Africa Civil War Causes Essay


Post-Colonial African Conflict

            After World War II, the people of Africa fought to end the effects of European imperialism to achieve political independence and reclaim African culture. After many years of being controlled by Europeans, Africa gradually gained independence following World War II. However, tensions caused by artificial political boundaries established by European powers failed to reflect tribal and religious divisions. The newly-born African states were unstable and struggled to deal with these conflicts, often resulting in civil wars and genocide. During this struggle, Africa received very little support from the rest of the world to either develop African economies or governments. Currently, the people of Africa are still attempting to solve several conflicts. Although 19th century European imperialism was a major factor in causing the political weakness within African states, the solution to Africa’s continuing political, economic, and social conflicts is in the hands of the Africans themselves.

            Under European imperialism, the African standard of living was extremely low. Colonial control forced the Africans to go through several hardships. Due to the extensive cost of World War II, England and several other mother countries struggled with their economies. Also, the African people were getting sick of the harsh treatment and cruelty. The Europeans claimed that they were helping Africa become civilized, but in fact were doing the opposite. They were taking the African resources for their own benefit (Nkrumah par 1). Africa has many resources; including diamonds, cocoa, and rubber (Nkrumah par 4). The first leader of independent Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, encouraged a strong, unified state to bring prosperity to Africa (Nkrumah par 5).  Nkrumah once said, “Only a strong political union can bring about full and effective development of our natural resources for the benefit of our people.” Because the Europeans controlled the agricultural aspects, African people suffered from poverty. Even though poverty was widespread among the Africans, the Europeans still imposed an extremely harsh tax (Mandela par 1). Nelson Mandela was an African leader who fought for African independence and equality. He encouraged the Africans to refuse to work for the Europeans just to receive poor pay (Mandela par 6). Africans were forced to work in mines (gold, diamonds, and coal), on farms, and at industrial based occupations (Mandela par 2). Mandela said that hardship, sacrifice, and militant action will result in freedom (Mandela par 10). Mandela himself sacrificed much of his life to help Africa become independent. He spent twenty-seven years in prison for leading groups that opposed imperialism (“Africa” par 1). Mandela tried to spread the awareness of the inequality and brutality of the Europeans. He explained that when the Africans were jailed and given a trial, the trial was not by any means fair (Mandela par 13). Another African nationalist leader, Jomo Kenyatta, backed up Mandela’s explanation by using a unique African story to create an analogy. This story uses jungle animals to portray the corrupt trials (Kenyatta par 6). Kenyatta explains that trials were not trials by peers, but the council was strictly made up of Europeans (Kenyatta par 4). The African people were fed up with inequality and discrimination that they faced. These nationalist leaders and groups combined with the European economic failure, resulted in gradual independence for the African people.

From the mid-1900s to 1994, African states escaped imperialism and gained independence.  Due to conflicts during the Cold War, tension between the USSR and the United States in Egypt, the United States interfered on the Egyptian side. The United States did this so the USSR wouldn’t get involved. The United States interference increased their power in Africa. As a secondary result, France and Britain’s power was decreased. This helped led to African independence (“Independent Africa and the Cold War” par 2). Also, to challenge the USSR who was looking for allies in Africa, the United States supported anti-communist independence movements. During the Cold War, the United States was trying to prevent the stop of communism and Soviet ways (Kte’pi par 7). The USSR also helped independence movements. They did this by sending military help and money (“Independent Africa and the Cold War” par 3). All of these events in the Cold War helped Africa gain independence. In 1951, Libya, with support from the United Nations, became the first independent African state.  In the next few years, countries such as Sudan and Tunisia followed (Desanker par 2). On April 27, 1994, apartheid ended in South Africa when Mandela was elected (“Archbishop Desmund Tutu” par 7).  Although the Africans were greatly relieved to finally be free, conflicts left over from the long-lasting colonial rule still affected the African economic, political and social aspects. The economy of post-colonial Africa was the worst conflict left by the Europeans (“Africa” par 2). In the 1960s and 1970s, attempts were made to implement economic systems, such as socialism and capitalism (Desanker par 6). These attempts usually failed because the economy could not support them. Conflicts increased in the 1970s when prices of African products decreased and debt increased. Also in the 1970s, the Africans also greatly suffered from disease. In this time period, a disease known as Ebola killed thousands of people. More recently, the number of Africans affected by Aids has greatly increased (Desanker par 7). Two thirds of the people who die from HIV/Aids are African people. Along with a poor economy and several diseases, Africa struggled, and still does today, with food and water. The people faced illness due to the lack of clean water available. Additionally, famines have occurred in 2010, in the West African region and in 2011, in the Horn of Africa (“Africa” par 2). For the African political aspects, colonial rule was so extensive that the Africans didn’t really know how to run governments effectively. Most African states turned to military dictatorships. In some cases, the military overthrew the government (Desanker par 5). Dictatorships and authoritarian governments were put into place to solve the lasting ethnic, religious, and tribal conflicts (“Africa” par 2).

