A Brief Exchange on Coups in Africa

When I got up this morning, I had an email in my inbox from Patrick Mathangani, a writer for Kenya’s The Standard. He said he was researching a story on coups in Africa, had found my blog and piece for Foreign Policy on the subject, and wondered if I’d answer a few questions. I thought some of this blog’s readers might be interested in that exchange, too, so here are Mr. Mathangani’s questions and my replies.

In your 2013 forecast, 22 of these countries are in Africa. Checking through data over the years, the continent appears to have had more than its share of coups since the 1950s, perhaps explaining why coups have been seen as an African problem. Your analysis appears to confirm this. What’s your view on this?

I don’t think coups are an African problem so much as they’re a problem of poor countries with weak states, and Africa happens to have more than its fair share of those. We’ve seen the same pattern in every other part of the world, just at different times in history. Latin America, for example, suffered lots of coups in the 1960s and 1970s, but the incidence dropped off sharply in the past couple of decades as most countries in the region got less poor and more democratic—and, crucially, after the Cold War ended and the U.S. and USSR stopped sponsoring or supporting coups in the region as a way to scratch at each other.

I expect we’ll see the same decline in the frequency of coups in Africa as more and more countries get into positive spirals of development. We’ve already seen a decline in the post-Cold War period, probably due to the end of those superpower proxy struggles, and I’m guessing that current patterns of economic growth and democratization will solidify that shift just as they did in Latin America and Europe before.

What, in your view, makes Africa such fertile ground for coups?

I think my answer to number 1 goes about as far as I can on this question. I’m sure there are other aspects, too, but I’ll leave those to the regional pros to address.

This year, we’ve had two distinct political events in Africa that show a sharp contrast and mixed fortunes for the continent’s push for good governance. These are a seamless transition in Kenya, and a coup in CAR. What do these portend for Africa’s future and struggle for democracy?

As William Gibson supposedly said, “The future is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed.” To me, Kenya looks like a state that’s on the edge of that virtuous cycle of development I mentioned earlier, while CAR still isn’t even really a state in the conventional sense.

It’s interesting to see Tanzania, Kenya’s neighbour, at number 22 in your list. Tanzania has been relatively stable, why does it land on the model?

Tanzania ranks relatively high on the list because in spite of its reputation as a stable democracy, it’s got the basic features that have historically been associated with the occurrence of coups. Most notably, it’s got a high infant mortality rate relative to most of the world, political institutions that combine features of democracy and authoritarianism, and sharply polarized politics.

Now, it’s worth underscoring that the risk of a coup attempt in any one country in any given year is generally very low, even in the countries toward the top of those rankings. There are usually only a handful of coups and failed coup attempts worldwide each year, so the best prediction for even the highest-risk countries will almost always be that no coup will occur. If the forecasting models are working well, then all or nearly all of the coup attempts we do see will occur in the couple of dozen countries at the top of the annual rankings. Those rankings most definitely do not mean that we should expect to see coup attempts in all of those countries, and that certainly goes for Tanzania, too.

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Kenya: An Ounce of Prevention or a Pound of Overreaction?

On March 4, Kenya held general elections, and nearly no one was killed. That might not sound like a big deal, but lots of smart people had been warning for months that these elections put Kenya at high risk of mass atrocities.

Assuming Kenya stays the course and completes the current election cycle without large-scale violence, the big question for people concerned about atrocities prevention is this: Did all the scrutiny and alarm help to prevent violence that would otherwise have occurred, or did we collectively overreact to the surprise of early 2008 and cry “Wolf!” when none was near?

Line to vote at the Old Kibera Primary School on March 4, 2013 (Georgina Goodwin, AFP/Getty Images)

Line to vote at the Old Kibera Primary School on March 4, 2013 (Georgina Goodwin, AFP/Getty Images)

I emailed this question to Ken Opalo, a Stanford Ph.D. candidate who’s from Kenya and was there to analyze and vote in the elections, and he offered a favorable assessment of the many preventive efforts. “I think the peace crusade actually helped prevent violence by constantly reminding us of the cost of violence,” he said. Ken also credited the Kenyan media for choosing not to air inflammatory political statements and the government for blocking the dissemination of hate speech via short message service (SMS), an important channel of communication . Last but not least, Ken argued that the dynamics of the presidential campaign also played a role. “It also helps,” he wrote, “that one of the most volatile regions in the country—the central Rift Valley—this time round found peace in the political union between [eventual winner Uhuru] Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto (bringing together Kikuyus and Kalenjins).”

