GIGA Working Paper

Does Violence Pay?

Politically deprived groups are more likely to rebel. But does a revolt increase the likelihood of achieving political rights? Carlo Koos about the effect of ethnic rebellion on overcoming deprivation.

Research on ethnic conflict has largely focused on the determinants of why ethnic groups rebel. Since Gurr’s (1970) seminal work on rebellion, the relative deprivation of groups has been viewed as a major cause of violent uprisings. Recent studies have found strong empirical support that horizontal inequalities between and the deprivation of ethnic groups within a society are robustly associated with civil wars (Cederman et al. 2011; Cederman et al. 2010; Stewart 2008; Østby et al. 2009; Østby 2008).

Remarkably, most of these studies appear to implicitly share a particular view on the function of violent rebellions: an ethnic group’s rebellion is a strategy to improve the group’s political status. Of course this assumption makes sense, as groups will only resort to violence if they expect that the benefits of rebelling outweigh the costs. However, this claim has received surprisingly little explicit scholarly attention. As Mack (1975: 175–176) noted almost 40 years ago, "In the field of conflict research, the study of the outcome and the conduct of wars, as against that of their etiology, has received remarkably little attention. The outcome of 'asymmetric conflicts' […] has been almost totally neglected." Since then, the theoretical and empirical literature has clearly grown extensively, but research on the effectiveness of rebellions has not.

This article contributes toward filling this gap and asks whether rebellions by deprived ethnic groups help to overcome political deprivation. Violent rebellions and civil wars are bloody endeavors that disrupt and traumatize societies, sometimes even two or three generations. Considering the bloodshed and atrocities associated with civil wars, rebellions are hardly ever efficient. But are they effective – that is, do they put governments under enough pressure so that they at some point grant the rebel groups political rights?

In this article I propose that violent rebellions are an effective tool for deprived ethnic groups to overcome deprivation and attain political rights. Theoretically, when governments deprive particular ethnic groups within a nation, they do so intentionally – not accidentally. By depriving ethnic groups, governments exclude them from engaging in conventional political channels and drive them toward violent rebellion (e.g. Gurr 2000: 157). Hence, violent rebellion becomes a viable alternative for deprived groups.

History has witnessed plenty of politically excluded ethnic groups that have resorted to violence against the state and have succeeded in overcoming their deprivation. One example is the Ijaw’s violent conflict with the Nigerian government and the subsequent nomination of Goodluck Jonathan as vice president. Another example is the struggle of South Sudanese ethnic groups against the Sudanese government, which led to autonomy arrangements, government representation and finally independence. There are plenty of other examples of how rebel ethnic groups have achieved political rights after (oft-enduring) violent struggles.

These groups would have known that warfare would be costly and that the state security forces would be militarily stronger. Nevertheless, that knowledge did not stop any of these weaker groups from rebelling. Of course, not all rebelling groups win against the state; victory, however, may not actually be the objective. The target of overcoming deprivation and achieving political rights is more modest than defeating the state and the groups in power. By rebelling, ethnic groups – often implicitly – aim at increasing the costs of deprivation to the point where granting political rights becomes cheaper to those in power.

To test the argument that ethnic rebellion helps groups to overcome deprivation, this paper uses information from the Ethnic Power Relations (EPR) dataset. Utilizing time-series-cross-section data on the political status of ethnic groups, I find robust support for the claim that previous rebellions were associated with overcoming deprivation and achieving political rights.

This article continues as follows: I introduce the relevant literature, outline the theoretical line of reasoning (i.e., when and why rebellion works) and derive the hypothesis. I then use the case of the Ijaw in Nigeria to illustrate the logic of the argument, after which I introduce the statistical analysis of ethnic groups’ access to political power. I then present my conclusion and discuss the wider implications of my findings.

Read more: Koos, Carlo (2014), Does Violence Pay? The Effect of Ethnic Rebellion on Overcoming Political Deprivation, GIGA Working Paper, No. 244, March 2014, Hamburg: GIGA


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