Galtung’s ‘Structural Violence’ and the Sierra Leone Civil War c.1985-1992

ANALYSIS, 14 Jul 2014

Philip Leech, Globalization Café – TRANSCEND Media Service

Sierra Leone gained independence from the British Empire in 1961; shortly afterwards democratic elections returned the SLPP (Sierra Leone People Party) to power. The new nation’s initial democratic experience was, however, short lived. 1967 saw the overthrow of Siaka Stevens’ government by a means of a military coup d’etat. Stevens returned himself to office in the following year, this time he also was at the head of a military rebellion. The events of 1967-1968 began a period of dictatorship that transformed Sierra Leone into a de jure one party regime by 1978 (81 Adebajo, 2002). When Stevens retired in 1985 his erstwhile deputy Major-General Joseph Saidu Momoh took over the presidency of a country in economic turmoil. Momoh would lead Sierra Leone for only six years before the outbreak of one of recent history’s most bloody conflicts in 1991.

During the conflict between the Sierra Leonean army (SLA), the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) and a myriad of international forces, an estimated 50,000 people were killed, 20,000 were maimed and over 75% of the population had been displaced (572 Meredith, 2005). Numerous human rights abuses were recorded for which legal proceedings have being filed against several militia leaders (BBC News, Country profile: Sierra Leone). The war lasted from 1991 until 2002 and since its conclusion the Sierra Leonean government, with international support, has endeavoured to transform the national economy and infrastructure to one that is soundly based upon the ideals of positive peace. The United Nations Development Programme’s official ‘country profile’ provides a brief overview of Sierra Leone’s aims in the post-conflict era:As Sierra Leone moves out of the recovery period, the country must focus on the multiple underlying causes of the conflict. In the years before the conflict erupted, the decline of the economy and the inexorable spread of poverty contributed greatly to the deterioration of the social condition, which profoundly undermined the stability and security of the country (UNDP in Sierra Leone: Post Conflict Transition and Beyond).

This essay argues that Johan Galtung’s concept of Structural Violence provides an important theoretical framework that helps guide our understanding of the reasons for the war and how Sierra Leone’s continuing progress is towards a new era of ‘positive peace’. This paper, however, also notes that no theoretical concept can tell the whole story and while Galtung’s concepts and terminology are useful, awareness and appreciation of their short comings is also fundamental for full appreciation of a case study such as Sierra Leone.

This paper is structured as two major sections and its primary focus is upon the relevance of the theory to the case study rather than to provide a historical overview of the Sierra Leone civil war. First, the basics of Galtung’s structural theory will be described in order to provide a context for the explanation of structural violence and positive peace. Second, the concept will be applied directly to the Sierra Leonean civil war. Third, problems and caveats will be examined.

Peace by Peaceful Means by Johan Galtung presents the theoretical basis for structuralism. Offering a general overview Galtung explains that conflict resolution as comparable with health studies. In this sense the ‘diagnosis-prognosis-therapy’ triangle is as applicable to the treatment of ‘ill-states’ as is it is to the medical treatment of human beings (1 Galtung, 1996).

To gain a better understanding of Galtung’s theory it is important to appreciate the deeper levels beyond the mere prima facie. Violent conflict is a symptom of a sick state but this does not necessarily mean that the absence of warfare is a sign of good health. In other words, a peace that constitutes merely the cessation of violence is not Galtung’s target. Attaining positive peace or peace building is defined briefly as to ‘overcome the contradiction at the root of the conflict formation’ (103 Galtung, 1996). Galtung’s use of the terms of violence and conflict have specific meanings in this context that go beyond the traditional dictionary definition of the words. Although Galtung goes into extensive detail with his definition of conflict I believe that it is possible to use the most significant features of this description as a basis to glean enough information to be relevant to the aims of this paper . According to Galtung conflict is a ‘triadic construct’ (71 Galtung, 1996) it is therefore made up of three aspects that are interdependent and which cannot be properly understood as individuals independent of the whole.

