We use cookies to give you the best experience possible. By continuing we’ll assume you’re on board with our cookie policy

The Effect of Political Economy on Civil Wars in Africa

The whole doc is available only for registered users

A limited time offer! Get a custom sample essay written according to your requirements urgent 3h delivery guaranteed

Order Now

This paper focuses primarily on the political economy and offers this as a perspective of the high incidence of civil wars in Africa. The main issue that this paper is addressing is the way we could understand another part of the world using our own perspective and methods, and using a frame of thought that is generally related to modernity and the western civilization. Are these ways of thinking adequate and appropriate for understanding Africa? Focusing on civil wars as the main tool of analysis, this paper will try to look at African events that happened in different parts of the continent and at the humanitarian aid which was conducted by western countries. The main question that rises is whether this approach, which is mainly based on modern concepts, could identify, understand and solve conflict and the most important problems of Africa, or would it just propagate and worsen them. Consequently, the specific question that this paper will try to address has to do with the implication of the UN international organisation, and trying to answer whether UN is a part of the African war machine.

While this paper cannot itself emphasize its own strengths, it will try to address an issue that was seen as one of the main weaknesses in the comments of the peers. That is a broad, wide focus on an area with different conflict triggers and mechanisms. This has to do mainly with the fact that the focus is rather on the UN and the implications and outcomes of its policies and involvement, rather than comparing two African countries or different aspects within the same country / region.

As a main research method, this paper has used the literature review method. The methodological framework looks at the work of several academicians concerned with African politics, such as Benedict Anderson, Partha Chatterjee’s article “Anderson’s Utopia, Bruce Jones, Peace-making in Rwanda: The Dynamics of Failure, Mahmood Mamdani , Said Adejumobi’s article “Citizenship, Rights and the Problem of Conflicts and Civil Wars in Africa”, Stephen Ellis, Barbara Harff, “Internal Wars and Failures of Governance, 1954-96”, Paul Collier & Anke Hoeffler, On the Incidence of Civil War in Africa, World Bank. David Laitin, “Somalia: Civil War and International Intervention”, Barbara Walter and Jack Snyder, Civil War, Insecurity and Intervention Mark Duffield, Global Governance and the New Wars: The Merging of Development and Security Zed Books, William Reno, “Shadow States and the Political Economy of Civil Wars”, Duffield, and Jack Snyder – From Voting to Violence.

In his book, “Imagined communities: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism”, one of the most important works of the century, Benedict Anderson speaks about the way homogeneous large societies experience simultaneous newspaper reading, or how they emulate their lives out of popular fiction heroes1. According to Anderson, the standard and homogeneous policy that emerged with the industrial civilization dislodges the cosmos to reveal the integrity of the “world” as we see it today. Partha Chatterjee, by opposing Anderson`s form of policy conceptualization, says that the perception of policy we see in Anderson`s approach calls for an understanding of the world as a homogeneous integrity. This form of policy occupies the free homogeneous time of modernism. In this free homogeneous time, the difference is that the things that should have been left in the past could not be left in the past. From this perspective, modernism sees itself as time, characterizes the resistance against itself as being archaic, and eventually declares the victory of capital and modernism beyond debate. According to Chatterjee, people can only imagine themselves in a free homogeneous time but, in reality, they do not live in it. “Heterotopia is the real space of modern time”, says Chatterjee2.

Post-colonial Africa has witnessed the greatest civil wars of the 20th century. There have been thirty tree civil wars, some of which were intermittent and have not yet been finalized. The approach of Western societies towards this African issue was characterized by the exact perspective that Chatterjee contests. This Western perspective relates civil wars to under-developed economies and identities and sees Africa as occupying an archaic time. This perspective reveals the fact that Western involvement and affluence was significantly responsible for some of the violence that occurred in Africa, therefore it became an inseparable part of the imperial logic and viciousness. Despite our civilized understanding, it appears that wars are for some, desirable after all, and this is one way to look at the heterotopic dynamics of politics in Africa. A different point of view is that one should never forget the relation and synchronicity between peace and violence in different geographies. One of the main factors that illustrate the post-colonial era in Africa is that the distinction between war and peace is unclearly defined. Battles are fought with modern war techniques and power struggles are internationalized. Otherwise expressed, the past, present and future of Africa is not only about Africa`s specific resources, as it is about how these assets are involved within the international system.

