Why Do People Choose to Rebel?

Supporters of Turkish President Erdogan capture a Turkish tank following an attempted rebellion in Turkey in 2016. Photo: Stringer/Getty Images

In many ways, answering the question of why people rebel is central to understanding civil war. Unlike countries, rebel groups have no standing armies to fight with. Neither do most rebel groups have well-developed government bureaucracies to finance and support their front-line troops. Thus, rebel groups must rely primarily on voluntary participation and support, especially early in a conflict. Where people are willing to join or support a rebel organization, civil wars erupt and grow. However, where people choose not to join a rebel group, attempted rebellions quickly wither, and stability returns to the country. 

A number of explanations have been offered for why people rebel, many of which have been discredited. Civil wars and rebellions are neither driven by ancient hatreds between ethnic groups nor simply by opportunistic greed. Instead, scholars argue that people rebel out of a sense of relative deprivation in which they believe that they lack the economic benefits or social position that they deserve. In addition, potential rebels may be deterred from rebelling if they have significant economic opportunities and responsibilities that they would have to give up. Together, these issues show that providing inclusive governance and economic opportunity should reduce the motives and opportunity to rebel. 

Ancient Hatreds?

One of the first explanations for why people fight each other is that they have primordial hatreds for other groups. According to this explanation, grievances and feuds accumulate over centuries until members of different racial, ethnic, or religious groups hate each other, often having forgotten or distorted the original and long-ago triggers. They then become willing to fight and kill each other at the drop of a hat. 

Ancient hatreds were prominently cited in explanations of the violence in Bosnia and Rwanda. Supposedly, Bosnia descended into civil war in 1992 because the collapse of Communism unleashed primordial hatreds between the Serb, Croat, and Bosniak neighbors. Some traced these hatreds back to the fourth-century split between Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christianity that ran through the Balkans. Similarly, the Rwandan genocide is often explained as being an expression of the primordial hate Hutus have towards Tutsis. 

Citing ancient hatreds provides a straightforward explanation of ethnic violence. However, it is almost certainly wrong. Multiple studies have found little, if any, relationship between the amount of ethnic or religious diversity in a country and the likelihood it will experience civil war. Moreover, whether different groups express even mild animosity seems to depend highly on circumstances. For instance, Daniel Posner has found that the Chewa and Tumbuka ethnic groups express significant animosity in Malawi, while the same groups are fairly friendly in Zambia—even being open to marriage across ethnic lines. Similarly, before the civil war in Bosnia, a quarter of marriages crossed ethnic and religious lines. If ancient hatreds are the cause of civil war, why do the same groups seem to experience violent conflict in one time and place and friendly cooperation at others?

Economic Greed?

As the ancient hatreds explanation fell from favor, Paul Collier and Anke Hoeffler (among others) offered a second explanation. By comparing countries that experienced civil war to those that did not, they found that resource exports were one of the best predictors of conflict. Collier and Hoeffler thus argued that civil wars are primarily driven by greed. Both warlords and common fighters hope that winning a civil war will pave the way to future wealth and power. For instance, Collier cites one such warlord as stating that all one needed to start a civil war in Africa was “$10,000 and a satellite phone”; the money allowed a leader to hire an army, while the satellite phone allowed him to negotiate resource deals with western corporations. 

A popular example of how resources could fuel conflict involves diamonds, as highlighted in the movie Blood Diamond starring Leonardo DiCaprio. During Sierra Leone’s civil war, rebel groups seized easily-mined diamond fields. These diamonds were then smuggled out of the country, helping to finance the civil war. At one point, conflict diamonds from Sierra Leone constituted 4 percent of the global diamond trade. Similarly, the UNITA rebel group in Angola gained control of easily-mined diamond deposits which provided an important source of revenue. From 1992 to 2000, the areas under UNITA’s control produced an estimated $3–4 billion worth of diamonds.

While there appears to be some truth to the assertion that natural resources and greed drive conflict, the actual situation is somewhat more complex. The initial studies arguing that greed drives civil war looked at factors such as whether a country had a lot of resource exports and did not examine whether individuals or groups were directly motivated by greed. These rough measures could have multiple different implications, and could also represent sources of grievance. Subsequent studies have cast doubt on the extent to which greed directly drives civil war, as authors[RD4]  have found that many rebels express grievance motives rather than greed. 

Relative Deprivation and Changing Status?

While economic factors likely do play a role in conflict, they probably do so by creating grievances. In Why Men Rebel, Ted Gurr argues that people are motivated to rebellion by “relative deprivation” rather than absolute poverty or pure greed. In essence, “relative deprivation” is a group’s feeling and belief that they have not received the economic benefits or political voice they believe they are entitled to. It is this sense of injustice that drives conflict. In addition, groups are often particularly motivated by having lost the benefits or power they once enjoyed, or fear that changing circumstances will lead to a loss of power and economic benefits. 

For instance, sectarian conflict in Iraq can be explained, at least partly, by a sense of relative deprivation within each of the major groups. Under Saddam Hussein, both political power and economic benefits were concentrated within the Sunni Arab population, which represented about 20 percent of the total population. The Kurds and Shia Arabs thus felt that the fall of Hussein gave them a chance at political power commensurate with their population. At the same time, Sunnis feared the consequences that a loss of political influence would create. In addition, oil fields were concentrated in the Kurdish and Shia areas of the country; the two groups naturally felt that the bulk of oil revenues should benefit their local communities while Sunnis feared that they would no longer receive benefits from what they perceived as a national resource. 

Considering Opportunity Costs?

In addition to the motives for rebellion, it is also necessary to consider the incentives individuals may have not to rebel. By joining a rebellion, those with secure jobs and economic opportunity directly lose income and risk the future opportunities that staying out of the conflict would bring. Thus, in order to make sure they can support themselves and their families, people become reluctant to rebel. However, in poverty-ridden or highly unequal countries, people may have difficulty supporting themselves and their families, and see few prospects for future improvement. Accordingly, they would see little downside in joining a rebellion. Even risking death or injury in combat may not seem like much of a disincentive if a person feels that they have little opportunity to create a life worth living. 

What Does This Mean?

Given these findings, how can countries and international organizations work to prevent civil war? In Governance for Peace, David Cortright, Conor Seyle, and Kristen Wall argue that inclusive governance and economic systems limit the motivation to rebel. People need to believe that they benefit from peace and are receiving the political voice and economic benefits that they deserve relative to other groups. 

Politically, inclusive societies that allow all major groups within a country to have a voice in government likely mitigate many of the perceptions of injustice behind relative deprivation; lack of political voice and access to power can itself create feelings of deprivation and injustice. In addition, groups that might feel that they are not receiving the economic benefits or public investment that they deserve have a chance to argue for increased resources in inclusive societies.  

Economic inclusion is also important. Making sure that all groups are included in the economic system and receive economic benefits reduces the sense of injustice that can come from inter-group inequality. In addition, making sure that everyone is benefiting from the economic system increases individuals’ incentives to maintain peace. When people would have a lot to lose from rebelling, they are more likely to work for peaceful change where necessary rather than resort to violent rebellion. 

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