Conflict and Violence in Africa: Causes, Sources and Types

AFRICA, 28 Feb 2011

Adeleye Oyeniyi – TRANSCEND Media Service

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Conflict usually occurs primarily as a result of a clash of interests in the relationship between parties, groups or states, either because they pursuing opposing or incompatible goals. Although the term war is sometimes used as a synonym for conflict, it is more usual to restrict the meaning of war to violent conflict, involving armed forces. But like war, conflict is and has been throughout history a normal way of conducting disputes between political groups within human society. As David Weeks puts it, “conflict is an inevitable outcome of human diversity and a world without conflict is not desirable, because it would mean a world without diversity.” Africa is a diverse continent – diverse in ethnic, religious and socio-cultural terms.

The 1990s saw no diminution in the number of conflicts in Africa, and most forecasts predicted further increase. While Africa has had its share of inter-state wars, the majority of its conflicts were internal, and these internal conflicts appear to be increasing, as elsewhere. A tragic factor in this is that the civilian populations bear the brunt of the casualties in such conflicts, estimated at some 80-90 per cent of total casualties across the world. These conflicts cause not only casualties and refugees but contribute vastly to the spread of disease, malnutrition and starvation, social and economic decline and moral deterioration.

African Conflicts and Violence


There have been signs that the era of nation-states is fast fading but nowhere is this clearer than in Africa. The sort of conflicts that plagued African states is typical of those afflicting states in Eastern Europe and Asia.


They could roughly be grouped as follows:

  1. Boundary Conflicts: African states’ frontiers which are more fluid than at independence as thousands of economic and political refugees move around the continent;
  2. Conflict Governance: State dictatorships trying to shore up ethnic autocracies are under attack by increasingly militant opposition groups encouraged by both external and internal pro-democracy and human rights organisations;
  3. Conflict of Economic Development: The economic sovereignty of African states, never strong before, is being almost terminally undermined by pressures to join regional trading blocs and the and the growth of cross-border trading networks. This conflict also includes the crisis of production and distribution of resources and the competition arising therefrom;
  4. Conflict resulting from foreign intervention: Foreign intervention and withdrawal during and after the Cold War; and
  5. Conflict arising from the militarisation of the Society: Abundance of weaponry and trained soldiers and untrained volunteers available to any would-be warlord with resources and determination.

The Horn of Africa, which includes Sudan, contains today about all the problems that are on the world’s agenda: ethnic, religious and border conflicts, civil war, high military expenditure, migration and refugees, famine and the break-up of states. It is a region where the Cold War played itself out, and still deserves a lot of world attention.  Robert Kaplan described West Africa as a region that “is becoming the symbol of worldwide demographic, environmental and societal stress, in which criminal anarchy emerges as the real “strategic danger.”

Events in Liberia, before the election of Charles Taylor and Sierra Leone, before the restoration of the elected government of Tejan Kabbah confirmed this assertion. South Africa’s racial discrimination still rears its ugly head from time to time. North Africa still grapples with Islamic Fundamentalism. Although there are fundamentalist movements and trends in Israel, USA and India, that of North Africa, particularly Algeria, tends to defy any solution as events there have proved since 1992.



The causes of conflicts in Africa are many and they frequently recur, including major causes of potential tensions and conflicts, which could perhaps be summarised and classified below.

1. Inter-state borders

Common to many conflicts is the unsatisfactory nature of inter-state borders. Nearly all these borders were inherited from colonial times, and were the product of negotiations and treaties between the colonial powers, decided in Europe with the aid of poor maps and with scant attention to African peoples. At independence, the African governments shied away from making adjustments, and in any case, this was difficult as they did not all reach independence at the same time.

The existing state structures do not satisfy variously the aspirations for cultural identity, autonomy, economic democracy and self-determination of different nationalities co-existing with the contemporary states. Thus, the ease with which dissidents of a state are harboured in neighbouring countries and guerrillas armed and trained there, is itself a cause of both internal and inter-state conflicts.

2. Ethnicity

A major cause of African conflicts has been ethnicity, and it has continued to be so. The creation of new nation-states at the time of independence was accompanied urgent calls for nation-building by the new African leaders who were well aware of the difficulty in transcending African ethnic and regional loyalties. The European concept of a nation was exported to Africa. Stephen McCarthy’s definition of a nation as ‘a complex web of common cultural, social and economic interests among people, leading to a sense that what they share in common is greater than their regional, tribal or other differences’ simply reflects features which many African states did not have.

