In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Rebel Governance

  • Introduction
  • General Overview
  • Defining the Concepts of Rebel Governance
  • Causes and Motivations of Rebel Governance
  • Theoretical Underpinnings of Rebel Governance
  • Institutions of Governance and Rebel Diplomacy
  • Civilian Welfare
  • Postwar Setting
  • Within-Group Processes
  • Emerging Research on Rebel Governance

International Relations Rebel Governance
Sümeyye Kaya-Uyar, Belgin San-Akca
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 February 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0308


The past few decades witnessed unprecedented challenges to the modern state system among which the rise of nonstate armed groups stands out both in terms of the number and types of groups that have emerged. Since World War II, more than half of nation states have faced an ethnic, religious, or ideological insurgency by rebel groups, which pursued political or territorial objectives against their target states. Frequently, armed groups’ resort to force as a strategy has been coupled with attempts to establish governance institutions emulating states. Indeed, many of them succeed in achieving a parallel political order to the one maintained by states within whose borders they survive. The most notorious groups, such as Hezbollah, Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and al-Shabaab benefit from their capacity to rule over local populations. They extract revenues by taxing those local populations, garnering legitimacy through building court systems, and recruit members to their ranks. Nevertheless, not all groups develop governance capacity. Given that maintaining governance institutions is too costly, rebel groups are anticipated to pragmatically invest all their resources in improving their fighting capacity. What, then, makes a rebel group split its limited resources across two domains (i.e., governance and fighting)? The research on rebel governance emerged seeking an answer to this puzzle. Although we have learned a lot about the types, causes. and institutions of governance from existing research, we still lack knowledge about how international factors such as power distribution, system level shifts, and foreign state support influence are influenced by rebel governance institutions. Scholars need to invest more time in developing a theoretically motivated research agenda to bring the rebels into the center of international relations research in order to predict the future of the modern state system and yield policy-relevant findings about how governance can be reinvented and adjusted to the realities of our times.

General Overview

Rebel governance has started attracting scholarly attention mostly after the emergence of Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria claiming statehood. Several factors such as third-party support, ideological disposition, and inter-state rivalry have been examined in terms of their influence on the mobilization and military capacity of armed rebels. Yet rebel groups are in constant search of recognition and support both from their domestic and international audiences. They need to acquire legitimacy in the eye of the civilians whom they associate themselves with and also to gain the sympathy of the international community to achieve their objectives against their target states. Both audiences’ approval is essential if rebels have statehood claims and their ultimate objective is to secede from their target state and build their own ones. The success or failure of rebels to cultivate such support from civilians has been studied mostly as a collateral outcome of their violent activities without considering that this search for civilian support was a direct and significant motivation behind the development of rebel governance institutions. The seminal work paving the way for the rebel governance research is Kasfir 2005. The paper makes the argument for territorial hold being a requirement for the foundation of political institutions for guerilla governance. Arjona 2009 and Mampilly 2011 represent the key works that name insurgents’ governance of civilian populations as rebel governance. Arjona 2009 also argues that civil wars are not as chaotic as conventional wisdom suggests and that armed groups develop several ruling practices across different cases depending on their material and ideological motivations. Mampilly 2011 begins with a broad definition of governance, “decisions issued by one actor that a second is expected to obey” (adopted from existing research in political science) and defines governance as “the control of social interactions by both state and nonstate actors” (p. 3). Furthermore, the types of institutions rebels develop are also addressed by an extant body of work. Mampilly and Stewart 2021 presents an excellent review of this research and a classification of rebel institutions.

  • Arjona, Ana. “One National War, Multiple Local Orders: An Inquiry into the Unit of Analysis of War and Post-War Interventions.” In Law in Peace Negotiations. Edited by M. Bergsmo and P. Kalmanovitz, 123–150. FICHL Publication Series No. 5. Oslo, Norway: Peace Research Institute, 2009.

    Arjona discusses how order in war zones continue to exist despite the devastating effects of wartime on local institutions. Argues new wartime orders or local governance vary across localities based on the actors or institutions sharing the capacity to rule, the scope of local governance the actors pursue, and their way of rule implementation.

  • Kasfir, Nelson M. “Guerrillas and Civilian Participation: The National Resistance Army in Uganda, 1981–86.” The Journal of Modern African Studies 43.2 (2005): 271–296.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0022278X05000832

    Addresses the paradox of guerillas, which have commitment to cultivating popular support. If guerilla groups lose their military advantage vis-a-vis the government they fight against and end up withdrawing from a territorial hold, a requirement for the emergence of guerilla governance, to preserve their military advantage. The civilian support is a function of the relative military power of guerillas in comparison to a target government.

  • Mampilly, Zachariah Cherian. Rebel Rulers: Insurgent Governance and Civilian Life During War. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2011.

    Mampilly examines variation within rebel governance systems through case studies in Sri Lanka, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. He argues that neither the ideology of rebel groups nor the financial resources they have can explain variation within such systems; rather it is the interactions of pressures from civilians, pressures from within-group dynamics, and interests of international actors operating in conflict zones that determine the effectiveness of rebel governance.

  • Mampilly, Zachariah, and Megan A. Stewart. “A Typology of Rebel Political Institutional Arrangements.” Journal of Conflict Resolution 65.1 (2021): 15–45.

    DOI: 10.1177/0022002720935642

    Presents a categorization of rebel governance institutions based on fieldwork and secondary materials. The authors argue that these institutions vary across four dimensions: “the amount of power sharing, the depth of integration, the extent of innovation, and the degree of inclusivity” (pp. 18–19). The empirical findings suggest that rebels engage with preexisting political institutions and civilians along these dimensions, which in turn determine the nature of the rebel institutions that emerge in a location.

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