Analysing the civil wars in the African context

It is difficult to summarise the reasons of so many civil wars going on for many years in several countries in just a few lines. Firstly, we have to signalize that there are different dynamics of wars in different geographies, in different eras. The reality that stands out during a conflict might make the best models of political analysis seem ridiculous. Moreover, it is impossible to state that targets, actors, or mechanisms remain constant during a war. Consequently, the reasons that cause the war and the reasons that extend the war might not be related to each other, just as there might not be a strategic or target wise integrity between the actors of the war. These changes of actors are the main factors that make it difficult to understand the targets, goals, and alliances.

Another important issue is that the conflicts happen in many ways at different levels of the society, thus they can be understood in different ways by political authorities and tribe leaders. Their comprehension of war reasons might differ significantly from one interpreter to the other3. In addition, the goals become quite subjective during the war, even though the war broke out because of a specific demand. After many years of conflicts, civil wars tend to spread inside the whole society, as different sides begin to perceive each other`s mere existence as a reason for war.

All these intricacies are not only happening in Africa, as similitudes can be found in conflicts in other geographic areas. However, conflicts inside African territories tend to outnumber the ones happening in other parts of the world and be more violent as well. The most appropriate question would be why has Africa experienced so many wars in such a short period? What was so special and intriguing about this continent that it made it the host of the bloodiest wars of the 20th century? To be able to answer this question, we have to go back to the damage caused during colonialism and start the analysis there. With the colonialists, who used to control the resources and diamond trade just about fifty years ago, disappearing from the picture, African rulers are now fighting to replace them.

Post-colonial legacy

Colonialism seemed to be an economic project whose purpose was to exploit the labour force and rich resources. It simultaneously institutionalized the colonial coercion and mechanisms of control. These mechanisms did not remain limited within the colonies; they took place in the centre of the modern world. It is possible to see this kind of colonial political infrastructure as one of the main reasons of today`s African political situation. The relationship between citizenship and ethnic identity, as established by colonialism, constitutes the most sensitive point of this political infrastructure. In this context, it is important to understand the system described by Mahmood Mamdani as decentralized despotism. Mamdani’s system is based on bi-cephalic rule. On one side, there is a living area for colonists, which is administered by the civil law and central government, on the other side, there is an area for colonized people, ruled by traditional laws established by local authorities. The first one is the area of rights and privileges associated with citizenship, while the second one is the area
of tradition and customs.

It is also important to remember the fact that the identities on which colonialism relied on were actually altered and re-invented. For example, during the colonial period, the chiefs` nature of control and power was radically altered. Colonist forces provoked ethnic identities to control the society more easily and most of the times they gathered different tribal communities under re-invented ethnic identities. For example, the three ethnic groups in Rwanda – Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa belonged to the same language family, had the same life style and social formation, thus they had lived in peace for thousands of years before. Colonialism radically changed the social formation and identification in Rwanda and the biggest role in this change was played by colonial historians and anthropologists.

Based on their diverse physical appearances, the colonists claimed that different groups had different historical roots, and light colour skinned Tutsis were to be the most exclusive one amongst these three tribes. Because of their skin colour, Tutsis gained the right of becoming members of administration and partially benefited of the privileges of civil law, becoming a benchmark in society. Being Tutsi was seen as being rich, better educated, and in power. In this way, the colonial state converted the flexible social categories into hard ethnic identities. Although, on the surface, there seemed to be an autonomous government, actually this form of handling ethnicity was serving colonist forces5.

