Skip to main content Accessibility help

Self-Enforcing Power Sharing in Weak States

  • Philip Roessler and David Ohls

Power sharing, in which elites from rival societal groups agree to share control of the central government, is a key source of domestic peace, enabling states to escape devastating cycles of exclusion and civil war. Yet the conditions giving rise to inclusive governance are not well understood. In contrast to existing scholarship that emphasizes the importance of external third-party mediation or strong formal institutions, we point to the structural roots of power sharing in which political inclusion stems from the distribution of societal power and the balance of threat capabilities it produces. Only when both the ruling group and a given rival group possess strong mobilizational capabilities, such that each could credibly threaten to recapture state power if excluded from the central government, does self-enforcing power sharing emerge. A strong rival induces the ruler to commit to power sharing and to reluctantly accept coup risk over civil war risk. The ruling group's own threat capabilities, in turn, constrain rivals from trying to convert their share of power into absolute power. Supported by extensive quantitative and qualitative evidence with particular reference to weak states in sub-Saharan Africa, we shed light on the conditions under which the distribution of violence within a state underwrites a peaceful and productive equilibrium. In doing so, we rethink how scholars approach the study of civil war. Rather than conceiving of it in terms of effective resistance, we model civil war as a contest for state power shaped by groups’ capabilities to project force in the capital.