There have been a number of separatist movements causing attempts at secession, such as Katanga in Zaire, Biafra in Nigeria, and others in Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia. Military coups have also often been caused by ethnic rivalry, as well as personal rivalry such as Idi Amin’s coup in Uganda in 1971, caused by inter-ethnic rivalry among leading army officers, as well as by ethnic resentments against the civil head of state. Idi Amin was able to recruit soldiers loyal to him from across the northern border, from the Sudan, for his own Kakwa tribe had been split in two by the colonial border.

Thus it came about that it was Sudanese troops who played a large part in the coup, and Sudanese officers commanded key positions in the subsequent military regime. Use of foreign troops in such cases tends to exacerbate the cruelties and abuse of human rights inflicted on the civilian population, for these troops feel little affinity with populations they are sent to control.

3. Military

Inter-state aggression, annexation, intervention or hostility; for example, support for the rebels of other states, or for separatist movements.

4. Political / International

This takes the forms of ideological or political campaigns, territorial claims, and religious expansionism against other states, regional rivalries, terrorism, coercion or discrimination respecting the trade or economies of other states.

5. Political / Domestic

Power struggles, hostile groups, over-population, economic or religious disparities, oppression, and demands for democracy, communal or ethnic violence related to economic, social, religious, cultural or ethnic issues.

6. Persecution

It connotes violations of human rights, mass movements of refugees, poverty or instability caused by the mismanagement or ineptitude of the government, including evident and perceived levels of corruption by the government beyond any acceptable limits of traditional toleration.

7. Poor economic performance

A more basic and long-term cause of conflict has been the catastrophic economic performance of many African countries. Coupled with the debt problem, poor flows of private capital into some African countries, and foreign aid programmes often inefficient, as Neil MacFarlane points out, economic discomfort can bail out into conflict. In 1992, UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali stated as the deepest causes of conflict: ‘economic despair, social injustice, and political oppression.’

In the midst of poverty, African ruling classes, or the elite group who happen to hold power at a particular time, have enriched themselves and become the targets of envy or of rivalry by other elite groups. Politics is a commercial venture in his own right, as Roger Tangri puts it; conflicts arise not so much out of clashes of ideologies or programmes, but for profit – often for just an elite few, for the masses take little part in this part of conflict: nearly all tribal or ethnic conflicts are rooted in competition between individuals, for the scarce resources of wealth, state and power.

Amiclar Cabral’s dictum posits that ‘there are no real conflicts between the peoples of Africa. There are only conflicts between the elites. Ali Mazrui quotes Nigeria as an example of the tendency. In the African state, there is a pull towards privatisation of the state and towards militarisation. The resources of Nigeria under the civilian rule from 1979 were the private hunting ground of those in power and their supporters. Rampant privatisation caused the military to act, in the coup of 1983.




Conflicts afflicting African states are brought about by a number of factors, in an attempt to produce a typology of which is identifiable by sectors.

1. Elite Conflicts

Conflicts within the political leadership are among the most common form of political strife. They have occurred in almost every African country throughout the post-independence period. Elite conflict is normally of a low intensity but it does significantly impact on the polity. The key means of dealing with elite demands have often been through the manipulation of appointments and policy shifts often, distribution of bureaucratic posts is used as a means of appeasement, which partly accounts for the rapid growth of state machinery, such as the creation of numerous states within Nigeria.

2. Factional Conflicts

As contending elites mobilised their constituents to vie with other groups for scarce state-controlled resources, factional disputes and conflicts emerge. The main purpose of factional politics is to influence the composition of the official power apparatus, to determine who rules in a given political centre. In Nigeria, Cameroon, Sudan and elsewhere, ethno-regional inequalities have intensified competition and conflict among various interests. African governments have resolved factional conflicts in a number of ways. In some cases, political changes have been launched to alleviate demands.

3. Communal and Mass Conflicts

Unlike the elite and factional conflicts, communal and mass conflicts call into question not only the legitimacy of specific regimes but also the essentials of state power. They challenge the state’s territorial integrity and protest existing distribution of power. By far, the most prevalent in the post-colonial Africa, communal conflicts seek the promotion of sub-national identities – a goal which can be achieved either through adequate representation, including the protection of minority rights, the granting of autonomy, or through outright secession. Inter-ethnic animosity will obviously grow where religion and customs are clearly distinguished among groups. As inimical or inequitable decisions continue to be implemented, ethno-regional elite began to reassess profitability of continued participation in the political centre, demanding greater representation and when they are not met, begin to conscript the idea of autonomy or separate independence, as a way of assuring their survival and development.

