Why authoritarian states participate in liberal international interventions

Do troop contributions lead to democratic change in troop contributing countries as some argue? This is not necessarily the case as Martin Welz argues in a recent article on Chad’s contributions to international interventions.

Troop contributions of authoritarian states pose an empirical puzzle. For the participation in international interventions indicates the support for a liberal-cosmopolitan order that entails the protection of human rights on the international level, while authoritarian regimes deny such rights to their own citizens. The nascent research on this puzzle has produced contradictory findings. Some assume that the participation of authoritarian states in international interventions eventually leads to the implementation of a liberal-cosmopolitan order in such countries in the medium and long term. Others challenge that perspective and speak of a “myth of democratic peacekeepers” or go as far as to argue that troop deployment in fact impedes democratic change.

The article of Martin Welz adds substance to the latter finding through a study of Chad’s troop contributions during the reign of President Idriss Déby who came into power in 1990. The central argument is that Déby, who lacked domestic legitimacy and presided over a little-institutionalized state until his death in 2021, used the participation in international interventions for his own purposes, namely to stay in power. Déby made himself an indispensable ally of France (and to a lesser extent of the United States) and helped them to further their interests in the wider Sahel. He benefitted threefold from his alignment with France and his active stance in international interventions. First, he received large-scale funding that he could feed into his patronage network and strengthen the military; second, he could reduce tensions within the military by sending parts of it abroad; and finally and most importantly, he secured the support of major external actors that helped silencing national and international critique. In 2019, the French government even rescued the Chadian president, once rebels advanced toward the capital.

Indeed, the financial benefits for Déby were significant. France alone allocated €12 million per year for structural cooperation. In addition, donations and other forms of aid worth €53 million was available to be provided through the French forces which had a larger base in Chad. Particularly joining the G5 Sahel Joint Force and the Multinational Joint Task Force—two coalitions that seek to fight al-Qaida, Boko Haram, and their affiliates—was beneficial for Déby (and his fellow African presidents). Donors were willing to spend more on these mechanisms than they would have been prepared to offer if they had acted on a purely bilateral basis. Another source of foreign funding was the reimbursements paid by the United Nations for the peacekeepers. The 1,090 Chadian troops deployed in peacekeeping operations in 2014, for example, meant a reimbursement of an estimated US$17.4 million. These funds not only benefitted the military itself, but also Déby’s regime in two respects. On the one hand, Chadian troops became better equipped and trained, which helped the Chadian leader in his fight against domestic rebels and other challengers. On the other hand, these funds could be fed into the patronage network, thus resembling a kind of “rentier peacekeeping.” In the slipstream of military assistance, Déby’s Chad received large amounts of development aid, given its support for the Western agenda against terrorism.

Secondly, Déby’s benefitted from the participation in military operations as this allowed him to reduce tensions within the military and appease some parts of it. Sending troops abroad helped Déby to ensure that the military itself would not turn into a threat for his rule. Such a threat was looming since Déby had provided some positions within the military to his group, the Bideyat. This move mitigated some internal tensions within the group, yet it was costly and led to rivalries with other segments of the security apparatus.

Third and most important, Déby’s international reputation increased—as did the dependence on him. Even though oil revenues had generated funds to improve the military’s capabilities and secure Déby’s regime from within (Chad became a large oil exporter in the 2000s) external threats had been abound early in Déby’s rule. Chad had suffered from insecurity in its neighboring states and from a proxy war that had been partly fought on its soil on the one hand and French politicians had vigorously demanded the implementation of democratic norms in Chad on the other. It was the eventual alignment with France, the United States, and their counter-terrorism agenda that led to a situation in which Déby’s rule became significantly less challenged from abroad. Chad’s active participation in international interventions and Déby’s willingness to assume casualties—particularly in Mali, where his troops fought alongside France—were the main factors that brought that change. The Chadian president could translate the external recognition, visible, for example, through several visits of French presidents, into a stronger domestic position that overshadowed concerns about the legitimacy of his rule. At Déby’s funeral in April 2021 Macron dignified Chad’s late president as a “friend” and “courageous” soldier.

However, the international support for Déby and the dependence on his troops had a downside: it came at the expense of democracy and respect for human rights. The Chadian civil society was frequently frustrated with the unconditional support Déby had received from his international backers. Western governments ignored calls from national and international NGOs to hold Déby’s regime accountable for the human rights abuses and antidemocratic practices the president and his regime committed in Chad. The authoritarian rule was effectively strengthened. Déby was just too important—and it looks like same is true for his son, who succeeded him after his death.