Nationalist movements gained power in the second half of the 20th century. While fighting against the colonist state and against racism, these movements remained neutral against ethnic identities, because these identities were thought of as authentic and local. The identities that were crushed during colonial era became the pioneers of struggle against colonialism. The main purpose of anti-colonialist movements was to abrogate the racial inequality, and as a result, after achieving independence, racial equality was established even before democratization. Racial identities were counteracted, while tribal identities remained. The nation-state was built on local powers and traditional law was protected6. White administrators and ethnic groups cooperating with colonists were removed from the office and black administrators were appointed, but a real settling with the institutions and mechanisms did not occur7. Shortly, the state was based on institutionalization of ethnic rights and responsibilities, giving citizenship to groups, not to individuals, with national and ethnic identities being built, while forming a state that would give individuals belonging to the same group equal rights and privileges.

In a similar way, even in Liberia, which did not experience colonialism directly, this type of two-headed state tradition became the corner-stone of politic infrastructure. Just like Mamdani, Stephen Ellis claims that modern ethnic identities are new inventions that cannot be separated from modern state policies8. According to Ellis, even though it was not always the consequence of the voluntary policies of a state, modern ethnicity arose as a response to political and administrative necessities. When Liberia became an independent republic in 1846, the political elites intended to draw a clear line between colonialism and their own tradition. Being protected by the United States of America, they resisted against Europe`s colonialization efforts. However, central government imitated many features of the European colonialism. A form of government based on tribal policies and chief`s legitimacy became part of the administrative control. As a result, in uncolonized Liberia, as in Rwanda, ethnic identities and colonial control mechanisms were established and used as a tool of local control9.

This ex-colonial tradition of not being able to govern and of unclear boarders together with the will of the colonialists to draw these boarders clearly is one of the primary reasons of on-going political and economic crisis in today`s Africa. Another significant reason is that capitalism is embarking upon a new and more constitutional governing method. With tribes trying to govern locals, this experience resulted in international financial organizations governing the local states, and therefore in the arising of economic crisis and accompanying political erosion. It is not difficult to guess that economic crisis is very hard to overcome by governors whose source of legitimacy only comes from the group to which they belong and which they support. After having driven away the colonists, African countries experienced a short period of economic balance and comfort in the 1950s and 1960s; however, due to the inherited colonialist new order which was conflicting the traditional ways of ruling, most of these states fell into debt and poverty in the 1970s, along with the global crisis of the period.

Structural Compatibility, Policies, and Deregulation

In the milieu of the 1970s` global crisis, African countries and their Western consultants made a decision on how to solution the economic crisis, which ass to diversify the export products10. Ironically, this was the period when European economy began to abstract itself from Africa and strengthen its economic ties with North America, Western Europe and Asia. African countries, depending on credits from the international financial institutions, made an attempt to diversify their products according to given advices and financed the necessary industrialization by external loans11. As the relation with the markets damaged, this policy led to economic tragedy, which, in the long term, proved devastating. Additionally, not having sufficient infrastructure to increase production resulted in environmental disasters, due to the exploitation of resources.

For example, in countries like Sudan, commercial agriculture entered into every possible free space. In planned economies and countries like Ethiopia, increase in production created significant mobility and caused more than half of the population to relocate. In countries like Angola, the need of large-scale commercial farms was met, despite the populations` dependency on land. These programs shrunk the resources of rural people, increased urbanization despite the insufficient infrastructure, and caused fights on sharing the remaining resources. The transformations that came with structural compatibility policies were not limited only to agriculture. In the second half of the 1980s, governments, being aware of the problems of rural production, increased the prices and taxes on small companies, in order to decrease the inequality of agricultural sharing and to transfer funds to agriculture. With the intention of creating sources of income, these groups headed towards underground economy. These markets were going to become the main axis, where the state created its own legitimate area by the end of the Cold War.

The transformations in Africa`s economy have also deeply affected the social relationships. Survival strategies of households and communities in this hostile circumstances increased economic, environmental, and social disintegration. For example, the increase of immigration among labour force diminished the communal importance of seniors and caused one of the communal control mechanisms to become ineffective. The struggle for sharing the limited sources strengthened ethnic identities. In many places, violence occurred as a defence mechanism against poverty and starvation.

