Insurgent Fragmentation in the Horn of Africa (Book Review)

A brief study of insurgent movements, rebellions, and rebel organizations shows a common pattern, fracture. For those engaging in counter-insurgency this could seem like a good thing. However, if an organization splinters during peace negotiations, it can nullify progress. In Insurgent Fragmentation in the Horn of Africa: Rebellion and its Discontents, Michael Woldemariam explores “why, and under what conditions, do rebel organizations fragment” (6)? Through quantitative analysis and process tracing through detailed case studies, Woldemariam proposes a theoretically rich hypothesis of fragmentation and cohesive stalemate. Viewing battlefield performance as crucial to the cohesiveness of an insurgency, he claims rebel organizations are most vulnerable to fragmentation when they sustain major military losses or when they achieve major military gains (40). It follows then, the most stable and cohesive moment for rebellions are during periods of battlefield stalemate.

Woldemariam tests his hypothesis first by measuring the effect of battlefield gains, losses, and stalemate on fragmentation in Ethiopia/Eritrea from 1961-2008 by using his own dataset on fragmentation created from the criteria and cases (he includes additional cases as well) of the Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP)/Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) Armed Conflict Dataset (19, 24, 52). Here he finds a correlation between fragmentation and gains/losses, claiming “in the Ethiopian context, (territorial gains and losses) are very close to a necessary but not sufficient condition for rebel fragmentation” (58). Woldemariam then conducts process tracing case studies of two major Eritrean insurgent groups from the Eritrean/Ethiopian civil war, Jebha (The Eritrean Liberation Front), and Shaebia (Eritrean People’s Liberation Front) (22, 60). He follows those with shadow case studies examining the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, Oromo Liberation Front, West Somali Liberation Front, Ogaden National Liberation Front, and the Afar Revolutionary Democratic United Front (61). Finally, he closes with an in-depth case study of Somalia to test his hypothesis outside of Ethiopia/Eritrea and by including ideological, as opposed to nationalist, organizations like the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) and Al-Shabaab (213).

Woldemariam presents a strong, persuasive, and highly detailed argument. Importantly, the methodology is extraordinarily clear and he is transparent regarding the limitations of his data and sources. The case studies themselves provide necessarily rich historical context from a variety of sources, including interviews from former combatants in Jebha and Shaebia. He deftly weaves interviews, government reports, and various other forms of primary and secondary literature together to support his argument, while not shying away from the interviews and theories that provide alternative explanations to fragmentation.

A particular strength was his utilization of structural realism and adapting its “key intuition” – that “in insecure environments, where existential threats loom large, actors will strive to secure immediate survival above all else” – to rebel organizations (p. 41). Woldemariam likens the situation of rebel organizations in the midst of civil war to that of anarchy in the global system, incentivizing self-help and “hierarchical preferences” prioritizing survival (p. 42). Since rebel organizations are often heterogeneous groups composed of people of differing religions, ideologies, ethnicities, etc, he utilizes realist thought on alliances  – that they form primarily as a mechanism to balance against external threats and pursue the primary interest of survival.  This adapted realist logic underlies the contention that fragmentation occurs after major military gains.  In the presence of an existential threat, aligning into one insurgency makes sense. However, if the threat diminishes, fragmentation can occur as a result of “preference divergence” among the groups differing parties (42). Fragmentation occurs after major losses when the group no longer sustains confidence that it can withstand the existential threat (43). If an alliance or rebel organization/coalition is based on the need to survive, it loses its appeal if it fails to do just that. In the case of a stalemate, the existential threat is real, and the organization still provides some level of confidence that “there is a reasonable chance that the organization can continue to provide the benefits it was contracted to provide…” (44). This theoretical backbone provides a solid foundation for his initially counter-intuitive claim.

While the statistical analysis and case studies provided a strong argument, there were still some puzzles remaining. There were many years where Shaebia consistently gained territory without fragmenting and ultimately won the war for Eritrean independence. What was different in the latter years of gains that did not result in a split from preference divergence? In fact, 76 cases of gains and losses did not correspond to fragmentation in the dataset. Woldemariam recognizes this as well, which is one reason he emphasizes that he finds gains/losses to be necessary, but not sufficient causes. One thought would be that it became more homogeneous, but as Woldemariam asserts, Shaebia “was fairly diverse from the outset, a fact that did not change for the duration of the organization’s existence” (182). Did leaders possibly learn from previous fractures? Woldemariam quotes a Shaebia commander reflecting on battlefield victories against Jebha in 1973, “The consolidation of our position against the ELF (Jebha) was a big relief, but it created a (sic) new internal conflicts and contradictions we did not anticipate” (156-157). Yet, even if commanders realized success could come with its own dangers, this would not prevent further splintering in 1975 or 1978 ( 183). Organizational, disciplinary, and numerous other factors could have contributed to Shaebia’s cohesion – and that of other former rebel groups in power today – in the later non-stalemate years.

Insurgent Fragmentation in the Horn of Africa provides a well argued, historically rich analysis of a major issue in the study of rebellion. Woldemariam’s sophisticated application of realism to insurgencies within civil war provides a helpful analytical framework that could also prove useful in examining conflicts outside of Africa’s Horn. Additionally, it contributes to a growing body of international relations theory that seeks to include African countries in its formulation. His theoretical contributions and detailed case studies will critique, modify, inform, and potentially enhance the work of scholars and policymakers wrestling with Errol Henderson’s Neopatrimonial Balancing Thesis, or Beth Whitaker’s Regime Security framework. For those interested in conflict, international relations in the Horn of Africa, or historical accounts of the Eritrean/Ethiopian civil war, this book is a must read.


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