Is Civil War in Africa Unique?

Paul Staniland raises important questions in his review of Philip Roessler’s latest book (highly recommended):

I just finished reading Philip Roessler’s excellent book for my graduate Civil War seminar. Already a fan of his 2005 piece on electoral violence, I learned a lot from the new book and highly recommend it. But, just as when reading major work by Will Reno, Reno and Chris Day, Jeremy Weinstein, Paul Collier, Jeffrey Herbst, and others, I had the reaction that “This looks nothing like the places I study.” At least in the stylized world of African politics presented in these projects (I have no idea if this is accurate), Hobbesian insecurity preys on all in the absence of any real institutions, ethnic balancing and calculation dominates any other form of politics, and regimes are held in place by fluid, shifting alignments with “Big Men” rooted in local power bases.

As a result, we get shambolic and weak central regimes prone to either coups or revolts, and rebels easily bought off by patronage or co-optation. Weinstein highlights the inability of ideological rebels to overcome waves of material resources that eliminate discipline or politics, Roessler’s regimes are simply what Skocpol calls an “arena” for political competition between social actors rather than possessing any institutions or interests autonomous from social forces, and Reno’s civil wars (with the exception of “reform rebels”) are simply a grim game of bargaining over patronage between states and insurgents that are more similar than different.

Is Africa that different?

Roessler, indeed, argues that Africa has a “unique institutional structure” in which external conflicts are rare and internal disorder common. If Africa is indeed unique, it is hard to know how arguments rooted in the African context can travel beyond Africa.

Read the whole thing here.

I would argue that there is not a uniquely African civil war story. Weak states everywhere, including in Africa, are gonna weak state.

A more useful analytical delineation is what Staniland suggests:

At minimum, I’m becoming increasingly convinced that research on civil war needs to become at least partially bifurcated into work on its dynamics in very weak states (the representation of African conflicts dominant in the literature, plus Afghanistan and a few others) versus those in medium-capacity states (India, Colombia, Indonesia, Russia, etc) that possess large, centrally controlled conventional an

Think of the Nigerian Civil War between 1967-1970. The Biafra War involved a relatively strong state facing a relatively well-organized and disciplined secessionist army — much in the mold of middle income conflicts. In the same vein, countries like Kenya and Ethiopia have managed to quell rebellions in Mt. Elgon & the south coast, and in the Ogaden, respectively, in ways that would look very familiar to Staniland.

Completely anarchic conflicts involving collapsing states and incoherent hyper-localized rebellions — your stereotypical African conflict, if you will — are a unique historical experience rooted in the states that did really fall apart in the late 1980s to early 1990s (pretty much in the midst of Africa’s continental economic nadir). It is instructive that these states were concentrated in the Mano River region and Central Africa, some of the regions worst affected by the socio-political challenges of Africa’s lost long decade (1980-1995). income

And given recent economic trends in Africa (see image), it is not surprising that conflicts are becoming rarer in Africa (much in line with Fearon and Laitin). I would also expect markedly different kinds of conflicts should they emerge. There is a reason Boko Haram has never posed an existential threat to the Nigerian state, very much in the same way that India’s Maoist rebels are a peripheral matter.

I always remind my students that the Africa they know is more often than not the Africa that existed between 1980 and 1995. We all need to update.

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European logging firms are financing rebels in CAR

According to Global Witness:

CAR’s trade in timber – the country’s number one official export – has assisted the war effort. Logging companies have paid millions of euros to armed groups to ensure that they can continue operating. Under the cover of conflict they have also been stripping out CAR’s rainforests.

Throughout this period, European companies have continued to offer CAR timber for sale on EU markets, which Global Witness believes violates the EU’s flagship timber law, the EU Timber Regulation.  China is another major market for CAR wood, but has no regulations in place that could help halt the import of illegal or conflict timber.

[youtube.com/watch?v=QAVhfaX78g4]

At some point in the video an officer in one of the French firms involved says:

“But it’s Africa. It’s so common we don’t pay attention. It’s not really a concern. It’s not a war where they attack white people. It’s not a war we have to avoid.”

This honest assessment of the situation in CAR highlights one of the reasons why wars in places like CAR or Liberia and Sierra Leone in an earlier time tend to be so intractable.

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

Research shows that sources of finance determine the industrial organization of rebel groups and their propensity to commit atrocities against civilians (see also here). The ready availability of shady firms like Tropica-Bois and Société d’Exploitation Forestière Centrafricaine (SEFCA) make it possible for rebel leaders to raise funds for their war effort in the international commodity market. This in turn makes it possible for them to buy arms and recruit locally, but without maintaining strong ties with the very communities in whose name they raise arms (call it the rebel’s resource curse). The resultant incentive system is one in which CAR warlords can obtain material benefit from the rents on illicit trade without capturing Bangui, as long as their maintain access to the global market of timber.

The Global Witness report adds to complaints about French intervention in the ongoing CAR conflict. In April news broke that more than a dozen French soldiers abused children in Bangui in exchange for food. The six children who came forward with the complaints were aged between eight and 15 and at the time lived in a center for displaced people in Bangui. The centre was under the care of French peacekeepers.

Tropica-Bois must be paying a lot of taxes to the French treasury, or oiling the electoral machines of key French politicians.

According to the UN Comtrade database  in 2013 wood comprised 40% of all commodity exports from CAR, second only to diamonds (45.8%).