Civil War and State Formation

What are the political orders put in place by rebel movements and how do they influence the post-war state formation?

Project Summary

Dominant narratives and theories developed at the turn of the 21st century in order to account for civil wars in Africa converged around two main ideas. First, that the increase in civil wars across Africa was the expression of the weakness and collapse of state institutions. Second, guerilla movements, once viewed as the ideological armed wings of Cold War contenders, were seen as roving bandits interested in plundering the spoils left by decaying states and primarily driven by economic or personal interests.

However, recent research has challenged such account by looking into the day-to-day politics of civil war beyond rebels’ motives to wage war against the established order. Indeed, civil wars, while being the cause of immense suffering, contribute to shaping and producing political orders. Thus, if we are to understand how stable political institutions can be built in the aftermath of civil war, it is essential to study the institutions that regulate political life during conflict. This project therefore looks at state formation through violent conflict. It focuses on political orders put in place by rebel movements, on their strategies to legitimise their existence and claim to power, and on the extent to which they manage to institutionalise their military power and transform it into political domination.

To this end, the research projects takes a broader perspective by looking at (dis)continuities between political orders established under rebel rule and post-war state formation. It investigates the social fabric of legitimacy in areas under rebel control during conflict and analyses how it relates to state formation in the post-conflict phase. Based on a political anthropology of governance and state practices in three different countries (South Sudan, Côte d’Ivoire and Angola), this project provides empirical and theoretical insights into state formation in Africa as well as into domination and legitimacy. It also links to current policy debates on statebuilding and peacebuilding in fragile contexts.

Academic Output

Executive Summary

This project centred on the role of armed groups in state formation through civil war. It considered state formation as a political process resulting from constant and changing interactions between state and society and as deeply contextual and endogenous, shaped primarily by internal historical dynamics. Accordingly, research focused on states not as a norm, but as dynamic historical processes, and on the social construction of legitimate orders. We therefore produced a political anthropology of governance practices in rebel-held territories through the study of local perceptions of authority and legitimacy as well as of their institutionalisation. Based on this focus, our research approach followed an exploratory, inductive methodology. Legitimacy and struggles around the construction of legitimacy in rebel zones were analysed as a process including a situational and relational quality of public authority based as much on ideas, representations and beliefs as on concrete outputs such as the delivery of services and goods. This project was built around three case studies, South Sudan, Côte d’Ivoire and Angola. The selection was made based on their relevance for the research questions, their comparability and potential for generalization, as well as the expertise of the applicants and existing research collaboration on the ground which are essential for the success of such a project. The main research outcomes are presented here country by country in order to highlight how each of the three main research questions played out in each context

Working Paper

Civil Wars and State Formation. Violence and the Politics of Legitimacy in Angola, Côte d’Ivoire and South Sudan

Civil wars do not only destroy existing political orders. They contribute to shaping new ones, and thereby play a crucial role in dynamics of state formation. This working paper is based on a 2-year research project funded by the Swiss Network of International Studies and conducted by a consortium of five research institutions in Switzerland and Africa. It reflects on the social construction of order and legitimacy during and after violent conflict by focusing on political orders put in place by armed groups, their strategies to legitimize their (violent) action as well as their claim to power, and on the extent to which they strive and manage to institutionalize their military power and transform it into political domination. Drawing on case studies in Angola, Côte d’Ivoire and South Sudan, it shows how strategies of legitimization are central to understanding the politics of armed groups and their relation to the state, how international aid agencies impact on the legitimacy of armed groups and state actors, and how continuities between war and peace, especially in key sectors such as security forces, need to be taken into account in any effort at establishing long-term peace and stability.

Research Team

Didier Péclard
University of Geneva

Laurent Goetschel

Francis Akindès
Principal Member
Université de Bouaké

Leben Nelson Moro
Principal Member

Nelson Pestana
Principal Member
Universidade Católica de Angola

Martina Santschi
Principal Member

Seydina Ousmane Zina
Principal Member
Université de Bouaké

Albrecht Schnabel
Associated Member
DCAF – Center for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces





Policy domains



Angola, Côte d’Ivoire, South Sudan

Host Institution