The debate about war in African studies has gone through a number of important changes. Until the end of the Cold War, African wars were often fueled by super-power competition. After the end of the Cold War most were either solved peacefully or simply collapsed as external support dried up. Some, however, continued, such as the Lord’s Resistance Army war, and new ones emerged. One was the intertwining of civil wars in West Africa’s Mano River Basin. Another was created by the collapse of the Mobutist state in Zaire that drew in a number of neighboring countries. Lately the Sahel is also experiencing a similar trend. During the Cold War, conflict in Africa was often referred to as “war by proxy,” in reference to external factors as important causes of conflict. After the end of the Cold War, much more emphasis has been placed on internal factors, first ethnicity and later the so-called greed and grievance debate. The approach to the warlord concept in African studies is closely tied to these debates. In general terms, a warlord is an individual who has control over an area because this person commands armed forces that are loyal to the warlord. A precise definition of this phenomenon is therefore available. The challenge, however, is that this term almost automatically brings forth powerful images of rape, loot, and plunder committed by heavily armed, thuggish-looking men. Contrary to the relatively sober academic debate about wars and warlords elsewhere in the world, the debate about warlords in Africa has tended to be extremely politicized and used to name and shame specific persons. Until the early 1990s, the warlord concept was used sparsely in African studies, but then it became more prevalent, promoted by debates about the civil wars in the Mano River Basin, where influential scholars such as Paul Collier argued that African civil wars were driven by greed and not grievances. Soon, the warlord label was attached to almost all conflicts on the continent. However, this also led to the emergence of a counterdebate that questioned the validity of greedy warlords as explanatory factors and argued for a multidimensional approach that also took into consideration social, political, and historical factors. The outcome was a much more nuanced but also diverse debate, where many of the most prominent scholars question the usefulness of the warlord concept.
Questions concerning war and warlords in African studies have been discussed in numerous ways. In a seminal contribution from 1998 William Reno introduced the concept of “warlord politics,” a type of politics where political authority is based on the privatization of power and the subsequent lack of any real distinction between private and the public interests as rulers of such states convert wealth into political resources to buy loyalty or the means to coerce. Christopher Clapham’s edited collection from 1998 African Guerrillas is one of the most cited general overviews that in addition to a number of detailed case studies also contains the editor’s four broad categories of African insurgencies: liberation, separatist, reform, and warlord. Building on Clapham and drawing on the debate that followed, Bøås and Dunn edited a new study in 2007, African Guerrillas: Raging against the Machine, that argued for a more grounded approach and against single-factor explanations such as greed, resources, or culture. Reno’s Warfare in Independent Africa is the most thorough review of African wars, covering the period from armed anticolonial rebellions to contemporary forms of warlord and parochial rebels. Included in this category are also important contributions to the debate about warlords and warlordism in Africa (Szeftel 1989, Duffield 1998, Reno 1998, Freeman 2015) and volumes that contain important contributions to related debates: greed and grievance (Berdal and Malone 2000, Richards 2005) and banditry (Crummey 1986).
Berdal, Mats, and David M. Malone, eds. Greed and Grievance: Economic Agendas in Civil Wars. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2000.
A pillar of the greed and grievance debate, this volume explores how economic considerations often shape the calculations and behavior of parties to a conflict and creates a war economy. It generated a debate that has had a lasting impact, and almost all contributions thereafter have related to this volume, either in support of it or as a direct or indirect criticism of its approach.
Bøås, Morten, and Kevin C. Dunn, eds. African Guerrillas: Raging against the Machine. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2007.
This volume revisits and discusses the insights provided by Clapham’s groundbreaking African Guerrillas, arguing for a more nuanced, holistic approach that is historically grounded and integrates multiple levels of analysis. The volume consists of a combination of thematic chapters and case studies of insurgencies (Angola, Côte d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo [DRC], Liberia, Senegal, Sudan, and Uganda), and it is bookended by a chapter by Christopher Clapham.
Clapham, Christopher, ed. African Guerrillas. Oxford: James Currey, 1998.
In addition to Clapham’s introduction that defined the study of African insurgents for decades and introduced the warlord category as the fourth type of insurgency on the continent, this volume also contains historically grounded case studies of what was at the time of publication some of the most prominent insurgencies in Africa. Case studies include Stephen Ellis’s analysis of Liberia’s warlord insurgency and Ibrahim Abdullah and Patrick Muana’s “lumpen” thesis about the origins of the Revolutionary United Front of Sierra Leone.
Crummey, Donald, ed. Banditry, Rebellion and Social Protest in Africa. Oxford: James Currey, 1986.
A careful analysis of Eric Hobsbawm’s concept of social banditry in an African context. This volume is still a reference point for debates about banditry and criminal activity in Africa. It includes much-cited work by Terence Ranger on the meaning of banditry in Zimbabwe’s guerrilla war for independence and Crummey’s own chapter about the Ethiopian shefta as a “primitive rebel.”
Duffield, Mark. “Post-Modern Conflict: Warlords, Post-Adjustment States and Private Protection.” Civil Wars 1 (1998): 65–102.
The opening article of the first issue of the journal Civil Wars is a lengthy piece by Mark Duffield who argues for the emergence of political projects in Africa (and the Global South) that no longer need to establish territorial, bureaucratic, or consent-based authority but rather rests on the authority of warlords or postadjustment rulers that have adopted warlord-type strategies to forge new and viable links to global markets.
Freeman, Laura. “The African Warlord Revisited.” Small Wars & Insurgencies 26 (2015): 790–810.
Revisiting Africanist debates about the term “warlord,” this work offers both a useful review of the debate since a special issue in 1989 of Review of African Political Economy established that this was a useful concept in African context and innovative ways in which the term “warlord” can be reconceptualized from below.
Reno, William. Warlord Politics and African States. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1998.
In this much-cited book Reno introduces the concept of “warlord politics,” a type of politics where political authority is based on the privatization of power and the subsequent lack of any real distinction between private and the public interests through a series of empirically grounded case studies from Liberia, Sierra Leone, the DRC, and Nigeria. The book also includes a discussion about warlords in the global system of states.
Reno, William. Warfare in Independent Africa. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011.
This book is the most thorough review that exists of warfare in Africa after independence. This is a standard reference work for such studies, including studies of warlords and warlordism. The book also contains specific chapter on warlords (chapter 5) and what Reno calls “parochial rebels”—rebels who may have vague ideas about a social revolt but are unable to launch such political projects as they are stuck in environments of patronage not favorable to such autonomous political actions.
Richards, Paul, ed. No Peace, No War: An Anthropology of Contemporary Armed Conflict. Oxford: James Currey, 2005.
A highly influential critique of the “new wars” literature that argues that all wars are long-term struggles organized for political ends, commonly but not always involving violence. The volume contains case studies from countries such as Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Uganda and is particularly critical to the notion of new wars as war events that can be explained through population pressure, the clash of cultures, or transboundary political economies.
Szeftel, Morris. “Warlords and Problems of Democracy in Africa.” Review of African Political Economy 45–46 (1989): 3–11.
This editorial in a special issue on warlords and the problems of democracy in Africa argues that in places such as Chad one finds clear parallels with the general warlord model of China and elsewhere. These characteristics include the collapse of the central state, factional strife, the increased use of force to settle disputes, and the regionalization of the political process.
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