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A Look Into Governing After War

Shelley Liu and Edmund Malesky discussed Liu’s new book, “Governing After War: Rebel Victories and Post-War Statebuilding,” during an event hosted by the Duke Center for International Development.

By Emily Klein MSGH’24

Shelley Liu, an assistant professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy, joined Edmund Malesky, director of the Duke Center for International Development (DCID), on April 16 for a discussion on the main findings from her book, “Governing After War: Rebel Victories and Post-War Statebuilding.

Shelley Liu sitting and talking while holding a microphone.
Shelley Liu

Liu’s research focuses on state-building, conflict and the political economy of development. Her book, published in March 2024 by Oxford University Press, is the culmination of several years of fieldwork in Zimbabwe and Liberia to understand how wartime processes in different African countries affect state-building efforts. Using qualitative and quantitative methods, she tested the theory developed from her fieldwork on an additional four countries in Africa that experienced rebel victories.

Development as Coercion

Liu explained that once a rebel group wins control of the government, as they did in Liberia and Zimbabwe, they fear the possibility of going back to war and being overthrown. Therefore, they focus their efforts on consolidating and expanding their power by asking the question: “If you come into power with presence and social control over parts of the state, how are you going to extend presence into the rest of the state?”

She argued that often the first action is to expand state presence and reach by investing in development in parts of the country that didn’t support the rebel victor during the war. She referred to this as "internal conquest," which might involve traditional methods of cooptation, such as building bureaucracy, schools and health, to gain support from those living in regions susceptible to joining a new civil war.

Liu found that cooptation doesn’t work if rival groups have power and are organized enough to fight back. In these cases, the rebel group who is engaging in state-building often turns to violence. She said that though the rebel victors are engaging in development, “the coercive aspect is almost always there.”

Variation in State-Building Efforts Across Territories After Rebel Victory

How does a territory’s support or lack of support for a rebel group during the war impact its treatment once the group has come into power?

Edmund Malesky and Shelley Liu standing next to each other. Edmund is holding the book, Governing After War.
Edmund Malesky, left, with Shelley Liu.

Liu began by dividing the state into four types of territories: victor stronghold, rival terrain, unsecured terrain, and territory that supports the rebel group but is unorganized. Victor strongholds are regions where the population supports the rebel group in power; rival terrain is loyal to a rival group; and unsecured terrain doesn’t have loyalty to any group.

Liu then looked at specific outcomes for different territories in Zimbabwe and Liberia before, during and after the war to see how their status influenced the choices the rebel victors made about governance. In Zimbabwe, she found that while access to education improved throughout the whole country in part because of an end to racial segregation in schools, education levels improved the most for people who lived in unsecured terrain, while those in strongholds experienced about half the size of the improvement. The rival terrain in Zimbabwe didn’t experience much significant education expansion, and Liu found a similar pattern in Liberia.

Liu also looked at voting patterns. After the war in Zimbabwe, people were no longer registered to vote at birth, so they needed to be encouraged to register to vote. She found that in the strongholds, the rebel group were better able to induce voter registration in comparison to unsecured or rival territories.

‘Today’s freedom fighters may be tomorrow’s authoritarian party’

While rebel groups may engage in good governance during war, rebel victors have greater incentives to clamp down after they come into power. Because of this, Liu emphasized the importance of seeking peace agreements rather than being too optimistic about rebel victories. Acknowledging that it may be unrealistic, she also doesn’t believe that armed groups should be in power once the war ends, and thinks that the international community has a role to play in preventing armed groups from winning outright control of the government. This is because of the trend she’s seen throughout her research in Africa that “today’s freedom fighters may be tomorrow’s authoritarian party.” Once they win war, they often use violence and other coercive methods to consolidate their power.


Prior to joining Duke in fall 2023, Liu was an assistant professor at UC Berkeley, Goldman School of Public Policy. Her ongoing research projects examine (1) how war shapes politics and development, (2) citizen agency in state legibility projects, and (3) the determinants of polarization, politicization, and disengagement. Her research has been published or is forthcoming in journals including the American Journal of Political Science, Journal of Politics, Political Science Research and Methods, and World Politics