Why has Africa had so much civil war? In all other regions of the
world the incidence of civil war has been on a broadly declining
trend over the past thirty years: but in Africa the long term trend
has been upwards. Of course, every civil war has its ‘story’
– the personalities, the social cleavages, the triggering
events, the inflammatory discourse, the atrocities. But is there
anything more? Are there structural conditions – social, political
or economic - which make a country prone to civil war? Might it
be that the same inflammatory politician, playing on the same social
cleavages, and with the same triggering events, might ‘cause’
war under one set of conditions and merely be an ugly irritant in
A boy works in a diamond mine under the control of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels in Sierra Leone, December 2001. (Jan Dago/Magnum Photos)
I am an Africanist, I like to set Africa in comparative perspective.
If Africa is different – as it clearly seems to be in respect
of civil war – there are two possible types of explanation.
Africans could simply behave differently from others when faced
with the same situation. Alternatively, for a given situation their
behaviour could be much like anyone else’s, but the situations
they face could be systematically different. To sort this out we
need to look globally, not just regionally. Together with Anke Hoeffler,
I have analyzed global data covering the last forty years, trying
to see why most countries at most times have avoided civil war,
while others have not. Our approach has been statistical –
trying to see whether any characteristics of a society could account
for a subsequent eruption into war. Within the limits of data availability,
we have tried to include social factors (such as inequality, and
the ethnic and religious composition of a society), history (such
as the time since decolonization), and politics (such as the extent
of democratic political rights) as well as economic characteristics.
We find a pattern and we find that Africa fits that pattern.
Roots of Civil War
the dominant factors are economic. Three factors matter a lot for
the risk of civil war: the level of income, its rate of growth,
and its structure. If a country is poor, in economic decline, and
is dependent upon natural resource exports, then it faces a substantial
risk that sooner or later it will experience a civil war. Typically,
such a country runs a risk of around one-in-seven every five years.
Like Russian roulette, things might go well for a while, but then
some conjunction of circumstances – the personalities, the
triggering events – ignite violent conflict. Of course, when
this happens, the media focus on the personalities and the triggering
events. These are indeed the proximate ‘cause’ of the
conflict. But the big brute fact is that civil war is heavily concentrated
in countries with low income, in economic decline, and dependent
upon natural resources.
is the one region where such economic characteristics are the norm
and this fully explains Africa’s distinctive incidence of
civil war. Yes, Africa is riven by ethnic differences, so that where
civil wars flare up they will invariably be fought along ethnic
lines. But this does not mean that the ethnic differences are ‘causing’
the conflict. Globally, ethnically diverse societies are no more
at risk of civil war than other societies. The only exception to
this pattern is where the largest ethnic group is in a majority
– that does indeed increase risks and we can think of examples
in Africa. But Africa is so ethnically diverse that in most societies
no group is in a majority. Fewer African societies have ethnic majorities
than other regions.
respect of the three economic characteristics, Africa is most distinctive
in terms of natural resource dependence. Africa as a region still
has a much higher ratio of land to population than other regions,
and natural resources are basically randomly distributed under the
land. Further, for various reasons, Africa has not managed to break
into the global market for manufactures. Whereas twenty years ago
the typical developing country was dependent upon natural resource
exports, now 80% of developing countries’ exports are manufactures.
Africa has thus got stuck in resource dependence while other developing
regions have moved on. Why does this matter?
Natural Resources Fuel Conflict
resources generate what economists term ‘rents’ –
meaning profits that are much higher than the minimum level needed
to keep the activity going. The trouble from natural resources stems
from these rents. There are six routes by which natural resource
rents increase the risk of violent conflict; four relate to political
economy and two are straight economics.
start with the political economy. The most obvious route is that
natural resource rents are a ‘honey pot’. Politics comes
to be about the contest for control of these revenues. This produces
a politics of corruption – aided and abetted by foreign corporate
behavior – and sometimes directly a politics of violence.
The stakes are highest in low-income countries because the control
of the state implies massive revenues relative to other income-earning
opportunities. Further, this politics of rent-seeking diverts the
public arena from its normal function of achieving the collective
action that is necessary to supply public goods – the social
and economic infrastructure that all societies need. The society
thus loses out twice over: in the struggle for resource rents other
resources are dissipated, and the supply of public goods declines.