To summarise, it can be said that the structural compatibility policies and deregulation had effect on hostile policies in two levels: a) Structural compatibility policies precipitated the immigration from rural to urban areas by rearranging the labour market. This process arrayed the sharing relationships between the rural and the urban areas, favouring the urban ones. Rapid immigration increased inequality in the cities. Poverty, social disintegration, traditional control, and break down of moral mechanisms provided the organizations with necessary human force for their wars. b) This economic and political transformation process differentiated the legitimacy of elites and their financial means. It also created a new economic community, whose investments were mostly in black economy sectors. These new elites engaged in fights with the existing regime, as they thought the existing government did not sufficiently represent their interests.

Cold War and New Forms of North-South Integration

The conflict between the USA and the USSR during the Cold War had affected Africa as well as the rest of the world. Time after time, the political and economic interventions of the USA and the USSR fuelled war in Africa. It might be claimed that the end of Cold War had two effects on African civil war. 1) International aid to the areas that were considered buffer zones against communism was cut. Consequently, these states, whose main income came from international aid, had difficulties to bring different groups into economic systems. 2) Made regional actors become more effective in the conflicts. Thus, the possibility of any conflict spreading towards neighbouring countries increased, and the regional actors felt free to interfere with the conflict if it was in their own favour. For instance, in Congo, 30 different guerrilla groups started to fight the government with the help of various regional forces to benefit from the rich resources of the country when USA cut its support to the 32-year dictatorship regime.

In addition, by the end of the Cold War, some regional civil wars increased, while other ceased. As the two super powers no longer supported African states or guerrilla groups, these states or groups could not find other solutions but reaching settlement, given the fact that they did not have sufficient resources to maintain war. Angola, Ethiopia, Somali, and Mozambique are the most significant examples of these wars.

To understand the effects that the ending of the Cold War had on conflicts, it is important to study how African states legitimized their power. The rulers of these states were significantly put under restraint by factors such as the quality and accessibility of resources that were financing government expenses. During the Cold War, international aids were the major part of financing and distribution, thus, it became a crucial component of the states` legitimacy. David Laitin, based on the quality of the relationships that were established between the African states and international financial markets, defines post-colonial Africa as a “Lame Leviathan”12. The Lame Leviathan had the capacity to eliminate its internal enemies, to tax international corporations by direct threat while maintaining order through outsourcing militia services but, on the other hand, was not able to increment taxes on its own population. A narrow tax ground but a large reward system sustained the government in office. These types of regimes generally had a short life and their leaders usually had neither the enthusiasm nor the funds to invest on long-term political and economic projects13.

In all the revolutions between 1965 and 1990, the major financial resources for the leaders were colonial states and the two super powers. While all the leaders of the revolutions claimed to be nationalists but ethnically neutral, once they managed to come to power, all these leaders engaged in alliance with USSR or USA and were provided with high arm power and control technologies to consolidate their power. The two super powers were balancing their support to these states, so that the dictators would maintain the internal stability in their countries but could not eliminate all local opposition and threats. If properly calculated, the dictator could reward enough interest groups to ensure their commitment to the regime. There were times that some of the groups thought they were not receiving their share fairly, which drove them to defiance. However, the arms of control provided by either of the two super powers did not allow the destruction of stability. When the Cold War ended the two super powers` interest towards Africa diminished14. Therefore, coming to power did not mean taking control of sources provided by two super powers and, after losing such support, The Lame Leviathan became a crippled Leviathan.

By the end of Cold War, after losing their financial sources and control mechanisms to maintain internal stability, African leaders, who were sure of themselves that they gained their legitimacy by rewarding their people, tried to compensate the balance of their regimes by illegal weapon and mine trade. In fact, the end of Cold War was a time when global black markets grew15. Cross-border informal trade became one of the major incomes of the state. Therefore, non-governmental actors like mafia, ethnic group leaders, or local leaders began to have more impact in the government. These new elites did not care much about unity and the stability of the peace, but their own interests. The profitability depended on preserving the communal control mainly through violence.

In a similar way, according to William Reno, globalism and neo-liberal ideology did smooth the path for governors to ensure sovereignty by establishing market mechanisms, instead of expensive state mechanisms16. In such states, as Reno calls them “shadow states”, the fundamentals of legitimacy were based on distribution of the profit gained from market economy. The only way for this distribution to become a political control mechanism depended on unequal inclusion and exclusion the market economy. This new structure played a discriminating role that gave a solid ground for the spread of violence throughout the society17.