Hide All
Acemoglu, Daron, and Robinson, James A.. 2006. Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Acemoglu, Daron, Verdier, Thierry, and Robinson, James A.. 2004. Kleptocracy and Divide-and-Rule: A Model of Personal Rule. Journal of the European Economic Association 2 (2–3):162–92.
Arriola, Leonardo R. 2012. Multi-Ethnic Coalitions in Africa: Business Financing of Opposition Election Campaigns. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Bates, Robert H. 1983. Modernization, Ethnic Competition, and the Rationality of Politics in Contemporary Africa. In State Versus Ethnic Claims: African Policy Dilemmas, edited by Rothchild, Donald and Olorunsola, Victor A., 152–71. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
Bates, Robert H. 2008. When Things Fell Apart: State Failure in Late-Century Africa. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Beinart, William. 2001. Twentieth-Century South Africa. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Boix, Carles, and Svolik, Milan W.. 2013. The Foundations of Limited Authoritarian Government: Institutions, Commitment, and Power-Sharing in Dictatorships. The Journal of Politics 75 (2):300–16.
Bueno de Mesquita, Bruce, Morrow, James D., Siverson, Randolph M., and Smith, Alastair. 2003. The Logic of Political Survival. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Buhaug, Halvard, Cederman, Lars-Erik, and Rød, Jan Ketil. 2008. Disaggregating Ethno-Nationalist Civil Wars: A Dyadic Test of Exclusion Theory. International Organization 62 (3):531–51.
Carter, David B., and Signorino, Curtis S.. 2010. Back to the Future: Modeling Time Dependence in Binary Data. Political Analysis 18 (3):271–92.
Cederman, Lars-Erik, Gleditsch, Kristian Skrede, and Buhaug, Halvard. 2013. Inequality, Grievances, and Civil War. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Cederman, Lars-Erik, Wimmer, Andreas, and Min, Brian. 2010. Why Do Ethnic Groups Rebel? New Data and Analysis. World Politics 62 (1):87119.
Cetinyan, Rupen. 2002. Ethnic Bargaining in the Shadow of Third-Party Intervention. International Organization 56 (3):645–77.
Chazan, Naomi. 1982. Ethnicity and Politics in Ghana. Political Science Quarterly 97 (3):461–85.
Chiozza, Giacomo, and Goemans, H.E.. 2011. Leaders and International Conflict. New York: Cambridge.
Clapham, Christopher. 1996. Africa and the International System: The Politics of State Survival. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Collier, Paul, Hoeffler, Anke, and Rohner, Dominic. 2009. Beyond Greed and Grievance: Feasibility and Civil War. Oxford Economic Papers 61 (1):127.
Copeland, Dale C. 2000. The Origins of Major War. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Decalo, Samuel. 1973. Regionalism, Politics, and the Military in Dahomey. The Journal of Developing Areas 7 (3): 449–78.
Decalo, Samuel. 1995. Historical Dictionary of Benin. 3rd ed. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press.
Ellis, Stephen. 1999. The Mask of Anarchy: The Destruction of Liberia and the Religious Dimension of an African Civil War. New York: New York University Press.
Englebert, Pierre. 2002. State Legitimacy and Development in Africa. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.
Englebert, Pierre, and Hummel, Rebecca. 2005. Let's Stick Together: Understanding Africa's Secessionist Deficit. African Affairs 104 (416): 399427.
Fearon, James D. 1995. Ethnic War as a Commitment Problem. Paper Presented at the 1994 Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, New York, 30 August–2 September.
Fearon, James D. 2003. Ethnic and Cultural Diversity by Country. Journal of Economic Growth 8 (2):195222.
Fearon, James D. 2010. Governance and Civil War Onset. Background Paper to the World Development Report 2011. Washington, DC: World Bank.
Fearon, James D., and Laitin, David D.. 2003. Ethnicity, Insurgency, and Civil War. American Political Science Review 97 (1):7590.
Feenstra, Robert C., Inklaar, Robert, and Timmer, Marcel P.. 2015. The Next Generation of the Penn World Table. The American Economic Review 105 (10):3150–82.
Forrest, Joshua B. 1987. Guinea–Bissau since Independence: A Decade of Domestic Power Struggles. The Journal of Modern African Studies 25 (1):95116.
Forrest, Joshua B. 1992. Guinea–Bissau: Power, Conflict, and Renewal in a West African Nation. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
Francois, Patrick, Rainer, Ilia, and Trebbi, Francesco. 2015. How Is Power Shared in Africa? Econometrica 83 (2):465503.
Gandhi, Jennifer, and Przeworski, Adam. 2006. Cooperation, Cooptation, and Rebellion under Dictatorship. Economics and Politics 18 (1):126.
Gleditsch, Kristian Skrede, and Ruggeri, Andrea. 2010. Political Opportunity Structures, Democracy, and Civil War. Journal of Peace Research 47 (3):299310.