4. Revolutionary Conflicts

Revolutionary conflicts pose a basic threat to the validity of state power as constituted and offer alternative political visions guided by a clearly defined set of organising principles. But many African countries have not been able to suppress mass discontent. From available indices, Nigeria has the potential for this type of conflict, given the high graduate unemployment, poor standard of living, marginalisation of the peasants, emasculation of labour and many other unresolved social ills. So far, in Africa, most of the groups have not been able to carry out the more violent strategies that they espouse, primarily because the governments have generally responded to these movements by jailing their leaders and closing the opportunities for the expressions of such forms of dissent. This has been the case in Kenya and Nigeria.

5. Foreign Intervention

The history of Africa since colonisation includes a series of self-interested foreign interventions and ruthless exploitation of African conflicts by the former Soviet Union and the United States, with their respective proxies during the cold war when both superpowers carved out spheres of influence in the continent. Thus, the history of the continent is replete with instances in which foreign intervention in African conflicts have had profound effects on the target countries, but the level of interventions tended to prolong and intensify the conflicts. The usual introduction of well-equipped troops of an external power usually increased the level of firepower and escalated the conflict.



Communities will independence and self-determination when they consider that their value systems are no longer taken sufficiently into account by the society in which they have formed a part and the elites which rule it. Therefore, it is desirable that African leadership can and should rise and take up the challenge by working towards development for the benefit of all citizens of the continent. Politics of cultural plurality has sensitised that the more fairly a society is organised, the more the people tend to forget about the particularism that divide them.

Conversely, the more unfairly a society is organised, the more its citizens revive and cling to all manner of cleavages of deep segmentation and the more conflict arise. Africa should work towards getting out of the zone of turmoil, characterised by poverty, repression and war, in which it has existed all along, into zone of peace, in which can be found peaceful, democratic and wealthy nations.

Recommendations (What Can Be Done)

However diverse the conflicts in Africa are, it is becoming increasingly clear that these conflicts cannot be contained within the present state frameworks, especially with the very terrible cases of state failure such as in Somalia, Sudan a Congo (DRC). Notwithstanding, some ideas are being advanced which may help to solve this problem.

1. Early Warning System

One is the concept of ‘early warning’ system. Academics have for some time been proposing types of information that could be fed into databases to provide early warning of possible future conflicts. There is a growing awareness that preventive diplomacy is needed, whereby information gathering, monitoring and the provision of databases can be utilised by governments, international agencies, humanitarian organisations, the media, etc. for action to prevent the breaking-out and escalation of conflicts.

2. Codes of Conduct

These are needed to assist training in the arts mediation, the healing process, ceasefires, zones of peace, disarming the military, and so on. The African Centre for Development and Strategic Studies (ACDESS) organised, in November 1992, an international conference in Dakar, Senegal on how to reverse Africa’s marginalisation in the world, by working out different scenarios for the future of the continent within the global system. As an independent non-governmental think tank and continental centre for research and strategic studies, this remains imperative.

3. Training

Training is in fact a key need, for often such process as mediation or peace-keeping require attitudinal changes in the actors involved. ACDESS’ promise to make contributions towards the elimination of the three millstones hanging around Africa’s neck namely: marginalisation, dependence and dispossession, which hinder progress and prevents the continent from becoming a serious and effective player in global issues was desirable. And to eventually put the three behind them, African countries should pursue a wide range of strategies, policies, programmes and goals.

4. Creation of Climate of Peace

A climate of peace has to be created in the potential conflict area, and a culture of negotiation has to be developed with all parties. If direct violence and retaliation have already occurred, it is too late a stage for early warning. Johan Galtung says that the warning should come when political, economic or cultural exploitation – ‘top-dog versus under-dog – is perceived, and it should be made very public, with recommendations for solution.

5. Preventive deployment for Peace Enforcement

In his UN report, Agenda for Peace, June1992, Boutros Boutros-Ghali proposes ‘preventive deployment’ of peacekeepers, for the creation of peace enforcement units and the setting up of a UN reserve Army. Mozambique was to receive 7500 UN peacekeepers. The report, of course, was not just relating to Africa, but for the world and it represented an important phase to anticipate, limit and end conflict.

6. Continental Development Imperative

Instead of consistently blaming the woes of the continent on colonialism, slave trade and the like, African leaders should take the challenge and work towards the development of the continent for the benefit of Africans. While working towards such a stable environment, more analysis has to be made about this great idea of democratisation. What must be noted is that democracy can only be nurtured in a stable and secure society, but cannot be sustained in the midst of social turmoil and political instability. It is good leadership that brings development and prosperity and ultimately eliminates conflicts.