Kenyan columnist Charles Onyago-Obbo also believes that reactions to the  helped to avert violence that might have been. In a column entitled “Why Kenyans didn’t run berserk,” he acknowledges that peace campaigns by social groups and the media may have helped at the margins, but he sees the biggest effects coming from sticks and carrots deployed by the Kenyan government. Like Opalo, he credits authorities’ crackdown on hate speech, but he also believes that visible investments in major infrastructural projects in some key regions also had a significant effect.

If we believe that Kenyans became more good-hearted, then to prevent future violence, it would be necessary to preach more peace, hold peace concerts, and keep warning about the dangers of a repeat of 2008.

If we believe that people respond to incentives and symbols of progress, then the correct policy is to build more roads, fix more airports, complete Konza City and start a second one, keep working at political reform, and walk around with a big stick to crack the skulls of hate entrepreneurs.

I am a structuralist; I am in the last camp.

International actors are also claiming some credit. Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the former chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Court, told the Associated Press that the prosecutions he pursued after 2008 “were game-changers that helped prevent a repeat of the deadly rampages following this month’s vote.” Moreno-Ocampo saw his office as an instrument of deterrence, and in this case, he believes it worked.

I emailed Daniel Solomon, a Georgetown University senior who is both a student and advocate of atrocities prevention, to ask him how influential the ICC indictments had been. He agreed with Ocampo that they had some effect, but he described that effect as indirect:

I don’t think there was a substantial risk of violence by Kenyatta’s close affiliates, or by [second-place finisher Raila] Odinga’s: if you look at the financial and political incentives for national-level officials, many are linked to international investments in Kenya’s economy, or to aid flows by Western donor states. This is probably less the case for [members of parliament] who weren’t as internationally prominent, and those are often the officials with the most direct links to paramilitary forces and civilian militias.

As a result, I think we can differentiate between a couple of dynamics, each of which had a unique function in the context of violence prevention: the intergovernmental preparation, which was both public at a national level (high-level diplomatic statements, threats of consequences for violence) and “behind-the-scenes”; and the non-governmental preparation, which was both public at the national level (statements about the ICC, human rights reporting) and “behind-the-scenes” at a local level (it’s hard to assess whether this was marginal, or structurally important). In one sense, it’s hard to draw a hard line between the two, but I’m not sure the non-governmental commentary would have been influential in changing those local MP incentives without an active intergovernmental process behind the scenes.

tl; dr: We were probably crying wolf where the ICC indictees were concerned (notice how that was always included in press coverage, as if that implies something about anticipated behavior), but I think that process—call it discursive, but there was also tangible diplomacy to back that up—helped diffuse the incentives for violence prevention at more local levels of governance/mobilization.

Personally, I also see the Kenyan elections as a success for atrocities prevention. Large-scale violence was a plausible threat; many efforts were undertaken to prevent that violence; and then it didn’t happen. We can’t say with confident exactly which effort contributed how much, but the risk was real, and the interventions that were undertaken were relatively cheap.

Still, it’s not clear how generalizable this success is. In terms of atrocities risk and prevention, Kenya was exceptional in a couple of important ways. First, this was election-related violence, not insurgency or civil war. That meant that the risk was tied to a specific political process with clear milestones and outcomes and was not part of a deeper syndrome of insecurity and mass violence. Second, the Kenyan government was a willing partner in atrocities prevention instead of a perpetrator.

Those two features make Kenya in 2013 very different from places like Syria or Sudan, where state security forces and their fellow travelers are doing the killing and the governments involved reject outside interference. Future attempts to prevent election-related and other “communal” violence might look to this case to try to understand why the Kenyan government was a willing partner and which components seem to have been most effective, but I don’t think there are big lessons from Kenya that can be transferred to more typical cases of concern. To see what I mean, just think about how effective an ICC indictment has been at preventing atrocities in Sudan, or how effective hate-speech monitoring would be at stopping violence in Syria.