Nigeria provides a striking example of such a politics of contest
for oil rents.
second route by which natural resource rents increase the risk of
war is through the detachment of government. Because resource-rich
governments do not need significant other tax revenues they become
detached from their electorates. In most societies, because electors
have to pay high taxes, they scrutinize the government to see how
it uses their money. This was indeed how democracy developed in
the West. The campaigning slogan ‘no taxation without representation’
can be inverted to the depressing reality of ‘no representation
without taxation’. In many resource-rich societies the resource
rents are not seen as belonging to ordinary people in the same way
as income taken from them in taxes – hence the detachment.
The government is able to ignore the concerns of the population.
Mobuto’s Zaire was a classic example of such detachment.
At the Sunday market in Rubaya, in the Kivu region of the Democratic Republic of Congo, miners sell a highly lucrative powder called coltan which is used by U.S., European and Canadian manufacturers of chips for cellular phones and computers. 2003.
(Alex Majoli/Magnum Photos)
when neither of these first two effects directly leads to a civil
war, they produce between them a dangerous cocktail of a dysfunctional
politics of self-interest and a governing elite that is detached
from the concerns of ordinary people. These two characteristics
then combine with a third dangerous factor: natural resources are
usually found in only part of the country, often in a peripheral
area. The people who live in this area are ready prey for secessionist
political movements. To the usual romantic propaganda of identity
politics, secessionist leaders can add the powerful language of
economic self-interest: ‘our’ resources are being squandered
by a corrupt and alien elite. Large natural resource rents not only
make civil war more likely, they make it more likely that a civil
war will be secessionist. Biafra, Katanga, Cabinda: Africa’s
secessionist wars have usually been related to natural resources.
final political economy route by which natural resources increase
the risk of civil war is that they provide an obvious source of
finance for rebel groups. Even if the rebellion is not motivated
by these rents it is greatly facilitated by them: from the proceeds
leaders can purchase arms and pay recruits. Warfare is a costly
business: whereas thirty years ago rebel groups largely had to depend
upon a friendly government for finance and armaments, now rebellion
has been ‘privatized’ – markets in natural resources
and armaments have developed to the extent that rebel groups can
be self-sufficient. Rebel groups gain access to natural resource
rents in several ways. One is to run protection rackets against
the companies or people who are the exporters. Another is directly
to operate extractive businesses. Yet another is to sell concessions
to mineral rights in anticipation of subsequent control of the territory.
The prolonged viability of UNITA in Angola and the RUF in Sierra
Leone; the violent gangs of the Nigerian Delta; and the successful
rebellions of Laurent Kabila in Zaire and of Denis Sassou-Nguesso
in Congo Brazaville, were all assisted by one or the other of these
methods of natural resource financing.
addition to these political economy effects there are two economic
effects that increase the risk of civil war. Resource rents appreciate
the real exchange rate causing ‘Dutch disease’, whereby
the rest of the export economy contracts. Usually in Africa the
non-resource export economy is based on agriculture, so that small
farmers in some areas face sharply declining income despite the
influx of wealth into the economy. Finally, the prices of natural
resources are usually highly volatile, so that the economy becomes
subject to booms and busts. This pattern typically depresses the
long term growth rate, and it also implies periods of severe contraction.
Recall that economic decline is itself a risk factor for civil war.
It Have to be Like This?
these six routes, to date natural resources have largely been bad
news for Africa. But it doesn’t have to be like that. Revenues
from natural resources are an enormous opportunity for low-income
African economies. Especially for landlocked countries with hostile
climatic conditions, such as Chad, natural resources probably offer
the only option for significant poverty reduction. This is the dilemma:
resource rents have the potential for good as well as for bad. The
strategy of saying ‘just leave the resources in the ground’
sacrifices the potential for good as the price of avoiding the bad.
Historically, such a strategy would usually have been an improvement
on what actually happened. But, as well as being a counsel of despair,
it is unrealistic. As a result of the geo-politics of oil, there
is a rush of new discoveries in small, poor African countries –
Equatorial Guinea, Mauritania, Sao Tome and Principe, Gambia. These
resources are not going to be left in the ground. The challenge
for both Africa and the international community is to change the
political and economic governance of such resources so that the
future is not a repetition of the past.
June 2004: under tight security, a Congolese miner in the jungle town of Mubi,
bags raw chunks of cassiterite, the base element of tin.
