Governance by armed groups continues to take many forms. But, as long as the international community withholds coordinated support for such efforts and an increasing proportion of wars involve state failure, the obstacles to the task of governance by armed groups will grow.

How and why armed groups govern civilians owes much to the particularities of specific conflicts. Nevertheless, there has been a systemic change in the past 50 years. Global political changes have altered who supports armed groups from outside conflict zones, and for what purpose. This shift has had important effects on armed groups’ motivations and resources for civilian governance. Broad changes have also occurred in the character of the states in which armed groups fight, and this has had a corresponding impact on the kinds of social relationships and reactions that these groups encounter among civilians. In particular, many contemporary armed groups have formed in the wake of state failure and the collapse of authoritarian personalist governments. The fragmented social environments that this process creates play critical roles in shaping how, and with whom, armed groups negotiate in order to govern.

Broad systemic change does not influence all armed groups in equal measure. Some of these groups govern civilian areas in much the same way as their counterparts did 50 years ago. At its height in the 2000s, Sri Lanka’s Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam stood out for its comprehensive governance of civilians.1 The Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, and the Afghan Taliban exhibit more typical contemporary patterns of governance by armed groups. Both face difficulties in governing societies fragmented by earlier processes of state collapse, and both face an international system that has become much more hostile to armed groups. The fragmentation of contemporary armed groups also has precedent.2 Nevertheless, one can observe the broad contours of a fundamental change in the conditions and outcomes of armed groups’ governance of civilians – a change that intensifies the challenges faced by these groups. This essay explains the causes of this change, and how it has affected the ways in which armed groups govern civilians, as well as the ways in which civilians have responded to their efforts. To do so, it begins by outlining the relevant transformations of the past half-century.

William Reno is Professor of Political Science and Director of the Program of African Studies at Northwestern University. He is the author of Corruption and State Politics in Sierra Leone (Cambridge University Press, 1995), Warlord Politics and African States (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1999), Warfare in Independent Africa (Cambridge University Press, 2011) and numerous other publications on the politics of state failure and associated conflicts.

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Armed Conflict Survey 2017

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