Finally, it’s important to recognize that, while relatively cheap, these efforts were not cost free. In a post on the New York Times‘ Latitude blog, Journalist Michaela Wrong argues that self-censorship by the Kenyan media around this month’s elections diminished the country’s democracy.

“Last time,” the media “were part of the problem,” a Kenyan broadcaster told me. “They were corrupted; they were irresponsible. So this time there was a feeling that we had to keep everyone calm, at the expense, if necessary, of our liberties.”

But self-censorship comes at a price: political impartiality. The decision not to inflame ethnic passions meant that media coverage shifted in favor of whoever took an early lead, in this case Uhuru Kenyatta.

That’s an important reminder that policy interventions often entail trade-offs across values we might think of as complementary instead of competing. Democratization and atrocities prevention are both things many of us would espouse, but what’s good for one won’t always be good for the other.

Forecasting Politics Is Still Hard to Do (Well)

Last November, after the U.S. elections, I wrote a thing for Foreign Policy about persistent constraints on the accuracy of statistical forecasts of politics. The editors called it “Why the World Can’t Have a Nate Silver,” and the point was that much of what people who follow international affairs care about is still a lot harder to forecast accurately than American presidential elections.

One of the examples I cited in that piece was Silver’s poor performance on the U.K.’s 2010 parliamentary elections. Just two years before his forecasts became a conversation piece in American politics, the guy the Economist called “the finest soothsayer this side of Nostradamus” missed pretty badly in what is arguably another of the most information-rich election environments in the world.

A couple of recent election-forecasting efforts only reinforce the point that, the Internet and polling and “math” notwithstanding, this is still hard to do.

The first example comes from political scientist Chris Hanretty, who applied a statistical model to opinion polls to forecast the outcome of Italy’s parliamentary elections. Hanretty’s algorithm indicated that a coalition of center-left parties was virtually certain to win a majority and form the next government, but that’s not what happened. After the dust had settled, Hanretty sifted through the rubble and concluded that “the predictions I made were off because the polls were off.”

Had the exit polls given us reliable information, I could have made an instant prediction that would have been proved right. As it was, the exit polls were wrong, and badly so. This, to me, suggests that the polling industry has made a collective mistake.

The second recent example comes from doctoral candidate Ken Opalo, who used polling as grist for a statistical mill to forecast the outcome of Kenya’s presidential election. Ken’s forecast indicated that Uhuru Kenyatta would get the most votes but would fall short of the 50-percent-plus-one-vote required to win in the first round, making a run-off “almost inevitable.” In fact, Kenyatta cleared the 50-percent threshold in the first try, making him Kenya’s new president-elect. Once again, noisy polling data was apparently to blame. As Ken noted in a blog post before the results were finalized,

Mr. Kenyatta significantly outperformed the national polls leading to the election. I estimated that the national polls over-estimated Odinga’s support by about 3 percentage points. It appears that I may have underestimated their overestimation. I am also beginning to think that their regional weighting was worse than I thought.

As I see it, both of these forecasts were, as Nate Silver puts it in his book, wrong for the right reasons. Both Hanretty and Opalo built models that used the best and most relevant information available to them in a thoughtful way, and neither forecast was wildly off the mark. Instead, it just so happened that modest errors in the forecasts interacted with each country’s electoral rules to produce categorical outcomes that were quite different from the ones the forecasts had led us to expect.

But that’s the rub, isn’t it? Even in the European Union in the Internet age, it’s still hard to predict the outcome of national elections. We’re getting smarter about how to model these things, and our computers can now process more of the models we can imagine, but polling data are still noisy and electoral systems complex.

