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Famine and Gunpowder: Drivers of Rebellion in Sub-Saharan Africa

by Sonia Hoigerova

Poverty became one of the most discussed global issues and not surprisingly a mention about poverty reduction appears on regular basis in development programmes. Poverty is a multifaceted phenomenon which does not reflect only lack of material possession and inadequacy, however, also other issues regarding illiteracy, malnourishment, lack of health-care and education or a low life expectancy hand in hand with a high rate of mortality (Srinivasan, 2004: 5). The interest about the relationship between poverty and conflicts has grown since the beginning of the 1900’s due to the fact that post-Cold War era brought political changes that caused the shift in conflicts mainly to poor regions. Therefore, poverty is seen nowadays as a relevant link to conflicts.

Sub-Saharan Africa is one of the regions with visible consequences of the Cold War. Both East and West contributed to promoting conflicts after decolonization and supplied allied regimes with armaments. The scale of arms flows was enormous in order to retain affection. At the end of Cold War demobilization took place only partially and most of the equipment remained in the continent. The Powers lost interest and, without external support, African states were unable to provide the basic level of services for its citizens. Conflicts were spread around the continent, several states collapsed and became the sources of insecurity and threat for the whole region (DFID, 2001: 5-8).

Generally, the new era brought an increase of civil wars whereas wars among states were eliminated. Ethnic discrimination, rooted in colonial history, launched a series of genocides and ethnic-based conflicts characterized especially by massacres and atrocities committed on civilians (Enuka, 2012: 4). The so-called “new wars”, according to Kaldon (2013: 1-2), involve a blurring of distinction between war and crime. As the key features can be highlighted a role of various non-state actors who replaced traditional state armed forces, such as mercenaries, warlords or extremist groups. Financing is based on smuggling, kidnapping, pillage, trade with blood diamonds etc. Since battles are rare in new wars, the territory is captured by political means, through the control over civilians. Violence against them is a way of controlling and displacement is, therefore, a phenomenon that accompanies these conflicts. Last but not least, the goals are rather in name of identity than ideology or geo-politics.

Conventional wars were replaced by factional warfare. Conflicts in Africa hardly ever involve heavy weapons or new technology, on the contrary, the fact that small arms and light weapons (SALW) are easily available and low cost, allows to sustain conflict without any external support. Especially genocidal and ethnic fighting tends to be armed only with machetes and knives. Urban character cause that the number of civilian casualties has rapidly increased. It is stated that 90% of those dying are civilians. Extreme forms of violence, torture on women and children and mass raping are used as means of revenge and intimidation. What is more, indirect consequences such as famine, epidemic diseases or loss of infrastructure are burdens that negatively affect the post-conflict building of these areas. Some parts of Africa are constricted in conflict cycles due to the failures to consolidate peace or unwillingness of parties to settle disputes. Fragile peace is replaced by low-level crisis, escalates into open war and over again (DFID, 2001: 8-16).

These weapons have caused unspeakable death and suffering over the decades and remain a serious impediment to peace, security, stability, and development on the continent and globally.”

(Tarek A. Sharif, Head of the Defence and Security Division of African Union, 2016)

The availability of SALW is one of the major factors in fuelling and sustaining conflicts in Sub-Saharan Africa, uncontrolled access encourages violence instead of negotiations. Since non-state actors do not have a legal authority to bear and purchase arms, the only way is through black market and trafficking. Armament is also circulated from previous wars, captured from state institutions or with help of corrupt officials. According to Oxfam research (2017: 1-13), there are several unauthorized producers of SALW across Africa who due to limited regulations contribute to proliferation. Besides low-cost, these arms are easy to maintain, transport or hide and therefore, their control is more than difficult. In 2001 the UN convened a conference on the illicit trade in SALW, with the aim to set necessary steps how to prevent proliferation. Even though a number of the UN Resolutions and programmes was adopted, and various international organizations committed themselves to participate, SALW still symbolize a crucial element of African instability (Pytlak, 2017: 6-11).

The risk of civil wars is much higher in low-income countries and consequently these conflicts are concentrated in relatively few developing countries. Besides the low economic level, those governments failed to establish effective institutions and release from primary commodities dependence. They are caught in the conflict trap. According to Collier, once a country experienced a conflict, is in danger of further one. The risk of returning to conflict within 5 years is around 44%. Besides that, conflicts retard development and bring economic costs. It is stated that countries during civil war grow around 2.2% more slowly than during peace. Moreover, governments increase military expenditures and reduce the supply of public goods, hand in hand with destroyed physical infrastructure, it prolongs the process of remedy. Military spending remains high even during the post-conflict period (Collier et al, 2003: 1-14, 83).