Martin Welz is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Social Sciences at the University of Hamburg, Germany. He is author of “Omnibalancing and international interventions: How Chad’s president Déby benefitted from troop deployment”, Contemporary Security Policy, which can be accessed here.

Unity among al-Qaeda groups in the Sahel

In September 2017, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaeda declared that the unity of effort of al-Qaeda groups in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger was as “an example, worthy of emulation, for … Mujahid brothers and Muslims the world over.” Despite many centrifugal forces, the al-Qaeda groups have since then maintained alliance cohesion. As argued by Troels Burchall Henningsen in a recent article, this is largely the outcome of the multi-pronged strategy of the al-Qaeda affiliated groups that shapes local communities and reduces the tension created by communal cleavages. In order to avoid a quagmire, international counter-terrorism and peacekeeping missions need to break the ties among the al-Qaeda groups and their ties to the local population.

In 2017, al-Qaeda affiliated groups in the Sahel region formed a new alliance under the name Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM). Afterwards JNIM has often reached international headlines through a spectacular and brutal use of violence. Behind the headlines lies a multi-dimensional irregular strategy that often gets lost in the policy debate when groups are labelled as terrorists. The strategy makes it possible for JNIM to retain alliance cohesion among groups that recruit from different ethnic and social powerbases. The alliance’s political and informational campaigns promote a common Islamist framework for understanding conflicts and social changes. To this end, JNIM draws on an international repertoire of symbols and narratives developed by al-Qaeda. JNIM is at once a conservative alliance firmly placed in traditional social networks and a revolutionary force that transcends established social boundaries.

The comprehensive campaigns to establish alternative governance may appear rudimentary, but must be compared to the low standards of governance in the impoverished and marginalized regions of Burkina Faso and Mali. Hospitals, Sharia courts, or enforcement of land rights contribute to the everyday welfare and safety of local communities. The fact that militant Islamists live among the local community give them an understanding and motivation to deal with local governance issues. Violence and information campaigns contribute to the establishment of alternative governance. Attacks on security forces and assassinations of state officials and local dignitaries go hand in hand with subtle influencing and intimidation of those responsible for everyday governance, such as schoolteachers or mayors. As a result, diverse communities now gets a more homogeneous governance structure, although it might be covert and violent.

Normally, cohesion among insurgent groups is associated with strong organizations, patient indoctrination of rank-and-file members, or the prospect of winning a war. None of these factors reinforces unity within JNIM. Moreover, the implementation of JNIM’s comprehensive strategy has not been a neat and linear process. Burkina Faso and Mali have witnessed a sharp increase in self-defense militias and criminal groups, many of those challenging JNIM’s bid to govern marginalized regions. In 2020, fights with Islamic State affiliates added to the woes of JNIM. However, the strategy of JNIM situates them at the grass root level of local politics. Their ability to influence or coerce local power brokers across ethnic communities sets them apart from other militant groups, and provides them with a unifying approach.

Now the international military interventions in Mali and the wider Sahel face a familiar, but unsettling situation. The French counter-terrorism operation Barkhane has killed a number of the senior al-Qaeda commanders. The EU training missions have trained an impressive number of soldiers and paramilitary forces. Yet, JNIM maintains a high operational tempo and escalates violence. The first problem is well known from other counter-insurgency operations, namely that JNIM operatives live among the people in marginalized areas, whereas national and international security forces are most often strangers in these regions. The second problem is a lack of consensus about how to tackle JNIM. The military coup in Mali in August 2020 was the culmination of a simmering disaffection with the government, including its inability to curb militant Islamism. However, the political elites in Mali disagree on whether (parts) of JNIM should be included in a reconciliation process. International powers view JNIM in the lens of international Jihadist terrorism and oppose dialogue.

To break the deadlock, one policy approach would be to target the alliance cohesion of JNIM. Many of the current efforts aim at breaking the links between JNIM groups and the local population. Reconciliation initiatives or reforms of local state institutions aim to build the legitimacy of the state, or at least improve its cooperation with local elites who resist JNIM presence. These initiatives are steps in the right direction, but the poor security situation means that military solutions play an outsized role. A comprehensive civilian effort that takes into account local and national political interests would improve this line of effort. A second, more controversial, line of effort is to break the leadership cohesion within JNIM by including parts of the alliance in a national dialogue. Both JNIM and prominent opposition politicians have expressed interest in negotiations. This would be akin to the peace process in Afghanistan, where Taliban formally had to break with al-Qaeda before the negotiations. Maybe the current unity of JNIM requires that international interveners discuss whether al-Qaeda affiliated groups can be part of a political process.

Troels Burchall Henningsen is an assistant professor at the Institute for Strategy at the Royal Danish Defence College, Copenhagen. He is the author of “The crafting of alliance cohesion among insurgents: The case of al-Qaeda affiliated groups in the Sahel region”, Contemporary Security Policy, which is available here.

Adolescent Girls in Protracted Crises: Promoting Inclusion and Advancing Peace

In protracted conflicts and crises, adolescent girls experience physical and sexual gender-based violence — as well as structural violence — in a manner that can be substantially different from women and boys, and unique to their demographic.  Unsurprisingly, these experiences of violence often beget further insecurity, rendering girls more vulnerable across a range of issues.

In a new article, Eleanor Gordon and Katrina Lee-Koo report the findings of their research with adolescent girls aged between 10 and 19, and their communities across four protracted crisis contexts: Lake Chad Basin (Niger, Nigeria and Cameroon), South Sudan and Uganda, as well as crises facing displaced communities in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh and Beirut, Lebanon. In their article, they reveal the breadth and complexity of the security threats facing adolescent girls in protracted crisis contexts, highlighting the roles that the intersection of age and gender has in shaping girls’ experiences of violence. 

Adolescent girls spoke of their exposure to a broad spectrum of violence, across all aspects of their lives. This included physical violence, conflict-related sexual and gender-based violence, sexual exploitation and abuse, harassment and threats, and early and forced marriage. They reported experiencing this violence in their homes, at school, in public spaces and in transit. In many cases the ways in which this violence manifested and the impact it had upon their lives was unique from women and adolescent boys. For example, the increase — in all four crisis contexts — or early and forced marriage is a form of violence uniquely experienced by adolescent girls. While the triggers were slightly different in each context (and included issues such as the family’s economic insecurity, concerns about girls’ physical insecurity, experiences of sexual violence and pre-existing local customs), in all contexts both their age, and their gender made them vulnerable.

Alternatively, girls reported that in issues that might impact all members of the community — such as food insecurity, limited access to healthcare, and changes in access to education and patterns of paid and unpaid labour — it manifests uniquely for adolescent girls. For example, in South Sudan girls reported being more likely to be taken out of school to contribute unpaid labour in the home; in Cox’s Bazar there was little support among adult populations to educate girls beyond primary school. Again, these patterns of behaviour draw upon attitudes to girls that are based upon their age and gender. 

With the experiences of crisis were quite unique for adolescent girls, our research revealed that their voices and experiences rarely inform programmes aimed at improving the security and well-being of people caught in these crisis contexts. The consequences of this are that girls’ security concerns are not adequately addressed.  This reality is in sharp contrast to policy guidance and research in the peacebuilding and humanitarian response sectors which underscore the importance of inclusion to the development of responsive and, ultimately, effective programming. We found that the ‘inclusivity norm’ has skipped over adolescent girls. We argue that it is the combination of the complexity and specificity of adolescent girls’ experiences of violence in crisis contexts, coupled with marginalisation of adolescent girls in responses to such violence, that so significantly compromises their security.

We argue that in order to address the security needs of adolescent girls, programmes need to be informed by their lived experiences as the girls themselves articulate them. Adolescent girls are experts in their own lives – capable of identifying the threats to their security, in some cases navigating them, but also conveying what their needs and priorities are.  Importantly, their agenda can be different from those set by their parents, community representatives or external actors.  This advances the case that adolescent girls need to be meaningfully included in programme development, implementation and evaluation, and have the ability to influence decisions and affect change.  

There are undeniably barriers to including adolescent girls in crisis response programming. These include security, logistical, financial, linguistic, cultural and attitudinal barriers. Furthermore, measures need to be taken to ensure inclusion doesn’t further compromise the security of girls or expose them to further threat. Furthermore, it needs to be recognised that adolescent girls are not a homogenous group and it is, therefore, important to avoid tokenistic engagement. Instead, we promote genuine partnerships with adolescent girls that include diverse groups. 

While these challenges have stymied inclusive and responsive programming, we argue that they are not insurmountable. Overcoming these challenges will, however, require recognition from external actors and communities that violence against adolescent girls is not just a threat to the girls themselves but also a threat to the overall fabric of peace, and that adolescent girls are well-placed to inform approaches to addressing the threats that face them. Such an approach will capitalise upon the knowledge and skills that adolescent girls have developed, and employ their will and capacity to inform effective ways of addressing insecurity.

Eleanor Gordon and Katrina Lee-Koo work at the School of Social Sciences at Monash University, Australia. They are the authors of “Addressing the security needs of adolescent girls in protracted crises: Inclusive, responsive, and effective?”, Contemporary Security Policy, which can be accessed here.

