Clandestine Economies, Violence and States in Africa

By Reno, William | Journal of International Affairs, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

Clandestine Economies, Violence and States in Africa


Reno, William, Journal of International Affairs


"... rulers have intervened in local economies in informal ways that diminish overall economic well-being and undermine the bureaucracies that are critical to sustaining economic growth."

Africa attracts attention for its reputation for disorder. One in very 150 Africans is a refugee, the highest proportion of any continent.(1) Two major regional wars have affected the continent in the last decade: one centered on the Democratic Republic of Congo which involves ten countries, the other on an axis from southern Senegal to Liberia's borders, which involves five more. This disorder, coupled with weak government administration in many countries, offers opportunities for entrepreneurs to conceal illicit transactions and avoid regulations. Nigerians, for example, reportedly carry 40 percent of the heroin that reaches the United States.(2) Pirates appear off the coasts of Somalia and Sierra Leone and government soldiers are accused of attacking foreign ships.(3) The Angolan insurgency, UNITA (Unio Nacional para a Independencia Total do Angola), has reportedly earned as much as US$600 million annually from illicit sales of diamonds.(4) Liberia's president, popularly known as "Superglue" for his personal habit of keeping anything he touches, hosts various former South African intelligence operatives. Ukrainian arms merchants and American "missionaries" set up their own bank in Monrovia. These activities demonstrate the extent to which formally recognized governments can be involved in what officials in other countries consider illicit commerce. A central feature of regimes such as the one in Liberia is the extent to which its officials engage in what most outsiders--and most Liberians--consider to be clandestine commerce, which is a critically important way for these regimes to stay in power. As I will show below, this commerce accompanies armed conflict, and plays an important role in provoking and prolonging much of the warfare in Africa.

In this article, I develop a model of clandestine economies as they operate in parts of contemporary Africa. The model will explain how clandestine economies contribute to the strengthening of political authority in seemingly chaotic parts of Africa. It shows how a range of activities that are commonly defined as corruption and evasion of government authority, or as consequences of incompetent administration and bad policies, actually grows out of the purposeful strategies of rulers. I will identify an archetypical Shadow State as one that is constructed behind the facade of laws and government institutions. The Shadow State is a form of personal rule; that is, an authority that is based upon the decisions and interests of an individual, not a set of written laws and procedures, even though these formal aspects of government may exist. The Shadow State is founded on rulers' abilities to manipulate external actors' access to markets, both formal and clandestine, in such a way as to enhance their power. This alternative manner of rule permits rulers to undermine the formal institutions of government itself. As I explain below, some rulers fear that these formal institutions may acquire interests and powers at odds with their efforts to retain power.(5)

This article also addresses how this formally clandestine but dominant economy and system of political control is managed. In particular, Shadow State rulers recruit and arm youths to help intimidate opponents in economic markets and politics, and aspiring politicians recruit youths to attack their rivals. Free-lancing among these politicians, and among youths themselves, however, complicates Shadow State rulers' efforts to hold together their non-bureaucratic regimes.

The next section will explore how Shadow State rulers address this internal dilemma. These rulers attempt to address the contradictions that beset the ensuing political structure by seeking out foreign partners. They use these foreign commercial partners, who often shun legal markets elsewhere, to partially replace their internal associates. …

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