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To target or protect? Militias and political order in African civil wars

Political scientist Corinna Jentzsch received an NWO Veni grant for her research on the conditions of collaboration between militias and state forces and its consequences for safety and political order.

Dr. Corinna Jentzsch

One of Leiden's young outstanding researchers 

“It took me 5 terrible minutes to figure out if I got the Veni or not, as NWO sent me an email with a list of numbers. But when I realised that it was really my number I was so happy.” Assistant Professor Jentzsch is one of the lucky 19 Veni grant recipients of Leiden University, who receive official recognition as ‘young outstanding researchers’, as well as financial support for conducting independent research and further developing their ideas. The funding will provide for a three-year research project on the relationship between states, civilians, and armed non-state actors in African conflict areas. 

Long-term effects on political order

Her research will provide new insights on the consequences of using state-aligned militias. “If you look at US policy in Iraq and Afghanistan, the collaboration between US state forces and non-state actors of these countries is very prominent. It is often determined by short-time considerations. US forces were interested in working with these groups because they could turn insurgents into collaborators. They could benefit from the local information these militias had, and expand their forces massively. Yet, from the history of the war in Iraq, we have learned that those forces can turn again. Some of the forces formerly collaborating with the US now work against them. It even gave rise to new rebelling forces. These are the long-term effects I want to study; why some militias turn against the governments they were previously aligned with, and why others don’t.”

Nampula City, Mozambique

Militias stereotyped as negative forces

Jentzsch will concentrate her study on state-friendly militias. “When you look at the headlines in the news, you get the impression that these militias that support state forces only do bad things, it is very negative. My question is if this is necessarily the case. In Afghanistan you see that some local police forces are not considered a threat to the population or political order, so we do have to look at these cases and ask why certain armed non-state actors are acting this way and protect political order instead of turning against the state. What explains this variation?”

To target or protect?

The Veni study is an extension of her previous research on the origins of militias in Mozambique. Jentzsch wrote her dissertation on the formation of militias through which this African state could multiply its forces, protect local communities, and delegate violence that official forces are not supposed to perpetrate. “Now, I will be looking at militias across different African countries that experienced civil war. And I will examine the consequences of this collaboration with state forces for political order. What happens when states accept these armed groups and allow them to operate? Do these groups target state institutions and civilians or protect them?”

Team effort

Excited about the opportunity the Veni grant offers her, the young outstanding researcher has a clear answer to the question what she would advise future Veni applicants: “Be confident about your research, be excited about it, and show that in your application as well as during the interview. And get support. With the help from my friends and colleagues at the Institute, it was a team effort.”

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