Book Review: Wars, Guns, and Votes

wars guns votes cover

Paul Collier, Wars, Guns, and Votes: Democracy in Dangerous Places, (New York: Harper Perennial) 2009.

I picked up this little gem at the surprisingly well-stocked American Embassy Library in Ouagadougou. I had eyed it before but didn’t read it because it’s a little old – 2009 –and doesn’t have anything much to say about Burkina Faso other than noting the role that the former president here, Blaise Compaoré, played in Cote d’Ivoire’s first civil war (the second one took place in 2010-11, after the book was published; Blaise was very active in that one, too). But once I got into the book, I realized it is highly relevant to what I’m trying to do here.

Collier’s goal is to understand the effects of the wave of multi-party elections that swept across the world inhabited by what he calls the “bottom billion”, the poorest 15% of the world’s nations. He establishes, and defends, a line of $2,700 per capita Gross National Income (GNI) per year as the upper limit for membership in this not-exclusive club. Burkina Faso is well within that range, with a per capita GNI of around $1,650, according to the World Bank.

Collier starts with the widely-held belief that free elections contribute to stability and a reduction in political violence in developing countries. He calls this the legitimacy-accountability model: that if governments are required to submit to the approval of voters occasionally, politicians will gain legitimacy as the people’s choice, making potential opponents less able to launch violent assaults on them, and they will have to do things to provide public goods and improve people’s lives, thus making the people less likely to support armed rebellion. But Collier points out that this has not, in fact, been the experience of the countries where the “bottom billion” live. In fact, multi-party democratic elections have often been followed by terrible violence as leaders try to cling to power and/or losers launch violent campaigns to challenge election results. He presents a statistical case that shows that, while above the inflection point of $2,700 per capita GNI, the legitimacy/accountability model works and electoral democracy does deliver an increased level of public peace, below that level the effect is reversed and, paradoxically, dictatorships are more peaceful. He points out that this is not an argument for dictatorship – generally dictatorships ensure domestic peace by retail violence through repression, and additionally they fail to deliver the public goods that government is supposed to provide because national revenues are stolen and institutions intentionally crippled so as to not provide a base for opponents to the regime.

In an amusing and instructive passage, he channels a developing-world dictator who is considering holding elections. What is the best strategy for him? It turns out that there are so many ways that an incumbent can control the process that the choice to hold elections and then cheat is pretty much a no-brainer. And, of course, the leader always retains the option to “send in the Cossacks and prorogue the Duma”, arrest his political opponents and reimpose dictatorship, sometimes just by claiming victory regardless of the results. This has been the strategy of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, a frequent target of Collier’s negative examples.

The big threat to the hypothetical dictator is his own army. In his most controversial argument, Collier discusses the coup and does not entirely dismiss it as a method of obtaining political progress. He points out, though, that the most likely result of a successful coup is another coup, perhaps accompanied by general civil war, as in Ivory Coast. Even in the absence of further violence, coups often lead to long periods of military rule with unchecked corruption and declines in living standards. But, unlike the civil wars that have plagued many African countries, the coup at least offers the hope of a change for the better – he points out the example of the Mauritanian coup in 2005, when army Colonel Ely Vall overthrew dictatorial President Taya, then oversaw a rapid transition to electoral democracy. It should be noted, though, that after the publication of the book, Mauritania’s hopeful transition to democracy went off the rails and political instability and more coups have been the result.

In the portion of the book most relevant to my interests here, Collier analyzes the factors that make a country more or less subject to civil wars and coups. One key factor is geographic – countries with substantial refuge areas in the form of mountainous or forested zones are in more danger because rebels have someplace to hide. Burkina Faso is, happily for this bike riding middle-aged fat guy, flat as a pancake and has few forests. Ethnic diversity is also a risk factor. While Burkina has dozens of ethnic groups, two dominate, the Mossi and the Fulani. The Mossi alone constitute almost a majority. This means that ethnic politics will not work well here – the majority know they are a majority and already get pretty much what they want, and the minorities are too small and weak to make trouble – as already noted by several of my informants.

