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Extralegal Groups

(Book under contract with Oxford University Press)

This project is based on a phenomenon that was observed in the field in Liberia when the civil war ended in 2003: groups of ex-combatants were taking over natural resource areas in the aftermath of civil war. These extralegal groups strongly resisted state authority, taking advantage of their conflict capital to build up local power bases, and later threatening the consolidation of peace in different parts of the country. I wanted to know: What were these groups? And how do extralegal groups emerge, develop, and become locally entrenched after the end of civil war?

Ensuring a stable transition and a lasting peace for countries emerging from armed conflict has been an important and persistent problem in international security. Some countries are able to rebuild their economies and political institutions while others are mired in corruption and criminality. But these broad measures of country-level “success” or “failure” also mask great variation within post-conflict societies. How is it that within countries, some areas are better able to achieve security and a measure of stability? What explains the local variation in the quality of statebuilding outcomes in the aftermath of war?

This study argues that extralegal groups is an underexplored, but critical factor to understanding this local variation. It examines the political economy of post-conflict transitions through these groups in the context of post-war Liberia. The research question posed is: How do extralegal groups emerge, develop, and become locally entrenched after the end of civil war?

This research defines an extralegal group as a set of individuals with a proven capacity for violence, working outside the law primarily for profit and providing governance functions as a by-product of their profit-making activities. The thesis introduces a new theoretical framework for understanding these groups, setting out the initial conditions, and the three stages of emergence, development, and entrenchment.

During the emergence stage, ex-combatants gravitate towards the economic sectors with the lowest barriers to entry. Some sectors will attract many ex-combatants groups and others none. However, in post-conflict countries, weak state capacity makes it impossible for the government to regulate the economic activities of these individuals in the sectors where they are proliferating, so another entity must fill this void. At this point, one of these ex-combatant groups will assert its dominance. During the development stage, this group uses its conflict capital to build a cohesive organization and strengthens its authority by “taxing” local economic activity. Finally, during entrenchment, the group uses the proceeds from taxation to enrich its leaders, but it also uses its profits to compromise local authority structures like the police, the politicians, and the courts. In this way, the extralegal group becomes more and more firmly enmeshed in local power structures over time.

This framework is first tested sub-nationally, across the natural resource sectors of post-conflict Liberia. At the sectoral level, the findings show that low barriers to entry are more likely to result in the emergence of extralegal groups. The three stage framework is then tested at the level of the extralegal group itself, drawing from cases of these groups in the timber, rubber, and diamond mining industries. For the groups that developed in these sectors, the trajectory of their actual development is compared with the predictions from the theoretical framework.

The findings show that the framework largely holds for Liberia. The framework illuminates the political economy of post-conflict transitions while building on existing models of state formation, rational actor incentives, and organized crime. It contributes to a growing literature examining intra-state variation in post-conflict outcomes and it also demonstrates that even though extralegal groups provide post-conflict governments with cause for concern, they are also potential statebuilders. The implications are stark, suggesting that if transitional governments and the international community ignore the emergence and development of extralegal groups, then they will later pose problems for local and national security and the local provision of public goods.

The policy recommendations emerging from this study argue that attempts to deal with extralegal groups should simultaneously employ incentives and deterrents, and that any sustainable solution must take into account considerations of domestic political legitimacy.

Field work was critical to this project. To this end, six months was spent in West Africa in 2005 and 2007 — mostly in Liberia, with side trips to Sierra Leone and Côte d’Ivoire. I was one of the first academic researchers to return to Liberia after the civil war ended. (Here are some personal reflections on my field work experiences.) Expert interviews were also conducted at the UN in New York and at the World Bank in Washington.



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