The many different cultures and ethnicities of Africa led to conflicts over the boundaries drawn by the Europeans. The African culture was simply pushed away by the Europeans, who forced the Africans to follow Western beliefs. The Europeans neglected to respect the different tribes and their religious views. This is significant because civil wars and violence will last long after imperialism. For example, civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo erupted in 1998 due to ethnicity conflicts. It lasted for five years and ended in 2003 (Desanker par 7). Along with the Congo, Sudan, Angola, Chad and Somalia had many years of violence “armed conflict” and violence (“Africa” par 2). In Angola, civil war was caused by natural resource and ethnicity differences (Ziliotto par 6). This civil war resulted in over one million dead (Ziliotto par 10). As for Sudan, it was a civil war caused by lasting cultural problems from the 1800s. So far, about two million people have died from this internal war. However, charges of genocide are occurring now (“Civil Wars” in Africa par 5).

In Algeria, conflicts arose from the reinstatement of dominant Islam. After colonial rule, Algeria faced many political problems (“Algeria Cracks Down” par 7). In search of a way to prosper, some Algerians wanted to return to an Islamic state (“Algeria Cracks Down” par 8).  However, in 1992, the elections were revoked when the Islamic party won the election. Civil war erupted when the military took over (Catherwood and Horvitz par 1). During the civil war, tremendous acts of genocide were committed. Extreme Islamists tortured, raped and massacred many people. Like Sudan, trials went on for many years after the war (Catherwood and Horvitz par 2). The government of Algeria is trying to resolve their conflicts and prevent this situation from occurring again (Catherwood and Horvitz par 4). The Algerian president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, said, “Reconciliation, in my view, must protect us from experiencing once again the two evil phenomena of terrorist violence and extremism, which brought us misfortune and destruction.”  

With European imperialism, diffusion of religions and the dismissal of African traditional beliefs occurred. The Africans were introduced to Christianity and Islam. These were two religions that grew in Africa quickly and replaced animism and other African cultures. The Europeans tried to convert as many people as they could. Occasionally, the Africans would mix the aspects that they liked of the Western religion with their traditional religion. This is important because it created completely new religions for the Africans (“Religion in Modern Africa par 2).  However, Islam and Christianity still spread greatly because the conflicts in Africa made the African people believe that their traditional religions weren’t working (“Christianity in Africa” par 3). Even though the religions are still spreading, Islam is spreading at a faster rate than Christianity. Islam is dominant in North and the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean range. This is because it was brought by the Europeans in early development (“Religion in Modern Africa par 3). On the other hand, Christianity is dominant in sub-Saharan Africa, Ethiopia, Western coast, and in South Africa (“Religion in Modern Africa par 4). This rivalry between the two religions has and continues to bring violence. A threatened feeling has gone back and forth. (“Religion in Modern Africa par 5). This conflict is harmful to the African society. Many Muslims have parts in many aspects of the economy and transportation (“Islam in independent Africa” par 2). Additionally, several Muslims hold significant places in politics (“Islam in independent Africa” par 3). Non-Muslims have begun to worry about the recent growth of Muslim power and “religious radicalism” (“Islam in independent Africa” par 7). This goes for the Christians as well. Many Africans still follow Christian faith and believe that Christianity has the ability to resolve Africa’s conflicts (Phiri par 7). This is ironic because differences in religions and cultures have caused several internal African problems.