Collier also points out that national identity is not something that is inherent or comes from some ancient ethnic source. In fact, national identity, where it exists for the societies of the more wealthy countries, was created by choices made by leaders. Burkinabè have, as has been noted by almost everybody I’ve spoken with, a very strong sense of national community. If you ask the typical Guinean about their identity, you will probably get an ethnic identifier first – one is Soso, Malinké, Peul, etc., then one is Guinean, and maybe you get African or black in there somewhere too. In Burkina, people are first and foremost Burkinabè. If you go to France or Britain or the US, you’ll get the same sort of response as in Burkina, people’s principal identity is their nationhood. This was not always the case in those countries – in the US, we famously fought our country’s largest war in considerable measure over the question of identity (including, of course, the question of the identity of African-Americans as Americans and as free people). When COL Robert E. Lee, the most celebrated soldier in the US Army and one of America’s greatest tactical and operational military geniuses, was invited by President Lincoln to take command of the US Army at the beginning of the Civil War, he replied that he was sensible of the honor but could not see how he could draw his sword against his own country. For Lee, his country was the state of Virginia, at that moment in the process of declaring independence from the US and joining the Confederate States of America, a political unit organized explicitly (at least in part) to preserve the separate national identity of the various states that made it up. Another, less celebrated but still very talented Virginian in the US Army, George Thomas, made the other decision, serving his country, the United States, throughout the war and having great success on the battlefield as well. Thomas’ Virginia family never forgave him, returning unopened the birthday gifts and letters he continued to send them for the rest of his life. President Lincoln and his supporters, like General Thomas, made a conscious choice to put a larger national identity ahead of their state or regional identity and imposed that choice by a combination of political appeals and armed force. In Europe, over the 400 or so years from the Thirty Years War to the present, leaders have made similar choices , creating institutions (education, national armies) and ideologies (including the historical profession, see Patrick Geary’s The Myth of Nations for more on this) to convince their people that they are a nation. Burkina Faso’s political leadership has consistently made the same sorts of decisions.

While not discussing Burkina, Collier points to the contrast between Kenya and Tanzania, two neighboring countries in East Africa that had very similar pre-colonial histories and were both under British rule at the time of independence. In Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta ruled principally through his Kikuyu ethnic group, lavishing benefits on his fellow Kikuyu and excluding both the rival major inland group, the Luo, and the mainly Muslim coastal people. Meanwhile, over in Tanzania, Julius Nyerere made a very serious effort to undermine ethnic identities, going so far as to move populations around from region to region, by force, imposing Swahili as a national language, forbidding any sort of ethnic politics. Nyerere’s tactics were brutal and destructive – Tanzania today has a much lower GNI than Kenya. However, Kenya’s elections are routinely marred by widespread violence and cheating, and pretty much every Kenyan political leader has been accused of everything from fraud to genocide. Tanzania is, by contrast, an island of stability. Collier and his students conducted a careful survey in a region that straddles the international border, demonstrating that ethnic diversity in Kenya causes weaker provision of public goods (in this case, educational financing) while in Tanzania there is no similar effect. People in Tanzania don’t appear to have any trouble paying taxes to support schools for those people. I think this has to be the focus of my attempt to explain the seeming success of Burkina in avoiding political chaos while all around it one sees disaster after disaster.

One other thing that Collier discusses as a cause for internal peace is the “over the horizon” intervention threat. In French-speaking Africa, from independence into the early 1990s, France promised to put down any coups or rebellions that threatened the governments that were its allies. Guinea was excluded, because of Sékou Touré’s refusal in 1957 to play along with De Gaulle’s plans, so a coup there in 1984 overthrew Touré’s party after his death and led to the long and destructive rule of military strongman Lansana Conté. But elsewhere, French troops would swoop in at the first sign of trouble, as they did in Togo when I was there in 1985 and longtime President Eyadema’s opponents tried to invade from neighboring Ghana. Fighting broke out noisily about midnight, and before sunrise we heard the snarl of jet engines as French fighter-bombers flew low over the city and transport planes carrying La Légion Etrangère landed at the airport. As a result of this security guarantee, former French colonies in west and central Africa had something like half the incidence of mass political violence that would otherwise have been expected under Collier’s model. The only coups were those that the French supported, like the 1987 coup that overthrew President Thomas Sankara here in Burkina Faso.  In 1994, though, French troops intervened in Rwanda to protect the Rwandan government against the Rwandan Patriotic Front rebels, who had broken a cease-fire with the government in order to intervene, after three months of gut-churning massacres, and put a stop to the Rwandan genocide. The French government found itself supporting the perpetrators of genocide against the people trying to protect the victims, and this led to a general retreat from the security guarantee. Potential rebels and disaffected military leaders quickly figured out that they could now achieve their dreams, and political violence invaded French-speaking Africa. There are now active civil wars in Mali, Niger, Cameroon and Chad (the latter two spill-overs from Nigeria), and barely-suppressed violence in Cote d’Ivoire. On the other hand, after years of a hands-off policy towards its former African colonies, Britain took an active role in Sierra Leone’s civil war, offering (and delivering on) an over the horizon guarantee of security to the government there, promoting a peace settlement that has now lasted 14 years.