War Mechanisms

War Economies
In Africa, numerous military strategies that were used against civilians and opposition forces by the state agencies brought about a specific war economy. The major military strategy exercised by the governments is civilian pacification and arms purification of localized areas. The areas, that were thought to support the opposition, were cleared out by means of violence and terror, which was the direct exercise of this policy, whereas blocking humanitarian aids from going to that area and not making any investments would be an indirect practice of this policy. Consequently, after several years of war, the areas that supported the government and the areas that supported the guerrillas developed critically unequal, and this situation became part of the mechanism, thus prolonging the wars18.

The opposing forces developed an alternative taxation system to finance themselves in the areas they controlled. In addition, they established large farms in order to satisfy the guerrillas’ needs of food. In the areas, controlled by the government, guerrillas systematically targeted educated middle class and tried to destroy the economic infrastructure. These tactics especially stood out in Mozambique, Angola, and Sudan. The control of parallel economic activities came out with the alternative taxation. At such point, a new state-like presence with no state structure came to existence. International Aid and Intervention

Whatever the reasons might be for war to break out, in time, struggle to maintain control over military and humanitarian aid became an internal war mechanism. This was crucial, especially in areas that lacked sustainable essential resources, where the forces in conflict needed not only weapons but also humanitarian aid to continue the fight. In this perspective, we should not miss the fact that every kind of aid, from food to health service, had great importance in Africa; therefore, any direct or indirect attempt to take control of these aids had serious impact on the development of the conflict. During such periods, it was impossible to equally distribute humanitarian aid and service to the affected population. This was mainly due to the international organizations’ lack of direct access inside the communities, and due to their dependence on the forces that controlled the affected area in order to be able to reach the communities in need. Correspondingly, armed groups that thought they were not receiving sufficient help, attempted to prevent others from receiving help as well.

According to Michael Maren`s statements, an NGO director, two third of the food aid for the refugees in Somali were taken away by either guerrillas or the government forces and then these products were traded inside the black market for weaponry. As a result, these aids not only couldn’t reach the people in need, but were used in weapon trade instead, which eventually boosted the conflicts. Moreover, this black market contributed to the destruction of the agricultural economy by putting local farmers out of business, as their products became more expensive. Another aspect that requires to be pointed out is the fact that international aid organizations played an intensifying role in corroding the legitimacy of the states (which had already been partially corroded). International organizations undercut a possible unifying project that might happen in the future by establishing a public sphere parallel to the government. For instance, in Somalia, The United Nations refused to work with public institutions and this badly affected government structures19.

As a conclusion, the destiny and the resources of African societies depended on two networks: The first one is the network of the black market, and the second one is the international aid network. Ultimately, as the states in African countries were supposed to join the international community, they ended up being crippled and held responsible before their public and international actors. Moreover, as the real power was taken away from the states and given to international networks, these states lost their positions as independent states. This directly led to many unsuccessful peace pacts and the collapse of much international mediation efforts. The interventions of the United Nations in 1990s can be given as example.

The United Nations, aiming at establishing governments in areas of conflict, called for voting. A fair voting in front of the eyes of the international public opinion was going to be a major step towards peace. However, elections that were held prior to establishing necessary public mechanisms and the seriously needed reconciliations were largely futile20. For example, in Angola, the United Nations called for elections. Conversely, UNITA, who lost the elections, did not step away as UN expected and, on the contrary, committed a vicious massacre to gain back the control that had been taken away from them. A similar event took place in Rwanda. According to Bruce Jones, UN policies were not only the trigger of the genocide; in fact, they were the actual perpetrators. Jones adds that the important question is why the efforts made by the international community before the genocide did not yield a positive result21. The answer is obvious. UN`s solution for naive democratization and elections was based on a wrong analysis of the balance of powers.


