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Extralegal Groups Book

Extralegal groups in post-conflict Liberia: How trade makes the state

Extralegal Groups Cover2Oxford University Press, 2018

£65.00 on (Hardcover)
$85.00 on (Hardcover)
Or get it via Oxford Scholarship Online from your university library.

About the book

In the aftermath of the Liberian civil war, groups of ex-combatants seized control of key natural resource enclaves in the country. With some of them threatening a return to war, these groups were widely viewed as the most significant threats to Liberia’s hard-won peace. Building on fieldwork and socio-historical analysis, this book shows how extralegal groups were incentivized to provide basic governance goods in their bid to create a stable commercial environment during the country’s war-to-peace transition. By analysing the trajectory of extralegal groups in three sectors of the Liberian economy— rubber, diamonds, and timber— this book traces how livelihood strategies merged with the opportunities of Liberia’s post-war political economy. At the same time, this is also a context-specific story that is rooted in the country’s geography, its history of state-making, and its social and political practices. Extralegal groups did not emerge in a vacuum.

Where the state is weak and political authority is contested, where rule of law is corrupted and government distrust runs deep, extralegal groups can provide order and dispute resolution, forming the basic kernel of the state. Further, they can establish public norms of compliance and cooperation with local populations. This logic counters the prevailing “spoiler” narrative, forcing us to reimagine violent non-state actors as accidental statebuilders in an evolutionary state-making process, and not simply as national security threats. These are not groups who seek to rule; they provide governance because they need to trade— not as an end in itself. This leads to the book’s broader argument: it is trade, rather than war, that drives contemporary statebuilding.

Along the way, this book poses some uncomfortable questions about what it means to be legitimately governed, whether our trust in states is misplaced, whether entrenched corruption is the most likely post-conflict outcome, and whether our expectations of international peacebuilding and statebuilding are unrealistic and self-defeating. It marries a rational choice approach with a socio-historical understanding of Liberian politics, advocating for greater humility and reflexivity in how we conduct research. It concludes with a chapter that unpacks the project’s research design process in detail and promotes a more honest and transparent approach to how social scientists write up their work.



This chapter introduces the concept of extralegal groups and a theoretical framework for analyzing them— how they emerge, develop, and become entrenched over time. It explores their dual nature as threats to the state and as local statebuilders. Formally, an extralegal group is defined as a set of individuals with a proven capacity for violence who work outside the law for profit and provide basic governance functions to sustain its business interests. This framing shows how political authority can develop as a by-product of the commercial environment, even where the state has little or no presence. In fact, the predatory nature and historical abuses of citizens in the name of the state means that government is not always more trusted or better able to look after the interests of local populations than an extralegal group. In these ways, extralegal groups blur the lines between the formal and informal; the licit and illicit.

Part I. Extralegal Groups

The first part (Chapters 1 and 2) explores the primary research question of how extralegal groups emerge by proposing an incentives-based framework to analyze the behaviour of ex-combatants in the aftermath of civil war.

Chapter 1. How to study extralegal groups

Chapter 1 introduces key concepts for studying and comparing extralegal groups. It begins by differentiating extralegal groups from conceptual cousins such as warlords and mafias— politicized terms which are commonly used as shorthand for “bad guy” or “actors that the UN and the West disapprove of”. The chapter then introduces two ideas that are useful for analyzing extralegal groups: conflict capital and time horizons. First, conflict capital helps to explain the stickiness of wartime bonds, the ease with which extralegal groups can form, and the difficulty of dismantling them. After war, these wartime social connections allow for violence to be committed more readily because there already exists a repertoire of violence. Second, incorporating time horizons into statebuilding discussions is key to understanding the incentives of the state, of international actors, and of extralegal groups. The final section of this chapter offers a discussion of research design and methods, guiding questions and hypotheses, and limitations. The findings from Liberia show that sectors with lower barriers to entry had more extralegal groups.