Collier’s policy recommendations flow from his analysis. They are somewhat controversial, to put it mildly. First, he suggests that the developed world, specifically the United States, Britain, and France, should offer the countries of the “bottom billion” a deal: accept international standards for open and fair elections and promise to turn power over to the actual winner and we will in turn offer a French-style security guarantee to your government. We will intervene, if necessary militarily, to prevent or reverse coups and put down rebellions so long as you respect the democratic political process. On the other hand, if you refuse to implement democratic reforms, we will let your military or popular forces overthrow you and then offer the same deal to them. He argues that this solution respects sovereignty by giving countries the right to refuse, but African presidents would naturally be outraged.

Secondly, Collier argues for an institutional change in how money, both government budget and foreign assistance money, is handled in the national development area. He says government ministries should be responsible for setting budgetary priorities but should not actually handle the money, at least not in countries with very significant corruption problems – which describes pretty much all of the “bottom billion” countries including, sadly, Burkina. Instead, Collier argues, an NGO staffed by a mixture of locally-hired finance professional (perhaps civil servants assigned by the government) and foreign technical assistants with accounting and finance skills, should give the money to the implementing agencies, either NGOs or government bureaus at the working level. This will cut off the biggest stream of corruption and make expenditures transparent, giving donors the confidence that their funds will go (mostly) to the intended purposes. Again, the key sovereign decisions, both to cooperate in the system in the first place and then to decide on the budget, are made by the national government. But the decisions that are the most subject to corrupt manipulation are taking place under international supervision.

Thirdly, he calls for a more active role for the UN Peace-Building Commission in the government of post-conflict states. He is not calling for something the right has often argued for, a renewal of the UN Trusteeship system to take over government in post-conflict states. He argues that a wholesale suppression of sovereignty would provoke nationalist responses in even the least nationalist of countries. Instead, the UN should implement government reforms and shrink the military budgets, using the carrot of more aid and the stick of the afore-mentioned security guarantee, without replacing rebel chieftains as such. At the same time, Collier argues for a global development assistance “tax” on military expenditures: if countries in the “bottom billion” increase military expenditures, donors promise to reduce aid flows by an amount equal to 40% of the increase – that being the percentage of aid money that Collier calculates gets diverted, one way or another, to the military. On the other hand, if countries reduce their military budgets, aid agencies should be prepared to increase spending by the same proportion. Developing countries spend enormous amounts of their national budgets on arms, way more than similar-sized countries in the developed world.

He points out that sovereignty in Africa as currently constructed is really presidential instead of popular. In order to get to popular sovereignty, in the model that we in the developed world know and appreciate, you first need a certain level of prosperity, national unity, and expectations of government. Until then, sovereignty and even democracy are just covers for a bandit state. I don’t really think any of these recommendations have much chance of being implemented, although the security guarantee has gotten a new lease on life since the arrival of Islamist terrorism in the region after the foolish destruction of the Libyan government in 2011. There is a new US Africa Command, with troops stationed in several places around the continent. The French bases are still here, and French troops are only a short plane flight away, as they demonstrated in Ouaga on January 15th.

Nonetheless, policy aside, the analysis presented here is fascinating and useful to me in my research. It is also useful to anyone trying to understand why the politics of Africa (and the rest of the “bottom billion” countries – he helpfully provides a list in an appendix) is the way it is. I recommend it unreservedly.


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