Theory Bites: Can war create strong states today?

By Edvin Arnby Machata 

Historically, war has been a crucial factor in the evolution of today’s developed states. War both increases the direct need for state institutions like a tax authority and an organisation to manage conscription and training of soldiers. It has also weeded out weaker states to be assimilated into stronger ones.

How well this past experience remain true today is however unclear. There are a few important differences with developing state capacity in our time compared to 100, 500 and 1500 years ago (depending on the area). The most important is probably globalisation. If a state would emerge in isolated territories with limited external influence, it could much easier establish and maintain authority, as its main rivals would likely be tribes or states with similar resource levels but with authority centred in different areas.

Today however, consolidating states like Mali or Niger are also forced to deal with a much higher level of external influence, often by much more powerful actors. Even the most successful emerging states are still constrained by the interests of trans-national corporations, aid agencies and a multitude of more developed states.

Historically, citizens have been the main source of state income. To maximize tax revenue, states have usually sought to ensure compliance by offering social services in return, forming and developing a reciprocal relationship between the state and its citizens.

However, as all these external actors bring much more resources than can be gathered through taxing a population typically consisting mostly of rural subsistence farmers, the state often tries to generate income from these external actors.

Instead of developing a tax base, the state sells licences to extract natural resources to multinationals, court western governments and multilateral organisations like the UN and IMF for development aid, and use NGO projects to ‘award’ services to politically loyal villages and social groups. Consequently, the reciprocal relationship between state and subjects does not develop.

That financing to a great extent comes from external sources means that actors in developing countries can sustain militaries much greater than its fiscal base or civilian institutions would normally allow. An illuminating example is Somalia which, with the help of the Soviet Union and later the USA, had the largest army on the African continent.

As it was also ‘artificially safe’ against foreign invasion due to international guarantees of its sovereignty and territorial integrity, it did not need to develop its civilian institutions to expand its civilian control across its territory.

The unsuccessful attempt to conquer the Somali-inhabited Ogaden region from Ethiopia did not reverse this pattern, but instead merely put an increased strain on the states’ institutions and on Somalia’s people. Order was maintained by the strength of strongman President Siad Barre’s clan networks and mere personality, but when he was injured in a car accident in 1986, the structure began to crumble and the opposition started to engage in open rebellion.

When Barre was finally ousted in 1991, the central state collapsed. In its place emerged a multitude of armed factions, warlords and militias that usually corresponded to various clans. Few of them have been able to construct anything resembling a state, partly because the necessary civilian bureaucracy did not exist. While the Union of Islamic Courts was able to establish some level of civil order in 2006, it was destroyed through an Ethiopian military intervention.

Somaliland, however, is an exception. A former northern province of Somalia, it became de facto independent after Barre’s ouster and has emerged as a stable regional actor, even offering humanitarian aid to famine-stricken southern Somalia in 2011 and effectively dealing with pirate activities on the coast. Since declaring independence, Somaliland has also had its own civil war and a regularly violent territorial dispute with armed groups loyal to the federal government in Mogadishu.

As Somaliland has not been internationally recognised it is receiving much less aid and foreign investment than other developing countries. In being forced to deal with military threats on its own, the state has been able to forge reciprocal relationships with the different classes and ethnic groups in its territory.

The Somaliland (not Somalian) civil war was fought between shifting coalitions. Crudely speaking, it was centred on a conflict between the Haber Yoonis and Haber Jaclo sub-clans. The state itself was a relatively strong actor, and was seen as a credible third party—its involvement in reaching a peace settlement helped to legitimize its rule.

Skirmishes with neighbouring Somalian region Puntland has also highlighted the need to field a national army to secure its borders and support the Somaliland state from domestic taxes, without the conflict ever escalating as to threaten to destroy the state. The Somaliland government’s control of their capital Hargeysa has never been in question.

While we can observe warfare having a beneficial effect to state development in Somaliland, its relative isolation from the international community is an exception to the norm. More common is the situation where the warfare puts a debilitating strain on the state, like in Somalia under Barre, but also in Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The risks and uncertainties of war means that contemporary developing states and international actors need to find alternative ways of building state capacity, without relying on warfare to forge subject-ruler bonds and to consolidate central authority.

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Edvin Arnby Machata is the regional editor for West Africa with Global South Development Magazine

For Further Reading:

Ahmed, I & Herbold Green, R (1999) “The Heritage of War and State Collapse in Somalia and Somaliland: Local-Level Effects, External Interventions and Reconstruction”. Third World Quarterly, 20(1): 113 – 127.

Ames, Edward, and Richard T. Rapp (1977) “The Birth and Death of Taxes: a Hypothesis.” The Journal of Economic History, 37(1): 161–178.

Helling, D. (2010) “Tillyan Footprints Beyond Europe: War-Making and State-Making In the Case of Somaliland”. St Antony’s International Review, 6(1): 103–23.

Kaplan, S. (2009) “Rethinking state-building in a failed state”. The Washington Quarterly, 33(1).

Lewis, I. (2008) Understanding Somalia and Somaliland: Culture, History, Society. London: Hurst & Company.

Rubin, Barnett R. (2002) The Fragmentation of Afghanistan: state formation and collapse in the international system. New Haven: Yale University Press.


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One comment

  1. The role, rather the diabolical role of weapon manufacturers industry should not be overlooked in any perspective. It is their greed which leads to uncountable armed conflicts, orgainzed militant terrorism, and even larger than needed armies in many countries. The omnipresence of this industry, and it’s power to arm every group in any conflict are the main reasons as to why strong nations are unable to emerge.


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