In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Political Extremism in Sub-Saharan Africa

  • Introduction
  • Theoretical Approaches and Periodizations
  • Anti-Colonial and Minority-Rule Rebellions
  • Secessionist Movements
  • The Rise of Warlordism
  • “Parochial Rebels”: The Lord’s Resistance Army
  • Genocide and Mass Political Violence in Sub-Saharan Africa: Rwanda and Beyond
  • Islamic Extremism in Sub-Saharan Africa

International Relations Political Extremism in Sub-Saharan Africa
Brandon Kendhammer
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 October 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0224


In the broadest sense, the concept of “political extremism” describes social movements and groups organized in the service of a transformative political program that justifies the use of mass violence in achieving its ends. Globally, this definition captures everything from revolutionary programs grounded in fascist and communist ideologies to militant nationalism, millenarian religious movements, terrorism, and genocide, a task that has (perhaps not surprisingly) contributed to a great deal of conceptual fragmentation. In the sub-Saharan African context, most scholarship on political extremism tends to tackle either particular types of violence and its perpetrators (rebels and warlords, ethnic violence, Islamic extremism) or case studies of specific instances and movements (the Rwandan genocide, the Ivoirian Civil War, al-Shabab, the Lord’s Resistance Army). The absence of a single, unifying intellectual framework means that the study of political extremism in sub-Saharan Africa has been characterized by an extreme diversity of intellectual approaches, methodologies, and substantive cases. Rather than offering a new unified framework, this article embraces that diversity by including a wide range of germane research, not only on definitional questions and the emergence and mobilization of political extremism, but also on state and citizen responses to violence and its aftermath.

Theoretical Approaches and Periodizations

In the context of sub-Saharan Africa, there have been virtually no efforts to synthesize a general theory of political extremism. This does not mean that the field lacks for analytic approaches, however. The areas that have drawn the most attention are the organization and mobilization of violent anti-state groups and the occurrence (or non-occurrence) of mass violence. Going back to Fanon 1963, the question of what role violence might play in the liberation of African communities has had a strong influence on the continent’s intellectuals and political leaders, including many who themselves came to lead armed rebellions. The spike in political violence that accompanied the end of the Cold War (Straus 2012 provides the most comprehensive accounting of the ebbs and flows) inspired a new wave of theorizing about violent extremism in Africa, much of it in response to journalistic accounts that emphasized ethnic hatreds and demographic and environmental pressures as the main drivers. Richards 1996, for example, explains participation in rebellion in Sierra Leone as an extension of patrimonial politics rather than a fundamentally new phenomenon. Collier and Sambanis 2005 summarizes an influential literature on “rational civil war” by arguing that the incidence of rebellion in Africa is driven not by social and political grievances, but by the availability of financing. And Mkandawire 2002 points to the role of urban grievances in African rebellions, and their uneasy relationships with the rural communities they often retreat into. Yet another analytic turn was initiated by Reno 2011 (which also discusses rebel groups that do not engage in mass violence), which notes that the issues that drive organized political violence and the strategies and motivations of armed political groups has shifted dramatically since the end of the colonial era. In all, Reno identifies five key “eras” of anti-state warfare in recent African history, from the anti-colonial and anti-majority-rule rebels who dominated the scene from the 1950s to the 1980s to the so-called “reform rebels” who challenged despotic postcolonial regimes from the 1970s through the 2005 Sudan peace agreement that opened the door to the creation of South Sudan, the “warlord rebels” who proliferated during the state collapse wave of the 1990s, and the “parochial rebels” who dominate the scene today.

  • Collier, Paul, and Nicolas Sambanis, eds. Understanding Civil War: Evidence and Analysis. Vol. 1, Africa. Washington, DC: World Bank, 2005.

    A World Bank–funded edited volume that summarizes the “Collier-Hoeffler” model of civil war onset (better known as the “greed and grievance” thesis), which emphasizes the role of economic opportunity and the availability of lootable resources over societal grievances as a key driver of conflict. Case studies on most major African countries with a history of civil conflict apply the model, with varying degrees of fit.

  • Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove, 1963.

    Arguably the most important work ever written about colonialism, and a key historical document in the anti-colonial struggle. Notable for its focus on the psychological as well as the material underpinnings of colonial rule, its justification for violence against colonial oppressors influenced generations of African revolutionaries.

  • Mkandawire, Thandika. “The Terrible Toll of Post-colonial ‘Rebel Movements’ in Africa: Towards an Explanation of the Violence against the Peasantry.” The Journal of Modern African Studies 40.2 (2002): 181–215.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0022278X02003889

    This influential essay asks why Africa rebel groups have often engaged in so much violence against civilians. It traces the answer to the role of urban-based grievances (ethnic conflict and economic crisis) in driving rebellion, and to the difficulty of mounting and sustaining an urban insurgency. When African rebels retreat to the countryside for strategic reasons, they often become “roving bandits” victimizing hostile rural populations.

  • Reno, William. Warfare in Independent Africa. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511993428

    A comprehensive survey of wars, their causes, and conduct in post-independence Africa. Argues that declining international support and adaptations by the leaders of neopatrimonial states deprived potential rebels of their “fields of leverage” in the 1980s and 1990s, making it harder for political outsiders to lead rebellions and govern territory. The result has been the rise of “warlord” rebels, political insiders who look to seize the patronage system for themselves.

  • Richards, Paul. Fighting for the Rain Forest: War, Youth and Resources in Sierra Leone. Oxford: James Currey, 1996.

    Attacks the “new barbarism” thesis as advanced by Robert Kaplan and others, which portrays post–Cold War violence as driven primarily by demographic and environmental pressures (“Malthus with guns”). Instead, he depicts the Sierra Leonean civil war as an explicitly political conflict, driven by a crisis of patrimonial rule strategies, even as the conduct of the fighters themselves is shaped by local cultural narratives and exposure to international media.

  • Straus, Scott. “Wars Do End! Changing Patterns of Political Violence in Sub-Saharan Africa.” African Affairs 111 (2012): 179–201.

    DOI: 10.1093/afraf/ads015

    Provides a comprehensive overview of data on intra-state conflict since independence; finds that, contra the popular perception, rates and intensity of political violence in sub-Saharan Africa have declined markedly since the end of the Cold War. The types of conflicts have also shifted, away from large civil wars to smaller, often internationalized conflicts on state peripheries.

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