International Relations Conflict Formations in Sub-Saharan Africa
Zwelethu Jolobe
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 October 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0270


Much of the scholarship on conflict formations in sub-Saharan Africa involves the use of case studies to examine intrastate conflict, as well as the way these conflicts spill into neighboring territories. These conflicts are understood as violent struggles among different political formations, such as national governments, warlords, rebel or insurgent groups, and various armed private interests, pursuing multiple agendas, where the systematic predation of civilians is an instrument of war. The scholarly literature identifies two major turning points in African conflicts. The first was the collapse of the Soviet Union, where the weakening of proxy states created political vacuums leading to major contestations. This major global event changed the nature and forms of Africa’s conflicts, as new insurgent organizations (and old ones with transformed agendas) caused immeasurable harm to the continent’s citizens, leading many observers to claim that Africa was the most endemically violent region in the world. These conflicts replaced Cold War conflict formations, where large wars pitted major fighting forces against each other, in which rebel groups threatened to capture a capital or to secede. After the Cold War, the rebel became a mercenary and “blood diamond trader”—a “warlord” motivated by financial incentives. In some cases, however, the rebel was motivated to capture the state by revolutionary reasons—to argue for more equitably structured political entities, for example. The second turning point occurred in the late 2000s and early 2010s, in the first decade of the new African Union where conflicts were less about the capture of state power. The forms of these conflicts were significant: they were fought on the periphery of states where insurgents and armed groups had strong transnational features, were capable of sowing terror and destabilization, but tended to be small, internally divided, and poorly structured and trained. In many parts of the continent, these conflicts were interconnected, and characterized by social networks that connected a wide range of actors across territorial boundaries. Environmental and natural resource issues took center stage, altering the dynamics of African conflicts. Access to water, disputes over land, and the availability of minerals have altered the dynamics of African conflicts, changing the incentive structure of combatants, further complicating the nature of conflicts. While transitions to democracy were welcome, many were incomplete, transforming the nature of competition toward zero-sum.

General Overviews

Scholars of conflict formations in sub-Saharan Africa have produced numerous books, edited volumes, and articles in academic journals. Most of these works trace the evolution of Africa’s conflicts from anticolonial campaigns to the complicated war networks of the contemporary era. Works such as Reno 2011, Williams 2011, and de Waal 1996 offer a comprehensive analysis of the causes and characteristics of African conflicts since independence. Clapham 1998 identifies different categories of rebellion across several dimensions. Mbembe 2000 and Kieh and Mukenge 2002 provide theoretical frameworks within which to analyze African conflicts, and Spears 2010 provides a fascinating analysis on why certain wars take the form they do. Mkandawire 2002 challenges conventional interpretations of rebel movements, and Turshen and Twagiramariya 1998 examine the experiences of women in Africa’s conflicts.

  • Clapham, Christopher, ed. African Guerrillas. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1998.

    Using case studies, this edited volume examines the different forms of conflict in Africa through a categorization of African rebel groups across several dimensions—liberation insurgencies, separatist insurgencies, reform insurgencies, and warlord insurgencies.

  • de Waal, Alex. “Contemporary Warfare in Africa: Changing Context, Changing Strategies.” IDS Bulletin 27.3 (1996): 6–16.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1759-5436.1996.mp27003002.x

    This article provides an excellent analysis of the ways in which warfare in Africa has changed since the end of the Cold War.

  • Kadende, Rose M., and Paul J. Kaiser, eds. Phases of Conflict in Africa. Willowdale, ON: de Sitter Publications, 2005.

    Based on a workshop on “War and Peace in Contemporary Africa,” this edited volume provides insights into the complexities of conflict processes in Africa that follow similar trajectories but vary in time and space.

  • Kieh, George Klay, and Ida Rousseau Mukenge. Zones of Conflict in Africa: Theories and Cases. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2002.

    Using a theoretical framework and case studies, this book comprehensively addresses the question of civil conflict in Africa.

  • Mbembe, Achille. “At the Edge of the World: Boundaries, Territoriality, and Sovereignty in Africa.” Public Culture 12.1 (2000): 259–284.

    DOI: 10.1215/08992363-12-1-259

    Mbembe examines the forms of violence in contemporary Africa through an exploration of changing territorial arrangements and configurations of sovereignty.

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

    DOI: 10.1017/S0022278X02003889

    Mkandawire stresses the urban bias of African insurgencies, noting that many rebels are merely passing through the countryside, on their way to seek power in towns. Having little in common with the peasantry, and nothing to offer it, they resort to violence as the only way to control it.

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

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511993428

    Reno analyzes the modern history of African insurgencies through the lens of five periods of African insurgencies: anticolonial rebels, majority rule rebels, reform rebels, warlord rebels, and parochial rebels.

  • Spears, Ian S. Civil War in African States: The Search for Security. Boulder, CO: FirstForumPress, 2010.

    This book provides an in-depth examination of civil war and security in Africa using case studies of the conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea, and civil war in Somalia and Angola.

  • Turshen, Meredeth, and Clotilde Twagiramariya, eds. What Women Do in Wartime: Gender and Conflict in Africa. London: Zed Books, 1998.

    This edited volume examines the experience of women in African conflicts. The book includes contributions from women in Chad, Liberia, Mozambique, Namibia, Rwanda, South Africa, and Sudan.

  • Williams, Paul D. War and Conflict in Africa. Cambridge, MA: Polity Press, 2011.

    This book provides an in-depth analysis of more than six hundred armed conflicts in Africa from 1990 to 2010—from the crisis in the Great Lakes region to the conflicts across the Sahel and the wars in the Horn of Africa.

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