And that’s elections, where polling data nicely mimic the data-generating process that underlies the events we’re trying to forecast. We don’t have polls telling us what share of the population plans to turn out for anti-government demonstrations or join a rebel group or carry out a coup—and even if we did, we probably wouldn’t trust them. Absent these micro-level data, we turn to proxy measures and indicators of structural opportunities and constraints, but every step away from the choices we’re trying to forecast adds more noise to the result. Agent-based computational models represent a promising alternative, but when it comes to macro-political phenomena like revolutions and state collapses, these systems are still in their infancy.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m thrilled to see more people using statistical models to try to forecast important events in international politics, and I would eagerly pit the forecasts from models like Hanretty’s and Opalo’s against the subjective judgments of individual experts any day. I just think it’s important to avoid prematurely declaring the arrival of a revolution in forecasting political events, to keep reminding ourselves how hard this problem still is. As if the (in)accuracy of our forecasts would let us have it any other way.

Development Revisited from Afar

For many social scientists, the word “development” conjures images a specific bundle of socioeconomic and political transformations: rural to urban, farms to factories, illiterate to literate, poor to middle class, lawless to lawful, despotic to democratic, insecure to secure, even sad to happy. Many of us see these changes as not just interrelated but interdependent, a beneficent syndrome of social improvement. Equally important, we often think of states as the engines of them.

A few things I’ve read in the past few weeks have vividly reminded me how much this idea of ordered, collinear, policy-driven development misses the mark. The urbanization part remains quite real, and economic growth is shrinking the share of the world’s population that lives in absolute poverty. Importantly, though, the social orders that produce these changes often lie outside the state. These orders fall within the territorial boundaries we plot on our political maps, and they are affected by the actions of domestic and foreign governments, but policy choices and the beneficence of external actors seem to have very little to do with the massive transformations afoot in many of these places.

Take Kibera, a shantytown with hundreds of thousands of residents in Nairobi, Kenya. As described in a recent issue of The Economist, mornings in Kibera sound a lot like mornings in most urban neighborhoods:

Men in patched overalls and women in freshly washed blouses walk down a narrow lane just after six in the morning. They are packed in tightly like spectators leaving a sports stadium, but this is their life, their every morning. Backs are straight; trousers and sleeves rolled up, exposing mottled yet able limbs. They crush discarded wrappers of quick-fry breakfasts under foot, corn and oil dripping from mouths. Banana skins are ground to dust by thousands of feet. Everyone is moving in one direction, jostling and shoving, out of a maze of low-strung shacks, past shops selling shoes and phones that have already been open an hour, out into the high-rise centre of Nairobi, where factories and offices pay salaries.

What’s fascinating, though, is that this orderly scene emerges without any real help from state authorities. “Government,” we’re told, “is absent: it offers the residents (regarded as squatters) no services, opens no schools, operates no hospitals, paves no roads, connects no power lines and pumps no water into homes.” A internationally recognized government does not induce and sustain this cooperation. Instead,

Kibera is an African version of a Chinese boomtown, an advertisement for solid human ambition. Like Guangzhou and Xiamen, it acts as a magnet for talent from rural areas, attracting the most determined among young farmers. To equate slums with idleness and misery is to misunderstand them. Two out of three Nairobians live in one, half of them in Kibera. Officials occasionally try to evict squatter-residents but many fight back, with the help of Muungano wa Wanavijiji, their own lobby group…Slums are far from hopeless places; many are not where economic losers end up, but rather reservoirs of tomorrow’s winners.

The same themes appear in Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Katherine Boo’s award-winning book on life in Annawadi, a shantytown next to Mumbai’s international airport. The families that Boo follows routinely suffer things that I can’t imagine tolerating for a day—roach swarms in their kitchens, rat bites while they sleep, lice, putrid water, foot fungus so large it’s described in three dimensions, and, of course, omnipresent hunger—but most of them just keep getting up and trying again. The state does seem to reach into Annawadi more than in Kibera, but that reach is often exploitative rather than supportive. Police officers solicit bribes to ignore the extra-legal activities on which many residents’ livelihoods depend, bureaucrats set up sham schools in the slums to extract payments from international charities and state governments, and local officials extract blocs of votes in exchange for small favors.

