Ethnicity, Nonviolent protest, and Lethal Repression in Africa

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Africa, Ethnicity, Protest, Repression

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Josef Korbel School of International Studies, International Studies


Why do governments use deadly force against unarmed protesters? The government’s threat perception may be a function of the mobilization potential of the opposition and/or the size of the ruling elite’s support coalition. Given the high salience of ethnicity in African politics, governments that depend on small ethnic coalitions will see peaceful protests as more threatening, as the opposition may be able to draw on larger numbers of potential dissidents and excluded groups. Alternately, governments with larger, more homogeneous ethnic coalitions will find nonviolent mobilization less threatening and will be less likely to respond with deadly force. Using the Social Conflict Analysis Database, we demonstrate that as the size – and to a lesser extent homogeneity – of the ethnic ruling coalition grows, governments are significantly less likely to use deadly force against nonviolent protesters. This finding is robust to several operationalizations of the size of the government’s support coalition, the inclusion of other measures of ethnic demographics, and estimators that account for the hierarchical nature of the data. Threat perception hinges not only on dissident tactics but on their demands, their mobilization potential, and their capacity to impose costs on the government. This article demonstrates that the size and composition of the government’s ethnic support base matters as well.

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