The maxim of ‘Conflict: attitudes/assumptions + behaviour + contradiction/content’ (71 Galtung, 1996) perhaps best summarizes these elements. Rather than go into detail as to the nature of these elements it is sufficient to say that these are different to the three elements that make up violence (see below) and evidently the term conflict does not mean the same as violence. The other important applicable element is that conflict is not something that is resolved. Galtung expresses his aims as conflict transformation rather than conflict solution. The nature of how a conflict proceeds is something that can be altered, perhaps shifting the means by which opposing points of view and disagreements can be expressed through a political medium rather than a violently. Elements of this will be explained in more detail later in the essay.
The term violence is explained in general terms as ‘Violence is needs-deprivation’ (200 Galtung, 1996) or violence is ‘avoidable insults to basic human needs’ (197 Galtung, 1996). In more detail Galtung’s understanding of violence is comprehendible with reference to three subgroups or ‘supertypes’ (199 Galtung, 1996). Galtung offers a metaphor that is extremely useful for explaining the three ‘supertypes’. The analogy is: when we consider an earthquake we first think of a physical event – the shaking of the earth – that is quantifiable and obvious. However this is not the whole story, the point at which the quake occurs is usually centered upon a fault line. Fault lines are constant and not themselves deadly – it is possible to conceive of a fault line that exists yet has never been the site of an earthquake. The relationship between the fault line and the event of a quake is tied together by means of a process. This process is a tectonic shift. It is important to note here that none of the three aspects of an earthquake are the same as each other. Rather, they are possible to view as three substantive parts of a greater whole, and it is also possible to study and examine them as independent phenomenon (199 Galtung, 1996).

In the same way as we understand the aspects of an earthquake we may also understand violence. Direct violence is an event. It is characterized by coercion, the use force or the threat of force. Direct violence is what we mean by warfare; however its definition is not limited to this . The Direct violence in the Sierra Leonean conflict occurred on the battlefields and in the streets of Freetown. It affected the lives of the victims and the perpetrators to such an extent that Human Rights abuses were referred to as ‘the worst in the world’ by UN High Commissioner Mary Robinson in 1999 (376 Francis, 1999). Cultural violence is the unchanging difference between peoples, perhaps ethnic or economic divides that make one group of people obviously distinct from another. Cultural violence is represented by the fault line in the analogy and is considered the ‘legitimizer’ of both direct and structural violence. It is difficult to obtain a conclusive overview of the depth and significance of cultural violence in Sierra Leone, on the one hand African Contemporary Record states that ‘for the most part ordinary Sierra Leoneans live peacefully and do not regard the ethnic factor as an important element in their lives’ (B159 Hayward, 1998). However, according to Building Peace in West Africa ethnic differences combined with a ‘growing tension’ (181 Adedeji, 1999) between the two main political parties make up a pronounced cultural fault line. A quote from Adebayo Adedeji in Comprehending and Mastering African Conflicts supports this claim: ‘as a multi-ethnic country, the seeds of disagreement that had the potential of degenerating into a crisis and conflict have always been in place’ (179 Adedeji, 1999).

The critical element or link in the chain of this ‘causal flow’ (200 Galtung, 1996) is structural violence. It is the process that links cultural distinction to Direct Violence. Structural violence is an ostensive label that may be applied to a broad range of phenomena. What Galtung notes as definitive is that Structural violence is the process of deprivation of needs. Each part of the violence equation depends on the existence of the other two before the violent conflict become truly serious and sustained  (197-200 Galtung, 1996). It need not be consistent or radical . Simply put, it is violence embodied by a structure, or violence that ‘operat[es] regardless of intent’ (93 Galtung, 1996). It is characterized politically as repression, and economically by exploitation. However, Galtung notes that ‘blunt repression/exploitation is necessary but not sufficient’ (93 Galtung, 1996). In fact the nature of structural violence is somewhat vague in that it allows the quantity and the qualitative nature of aggression and dominance to be variable (201 Galtung, 1996).

More specifically Galtung is concerned with structures that allow violence to occur vertically. Verticality in these structures implies inequality and repression/exploitation is administered from the top downwards. Persons at the bottom of the structure have their needs deprived disproportionately with those on higher levels. Within this context there are four aspects to structural violence that are introduced on page 93, but are expanded individually on page 199. Penetration and Segmentation are two aspects that are grouped together as ‘preventing conscience forming’ or inhibiting the development of a group identity (93 Galtung, 1996). Marginalization and Fragmentation are linked under the heading of ‘preventing mobilization’(93 Galtung, 1996); they are elements of process that are meant to perpetuate the status quo, that is, the condition of subservience of one group to another.

