When Rebels Take Power: Q&A with Kai Thaler

This post is the second in our Democracy Fellows Spotlight series. Kai Thaler, one of the Ash Center’s Democracy Doctoral Fellows, is a fifth year graduate student and a PhD candidate in the Department of Government at Harvard University. Thaler’s dissertation examines how rebel organizational characteristics affect the type and scope of state building and public service provision by rebel movements if they succeed in capturing the central state or seceding. Read other posts in this series here.

 

By Hannah Hilligoss

Q: Tell me about where you are coming from and how your research interests developed:

A: I decided to do a PhD after a few years working. I was doing sociological and criminological research in South Africa for a bit at the University of Cape Town, then was in Bogotá, Colombia at the Universidad de los Andes. I also worked for Handicap International as a research consultant.

In the back of my mind, I had an idea that I wanted to do a project looking at rebels who took power and how they acted once they were in government, continuing an interest from my undergraduate thesis. When I was doing my consultancy contract I applied for grad schools, and in the spring decided it was the right move to make at the time, so I wound up at Harvard in the Department of Government.

Since then I’ve been looking at issues of political violence and repression after rebels take power, but I have broadened my focus to include rebels’ state building, social service provision, and regime construction.

 

Q: I would imagine a lot of the regimes and rebel groups you study are anything but democratic—what brought you to the Ash Center and the Democracy Fellowship in particular?

A: My work has been pretty focused on issues of civil war and conflict, but I do a significant amount of work with regimes, democratization, authoritarianism, and how regimes endure or collapse. I wanted to be exposed to new ideas from people who work much more directly on issues related to democracy. I want to expand my knowledge and try to make my work more accessible and interesting to a broader audience.

I’ve also known a few people who have been Democracy Fellows at the Ash Center. They all had really good experiences and found the community of scholars very engaging. I wanted to be able to focus on my research and writing, but also be part of a community of people with a slightly different focus than I’ve had in the past.

 

Q: What are the main questions your research addresses?

A: The main questions right now are when rebels take power after a civil war, what explains variation in the types of states they build? How strong are they? How much do they try to build state institutions throughout the territory? And what influence do they want to have throughout society? Then also, what explains variation in whether or not they’re providing social services? I focus on health and education since those are some of the most fundamental service areas and also relatively easy to measure.

My main thesis is that a great deal of variation comes from who ends up in leadership positions within rebel organizations, and what long term goals or political programs they hold. Within any given group, you can have a number of people competing for leadership with different ideas.

They can then decide to band together or to compete for power. Sometimes people get killed or otherwise purged from the group and forced into exile. You eventually wind up with an individual or a group of people who really shape the character of the organization and the regime’s longer term trajectory.

 

Q: Do you think the leadership of the rebel group during conflict matters as well, or do you primarily focus on the leadership that emerges post-conflict? How does external competition a factor in—whether a conflict ends with a power-sharing agreement between groups or with one group dominating the others?

A:  I examine leadership and agenda-setting both during conflict and afterwards. My hypothesis is that this process is path dependent, so the goals that are set and how the character of the organization develops while they’re fighting as rebels carry over into the post-conflict period. There may be some other factors that intervene to push them a little bit one way or another but fundamentally they retain that character.

I focus on cases where there is a clear military victory or a negotiated settlement where one group winds up clearly dominant.

Once the organizations took power, in all of the cases I studied most closely, they initially tried to develop a broad-based government. They attempted to bring in people from different rebel factions to the new government.

Often the regimes just wanted stability and to co-opt some individuals from other factions. However, there were some cases in which there was a real commitment to a more democratic and inclusive transitional government—unfortunately, this often degraded over time.

 

Q: What are some of the pressing policy or social problems that your research speaks to? Are there specific solutions or approaches to addressing these problems that you seek to understand?

A: I don’t pretend that I have the solutions to these problems, but my work certainly speaks to contemporary civil wars. It could help in trying to understand how different rebel organizations might act if they were to end up in power, or were to be folded into a government.