Chapter 2. Theoretical Framework

Chapter 2 provides an in-depth treatment of the extralegal groups framework. It sets out the post-conflict conditions where the framework will be applied, and then it discusses the three stages of emergence, development, and entrenchment, and how a group transitions between them. The framework lays out a causal logic for how ex-combatants seeking employment can transform in response to local opportunity structures. It shows how and why these groups become enmeshed in webs of local corruption over time. This chapter argues that the key factor that determines whether an extralegal group engages in statebuilding depends on how far into the future the group believes it can control its enclave. The farther into the future it believes it has control, the greater the incentive it has to build institutions to provide public goods and to become, effectively, a “statebuilder”. Despite an implicit assumption that statebuilding is state-led, it is important to note that states, and weak states in particular, are not always in the strongest position to build robust local institutions or to provide local public goods, and that extralegal groups may be better positioned to provide basic governance functions.

Part II. How context matters

Through an exploration of Liberia’s political history, the second part of this book (Chapters 3 and 4) provides the social and historical context that is needed to fully understand how and why the country’s extralegal groups developed the way they did and how these groups echo the country’s long-term statebuilding processes.

Chapter 3. History and Society

Beginning with the troubled relationship between the freed slaves from America (Americo-Liberian Settlers) who aspired to create a new colony, and the indigenous tribes who fought to keep them out, this chapter traces how a history of discrimination and ingrained social inequality prepared the ground for the emergence of extralegal groups almost two centuries later. While providing a broad socio-political sketch of the country’s evolution, the chapter discusses four key ideas: distrust of the central state, the use of violence and coercion to control outsiders, Firestone’s role as a model enclave economy, and the liberalization of the trade in commodities. It considers how the country’s vast inequalities gradually developed and were systematically institutionalized through state structures, and why, as a consequence, many Native Liberians continue to regard the country’s central authorities with distrust. Although these four factors are not necessary conditions for the formation of extralegal groups per se, their influence continued to reverberate many decades later, affecting extralegal group formation and development in contemporary Liberia.

Chapter 4. Civil war

Building on Liberia’s social and political inheritance, this chapter places the Liberian civil war in historical context and shows how conflict dynamics affected the development of extralegal groups. It examines the period of political instability leading up to the war (1979-1989) and the post-conflict transition period that followed it (post-2003), as well as the war itself (1989-2003). The emphasis is not on the battles that were fought, nor the military tactics that were employed. Instead, the intention is to understand how the practices and interactions that were specific to Liberia’s war impacted upon the emergence of extralegal groups. Understanding the war economy, its incentives, and the patterns of interaction embedded within it is critical to the commodity chapters that follow (Rubber, Diamonds, Timber). Core to this understanding is the idea that war leaves behind a legacy of conflict capital, and this legacy of relationships, interactions, and social expectations persists long after war ends.

Part III. Economic sectors

The third part of this book (Chapters 5, 6, and 7) applies the extralegal groups framework to individual sectors of the Liberian economy (rubber, diamonds, timber). Chapters 5, 6, and 7 test the theoretical framework in the rubber, diamond mining, and timber sectors respectively. In each of these chapters, I provide basic information about the sector and then evaluate the framework using the extralegal group example for that sector.

Chapter 5. Rubber

In chapter 5, both the Guthrie and Sinoe situations serve as vivid examples of how extralegal groups emerge, develop and become entrenched. The theoretical framework guides the analysis of the Guthrie and Sinoe Groups, as well as the failure of two other nascent extralegal groups in the rubber sector. The relatively low barriers to entry (minimal capital and skills) allow extralegal groups to flourish in the rubber sector. Where and how these groups emerged was a function of the demand for contract enforcement and the supply of ex-combatants available to meet this demand, as with the Sinoe Group. For Guthrie, the group’s emergence came near the end of the war, as rebel leaders sought to establish an economic power base. In both cases, the tax collection process strengthened these extralegal groups organizationally, allowing them to develop their own local power bases, which was then further strengthened by bribing and coercing local authorities.

