Marijke Breuning and John Ishiyama – Rebels-Turned-President and Cabinet Stability

This is a guest post by Marijke Breuning and John Ishiyama. It is based on the article by John Ishiyama, Marijke Breuning, and Michael Widmeier, ‘Organising to rule: structure, agent and presidential management styles in Africa’, that was recently published in Democratization. The article is now available ungated and free to download until the end of February.

Former rebel leaders who become presidents are significantly less likely to make major changes to their cabinet than other presidents. We show this in our study of the impact of presidents’ professional backgrounds on how they manage their cabinet.

Why would former rebels be less likely to replace their cabinet ministers or move them to different posts? We argue that presidents who were former rebel leaders will be less likely to make changes to their cabinets, because their experiences as rebel leaders predispose them to maintaining a team of ministers whom they know and trust.

There has been surprising little attention paid to the impact of presidents’ professional backgrounds on how they constitute and manage their cabinets. Our study begins to fill that gap, examining 98 individual presidential administrations from 36 countries in Africa with presidential or semi-presidential systems, for the period 1990-2009. We included only those presidents who had served at least one complete year in office.

We focus on Africa, because there has been a strong focus on the personality of the president, perhaps due to the neo-patrimonial nature of the state in the continent. However, there has not been much attention paid to presidential management style and its impact on cabinet stability in Africa. Yet, cabinet stability, as well as political and ethnic inclusivity, may be important keys to the durability of a regime – something that is especially relevant for post-conflict societies.

We argue that, after becoming president, the previous experience as a rebel leader is not erased, but instead has an impact on the style of leadership. Rebel leaders have been said to be motivated by both greed and grievance, but often they also have a transcendental goal that motivates followers. They may seek a fundamental change in the political status quo, an end to colonialism, a social revolution, or the creation a new state. All of these objectives require a great deal of persuasion. After all, the potential cost of being a rebel is death.

Hence, rebel leaders need to overcome great odds to entice others to follow them. The result is often a tight-knit group of comrades with strong solidarity. We expect that this revolutionary camaraderie carries over into the former rebel leader’s executive administration.

We find that this is indeed the case, at least in Africa: presidents who are former rebel leaders are significantly less likely than other presidents to engage in major cabinet changes. We found that, on average, the likelihood of major cabinet turnover was 34% when a former rebel was president, whereas the likelihood of major cabinet turnover was 57% for all other presidents. This is shown graphically in Figure 1. This finding supports the idea that rebel commanders, after they become president, seek to maintain solidarity and stability in cabinets – and are more likely to do so than other presidents.

Figure 1: Presidents who were former rebel leaders are less likely to engage in major cabinet turnover (with 95% confidence intervals)

Do these stable cabinets of former rebel leaders differ from those of other leaders on other dimensions as well? We investigated whether former rebel leaders and other presidents differ in the political and ethnic inclusivity of their cabinets. We also sought to establish whether it makes a difference if the leader came to power through regular (e.g. elections or other legally sanctioned processes) or irregular means (such as coups, rebellions, or mass protests).

We found that former rebels leaders are not different from other presidents in terms of the partisan inclusivity of their cabinets. Instead, the political inclusivity of the cabinet was lessened by greater fractionalization of the legislature, as well as the dominance of the president’s party in the legislature. The more dominant the president’s party, the more politically homogeneous and, hence, less inclusive the cabinet.

There is a significant difference, however, between former rebel leaders and other presidents in terms of the inclusion of various ethnic groups in their cabinets. This finding can perhaps be explained by the nature of many African rebellions. Insurrections are often fueled by ethnic grievances and, once in power, a former rebel leader will seek to include only members of his or her own ethnic group. This is consistent with the desire to work only with subordinates the leader knows well and trusts.

Interestingly, presidents who came to power via irregular means (such as coups, rebellions, or mass protests) were more likely to engage in major cabinet turnovers during their presidencies than those who had come to power via regular means (such as elections and other legally sanctioned processes). This may suggest that presidents who come to power under conditions of political crisis have greater uncertainty about their political allies, and this may result in greater turnover in the cabinet. This is not a surprising result: turnover is higher for presidents who ascend to power via coups, rebellion or protest, because they seek to purge the cabinet of holdovers from the previous administration.

Our findings support the notion that the characteristics the president as agent, here operationalized as the leader’s previous experiences, have a powerful effect on his or her managerial behavior. We theorized that rebel leaders are more likely to be transformative leaders, who value transcendental political goals and group solidarity. This translates into greater cabinet stability, but also into less inclusivity (at least in ethnic terms).

In sum, the characteristics of the president as a political agent – and particularly his or her professional background – warrant far more attention than they have thus far received.

Marijke Breuning is Professor of Political Science at the University of North Texas in Denton, Texas. She can be reached at

John Ishiyama is University Distinguished Research Professor of Political Science at the University of North Texas in Denton, Texas. He can be reached at

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