Epistemic status: Tentative, Wikipedia-based humble reflections (I’m no historian, just a political philosopher with a bit of free time lately).
This started as a light short post about the risks of power vacuum and succession crisis, which met a draft in memory of the 28 years of the Rwandan Genocide. I agree that this subject deserves a text that adequately describes and explaines this humanitarian catastrophe, but I’m in no condition to do that. Also, I’m not in any way implying that the power vacuum caused by Habyarimana’s death was the sole cause, or was the most important or salient feature, of this terrible, abject, revolting event.
Chaplin beautifully said that “dictators die, and the power they took from the people will return to the people”. Unfortunately, this too often costs a war.
On 6 April 1994, Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana died as his plane was shot down over Kigali. This created a power vacuum, leading people to ignore the Arusha Peace Accords, and genocidal killings of Tutsi (and of moderate Hutu and Twa) started on the next day. Estimated casualties amount to 491k–800k (Tutsi only). It has been deemed the "most efficient" genocide of the last century.
In 1996, as Rwanda (now led by the Rwandan Patriotic Front, a group mostly composed of Tutsi) invaded Zaire to fight Hutu rebel groups, the civil war escalated to the First Congo War (estimated death toll of 250k[i]), which ended with the replacement of Congo dictator Mobutu with President L-D Kabila in May 1997 ... But then Kabila and Rwandan forces conflicted, and it was followed by the Second Congo War, from August 1998 to July 2003 – resulting in 5.4 million (excess) deaths…
This story reminds me of a speech by Prof. Morris Ogenga-Latigo, implying that Big Man politics and the corresponding succession crises left in their wake, is still one a relevant governance problems in the Third World. I wonder how many conflicts (and how many deaths) are directly related to similar succession crises (if nobody has a hint, I will probably analyze Arauzo’s database of massacres). This is so common that fratricide among royals became an institutionalized practice in some Empires, gaining legal status in Ottoman Empire. Even when there’s a secession movement or ethnical hatred, war will often be sparked by a problem related to power transfer / vacuum – think about, e.g., the Yugoslav Wars from 1991-2001, or Middle East after Iraq War.
Moloch’s additional tool: malevolent leaders often alienate possible successors out of fear, and might even use the threat of a subsequent succession conflict to remain in power. Perhaps you don’t like that belligerent would-be conqueror, but do you think the world would be better if he – it’s always a he – suddenly disappeared? Who’s going to fill his place?
Perhaps I’m being too Shakespearian… How serious is this issue, if it seems restricted to autocracies? Well, the core of the problem is not solely about autocracies and violence – it’s about governance. Threats of succession crises can cause political instability that causes economic problems– even if you keep the rule of law intact meanwhile. A minor example is US Jan 6 Capitol invasion. Perhaps a more tragic one is the Brazilian crisis, aggravated by the political turmoil following Roussef’s impeachment - which prevented necessary economic measures. Of course, the problem extrapolates to any centralized institution: private organizations need succession plans to avoid “CEO crisis”, or will have to hire mediators specialized in arbitrating such disputes.
Actually, one reason I almost didn’t write this post is that, after second thoughts, the problem seems obvious, and not particularly solvable nor neglected… But I’m still not so sure about it – this is not deeply analyzed by political philosophers (think about how the Hobbesian solution to political instability, absolute sovereignty, increases the chances of succession disputes), and my impression is that people in IIDM are usually more interested in robust or ideal governance (this is not a criticism: I love this literature), or in improving institutions that already solved some of the basics of governance, than in a more satisfycing / conservative approach limited to avoiding major pitfalls.
Even if my impression is wrong, noticing this problem made me think that one the features I want to see in leaders is that they will likely allow for a smooth succession. Also, it led me to consider that perhaps the explanation of the “democratic peace” phenomenon is less that normal people will vote to avoid war,, or that it allows us to avoid extractivist institutions, and more that democracy helps avoid some types of succession disputes (and that the corresponding leaders will lack some of the main motivations to engage in destructive conflict). Finally, I wonder if the coming generational shift might increase instability in the next decade, as boomer leaders are succeeded in the command of institutions of power (from family businesses to political fiefs) worldwide.
[i] Notice that the primary source, from Amnesty International, is missing.