Take the case of Syria for example. The United States and the West don’t want the self-proclaimed Islamic State to wind up in charge and they don’t want Assad to stay in power. So then they’re faced with the problem of trying to adjudicate between all of the other different rebel groups. It would be useful to know what their positions or policies might be if they were to gain power. What type of state would they construct after this moment of state collapse?

 

Q: Have you done any hypothesizing about how the Syrian situation might turn out?

A: Not yet, I try not to get too involved with contemporary issues because they change so quickly. On the other hand, former rebel groups who are more ideologically focused and programmatic tend to have very long durations in power. So many of the longest standing authoritarian regimes in the world today are ones that were initially revolutionary rebel groups or liberation movements—think Uganda, Zimbabwe, Cuba, China, just to name a few.

My research can hopefully provide some insight into how these organizations were formed, why they were cohesive, what types of processes they internalized. In Uganda, the National Resistance Movement seized power in 1986 after a civil war and have retained power. To understand why the organization has maintained popularity among much of the population and how it has adapted to electoral politics, it’s important to look at the origins of the group and what got them into power in the first place, how did they initially build up their capacity.

 

Q: Nicaragua, Liberia, and Uganda seem like very different countries—how did you decide to focus on these countries and what was it like doing field research in them?

A: I chose those three because I wanted to analyze rebel groups with some organizational variation. The Sandinistas in Nicaragua were a programmatic group with a strong ideology, and tried to build a strong and extensive state that delivered social services.

On the other end of the spectrum, the National Patriotic Front of Liberia, led by Charles Taylor, was much more opportunistic and geared towards taking power. The NPFL focused more on accumulating wealth and resources than on service provision and state building. Uganda, as I see it, falls somewhere in the middle. That was part of the motivation.

While the three countries are very different in a number of ways, there are also a lot of underlying similarities. For example, the types of governments toppled by these rebel groups were all very exclusionary, authoritarian regimes. Another is the level of poverty of the countries within their regions and the dependent nature of their relationship to the global economy. I wanted to hold some of these things constant, despite not having, for instance, shared colonial heritage.

 

Q: What type of work were you doing in the field? How did you adapt your field research methods to fit the contexts of each country?

A: I conducted interviews and did archival research. It varied a little bit from country to country. Liberia didn’t really have much of an archival record of the period I was interested in—all of it was destroyed in the civil war or poorly preserved. So I had to focus more heavily on interviews.

Then in Uganda tensions were high due to their elections this spring. People were not as willing to talk, so I concentrated my research on archival sources there.

But once I got in touch with people in Nicaragua and Liberia they were usually pretty willing to talk. I interviewed a mix of current and former government officials, people who were former party members or had been in the security forces, some of whom still support the government, some of whom are very much opposed now. I also talked to individuals in civil society, in NGO’s, in academia, and journalists.

 

Q: What do you find most challenging about your field of study, and what do you wish others knew about the issues you address?

A: The most challenging thing is trying to develop very deep knowledge of cases with all of their specificities, and then figuring out how to abstract and generalize without excessive extrapolation from necessarily limited data. In other words, knowing how far the evidence carries you and how best to qualify its limitations.

The thing that I wish people knew or paid a bit more attention to, which is starting to happen more within political science, is the rhetoric and ideologies directly expressed by rebel groups. At the same time, you have to be careful to parse through what is sincere and what is empty talk.

The intentions of these groups as expressed by their spokesmen can get lost in our desire to look for economic, geopolitical, or environmental explanations. All of which do play a role in many civil wars, but I think they tend to get overblown.

I think we should be observing what groups are actually saying, how they are enacting their rhetoric—or not enacting it—and looking at their origins and evolution.

 

Q: If you could have a conversation with any individual (living or dead) about your research, who would it be and why?

A: I would definitely want to talk to Fidel Castro because he was one of the most successful revolutionary rebels to have taken power. Successful in not only staying in power, but also in actually achieving transformations within Cuba in terms of health care and education improvements.

The economy is another matter, for reasons both internal and external. But even so, he seemed to have managed to avoid a lot of the corruption and ideological decay that tend to plague revolutionary movements over time. I think it would be fascinating to hear his perspective.

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