Contrary to the prevailing narrative on corruption as the antimatter of economic growth, though, the slumdwellers Boo describes seem to take a more ambivalent view of the problem. In a chapter on Asha Waghekar, a middle-aged woman who aspires to become the unofficial slumlord of Annawadi, we get this subtler take:

“The big people think that because we are poor we don’t understand much,” she said to her children. Asha understood plenty. She was a chit in a national game of make-believe, in which many of India’s oldest problems—poverty, disease, illiteracy, child labor—were being aggressively addressed. Meanwhile the other old problems, corruption and exploitation of the weak by the less weak, continued with minimal interference.

In the West, and among some in the Indian elite, this word, corruption, had purely negative connotations; it was seen as blocking India’s modern, global ambitions. But for the poor of a country where corruption thieved a great deal of opportunity, corruption was one of the genuine opportunities that remained.

These off-the-regression-line amalgamations of statelessness and order, of poverty and hustle, of corruption and opportunity also show up in Caracas, Venezuela, in a recent New Yorker piece by Jon Lee Anderson. Anderson gives us a first-person account of life in scores of buildings in the Venezuelan capital that have been occupied in the past 10 years by squatters known as invasores. One of those buildings is the Tower of David, an unfinished residential skyscraper that was one of the first structures the squatters claimed, and Anderson toured the Tower with its current boss, an ex-criminal named Alexander Daza.

As we went along, Daza explained how the building worked. He had a rhythmic, emphatic way of speaking, like a preacher. “There’s no prison regime imposed here,” he said. “What there is here is order. And there are no cells here, but homes. Nobody is forced to collaborate here. No one here is a tenant but an inhabitant.” Each inhabitant had to pay a monthly fee of a hundred fifty bolivares (about eight dollars at the black-market exchange rate) to help cover basic maintenance costs, such as the salaries of the cleanup brigade and the work crew. People who couldn’t afford to build their dwellings were given financial assistance. The residents were all registered, and every floor had its own representative delegate to attend to problems. If problems couldn’t be solved at the floor level, they were taken to a Tower council meeting, which Daza led twice a week. A common problem, he said sourly, was residents’ not paying their monthly quota, and it was hard to dissuade tenants from flinging their trash into the courtyard. Transgressors, he said, “are given a warning to appeal to their conscience.” There was a disciplinary board, and serial offenders could be kicked out of the building, but there were always those who took liberties.

Like Kibera and Annawati, the occupied towers and warehouses Anderson describes are, in a manner of speaking, being governed, but their bosses are neither elected nor appointed by anyone in the chain of command recognized by the international system. “It appeared that the government did not officially approve of the Tower of David invasion,” we’re told, “but it had made no attempt to close it down.” It’s also clear that violence plays a more important role in producing the political order Daza described than his rosy narrative of a self-sustaining democracy let on.

Daza’s version of the Tower’s law-enforcement system starkly contrasted with stories I had heard of prison-style executions, of people being mutilated and their body parts thrown off the upper floors. This was the usual punishment for thieves and squealers in Venezuela’s prisons, and the custom had crept into Caracas’ gangster-run barrios. When I asked about these stories, Daza made the non-committal pursed-lip movement common to Venezeulans. “What we want is to be left to live here,” he said. “We live well here. We don’t hear gunfights all the time here. Here there’s no thugs with pistols in their hands. What there is here is hard work. What there is here is good people, hardworking people.” When I asked Daza how he had become the Tower’s jefe, or leader, he pursed his lips again, and finally said, “In the beginning, everyone wanted to be the boss. But God got rid of those he wanted to get rid of left those he wanted to leave.”

I don’t mean to romanticize the violence and poverty and fear suffered in these places, or to suggest that states and policy and aid are irrelevant to political and economic change. These slums certainly aren’t libertarian utopias, and most of the residents we encounter in these reporters’ stories regularly imagine their escapes to richer neighborhoods under government writ.

What I do see in these stories, though, is the idea that, in many places, governance and growth are happening as much in spite of the state as because of it. Urbanization continues apace, but in real life that leap from village to city isn’t hitched to public schooling and policing and property rights protected by impartial judges the way I suspect it still is in many of our imaginations. This is all old hat, I’m sure, to people who live in or routinely travel to cities where these transformations are occurring. For those of us who don’t get out that much, though, these second-hand accounts offer an important antidote to the prevailing narrative of state policy as the force that hauls lagging corners of the world into “modernity.”

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