7. Comprehending Causes and Histories of Conflicts

African countries have to find answers to their conflicts by comprehending and understanding the underlying causes and histories of these conflicts and work out ways of averting potential conflicts. This can be done, just as in the case of ACDESS, by undertaking case studies of conflicts in countries, with a view to developing appropriate and realistic policies towards averting conflicts in the continent. This is a bold step in the right direction.

8.  Reverse Intervention

It is clear that Africa is being rediscovered and it should be prepared for a new scramble, albeit in a positive direction, as world powers would not wish to be left out of this new scramble which was to, in the words of former US President Bill Cllinton, ‘complete the circle of history… to reach across the Atlantic to build a new partnership based on friendship and respect.’

9. New Conflict Management Ways

Finally, it is important that Africans develop new ways of conflict management. It is true that artificial societies created by colonialism in which different nationalities, ethnic groups and tribes were forcibly yoked together cannot be wielded in peaceful nation-states that can be stable and prosperous, the problem is not peculiarly African; deeply segmented societies exist virtually everywhere. The mere presence of many ethnic groups in a country does not necessary bring about internal stability, animosity and conflicts. What makes the difference between stable plural societies and unstable ones is usually the response of the leadership to the fact of multinationality.


Adeleye Oyeniyi

Fellow, The Salzburg Seminar (Austria): The Entrepreneurial City

Editorial Consultant to numerous African-biased newsmagazines in: The Netherlands, Germany and Austria.

This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 28 Feb 2011.

Anticopyright: Editorials and articles originated on TMS may be freely reprinted, disseminated, translated and used as background material, provided an acknowledgement and link to the source, TMS: Conflict and Violence in Africa: Causes, Sources and Types, is included. Thank you.

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11 Responses to “Conflict and Violence in Africa: Causes, Sources and Types”

  1. Modeste paul AKAKPO says:

    For solution for all these conflicts in Africa i propose the idear of multiculturalism. The acceptance of diversity in education in churches and mosques.

  2. daniel says:

    oyeniyi, would you please add the references for quoted writers?

  3. I should recall having done so when the piece was posted.

    Nevertheless, an umpteenth posting shouldn’t be out of place.

    Thanks for the feedback anyway. I only hope to remain accurate in that wise.




    Dmitrichef, Dr. Timour (1992). Early Warning and Conflict Resolution. IPRA
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    Gurr, Ted (1991). Theories of Political Violence and Revolution in the Third
    World, in F. M. Deng and I. W. Zartman (eds). Conflict Resolution in
    Africa. Brooklings Institution, Washington, D. C.
    MacFarlane, S. Neil (1992). Cited Boutros Boutros-Ghali, An Agenda for
    Peace: Preventive Diplomacy, Peacemaking and Peacekeeping’.
    Report to the UN.
    McCarthy, S. (1990). Development Stalled: the Crisis in Africa – A Personal
    View. European Investment Bank Papers. P.19.
    Rupesinghe, Kumar (1992). Early Warning and Conflict Resolution. Internatio
    -nal Alert Conference, London.
    Rupesinghe, Kumar (1992). Conflict Transformation in Multi-Ethnic Societies.
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    Ryan, S. (1994). Ethnic Conflicts and International Relations. Dartmouth, USA
    Tangri, Roger (1985). Politics in Sub-Saharan Africa. James Currey, London.

  4. Mohamed Ali says:

    it is honor to write to you ,it is very wonderful
    article about the conflict in dear Africa.
    it is really sad that Africa has been in war all
    this time. in my view the lack of democracy in Africa
    is the strong reason of the war.because most of African
    leaders came to the power by force .there is no clear plan
    to the future.
    I hope every thing will OK sooner .

  5. Mamadou Bah says:

    its very interesting to know all this but equally very sad to know it’s happening or has happened.

  6. Sam Abraham says:

    Great article but LACKS reference, not even one reference.

  7. neo wame says:

    Greetings to you with honour for the enlightenment about the conflict in African states. It is with great sorrow that the conflict is still on as we speak from as far as the cold war.Africans must understand that we are diverse by nature and the concept of malticulturalism is the key to our success.Great article indeed.


  9. Nyasha Nehanda says:

    A well researched and elaborate essay thank you

  10. Okemunguluju Okankindi says:

    Nice article

  11. mericksadeck Jumbe says:

    Thanks you for your good aticle as astundent of diplomance and Internation Relation,it has helped me to widen my knowledge on the matter of conflict in our beloved continent.