By: David Kode, ICNC-SI Class of 2016              

This statement ran through my mind as a sat and listened keenly to Sharon Nepstad and Ivan Marovic speak to participants on Day 2 of the ICNC Summer Institute as they led a session on Why Civil Resistance Movements Fail. History is replete with cases showing the use of non-violence by citizens to bring down even the most repressive regimes. It is common for researchers, academics and even activists to document cases of successful civil resistance to prove that this form of struggle is effective.  The focus on successful civil resistance movements in most cases is because many people are still not totally convinced about the power of civil resistance and so success stories are prioritized. But the limited attention given to “failed” civil resistance movements means many opportunities are missed to gain insight into internal movement challenges and examine counter strategies regimes use to retain power. Most civil resistance movements employ different strategies depending on the issue they focus on and the context they find themselves in.  In the 1989 Tiananmen Square democracy struggle in China for example, the students leading the struggle, organized themselves in democracy salons,  boycotted classes, organized demonstrations and sit-ins and engaged in hunger strikes.

“I was compelled to conclude that it is possible for these movements to re-invent themselves, adapt to these challenges and for other movements to learn from these experiences”

All civil resistance movements face challenges along the way and the success or failure of such movements hinges their ability to adapt and respond to these challenges. These challenges are both internal and external. Internal problems range from ideological differences, absence of a united front on a specific course of action to take at particular intervals in the movements, divisions within movements, leadership issues and inability to maintain non-violent discipline. External challenges emanate from adversaries and regimes keen on halting progress made by these movements and ultimately crush them. States in particular have increasingly learned lessons from other movements and employ a range of strategies to achieve their goals.  In most cases, regimes discredit movements, infiltrate and create divisions, use violence, maintain the loyalty of key actors and players and neutralize international sanctions.

During Panama’s civic crusade for example, when the economic sanctions were levelled against the government of General Manuel Noriega by the US and investors pulled out of Panama, the regime sought for and received aid from countries that were anti-United States such as Cuba, Nicaragua and Libya.  It is therefore prudent even for movements that seem to have failed and those that intend to embark on civil resistance campaigns to draw key lessons and identify ways to address internal and external challenges and respond to them adequately.  Planning should be at the centre of the activities of movements and irrespective of the challenges movements should stay united and anticipate problems. It is common for dissenting views to emerge even in movements that seem united.  These views should be allowed but not permitted to overshadow the common goals of the movement.

Learning lessons from experiences of movements enable future movements to avoid the challenges discovered but also adopt new strategies to respond to similar challenges in the future.  As I listened Sharon and Ivan talk to fellow participants during these session, I found myself casting my mind back to some of the movements we categorise as having failed particularly in Africa and other parts of the world.  Then I was compelled to conclude that it is possible for these movements to re-invent themselves, adapt to these challenges and for other movements to learn from these experiences, anticipate obstacles and devise strategies to counter them.


Photo credit: Michael Mandiberg,