(Finbarr O'Reilly / Reuters Picture Archive)
contrasting examples help to bring the issues into focus. Thirty
years ago Botswana and Sierra Leone had the same level of per capita
income. Then they both received enormous diamond income. The government
of Botswana succeeded brilliantly in harnessing these revenues for
economic growth: for many years Botswana was not just the fastest
growing economy in Africa, it was the fastest growing economy in
the world. As a landlocked desert, it is easy to imagine Botswana’s
fate in the absence of diamonds. Sierra Leone had a dramatically
different experience. The diamond revenues fomented violent political
contests which destroyed the society. The economy collapsed, and
now the country is at the bottom of the Human Development Index.
The differential between the two countries in terms of per capita
income is now an astonishing ten-to-one. The economic and political
governance of natural resource revenues was evidently absolutely
vital in producing this massive divergence in outcome. In short,
although policies and governance always matter, they matter much
more where there are large natural resource rents. Africa needs
more Botswanas and fewer Sierra Leones: which of them will Equatorial
Guinea, Sao Tome and Principe, Mauritania, and Gambia resemble two
African Societies Can Help Themselves
I was a citizen of an African natural resource economy I would want
to know how to become Botswana and to avoid the fate of Sierra Leone.
I think that the magic ingredient that makes the difference is scrutiny
of government by the country’s citizens. Unfortunately, scrutiny
is a ‘public good’ – that is, if it is provided,
the whole society benefits. The incentives for individual action
are thus all wrong – basically, the smart thing to do is to
sit back and hope that someone else goes to the trouble of providing
public goods such as scrutiny. Societies need ‘collective
action’ to overcome the public goods problem and because Africa’s
societies are so highly diverse –more ethnically diverse than
anywhere else in the world - they find it unusually difficult to
supply public goods at the national level.
course, people and groups lobby the government, but overwhelmingly
this lobbying is not for the national interest but for individual
or group advantage. But there are ways around this problem. In an
ethnically diverse society it is probably much easier to organize
scrutiny at the local or regional level than at the national level
– at the local level ethnicity is likely to unite people in
collective action, just as at the national level it is likely to
divide them and frustrate collective action. If the rents from natural
resources could be transparently and fairly distributed to sub-national
levels of government there is some hope that such governments would
come to face serious citizen scrutiny. The challenge is to get to
this stage where rents accruing at the national level are seen to
be fairly distributed to the regions.
Right Agenda for Outsiders
is where the rest of us come in – those of us who are not
African citizens and so have little basis to tell African governments
what they should and shouldn’t be doing. What we can legitimately
do is to make it easier for African citizens to get to the stage
at which they can overcome their collective action problem and scrutinize
how resource rents are used at the local level. Specifically, we
can help to make natural resource rents transparent at the national
level. This has been the agenda of NGOs such as Global Witness –
now picked up by the British government’s Extractive Industries
Transparency Initiative – and I think that it is the right
agenda. At least, it is the right agenda for us. Transparency in
reporting revenues is itself only an input into scrutiny –
it makes domestic scrutiny easier. It doesn’t make it happen
automatically, but without transparency in revenues there can be
no scrutiny of how they are used.
key area for international action is that banks should be required
to cooperate in tracking down misappropriated natural resource rents.
For example, the Nigerian government has recently abandoned the
attempt to repatriate the vast Abacha wealth from London banks because
the process was proving to be an unending legal nightmare. What
is the incentive for African societies to scrutinize their leaders
if corrupt wealth is so well-defended by Western legal systems?
area for international action is the acquisition of natural resource
contracts. Too often Western corporations have connived with African
political leaders to reach deals that were mutually profitable at
the expense of the country. Transparent competitive tendering must
become the norm. When North Sea oil concessions were awarded we
would not have tolerated an oil company concluding a secret private
deal with a minister; we should not tolerate such a practice in
to my mind, is the agenda for corporate social responsibility in
Africa: transparency in bidding for resource concessions; transparency
in revenue payments to governments; and cooperation by banks in
tracking misappropriation of rents. Sadly, it is far from the currently
dominant agenda. International resource extraction companies live
in terror of two powerful forces – Western consumers who may
boycott their products; and the local people living around their
installations, who may kidnap employees and damage equipment. They
have responded to Western consumer pressure – itself based
on a lazy, teenage misdiagnosis of Africa’s ills – by
trying to look like good employers and good environmentalists. They
have responded to local extortion rackets by providing health and
education facilities in the neighborhood of their installations.
Frankly, both of these are at best irrelevant. High wages mess up
the labour market and so cost jobs; it is governments, not companies,
that should be supplying basic social services. What has got lost
is the legitimate, indeed essential role that companies can play
in helping African societies to scrutinize their governments. Corporate
social responsibility in Africa must be radically redefined.