It might be strange for many people to see UN as part of the war mechanism, while they were actually trying to help millions of people by supplying them food, services, and attempting to stop civil wars and genocides. Obviously, any international organization bears an ethical responsibility towards the communities facing starvation and threat of death. The ethical dilemma here lies in whether the international community should send aid that helps on the short term but prolongs the conflict as a side effect, or should the international community starve out the conflicting parties, forcing them into negotiation and reconciliation because of the lack of resources that could supply the fighting, while ignoring the pleas and the suffering of civilians and leaving them to die in sickness and starvation.

It would not be an exaggeration if we said that we were experiencing one of the most important ethical dilemmas of modern times. Such questions, unfortunately, do not bare easy answers. This paper is not trying to minimize the importance of these efforts however, as long as alternative international-aid structures are not created, these efforts do not seem to have the best effect on societies in the long term. What should be done in such ethical and political dilemmas that modern world faces, is to asses thoroughly the reasons of conflicts and the role of international societies within these conflicts.

Today, what Africa has experienced is the result of a specific integration of post-colonial control mechanisms with international economy. Thus, a long-term solution to the problems of Africa would be initiated and maintained by the inclusion of this particular continent as a partner in the international economy. Unfortunately, a long lasting solution is not seen for Africa in the near future, since the trade balance between this continent and the rest of the world deteriorates each day, with Africa being pushed away from the global system. Thus, the only thing that remains for Africa to feed itself is involvement with international aid networks or criminal organizations. Africa teaches us a lot about the relationship between economy and violence in the modern world, and it shows significant facts on the “well intentioned” contribution of international organizations in solving or maintaining violence.


1. Anderson, Benedict R. O’G. (1991). Imagined communities: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism (Revised and extended. Ed.). London: 1991; 2. Chatterjee, Partha (1999) “Anderson’s Utopia”, Diacritics, 29(4):128-134; 3. Jones, Bruce (2001) Peace-making in Rwanda: The Dynamics of Failure. Lynne Rienner; 4. Mamdani, Mahmood (1996) Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism. Princeton, N.J.; 5. Ibid.;

6. Ibid.;
7. Adejumobi, Said (2001) “Citizenship, Rights and the Problem of Conflicts and Civil Wars in Africa”, Human Rights Quarterly, 23(1); 8. Ellis, Stephen (1999), The Mask of Anarchy: The Destruction of Liberia and the Religious Dimension of an African Civil War, New York: New York University Publications; 9. Ibid. 213;

10. Harff, Barbara (1996) “Internal Wars and Failures of Governance, 1954-96”http://www.boso.umd.edu/cidcm/stfail/sfcodebk.htm and Collier, Paul
& Hoeffler, Anke (2003) On the Incidence of Civil War in Africa, World Bank; 11. (http://www.africaaction.org, (http://www.wedo.org); 12. Laitin, David (1999) “Somalia: Civil War and International Intervention”, Barbara Walter and Jack Snyder, Civil War, Insecurity and Intervention Columbia University Publications; 13. Ibid.;

14. Ibid.;
15. Duffield, Mark (2001) Global Governance and the New Wars: The Merging of Development and Security Zed Books; 16. Reno, William, Shadow States and the Political Economy of Civil Wars, Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2000; 17. Ibid.;

18. Duffield, 2001;
19. Ibid.;
20. Snyder, Jack (2000) From Voting to Violence. New York, London: W.W. Norton; 21. Jones, Bruce D., Peacemaking in Rwanda: the Dynamics of Failure. Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2001.

Related Topics

We can write a custom essay

According to Your Specific Requirements

Order an essay
Materials Daily
100,000+ Subjects
2000+ Topics
Free Plagiarism
All Materials
are Cataloged Well

Sorry, but copying text is forbidden on this website. If you need this or any other sample, we can send it to you via email.

By clicking "SEND", you agree to our terms of service and privacy policy. We'll occasionally send you account related and promo emails.
Sorry, but only registered users have full access

How about getting this access

Your Answer Is Very Helpful For Us
Thank You A Lot!


Emma Taylor


Hi there!
Would you like to get such a paper?
How about getting a customized one?

Can't find What you were Looking for?

Get access to our huge, continuously updated knowledge base

The next update will be in:
14 : 59 : 59