Coup-Civil War Trap

real-book-coverThis research project explores the strategic logic of war and peace in weak states, with a focus on sub-Saharan Africa. It models rulers of weak states as facing a coup-civil war trade-off: Striking alliances with elites embedded in rival ethnic groups is necessary to secure societal peace. But sharing real power with ethnic rivals can be dangerous if it opens the door for them to usurp power in a future coup d’état. I argue this strategic dilemma has been at the heart of some of Africa’s most devastating conflicts from the Biafran War in Nigeria in the late 1960s to the Rwandan genocide to Africa’s Great War in Congo to the Darfur civil war to tragically the outbreak of war in the newly independent country of South Sudan (see here for my application of the coup-civil war trap to the outbreak of the war in South Sudan).

Research on the coup-civil war trap has led to a number of publications, including my 2011 article in World Politics, “The Enemy Within: Personal Rule, Coups and Civil War in Africa,” which won the Gregory Luebbert Award from the American Political Science Association for best paper in comparative politics for 2010 or 2011, as well as a forthcoming book with Cambridge University Press, Ethnic Politics and State Power in Africa: The Logic of the Coup-Civil War Trap, summarized below. 

Ethnic Politics and State Power in Africa


“This is the best book on civil war I have read in quite a while. Drawing on first-rate, relatively traditional ‘shoe leather’ fieldwork, Roessler makes a genuine theoretical breakthrough in how to understand civil war onset in many developing countries.”

–James D. Fearon, Geballe Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences, Stanford University

“Roessler has written a path-breaking contribution to political science in Africa, ably combining study of the nature of the post-colonial state and of political agency by contending elites. This book is a rich account, based on multiple methods, that superbly fuses the analysis of civil wars and coups d’état into a single cogent account, that places struggles for state power where they belong—right at the center of the explanation for armed conflict and contentious politics.”

–Alex de Waal, Executive Director of the World Peace Foundation, Research Professor, The Fletcher School, Tufts University

“Scholars have long wondered why leaders of fragile states would exclude representatives of minority groups from the centers of power if they could mobilize their co-ethnics in rebellion. Philip Roessler’s remarkable book is the first to provide a convincing answer. It is deeply engaged in field observations from Sudan, compelling in theoretical simplicity, and committed to generality through statistical tests. In a trade-off between a coup d’état from within the palace and a civil war coming from a far periphery, presidents prefer the latter and thereby risk the rebellion initiated by violence entrepreneurs mobilizing the excluded minority. Africanists, comparativists, international relations experts, and the policy community will all profit from this extraordinary treatise.”

–David D. Laitin, Professor of Political Science, Stanford University

“War, coups, and ethnicity form a deadly triangle, and in this study, Philip Roessler probes their origins and interrelations. In so doing he teaches us not only about Africa but about politics throughout much of the developing world. A significant contribution.”

–Robert H. Bates. Department of Government, Harvard University

Summary of the book

At its essence, civil war is a form of violent conflict over the distribution of state power. The puzzle then is what prevents rivals from dividing power in a way that all would prefer to devastating large-scale political violence. Greed? Miscalculation? Ethno-nationalism? Pride? In my book with Cambridge University Press, Ethnic Politics and State Power in Africa: The Logic of the Coup-Civil War Trap, I make the case for the importance of fear or mistrust borne out of uncertainty. I argue that in weak states with divided societies, rulers (and their co-ethnics) know they need to share power to extend the reach of the central government beyond their own group, but are loath to do so if it merely strengthens their rivals’ capabilities to usurp power for themselves in a future coup d’état. This uncertainty prevents rulers from fully committing to powersharing and to favor exclusionary policies to hedge against the coup. But given the weakness of the state, exclusion undermines the government’s control over other societal groups, increasing the risk of civil war. Employing a nested research design that combines qualitative case studies of Sudan and Democratic Republic of Congo, based on extensive field research, with a range of statistical analyses, this book describes how the African state confronts rulers with a coup-civil war trap, and civil war represents a strategic choice by rulers, backed by their co-ethnics, to protect their hold on power from their ethnic rivals. The corollary of this, however, is that as the threat capabilities of one’s rival increases due to their size and proximity to the capital, ethno-political exclusion becomes less strategically advantageous. Consistent with this, the book further shows how the coup-civil war trap plays out across sub-Saharan Africa is conditional on a country’s ethnic geography and distribution of societal power. When the major axis of political competition is between several large ethnic groups proximate to the capital, the threat of a mutually costly total conflict for state power induces rivals to choose powersharing and accept coup risk over civil war risk.

Contributions of the book

  • Offers a complete and integrated theory of civil war onset—that is, how and why bargaining over the distribution of state power ends in large-scale political violence.
  • Breaks down the artificial division within political science on the study of coups and civil wars and accounts for the strategic relationship between the two phenomena.
  • Elucidates, through a structured comparison of temporal variation in violence in Darfur, how inter-ethnic alliances reduce civil war risk through the institution of cooperative counterinsurgency.
  • Original theory on the roots of self-enforcing powersharing in Africa, which helps to account for Africa’s two equilibriums—the exclusion-civil war cycle vs. powersharing-peace order.
  • Exemplar of the benefits of mixed-methods research, including extensive, rigorous field research, to build and test theory.
  • Situates two of Africa’s deadliest conflicts—Darfur and Africa’s Great War—in comparative perspective and shows that both arise from the same dynamics.