Gleditsch, Kristian Skrede, Salehyan, Idean, and Schultz, Kenneth. 2008. Fighting at Home, Fighting Abroad. Journal of Conflict Resolution 52 (4):479506.
Green, Elliott. 2012. On the Size and Shape of African States. International Studies Quarterly 56 (2):229–44.
Gurr, Ted R. 2000. People Versus States: Minorities at Risk in the New Century. Washington, DC: US Institute of Peace.
Harff, Barbara. 2003. No Lessons Learned from the Holocaust? Assessing Risks of Genocide and Political Mass Murder Since 1955. American Political Science Review 97 (1):5773.
Harkness, Kristen A. 2014. The Ethnic Army and the State: Explaining Coup Traps and the Difficulties of Democratization in Africa. Journal of Conflict Resolution 60 (4):587616.
Hartzell, Caroline A., and Hoddie, Matthew. 2007. Crafting Peace: Power-Sharing Institutions and the Negotiated Settlement of Civil Wars. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.
Helmke, Gretchen, and Levitsky, Steven. 2004. Informal Institutions and Comparative Politics: A Research Agenda. Perspectives on Politics 2 (4):725–40.
Herbst, Jeffrey. 2000. States and Power in Africa: Comparative Lessons in Authority and Control. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Hironaka, Ann. 2005. Neverending Wars: The International Community, Weak States, and the Perpetuation of Civil War. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Hirsch, Linda, and Smith, Martin. 2014. The Rise of Isis. Arlington, VA: Public Broadcasting Service.
Hirschman, Albert O. 1970. Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.
Hobbes, Thomas. 1986 (1651). Leviathan. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin.
Högbladh, Stina. 2012. Peace Agreements 1975–2011. Updating the UCDP Peace Agreement Dataset. In States in Armed Conflict 2011, edited by Pettersson, Therése and Themnér, Lotta, 3956. Uppsala: Department of Peace and Conflict Research.
Horowitz, Donald L. 1985. Ethnic Groups in Conflict. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Horowitz, Donald L. 1991. A Democratic South Africa? Constitutional Engineering in a Divided Society. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Jackson, Robert H., and Rosberg, Carl G.. 1982. Personal Rule in Black Africa. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Jervis, Robert. 1978. Cooperation Under the Security Dilemma. World Politics 30 (2):167214.
Johnson, Douglas H. 2011. The Root Causes of Sudan's Civil Wars: Peace or Truce. Oxford: James Currey.
King, Gary, Tomz, Michael, and Wittenberg, Jason. 2000. Making the Most of Statistical Analyses: Improving Interpretation and Presentation. American Journal of Political Science 44 (2):347–61.
Kissinger, Henry A. 1969. The Viet Nam Negotiations. Foreign Affairs, January, 211–34. Available at <>.
Kugler, Jacek, and Lemke, Douglas, eds. 1996. Parity and War: Evaluations and Extensions of the War Ledger. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Lijphart, Arend. 1969. Consociational Democracy. World Politics 21 (2):207–25.
Lijphart, Arend. 1977. Democracy in Plural Societies: A Comparative Exploration. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Luckham, Robin. 1971. The Nigerian Military: A Sociological Analysis of Authority and Revolt 1960–67. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Magaloni, Beatriz. 2008. Credible Power-Sharing and the Longevity of Authoritarian Rule. Comparative Political Studies 41 (4–5):715–41.
Magaloni, Beatriz, Chu, Jonathan, and Min, Eric. 2013. Autocracies of the World, 1950–2012. Data set, Stanford University.
Martin, Randolph. 2002. Sudan's Perfect War. Foreign Affairs 81 (2):111–27.
Matthews, Ronald. 1966. African Powder Keg: Revolt and Dissent in Six Emergent Nations. London: Bodley Head.
McGarry, John, and O'Leary, Brendan. 1993. Introduction: The Macro-Political Regulation of Ethnic Conflict. In The Politics of Ethnic Conflict Regulation: Case Studies of Protracted Ethnic Conflicts, edited by McGarry, John and O'Leary, Brendan, 140. New York: Routledge.
McGowan, Patrick J. 2003. African Military Coups D’état, 1956–2001: Frequency, Trends and Distribution. Journal of Modern African Studies 41 (3):339–70.
Michalopoulos, Stelios. 2012. The Origins of Ethnolinguistic Diversity. The American Economic Review 102 (4):1508–39.
Migdal, Joel S. 1988. Strong Societies and Weak States: State-Society Relations and State Capabilities in the Third World. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Moe, Terry M. 2005. Power and Political Institutions. Perspectives on Politics 3 (2):215–33.
Norris, Pippa. 2008. Driving Democracy: Do Power-Sharing Institutions Work? New York: Cambridge University Press.