Deconstructing Scholarship on Al-Shabaab in Somalia and Boko Haram in Nigeria

08/09/11- Mogadishu, Somalia – AMISOM Troops stand in Mogadishu stadium, the former al-Shabaab headquarters.

Mohamed Haji Ingiriis argues that scholars should develop a better understanding of insurgency groups in Africa, such as Al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, and Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin, including their origins and the state functions they provide.

Insurgent groups in Africa are to a greater extent attracting the attention of a new generation of scholars who are bent on deconstructing the previous misunderstandings of the activities of the insurgent movements. As they increase their local and regional operations, African insurgent groups remain resistant and resilient and frustrated in all military attempts to defeat them.

Al-Shabaab in Somalia and Boko Haram in Nigeria are the two most crucial and critical insurgent groups in Africa. Because they do not constrain and confine them to insurgent activities, it is important to reconsider their other activities to move beyond the preoccupation of only exploring the aspect of their terror attacks.

Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram undertake more than insurgent activities. As a result, there is no serious scholar who can confidently call them as “terrorist organisations,” because for them terrorism is not an end, but a means to an end. They use terror attacks as a strategy (albeit evil) in a tactic toolbox than an essence of an organisational ultimate policy (see, for example: https://www.hurstpublishers.com/book/horn-sahel-and-rift/).

When examining Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram, a new generation of Africanist scholars began to use the terms such as “extremist movements” or “extremist organisations”; “insurgent movements” or “insurgent organisations”; “Islamist movements” or “Islamist organisations”; “militant movements” or “militant organisations”; “radical movements” or “radical organisations” rather than making sentimental descriptions such as “terrorists.”

The new reconsideration and reconceptualisation of Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram has been obliged by the very fact that, in opposition to the Western-supported secular governments of Somalia and Nigeria, Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram have adopted state systems and structures on the basis of parallel Islamic governments (obviously with their own strict scriptural interpretation) in the areas under their control. 

The state-like rules of Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram provide more than social and security services that the governments of Somalia and Nigeria have failed to provide to the local population. Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram have achieved to capture and continue to rule peripheral societies where the failed state of Somalia and the fragile state of Nigeria cannot reach and as such where the provision of security is non-exist.

Despite their position as parallel governments, the ways in which Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram are often emotionally vilified is something that blinds and blocks us (as scholars studying those insurgencies in Africa) to present the everyday reality exist in the areas under their control. With the label of ‘terrorist organisations’, observers can hardly adventure into the other aspects of Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram.

However, it is thus quite difficult to overlook the fact that both Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram began as popular movements providing alternative governments to local populations, even though their approach and engagement had fundamental differences, because Boko Haram started as a social movement offering social services to marginalised communities in northern Nigeria, while Al-Shabaab started as a jihadist network right from the beginning.

Al-Shabaab was born out of the brutal Ethiopian invasion of southern Somalia in the winter of 2006, an invasion approved by the United States and allowed by the United Kingdom and the rest of the West. In the beginning, Al-Shabaab was not separate from the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) which emerged in the summer of 2006, but its founders behaved and pretended they were ruling a separate entity. Yet, Al-Shabaab could not exist without the legitimacy it had enjoyed under the shadow of the UIC.

In Somalia, scholars studying Al-Shabaab do not squabble about their research findings of Al-Shabaab. Whilst they backbite each other behind the backdoor privately, scholars tend to avoid disputing each other publicly. In contrast to Nigeria, scholars studying Boko Haram are arguing over the emergence and existence of Boko Haram to the extent that ideological positions in the form of left wing and right wing exist in the scholarship on Boko Haram, also including personal insults in the discussion.

Overall, nonetheless, there is a burgeoning scholarship on Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram, but most of this scholarship is concerned more with Boko Haram than with Al-Shabaab. Academic and non-academic books have been published about these insurgent movements, even though more on Boko Haram than Al-Shabaab. Astonishingly, the third largest African insurgent movement Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM) has not been attracted a book of its own.

Arguably, Nigeria is the most populated country in Africa and the highest oil-producing state in Africa and as such is much more important than Somalia, the most failed state in the whole world, but is not Al-Shabaab, the only insurgent movement in the world currently controlling a large swathes of territory, more important than Boko Haram, which is only concentrated in small parts of northern Nigeria?

Mohamed Haji Ingiriis is a Somali academic specialising in Somali history and politics at the University of Oxford. He is a research fellow at the CRP, London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). He is the author of “Building peace from the margins in Somalia: The case for political settlement with Al-Shabaab“, Contemporary Security Policy, 39(4), pp. 512-536.