Chapter 6. Diamonds

In Liberia’s diamond sector, the dynamics of the BOPC Group show how diamond mines remain vulnerable to takeover long after war has ended. From mining to taxing to exporting, West African governments have long struggled to control the supply of diamonds within their territories and the physical and social isolation of diamond mining areas has meant that they effectively govern themselves. This geographical buffer gives extralegal groups room to grow, develop organizational structures, and build up local networks of influence. Yet their claims to legitimacy are ultimately rooted in whether their mining activities are classified as legal or illegal, formal or informal, legitimate or illegitimate. Characterizing artisanal diamond mining as an “illicit” activity also feeds into the international community’s desire to sanitize the industry— even at the expense of miners’ livelihoods. This chapter demonstrates that these categorizations are not simply claims of law, but claims of power.

Chapter 7. Timber

During the civil war, Liberia’s forestry sector rose to prominence as Charles Taylor traded timber for arms. When the war ended, the UN’s timber sanctions remained in effect, reinforced by the Forestry Development Authority’s (FDA) domestic ban on logging. As Liberians waited for UN timber sanctions to be lifted, a burgeoning domestic timber market developed. Without a commercial logging sector, this demand was met by artisanal loggers, more commonly referred to as pit sawyers. Out of this illicit economy the Nezoun Group emerged to provide local dispute resolution between the FDA’s tax collectors and ex-combatant pit sawyers. Despite the function it served, the Nezoun Group posed a dilemma for the government. On the one hand, the regulatory efforts of the group allowed the FDA to tax an activity that it had banned,. On the other hand, the state’s inability to contain the operations of the Nezoun Group— in open contravention of Liberian laws— highlighted the government’s capacity problems.

Part IV. Trade Makes the State

The fourth part of this book (Chapters 8) explores the secondary research question by linking the basic governance functions of these groups to the reasoning that underpins the state itself.

Chapter 8. Conclusion

After war, rebuilding the state’s presence— or building it up for the first time— is not only a physical endeavour but also a social one requiring new norms of compliance and cooperation. Local authority is deeply contested and the state typically has a minimal presence. These conditions are akin to those described in the state of nature. To escape the state of nature, Hobbes and Locke argued that it is necessary to impose order and impartial justice— and this is what extralegal groups do. In contemporary post-conflict environments, extralegal groups take control over regulatory functions and the judgment and punishment of disputes, in order to satisfy the need for order and a raw form of justice. This forms the kernel of the state. But they are not intentionally state-making. Rather, extralegal groups are created out of the need to for a stable trading environment, and state-making happens to be a by-product. Fundamentally, in the contemporary era, it is trade, not war, that drives extralegal groups to begin state-making. Moreover, extralegal groups do not only provide visible governance functions, but they also provide hidden statebuilding functions that underpin order and justice in the state. In conclusion, I offer a set of principles for responding to extralegal groups and discuss other country contexts where the concept of extralegal groups can be applied such as Colombia, Kosovo, and Mexico.

Chapter 9. Research Design Scaffolding

A typical social science study begins by justifying the research question, placing it within the context of the existing academic literature. Yet there is usually minimal discussion about why one question was chosen over another. Nor is there a discussion of all the mistakes, uncertainties, wrong turns, and obstacles that were encountered on the way to formulating a particular research question. This chapter takes the opposite approach and shows that the detritus of our efforts to construct a research question is useful for unveiling how research is actually conducted. This chapter revisits the extralegal groups project to show how the project was originally conceived and how different iterations of the research question evolved over the years. It argues that research is inherently messy and that scholars should be more willing to adopt a reflective “Show Your Work” approach to provide the reader with enough guidance to make sense of the methods used and the research design decisions that were taken.

*Here are some personal reflections on my field work experiences.


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