While there is widespread agreement that the incidence of conflict in Africa is high, scholars and development agencies alike debate its driving forces and how to move toward solutions. Paul Williams, associate professor in the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University and collaborator with the Wilson Center’s Africa Program, recently published a book that aims to both quantify African conflicts and devise a framework of their causes. In War and Conflict in Africa, Williams evaluates which factors explain the frequency of conflict in Africa during the post-Cold War era and how the international community has tried to build peace and prevent future conflict.

Although there have been promising trends toward establishing peace and democracy in some African countries, the continent still accounts for about one-third of all armed conflicts annually – more than Europe, the Middle East, and the Americas combined. International responses to these events range from focused humanitarian and conflict resolution efforts, to new regional organizations and global strategic and defense partnerships. 

Seven of the 16 current UN peacekeeping missions operate in Africa, more than any other continent. The UK government has elected to spend nearly one-third of its development assistance in conflict-affected areas, and more than half of its “focus” countries are in Africa. In 2008, the Department of Defense created the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), whose commander, General Carter Ham, in a speech to Congress earlier this year, described “an insidious cycle of instability, conflict, environmental degradation, and disease that erodes confidence in national institutions and governing capacity,” as motivation for American military attention. “This in turn often creates the conditions for the emergence of a wide range of transnational security threats,” he said.

Evaluating the Ingredients of Conflict

Williams rejects earlier theses that attribute conflict across the continent to a single factor, such as the boundary legacies of colonialism, greed, or ethnicity. Instead, he characterizes African conflicts as “recipes” composed of case-specific mixes of factors, many of which are underlying and only some of which are sufficient triggers for conflict. “Collier is wrong,” Williams explained in an email interview. “Governance structures are always an important part of the buildup to war.”

Five “ingredients” of conflict are examined in-depth: neo-patrimonial governance structures; natural and human resources; sovereignty and self-determination; ethnicity; and religion. Among these, the book presents a fairly skeptical view of resources, ethnicity, and religion as immediate drivers of conflict. This assessment that environmental and identity issues are not sufficient to generate conflict on their own aligns with the book’s overarching argument: The decisions of political actors can instigate conflict or motivate peace from virtually any context, manipulating factors such as ethnicity and religion for their own advantage. 

Effects of Natural Resources Are “Open-Ended”

A widely publicized thread of peace and conflict studies posits that resources, either when scarce or abundant, have an important role in triggering wars. A 2009 UN Environment Programme report found that 40 percent of all internal conflicts since 1950 “have a link to natural resources.” Recent peer-reviewed research has suggested that certain environmental changes increase the likelihood of civil conflicts or are directly responsible for it. Yet the question remains a source of much debate. For his part, Williams asserts that natural resources alone are insufficient to cause conflict. 

War and Conflict in Africa presents several reasons that researchers and policymakers should avoid linking resources directly to conflict without considering the influence of intervening factors. Chief among them is that the value of any resource is socially constructed – no stone or river carries worth until humans decide so. Therefore, Williams argues that “it is political systems, not resources per se, that are the crucial factor in elevating the risk of armed conflict.”

The book suggests that two extant theories successfully demonstrate the connection between resources and conflict. The first body of research finds that conflict is more likely in regions that face a combination of resource abundance and a high degree of social deprivation. The second theory suggests that the link between resources and conflict lies in bad governance, whether exploitative or unstable. Both theories have explanatory power for Williams’s central line of thinking: Resources can be either a blessing or a curse, depending on leadership. 

“Inserted into a context where corrupt autocrats have the advantage, resources will strengthen their hand and generate grievances,” he writes (p. 93). “Inserted into a stable democratic system, they will enhance the opportunities for leaders to promote national prosperity.”

Population and the Environment

Williams does accede that particular resource factors – land and demography, for example – may play a more significant role than others in conflict, but calls for more research. In a brief discussion of population age structure, the book suggests that there is no single relationship between demography and conflict but multiple ways that the two can relate. Williams mentions the theory that “large pools of disaffected youth” with few opportunities can raise the risk of volatility. However, he then notes other research showing that the most marginalized members of certain African societies are less likely to participate in political protests and more likely to tolerate authoritarian rule than those who are better off.

“The most marginalized from society are the truly destitute without patrons and suffering from severe poverty. They may well be inclined to join an insurgency movement once it begins to snowball but they will not usually play a key role in establishing the rebel group in the first place,” Williams said. However, “any time there are large pools of poor and unemployed youth there is the potential for leaders to manipulate them.”

On environmental resources, the book argues that land should be a central feature of quantitative research on the relationship between resources and conflict. Most African economies continue to rely on agriculture, and Williams observes that land has been “at the heart” of many conflicts in the region through a variety of governance-related mechanisms relating to its management and control. He places less emphasis on water scarcity as a potential factor in conflict, noting that the 145 water-related treaties signed around the world in the past decade auger well for cooperation rather than competition.

Williams is also dubious of emerging arguments that climate change could directly increase the incidence of conflict, either through changing weather patterns or climate-induced migration. 

“Because armed conflicts are, by definition, the result of groups choosing to fight one another, any process, including climate change, can never be a sufficient condition for armed conflict to occur,” he argued. “Armed conflicts result from the conscious decisions of actors which might be informed by the weather but are never simply caused by it.”

No Simple Formula

Williams is not the only observer to find the narrative that resource shortage (or abundance) precipitates conflict too simplistic. His message to policymakers is a common refrain from academics and analysts seeking to counteract policymakers’ quest for simple formulas: We need more data. 

“When deciding how to spend our money, we need to spend more of it on developing systems which deliver accurate knowledge about what is happening on the ground, often in very localized settings,” Williams said. War and Conflict in Africa contributes to a more complex understanding of the political actors and systems that catalyze or prevent conflict and offers a cautionary tale to those who seek only proven, easy predictions.

Elizabeth Leahy Madsen is a consultant on political demography for the Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security Program and senior technical advisor at Futures Group. She was previously a senior research associate at Population Action International. Full disclosure: She was a graduate student of Paul Williams’ in 2007.

Sources: DFID, Englebert and Ron (2004), Ham (2011), Hsiang et al (2011), Kahl (1998), Leysens (2006),Østby et al (2009), Radelet (2010), Themnér and Wallensteen (2011), UNEP (2009), UN Peacekeeping, Williams (2011)

Image Credit: Conflicts in Africa 2000-09, reprinted with permission courtesy of P.D. Williams, 
War and Conflict in Africa (Williams, 2011), p.3.