North, Douglass Cecil, Wallis, John Joseph, and Weingast, Barry R.. 2009. Violence and Social Orders: A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Organski, A.F.K., and Kugler, Jacek. 1980. The War Ledger. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Posen, Barry R. 1993. The Security Dilemma and Ethnic Conflict. Survival: Global Politics and Strategy 35 (1):2747.
Powell, Robert. 1999. In the Shadow of Power: States and Strategies in International Politics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Prunier, Gerard. 1995. The Rwanda Crisis: History of a Genocide. New York: Columbia University Press.
Reed, William. 2003. Information, Power, and War. American Political Science Review 97 (4):633–41.
Reno, William. 1998. Warlord Politics and African States. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.
Robinson, Glenn E. 2012. Syria's Long Civil War. Current History 111 (749):331–36.
Roessler, Philip. 2011. The Enemy Within: Personal Rule, Coups, and Civil War in Africa. World Politics 63 (2):300–46.
Roessler, Philip. 2013. Why South Sudan Has Exploded in Violence. Monkey Cage [blog]. The Washington Post, 24 December.
Roessler, Philip. 2016. Ethnic Politics and State Power in Africa: The Logic of the Coup-Civil War Trap. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Ronen, Dov. 1975. Dahomey: Between Tradition and Modernity. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Rothchild, Donald. 1986. Hegemonial Exchange: An Alternative Model for Managing Conflict in Middle Africa. In Ethnicity, Politics and Development, edited by Thomson, Dennis L. and Ronen, Dov, 65104. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.
Rothchild, Donald. 1997. Managing Ethnic Conflict in Africa: Pressures and Incentives for Cooperation. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.
Rubin, Barnett R. 2002. The Fragmentation of Afghanistan: State Formation and Collapse in the International System. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Salehyan, Idean. 2009. Rebels Without Borders: Transnational Insurgencies in Word Politics. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Sambanis, Nicholas. 2004. What Is Civil War? Journal of Conflict Resolution 48 (6):814–58.
Seawright, Jason, and Gerring, John. 2008. Case Selection Techniques in Case Study Research: A Menu of Qualitative and Quantitative Options. Political Research Quarterly 61 (2):294308.
Smock, David R., and Smock, Audrey C.. 1975. The Politics of Pluralism: A Comparative Study of Lebanon and Ghana. New York: Elsvier.
Svolik, Milan W. 2012. The Politics of Authoritarian Rule. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Treisman, Daniel. 2004. Rational Appeasement. International Organization 58 (2):345–73.
Vogt, Manuel, Bormann, Nils-Christian, Rüegger, Seraina, Cederman, Lars-Erik, Hunziker, Philipp, and Girardin, Luc. 2015. Integrating Data on Ethnicity, Geography, and Conflict: The Ethnic Power Relations Data Set Family. Journal of Conflict Resolution 59 (7):1327–42.
Walter, Barbara F. 2002. Committing to Peace: The Successful Settlement of Civil Wars. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Walter, Barbara F. 2009. Reputation and Civil War: Why Separatist Conflicts Are So Violent. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Wantchekon, Leonard. 2000. Credible Power-Sharing Agreements: Theory with Evidence from South Africa and Lebanon. Constitutional Political Economy 11 (4):339–52.
Weidmann, Nils B. 2009. Geography as Motivation and Opportunity: Group Concentration and Ethnic Conflict. Journal of Conflict Resolution 53 (4):526–43.
Wimmer, Andreas. 2013. Waves of War: Nationalism, State Formation, and Ethnic Exclusion in the Modern World. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Wimmer, Andreas, Cederman, Lars-Erik, and Min, Brian. 2009. Ethnic Politics and Armed Conflict: A Configurational Analysis of a New Global Dataset. American Sociological Review 74 (1):316–37.
Wood, Elisabeth Jean. 2000. Forging Democracy from Below: Insurgent Transitions in South Africa and El Salvador. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Wucherpfennig, Julian, Hunziker, Philipp, and Cederman, Lars-Erik. 2016. Who Inherits the State? Colonial Rule and Postcolonial Conflict. American Journal of Political Science 60 (4):882–98.
Wucherpfennig, Julian, Weidmann, Nils B., Girardin, Luc, Cederman, Lars-Erik, and Wimmer, Andreas. 2011. Politically Relevant Ethnic Groups Across Space and Time: Introducing the GeoEPR Dataset. Conflict Management and Peace Science 28 (5):423–37.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

International Organization
  • ISSN: 0020-8183
  • EISSN: 1531-5088
  • URL: /core/journals/international-organization
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *
Type Description Title
Supplementary materials

Roessler and Ohls supplementary material
Roessler and Ohls supplementary material 1

 Unknown (2.9 MB)
2.9 MB


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed