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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Post-Conflict Transitions and Reconstruction
  • Fictional Accounts

Political Science Civil War in Sub-Saharan Africa
Zachariah Mampilly
  • LAST REVIEWED: 07 May 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0006


The study of African civil wars has boomed since 2000 as scholars have recognized the predominance of internal wars over interstate wars in the post-Cold War context. The collapse of the Soviet Union brought with it an influx of illegal weaponry and the weakening of many proxy states, leading to a spike in conflict in the early 1990s as political and economic elites sought to take advantage of the new political dispensation. Across the continent, a variety of insurgent organizations caused immeasurable death and destruction, whether small rag-tag outfits like the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda; proxy armies of foreign governments, such as the Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone; or more conventional insurgent forces, such as the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. In addition, conflicts in places like Somalia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo took on hybrid forms mixing internal wars with interstate wars. As a result, no single approach fully captures the broad range of experiences of African civil war.

General Overviews

Scholars have produced many solo monographs and edited volumes that present differing interpretations of the causes and consequences of civil wars. Several of these works, such as Herbst 2000, Reno 1998, and Englebert 2009 locate the source of violence in the postcolonial nature of African states. Others, such as Zartman 1995, Ali and Mathews 1999, Kieh and Mukenge 2002, Kaarsholm 2006, and Spears 2010 take a more case-oriented approach, looking within specific countries for explanations of dysfunction. Mbembe 2000 provides a more theoretical interpretation for African violence, and contributors to Richards 2005 view the subject through an anthropological lens.

  • Ali, Taisier M., and Robert O. Matthews, eds. Civil Wars in Africa: Roots and Resolution. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1999.

    Beginning with Sudan in 1956, Congo in 1960, and Nigeria in 1967 and ending with the recent conflicts in Rwanda and Sierra Leone, the contributors examine the root causes of civil wars and violent conflict.

  • Englebert, Pierre. Africa: Unity, Sovereignty, and Sorrow. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2009.

    Englebert’s work uses a variety of methods to demonstrate why civil wars are more common in certain African states and why Africa as a whole has a “secession deficit.”

  • Herbst, Jeffrey Ira. States and Power in Africa: Comparative Lessons in Authority and Control. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000.

    Developing a novel spatial approach to understanding state weakness, Herbst argues that African states struggle to project power over their peripheral lands, rending them perpetually susceptible to violent challengers.

  • Kaarsholm, Preben, ed. Violence, Political Culture and Development in Africa. Oxford, UK: James Currey, 2006.

    Contributors to this interdisciplinary volume examine the sociohistorical processes that have shaped political development and violence in individual African states.

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

    The first half of this volume provides a theoretical framework with which to contextualize African conflicts, while the second half utilizes an array of case studies from the Great Lakes, Liberia, Nigeria, and Zambia to explain civil discord.

  • 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

    A dense, yet probing theoretical examination of the nature of contemporary violence in Africa, with an emphasis on its spatial dynamics.

  • Reno, Will. Warlord Politics and African States. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1998.

    Focusing on the examples of Liberia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and Zaire, Reno demonstrates how African rulers attempt to hold on to power in the face of multiple challenges to their rule in the post-Cold War era.

  • Richards, Paul, ed. No Peace, No War: An Anthropology of Contemporary Armed Conflict. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2005.

    An original volume that challenges prevailing assumptions about the nature of contemporary warfare drawing on a variety of case studies from around the world, including multiple African cases.

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

    Drawing on the cases of Angola, Ethiopia, and Somali, Spears provides an original analysis of why certain wars take the form they do, and what this means for ending violent conflicts.

  • Zartman, I. William, ed. Collapsed States: The Disintegration and Restoration of Legitimate Authority. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1995.

    In this influential study, leading scholars examine the conditions that have led to violent conflicts in multiple African countries.

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