My current book project, Anatomy of an African Rebellion: Laws and Logistics in Sierra Leone, builds on prevailing debates in civil wars literature – on onset, mobilization, and violence – to understand how an insurgent war machine is sustained. It focuses on a paradigmatic case in the study of contemporary armed conflict, the Sierra Leone civil war, through the lens of its leading antagonist: the Revolutionary United Front. Violence and governance are two sides of the same coin in armed conflict, and war economies drive and constrain both insurgents and the state. Looking at how these processes interact addresses the central paradox of rebellion: the need to assert a new order while dismantling the old, drawing support from the same population against whom rebels wield violence.
In the book, I examine the relationship between organizational cohesion and material capacity in insurgency over time. My argument is twofold. First, the internal laws and policies of an armed group determine the external face of governance and violence. By analysing the sequence of recruitment, training, order, and control alongside military logistics, I demonstrate that violence is not just determined by resources or demographics, but by groups’ governance policies and socialization strategies. By demonstrating the importance of rebel laws for curtailing indiscriminate and opportunistic violence and explaining why they failed, I add organizational substance to the typical principal-agent problems of warfighting.
Violence was not merely opportunistic. It was encouraged and structured by a system that ruthlessly, but unevenly, punished its own members, while promoting and rewarding ‘hardness’ at the frontline. This sheds light on why revolution is so often plagued by logical inconsistencies between rebels’ stated objectives and actual behavior. In so doing, it also bridges the gap between literature on rebel governance and rebel violence, explaining why rebel-occupied territory may be safer than contested territory, and why ‘internal’ and ‘external’ governance cannot be decoupled.
Second, I argue that resource-richness is not predetermined or path-dependent, but rather, must be understood as the result of deliberate strategies. Those that generate wealth can, counter-intuitively, undermine group cohesion by displacing military priorities. For all of the research on resource wars, very little examines the supplies that actually sustain fighters. The book thus focuses on the more mundane needs of rebel groups – food and medicine – alongside the headline-grabbing deals for arms, diamonds, and drugs, mapping the different governance priorities attached to various resources. When the RUF finally did gain territorial and mining control, the group was undone by the same factors that had weakened the state. Imbalanced resource allocation, personalistic leadership, and lack of transparency eroded internal trust and legitimacy in the RUF. This underscores the salience of structural constraints for rebel resource governance and repertoires of revolution more broadly.