Colonel Karuna, along with almost half of the LTTE cadre. If you look back at what happened, Karuna wasn't initially inclined to leave the organization but wanted an audience with Prabhakharan to discuss what most would consider legitimate concerns about the structure of the insurgency. Instead of listening to the concerns of Col. Karuna – a war hero with deep credibility among cadre especially in the eastern part of the country-- Prabhakharan ordered him killed, directly leading to his defection to the government side.

TiA: In the case of the SPLM, a rebel movement spent the last six years transitioning into the government of an internationally-recognized state. Why was the SPLM successful in this effort while most rebel groups so often fail to achieve this goal? What dangers and difficulties is the South Sudanese government likely to face now that it is fully independent?

Mampilly: This is a question I often get when talking to activists from around the world, but especially Sri Lankan Tamils. Tamils and South Sudanese activists actually met many times during their respective peace talks during the early 2000s in Norway. Indeed, they have long studied and professed sympathy for each other's struggles and strategies. Both communities were facing similar crises (state oppression of a minority community never accepted as an equal part of the nation) and conditions on the ground (long standing insurgencies fighting conventional wars from territory under their control). If you had asked me or many others which insurgency seemed more likely to achieve its goals, based on the capacity of their militaries and those of the incumbents they were fighting, the LTTE seemed more likely to succeed. But we know what happened in both cases. From my perspective, the key difference was American patronage for the South Sudanese struggle, which the Sri Lankan Tamils never had. Without it, I doubt the SPLA would be where it is today.

The challenges for the newly independent Government of South Sudan (GoSS) have much to do with the SPLA's governance performance during the war, which was lacking in many ways. Specifically, SPLA administrators working through a body known as the Civil Authority of New Sudan became heavily dependent on religious groups and international NGOs to provide services like education and health, and on traditional authorities to develop a system of justice and ensure social order. As a result, the South Sudanese population became accustomed to looking towards non-state actors to meet their daily needs. If you look at the actual governance performance of GoSS today you can see many of the same dynamics as leaders continue to focus on the admittedly challenging security situation while ignoring basic service provision. As I argue in the book, these patterns of governance can be sticky and will undermine the legitimacy and authority of a new government if not transformed systematically. Unfortunately, thus far, the SPLA has not proven up to the task.

One other thing to think about is what might have happened had the North African revolutions swept through a non-divided Sudan as they did in neighboring Egypt. It is at least possible that instead of two Sudans today, a unified Sudan might have succumbed to the pressures from protesters and begun a process of democratic reform. Ironically, this was more in tune with what the SPLA and its late leader, John Garang, had always called for.

TiA: What does your research tell us about likely outcomes for the success or failure of the NTC in Libya? Based on what we know today, do they strike you as more similar to the RCD-Goma, the SPLM, or the LTTE?

Mampilly: The National Transitional Council in Libya is a somewhat unique case in that it faced much more acute international pressure as a result of fighting a war in an oil rich economy, with NATO support, and against a dictator seemingly designed for cable news networks. Still, they faced many of the same challenges in ensuring a degree of social and political order in Benghazi and other towns that they controlled over the past six months. Reports from rebel held territory were initially discouraging, but over time, rebel leaders recognized the importance of projecting governance competence to the international community. Proving they could rule became an important component of their claim to be the authentic Libyan government and hence worthy of international recognition.

Of the three insurgencies that I studied, the NTC resembles both the RCD in Congo and the SPLA. It resembles the RCD in that the rebellion was initially ill-prepared for the tasks of governance. Like the RCD, the political wing of the NTC only came together after the fighting had already begun, a weakness the RCD was never able to overcome. In addition, both groups faced questions about who was really calling the shots-- the political leadership of the insurgencies or their foreign patrons. However, the NTC shares with the SPLA a close relationship with the Western powers which pressured both groups to improve their civilian governance performance in exchange for tangible rewards. In addition, it appears that as with South Sudan, the new Libyan leaders continue to look to the West for guidance which may bode well for their post-conflict transition.

At the same time, as with the SPLA, its important not to let our contempt for figures like Qaddafi and Sudan's Omar al Bashir to cloud our judgments of their challengers. Throughout its rule in South Sudan, the SPLA faced considerable pressure from both local and international activists concerned about their often brutal treatment of civilians. This was a good thing and led to important changes in its behavior. But following the outbreak of the conflict in Darfur, Western activists in particular were more concerned with demonizing Bashir than scrutinizing the anti-Bashir rebellions. Similarly, in Libya the NTC has not always treated denizens of their territory fairly, a fact often ignored by their advocates. For example, the NTC has continually faced accusations of collective punishment targeted against Black Libyans and sub-Saharan Africans who were falsely presumed to all be mercenaries in Qaddafi's employ. Even after taking power in Tripoli, accusations of black African being rounded up have continued. This partially explains why many sub-Saharan African countries and AU members have been reluctant to recognize the NTC as the sovereign government of Libya. Ultimately, while it did make strategic sense for the rebellion to align with the NATO powers to win the war, the former rebel rulers will need to reconnect with their own neighborhood, particularly south of the Sahara, if they are going to survive. Improving governance performance for all Libyans is a good place to start.

Laura Seay, a professor of political science at Morehouse College, blogs at Texas in Africa.

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