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Defining Violent Kleptocracy in East and Central Africa, by Ken Menkhaus and John Prendergast

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Defining Violent Kleptocracy in East and Central Africa, by Ken Menkhaus and John Prendergast

Posted by Enough Team on October 20, 2016

In several recent publications and Congressional hearings, the Enough Project has used the term “violent kleptocracy” to describe the nature of the principal systems in place in our organization’s focus countries: Sudan, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic, and Somalia. Although the details and structure of the violent kleptocracy may differ in each country, the results are similar: conflict, death, impunity, democratic deficit, and wide-scale looting of state assets.

The Enough Project arrived at this view through a combination of field research, rigorous document-driven investigations via our initiative The Sentry, policy analysis, and academic review of the work of leading experts in the field. We have distilled this work into a short definition and longer explanation.

The goal of presenting our analysis in this manner is both to introduce the term violent kleptocracy in its own right, ahead of releasing a series of analyses of how the term applies in our focus countries, and also to provide a framework through which policymakers, regulators, and law enforcement actors can more effectively and proactively address these issues. In particular, our Sentry investigations demonstrate the utility of the concept of violent kleptocracy as a tool to clarify the interconnectedness of systems of violence and corruption.

The purpose of this blog is to set out our definition and explanation of the term and invite feedback. We do not present this definitional approach as our definitive answer, e.g., “we have a concept and believe it applies everywhere and everyone should apply it,” but rather as the beginning of a dialogue about how best to understand the interplay between grand corruption and systemic/systematic use of violence. We offer up the concept of violent kleptocracy as a concept that we at the Enough Project strongly believe may be of use but which is a living concept, to be reshaped and reconsidered as evidence dictates. 

We invite you to contribute to the dialogue by submitting comments to us here at [email protected].

Short Definition

“Violent kleptocracy”: A system of state capture in which ruling networks and commercial partners hijack governing institutions for the purpose of resource extraction and for the security of the regime. Ruling networks utilize varying levels of violence to maintain power and repress dissenting voices. Terrorist organizations, militias, and rebel groups can also control territory in a similar manner.


The Enough Project’s concept of “violent kleptocracy” builds on and goes beyond conventional assessments of grand corruption and kleptocracy. In countries experiencing grand corruption, government officials and the private sector engage in corrupt practices, and powerful criminal networks partially penetrate the state, but the entire government itself is not captured. Pockets inside or outside the government at multiple levels may actively combat the corrupt practices. In contrast, when criminal forces capture the entire governing system, they warp and exploit it, ultimately replacing it with a new system for their own personal benefit to the point that the privatization of wealth becomes a principal objective of the system in all aspects and at all levels of government, and kleptocracy is realized. State resources here are routinely diverted; natural resources are exploited en masse for personal gain, and leadership at the highest levels is complicit in creating impunity for the controlling networks and a system wherein it is a requirement, not an aberration, to engage in corrupt and otherwise criminal practices to operate.

The difference between grand corruption and kleptocracy is therefore one of degrees of co-optation. In a kleptocracy, governing institutions have been almost entirely hijacked for the personal benefit and perpetuation of the ruling network in control.

A system of “violent kleptocracy” goes a step further and utilizes sometimes extreme violence, at times including mass atrocities, to solidify and maintain the ruling and extraction arrangements that are in place. Institutionalized violence is inherently part of the governing strategy, although it can be accompanied by genuine sources of legitimacy. Violent and nonviolent kleptocracies threaten peace, security, and human rights; violent kleptocracies in particular undermine or co-opt all attempts at sustainable development. In most cases with violent kleptocracies, powerful elite networks involving top officials in the country and commercial facilitators internally and internationally control systems of finance, trade, transport, and natural resource extraction, with violence if needed. They exploit these systems and often engage in activities such as laundering money, disguising beneficial ownership, and diverting state and natural resources. The networks disempower and/or manipulate rule-of-law-related institutions and use the security and justice apparatuses into instruments of resource extraction, predation, and state repression instead of security, service provision, and protection.

Different networks within a violent kleptocracy may compete to win political and military supporters, control the state, or control lucrative assets or territory—particularly strategic or resource-rich territory. The most effective kleptocracies are able to minimize direct use of violence over time by relying on patronage networks to reinforce existing power dynamics and deepen social cleavages. They may also employ other tactics such as selective use of law, ideological and nationalist legitimations, or information suppression. Those kleptocratic systems that rely heavily on violence can also be deeply unstable; the violence may be a sign of a failing regime that is out of options or imagination to control its citizenry. Violence in kleptocracies often takes the form of armed conflict, as competing factions fight for the spoils of state control or as the state initiates or sustains war on opposition elements which are trying to address structural inequalities created or exacerbated by the kleptocracy.

The violence is not confined to either individually-targeted political violence or mass atrocities, but manifests in many forms, as a tool serving a different objective for the kleptocratic regime or the consequences of their misrule. The violence is not only physical (for example, arbitrary arrest of political prisoners or the targeted elimination in whole or in part of a particular ethnic, religious or racial group), but includes specific psychological violence, including forced disappearances and gender-based violence, in particular rape and other forms of torture. These are crimes that involve significant physical deprivation and harm, but also have a silencing or abusive psychological element. The latter often affects not only the individual victim of the crime but also whole communities and even whole societies, further entrenching the kleptocracy’s power to control populations that they need to manipulate in order to sustain power and current modus operandi, as well as to exploit territories that hold significant natural resource wealth.

Each of Enough’s focus countries in East and Central Africa exhibits different degrees and elements of violent kleptocratic behavior, which evolve over time; at different times, the nature of the system can differ across a territory.

This nuanced, contextual variation will be highlighted throughout Enough’s series of forthcoming reports on the region’s violent kleptocracies. The report series will launch in October with a report focused on the Democratic Republic of the Congo and proceed through our focus countries over the months that follow.