Helpfully Galtung also recognizes four steps to overcoming the four elements of structural violence. Confrontation is the first step, meaning confrontation on a conceptual level or ‘selecting an issue that encapsulates the general conflict’ (93 Galtung, 1996). It is tied to the ‘top dog within the underdog’ meaning of penetration (199 Galtung, 199) and is exemplified by recognizing the existence of inequality and affirming a target resolution, that for example – the removal of the ‘top dog’s’ influence from within the ‘underdog’. The struggle comes next. The struggle is a process that may take on any particular form. Galtung espouses the virtue of a Gandhian peaceful struggle; however, interpreting this concept analytically allows it to be applied to a much broader range of processes including attempts at a violent overcoming which of course applies to the actions of the RUF in Sierra Leone.

Decoupling and Recoupling follow, Decoupling is the separation of the ‘underdog’ from their dependence upon the recourses that are provided/controlled by the ‘top dog’. These resources maybe economic, military or political , for example, in the case of the RUF’s challenge to the Sierra Leonean state they managed economic and military independence initially with the support of Liberia, and the later by control of the diamond mines. However, the RUF did not manage broad based decoupling in a political sense: Despite its ‘vaguely populist agenda’ (562 Meredith, 2005) they were reduced to violent means of intimidation in order to scare the public into tacit acceptance of their legitimacy.

Recoupling represents a longer term goal of a ‘horizontal structure’ replacing the ‘vertical structure’ discussed above. Recoupling is referred to as ‘therapy for pathological structures’ which is a ‘long-haul problem’ in contrast to the ‘quick-fix’ of the initial step that is decoupling (94 Galtung, 1996). Galtung uses an analogy of an adolescent revolt against parents, where ‘horizontal links are built to others in the same situation (adolescent groups, ‘gangs’) a sub-culture emerges with entry of the younger and the exit of the older’ (95 Galtung, 1996). Recoupling is the most problematic of Galtung’s measures. Diana Francis in People, Peace and Power: Conflict Transformation in Action asserts that the RUF’s Principle purpose was merely to ‘gain control of the diamond fields of Kono for itself and for Taylor ’. Francis goes on to explain how ‘there was no ideology, no political strategy, behind the RUF, only the use of brute force’. Frances’ study hardly paints a picture of an altruistic rebellion seeking to overthrow the vertical structure of oppression for the betterment of the general public. This caveat however need not be a criticism of Galtung’s theory. Galtung’s discussion is of the ideal type, or theoretical measures, that are required for the over coming of a structurally violent regime. Recoupling isn’t always achievable and in Sierra Leone it is likely that this wasn’t really even an intended target of the RUF.

The UNDP’s process of ‘gradually shifting its emphasis from short-term stabilisation measures to transformative initiatives that address the origins of the conflict’ (UNDP, 2005) has been exclusively after the end of the conflict and is on-going. The ‘UNDP’s operational strategy focuses on three, inter-linked “practice areas”: recovery, governance and poverty reduction’ (UNDP, 2005). In Galtungian terms the aim’s of the UNDP would constitute a target of recoupling, its overriding purpose being the restructuring of the governance and the economy in a horizontal rather than vertical process in order to limit the capacity of any potential ‘top dog’ from instigating the four aspects of structural violence discussed above.

The greatest criticism of Galtung’s work is that the theoretical approach that he outlines is too generalized. Although, as noted above, Galtung’s concept is, perhaps purposely, designed to be broad and inclusive, however, where this falls short is that the guidance it provides is wide-ranging to an extent that it is not adequate for use on its own. For example: the tripartite concept of violence does not explicitly deal with is the relationship between the scale and severity of the direct violence and its relationship with the availability of the means to perform it. While Galtung doesn’t mean to say that structural violence always leads to a state of widespread direct violence it is clear from the evidence that it can. One example of a problem is elucidated with this example: In Sierra Leone there was prevalent access to small arms prior to the conflict and during the early stages of the war ‘weapons flowed freely around the country; in 1993 an AK47 could be bought for US $40’ (375 Francis, 1999). The problem of ease of access to small arms is one of the highest priority obstacles that UNOMSIL (United Nations Observer Mission in Sierra Leone) sought to overcome by enacting a disarmament programme that cost US $35 million (376 Francis, 1999). Galtung’s theoretical approach to overcoming structural violence does not deal with this problem. It perhaps seems obvious that restriction of arms is a basic step towards building a safer environment and while.

