Small Wars Journal

Don't Trust the Big Man

Mon, 09/19/2011 - 2:49pm

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The African states below the Sahel - with their legacy of racist European colonial rule followed, in the early 1960s, by the emergence of incompetent, kleptocratic and ruthless African rule - are dominated by weak or failed states.  Such states breed insurgencies.  Three case studies provide insight into insurgent movements and the incompetent governments under which they thrive.  Two short analyses are counterpoints:  the success of Botswana, and the failure of Sudan.  A full-length analysis of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and its full-scale insurgencies since 1960 –at the hands of Big Man leaders Lumumba, Mobutu, and Kabila - provide object lessons as to the underlying conditions, catalysts, and igniters of insurgencies.  These case studies point to two keys to predicting insurgencies within failed states:

1) With a background of a failed state as a matrix, successful insurgencies are sparked, led, and culminated by one Big Man leader, and

2) This Big Man succeeds when he finds, exploits or creates a seam between states, nations, tribes or clans. 

The African Big Man leader takes the traditional place of the African tribal chief.  It is this aggressive, dynamic leader, working at that seam, who can unite warring tribes, clans or groups into a coherent insurgent whole.  It is this man through whom a growing insurgent movement succeeds or fails.  Once he gains power, though, too often

the sum of Africa’s misfortunes – its wars, its despotisms, its corruption, its droughts, its everyday violence – presents a crisis of such magnitude that it goes beyond the reach of foreseeable solutions.  At the core of the crisis is the failure of African leaders to provide effective government.  Africa has suffered grievously at the hands of its Big Men and its ruling elites.

                                                             Martin Meredith, The Fate of Africa [1]

[1] Martin Meredith, The Fate of Africa (New York: PublicAffairs, Perseus Books Group, 2005), p. 686.

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About the Author(s)

Stan Coerr is a Colonel in the Marine Corps Reserve and works in the federal civil service.   He holds degrees from Duke, Harvard and the Naval War College, has been a fellow at MIT and Stanford, and was recently accepted to begin work on a doctorate at Oxford.  He is finishing a book on his time in Iraq, and his next book will be on the life and work of Dr. Bernard Fall.  Stan lives with his wife and three sons in Mclean, Virginia.