The future of intra-state conflict in Africa


As Africa celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Organisation of African Unity, the continent’s future looks brighter than ever before. Africa is no longer portrayed as chronically poor, uniquely prone to the onset of violence and warfare and of marginal importance to the global economy. The new narrative is one of economic growth, positive development prospects and greater stability in a polycentric world order.

Yet, while opportunities are indeed striking, many structural challenges remain. In particular the risk of instability and violence is likely to persist and even increase in some instances. Since the 1990s the number of wars has halved and the nature of conflict has changed.

Today conflict in Africa is increasingly fragmented, tending to be fought on a smaller scale and on the peripheries of states. More non-state actors are involved and, generally, insurgents are militarily weak and often divided. Some of these features are evident in places such as Darfur, Sudan, the Central African Republic, northern Mali or the eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Moreover, the lines between criminal and political violence are getting increasingly blurred and insurgents are often connected to illicit transnational networks.

Violence directly associated with elections has increased across Africa in line with the push for democratisation and the onset of multi-party elections. While higher levels of democracy are generally associated with greater peace in the longer term, democratisation can also be a ‘shock’ for societies and has the potential to trigger violence in the short and medium term. It appears that electoral processes are more likely to turn violent in certain settings. These are characterised by latent conflict, systemic grievances and tensions surrounding political competition and power-sharing agreements, as well as governments that are actively factional in benefitting one ethnic group above others, like in Kenya in 2007.

Violence at community level due to competition over access to scarce livelihood resources such as land and water also seems to be on the rise. Rapid population growth in Africa will further compound this problem, and climate change may act as an accelerator given its direct implications for food production. Sub-Saharan Africa is especially vulnerable to the consequences of climate change, not least because of its limited ability to adapt.

Seven long-standing relationships largely explain the relatively high levels of intrastate conflict experienced in Africa in comparison with more prosperous regions. The first is the correlation between poverty and instability. Internal armed violence is significantly more frequent in low-income and lower-middle-income countries than in wealthier countries, and poverty is intensified by inequality and social stratification. Conflict, in turn, fuels poverty and compromises development.

Second, times of change are inevitably disruptive, and transitions from autocracy to democracy or adverse regime changes are often prone to violence. Many African countries are trapped somewhere in-between autocracy and democracy. According to the Polity IV Project, these so-called ‘anocracies’ are particularly vulnerable to experiencing outbreaks of intrastate wars. Research done by Professor Jack A. Goldstone from George Mason University’s School of Public Policy and others reveals that a partial democracy with factionalism is an exceptionally unstable type of regime.

Third, a large democratic deficit also seems to be related to a higher risk of instability. North Africa is a point in case. In the Arab Spring countries the demand for democracy – based on levels of income, education, etc. – was vastly at odds with the actual supply.

A fourth strong correlation is the one between violence and a large youthful population suffering widespread exclusion. This becomes particularly acute if education levels, the rate of urbanisation and unemployment are comparatively high. Today, nearly half of sub-Saharan Africa’s population falls within the category of 15 to 29 years. Much of the continent is currently experiencing a demographic transition – a population’s shift from high to low rates of birth and death – which is generally associated with reduced vulnerability to civil conflict. However, African economies struggle to productively employ the extra workers. If young people lack opportunities the risk of conflict rises.

Fifth, once a country has experienced large-scale violence, the tendency towards repeat violence is strong. This is one of the greatest challenges Africa faces today, and has led to the establishment of the United Nations’ Peacebuilding Commission and, more recently, the African Union’s African Solidarity Initiative.

Sixth is the ‘bad-neighbourhood’ effect of being close to other countries experiencing conflict. Being situated in a conflict-ridden ‘neighbourhood’ is a major risk factor and such countries will be far more likely to experience onsets of instability.

Finally, many of these factors are closely associated with the provision of poor governance, self-serving leadership and the impact of excessive dependence on commodity exports. In general, poor countries are often characterised by weak governance, non-inclusive political settlements, high levels of corruption, and limited capacity to provide their citizens with basic social services, including security. Governance is important, and this is evident in the way many African countries have fallen behind their former peers. South Korea had a per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) lower than that of Nigeria in 1954. Yet, today South Korea is the 11th largest economy globally and Nigeria ranks 55th in spite of massive oil revenues during the last 50 years.

In spite of many challenges, several factors allow for a generally positive outlook when looking at the future of intrastate conflict and violence in Africa. The first one is economic growth, including growth rates of more than 5% over the last decade that, over time, will help chip away at the structural conditions that drive conflict. This goes hand in hand with improved macroeconomic governance and reform; improved agricultural output; growth in services and information and communications technology; more stable political frameworks; more effective aid and targeted debt relief; increased domestic revenues; growth in remittances and foreign investments; and global economic growth fuelled by the demand for commodities from China, India, Brazil, etc. Using the International Futures (IFs) model we estimate that Africa’s GDP at purchasing power parity per capita will increase from $2 736 in 2013 to $4 113 by 2030.

Today’s international system is increasingly polycentric and Africa has successfully diversified its trading patterns. During 2013 China became the continent’s most important trading partner. Moreover, the last two decades have brought significant increases in resources committed by international and African actors towards building a firmer foundation for peace in war-torn societies and preventing the resurgence of violent conflict. These include large investments in UN peacekeeping and conflict prevention and mediation, as well as the establishment of the African Peace and Security Architecture and international criminal justice mechanisms such as the International Criminal Court. Overall, the results have been positive and have arguably contributed to greater stability in Africa. The reduction in conflict, in turn, is likely to help create virtuous or self-reinforcing cycles that reduce future conflict vulnerabilities.

All in all, these are times of great opportunities. The way in which Africa’s leaders manage these opportunities and consolidate the move towards effective and legitimate governance will eventually determine future prospects for sustained development, stability and peace.

Jakkie Cilliers, Executive Director, ISS and Julia Schuenemann, Senior Researcher, ISS Pretoria

The issues discussed above are explored in a longer ISS paper. To view the paper, click here.

This paper was launched by the ISS in Addis Ababa on the fringes of the AU Summit. The paper will also be launched in Washington DC at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on 30 May 2013.

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