It can be argued that Galtung intends to create a system whereby even with arms readily available there is no cause for people to use them. Unfortunately this highlights another problematic area for the theory. Galtung identifies vertical structures as dangerous and explains the desirability of transforming them to horizontal structures. Again Galtung’s terminology leaves a great deal to be interpreted. Clearly even in countries where conflicts have ended, and the decoupling and recoupleing processes have occurred successfully, unless the state has ‘withered away’ in a Marxist sense surely while there is need for administration and security there will still be some form of state organization or hierarchy. Indeed many would agree that to the extent where adherence to the law is enforced, the state’s right to coerce should be maintained. In Sierra Leone, several nations involved in UNMOSIL, most notably the British, ‘took up key posts in government, the central bank and the police and began the task of rebuilding a national army. The UN peace-keeping force was increased to 18,000 one of the largest operations in the world’ (572 Meredith, 2005). In this context the apparatus of state has been improved and strengthened on behalf of President Kabbah’s government . Such enhancement of the state’s effectiveness surely counts as bolstering the Sierra Leonean government’s ability to be structurally violent.

Perhaps we may rectify this problem if we understand Galtung’s explanation of structural violence and direct violence as a framework to help understand the workings of power in a non-judgmental sense. However, Galtung’s own terminology distinguishes between ill states and healthy ones. He takes specific note of the difference between peace as an end to direct violence, and positive peace. In contrast to behaviorist John Paul Lederach, who in Preparing for Peace expounds a comprehensive definition of peace building which comprises of six aspects including a focus up on justice, development of opportunities and social empowerment (23 Lederach, 1996), Galtung fails to provide an object definition of positive peace. When put under greater scrutiny as we ask what precisely constitutes the difference between sick and healthy states, other than perhaps an arbitrary demarcation, the answer Galtung offers remains unclear.

Despite these criticisms Galtung’s concepts of violence is indeed a useful tool that provides the students of conflict with a framework and typology that extends beyond the traditional. The way that he divides up violence into three types helps us identify that the ever present cultural violence, the conflagration of direct violence are elements that cannot realistically be altered. He leads us to conclude that structural violence is the only arena of human behavior that can be dealt with in order to transform conflict.

Galtung, of course, was not writing a history of any particular conflict. Rather he is trying to outline the broad principles that are common throughout conflict in general. This paper notes therefore that no theoretical concept can tell the whole story. Within the case study of Sierra Leone there is room for different interpretations and Galtung’s is an enlightening model that can be applied. Galtung’s major flaw, however, is from the perspective of logical consistency. Having outlined a generalized non-judgmental framework for violence Galtung makes a profound moral judgment. He designates some aspects of structural violence to be attributable to sick states and some aspects as perfectly normal within healthy states. Galtung neither explains the difference between the two sides to this moral assertion, nor justifies the position he has taken. In conclusion, while certain serious theoretical questions should be asked regarding the stability of Galtung’s political philosophy, in a normative sense the structural theory and concept of structural violence provide an extremely useful guide to the Sierra Leonean conflict.


Adebajo, Adekeye. Building peace in West Africa: Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea-Bissau, Boulder, USA: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2002.

Adedeji Adebayo (ed.) Comprehending and Mastering African Conflicts London, United Kingdom: Zed Books, 1999.

BBC News, Country profile: Sierra Leone: Last Updated: Friday, 18 November 2005, 14:56 GMT (

Francis, Diana. People, Peace and Power: Conflict Transformation in Action, Australia: Pluto Press 2002

Galtung, Johan. Peace by Peaceful means: Peace and Conflict Development and Civilization, London, United Kingdom: SAGE Publications, 1996.

Hayward, Fred M. (Ed. Legum, Colin and Drysdale, John). ‘Sierra Leone’ African Contemporary Record 1990-1992 Vol. XXIII (1998)

Lederach, John Paul. Preparing for Peace: Conflict Transformation Across Cultures, New York, USA: Syracuse University Press, 1996.

Meredith, Martin. The State of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence Eastbourne, United Kingdom: Gardners Books, 2005.

UNDP in Sierra Leone: Post Conflict Transition and Beyond: Last Updated: Thursday, 15 December 2005 (


Philip JM Leech is a professor of International Relations at the University of Liverpool. He completed his PhD at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter and graduated with a distinction from a Master of Arts programme at Lancaster University’s Richardson Institute for Peace Studies. Phil has recently accepted a role as Editor-at-Large of BRISMES. His book, Building the Palestinian State: Drivers and Impediments, is forthcoming in 2015 (Ashgate Publishing).

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