Spill-over effect on neighbouring countries is another reason why Sub-Saharan Africa is caught in the poverty-conflict trap. The negative effect has a form of instability, disruption to trade, decrease of foreign investments, arms flow or flow of refugees. Due to the fact, that many African countries experience conflicts, other countries can expect the spill-over effect from several neighbour countries at once (Murdoch, Sandler, 2001: 1-2).

Another reason why conflicts in developing countries are so frequent is a tendency of local people to actively participate. Especially young people are easily recruited by rebel groups, driven by hunger and lack of good prospects in future (WFP, 2004).

“If they do not even know where their next meal is coming from, they become easy targets for those who recruit for terrorist groups.”

(Moris J., Executive Director, UN World Food Programme, 2004)

Humphreys and J. M. Weinstein (2008, 436-450) examined in the context of Sierra Leone’s civil war (1991-2002), what distinguishes those who decided to join the rebel group from those who defend status quo in the country. Commonly, belonging to a certain social class, ethnic or political grievances as well as the frustration of individuals who cannot express their concerns through nonviolent channels, are the main motives. Particularly, those who are economically deprived, tend to join a rebellion. On the contrary, those with relatively better economic position tend to support the current system. Individuals think that participation could produce public goods, pull factors such as money paid to recruits motivate them too. From the social point of view, individuals are more likely to participate if the rebel group is defined by shared values and beliefs and secondly, feeling that being inside is safer than being outside of the group. Living conditions given by the collapsed state played a crucial role in the expansion of the rebel army in Sierra Leone. On the other hand, it is necessary to specify that the testimonies showed in this particular case that most of the recruits were abducted and forced to join the rebel group.

Secondly, the same proof is provided by findings from the study Journey To Extremism by the UN Development Programme (2017: 4-6). The study is based on interviews with former recruits from various extremist groups across Africa (Boko Haram, ISIL, Al-Shabaab, etc.). The experts found the correlation between childhood unhappiness and future tendency to participate in rebellion, especially due to a low level of education and low experience with civil engagement during their lives. Indeed, given data also proved that living in poverty accompanied by unemployment make the individual liable to participate. On the contrary, those who study or work are less likely to follow extremist groups.

As mentioned above, in the case of Sierra Leone, the participation in the civil war was not a voluntary decision by individuals. Different findings arose from the UNDP study. For instance, taking into account particular conflicts in Sudan, Niger or Cameroon, the majority of recruits responded to join extremist groups voluntarily (UNDP, 2017: 23).

To conclude, there is a relevant correlation between poverty and conflict potential given by various aspects in Sub-Saharan Africa. First of all, the remains of colonialism and the following consequences of the Cold War paved the way for instability in these fragile states. Despite the effort by the UN and other actors to reduce poverty, while there is undoubtedly a great achievement on the global level[1], the progress in this part of Africa has been limited (UNDP, 2016). Extremism does not arise in a vacuum, but it is driven by various factors, besides religious aspects, arising from the low economic level. Those people are more likeable to voluntary joint extremist or rebel groups and participate in civil wars. Not surprisingly, the link between poverty and conflicts became a focal point, followed by the discourse how to balance investments in development and security (Dalrymple, 2016: 4).


[1] The number of people living in extreme poverty has dropped by more than half between years 1900-2015, from 1.9 billion to 836 million.



Collier, P., Elliott, V., Hegre, H., Reynal-Querol, M., Sambanis, N. (2003): Breaking the Conflict Trap, The WB Policy Report, pp. 1-14, 83., 4. 4. 2018.

Dalrymple, S. (2016): Investment in Peace and Security, Development Initiatives, pp. 4., 14. 4. 2

Department for International Development DFIN (2001): The causes of conflict in Sub-Saharan Africa, pp. 5-16., 4. 4. 2018.

Enuka, Ch. (2012): Post-Cold War Conflicts: Imperative for Armed Humanitarian Interventions, Global Journal of Human Social Science, Volume 12, Issue 9, Globa Journals Inc. (USA)., 6. 4. 2018.

Humphrey, M., Weinstein, J. M. (2008): Who Fights? The Determinants of Participation in Civil Wars, American Journal of Political Science, Vol. 52, 436-450., 7. 4. 2018.

Kaldon, M. (2013): In Defence of New Wars. Stability, International Journal of Security and Development, pp. 1-2., 6. 4. 2018.

Murdoch, J., Sandler, T. (2001): Economic Growth, Civil Wars, and Spatial Spillovers., 8. 4. 2018.

Oxfam (2017): The Human Cost of Uncontrolled Arms in Africa., 5. 4. 2018.

Pytlak, A. (2017): SALW: Africa, Religions for Peace, African Council of Religious Leaders, pp. 6-11., 5. 4. 2018.