Due to tensions between tribes and favoritism by the Belgian colonists, violence and revolts have resulted in genocide in Rwanda. In Rwanda, the Hutu and Tutsi tribes have fought for many years. They’re quite similar, which makes historians question why these tribes have been rivals for so long. The Hutu and Tutsi share the same language and traditions (Straus par 2). However, they have slightly different views on agriculture and cattle. The Tutsi see the cattle as a symbol of wealth (“Tutsi” par 1). Other than that, the tribes share many of the same characteristics. Tensions arose when Belgians took control of the country. The Belgians favored the Tutsis, even though the Hutu were the majority. In the 1990s, eighty-five percent of Rwanda was Hutu (“The Rwandan Genocide” par 2). The Belgians characterized the Hutus and Tutsis by simple categories. These categories included intelligence and appearance (Destexhe par 8). Because of the Belgian favoritism, the Tutsi tribe had several advantages over the Hutus. The Tutsi people had a higher social status, which meant that they were leaders/rulers (“Tutsi” par 1). Additionally, most of the Rwandan schools taught Tutsi education. The Belgians attempted to justify the inequality by blaming the Hutu “passivity” (Destexhe par 9). By 1959, the Hutu tribe was well fed up with this imbalance. This discontent among the Hutu resulted in 300,000 Tutsi people to flee Rwanda. In 1961, the Tutsi leader was put into exile and a Hutu republic was created (“The Rwandan Genocide” par 2). In July 1962, Rwanda gained independence from the Europeans. After independence, the Hutu continued to revolt against the Tutsis. Many Tutsi were killed and many more continued to flee due to these revolts (Straus par 3). In 1973, a Hutu leader, Juvenal Habyarimana, became president of Rwanda (Straus par 4). Under Habyarimana, the Tutsis who fled to Uganda during the Hutu revolts were not allowed to return to Rwanda. These Tutsis formed the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), which would play a major role against the Hutu (“Tutsi” par 2). Shortly after creation, the RPF attempted to regain power by attacking the Hutu government (Straus par 4). In August 1993, a transition government was formed, including the RPF (“The Rwandan Genocide” par 4). However, this was only temporary peace. On April 6, 1994, a plane containing Habyarimana and the president of Burundi, Ntaryamira, was shot down. This caused the Hutu extremists, government officials, and civilians to murder many Tutsis and any fellow Hutus who sided with the Tutsis (Straus par 5). In the next three months, 800,000 Rwandans were massacred. By July, the RPF controlled the government of Rwanda. Over 2 million Hutus fled Rwanda to Zaire and other countries (“The Rwandan Genocide” par 6).  To prevent more distress, a coalition government was formed with a Hutu, Pasteur Bizimungu as president and a Tutsi, Paul Kagame as vice president (“The Rwandan Genocide” par 7). 

As these acts of genocide and human rights violations occurred, the rest of the world basically turned a blind eye to Rwanda. In some cases the Europeans deliberately left acts of genocide happen. For example, France was allies with Habyarimana so they let some Hutus who committed genocide get away. Eventually, world organizations stepped in to take care of the situation. However, by the time aid was supplied, the genocide was already over with (“The Rwandan Genocide” par 8). Trials were held in 1995 for over a decade and a half to punish those who participated in this genocide. In 2008, three Rwandan officials who took part were convicted (“The Rwandan Genocide” par 10). In Rwanda and many other countries, the Africans struggled to maintain peace on their own and received very little aid from the rest of the world.

Overall, the international response to the African conflicts was unbelievably poor. Even though many African countries joined the United Nations after independence, the United Nations failed to provide significant help. For example, even though the U.N. did resolve problems in Congo, the organization didn’t even attempt to prevent republic governments from falling into anarchy (Nkrumah par 10). Overall, the United Nations interferences were either successes or failures (“United Nations” par 6). In Somalia, their interference was indeed a failure. In 1992-1993, the United Nations only caused additional problems in Somalia. The U.N. led by the United States attempted to use force to suppress “confrontations.”  The people of Somalia misinterpreted the aid as the United States simply trying to intervene in their business (“United Nations” par 9). Another failure included the Rwandan genocide. For some reason, the Security Council would not allow the United Nations intervene in the genocide. However, in late 1994, the United Nations created a special court of justice against the starters of this tremendous genocide (Straus par 7). Additionally, the United Nations did manage to send 5,500 soldiers, but could not end the genocide. The Africans felt “betrayed” because even the organization couldn’t stop the murders (“United Nations” par 10). Although there were many failures, some successes, such as in Namibia came from the United Nations interference in Africa. The United Nations helps economic, social and sustainable African development (“United Nations” par 11). Each African country has a development program that brings resources and more. (“United Nations” par 12). Overall, the general lack of international response has left the Africans to resolve their conflicts on their own.

Today, the African people are still in the process of addressing the economic, social, and political conflicts of the continent. In 1990, the Organization of African Unity (OAU) was formed to maintain peace in Africa (“Organization of African Unity” par 7). A second goal of was to help solve economic situations. In 1997, the members of this organization created the African Economic Community to create “regional partnerships” (“Organization of African Unity” par 8).  The OAU also helped prevent human rights violations and end civil wars (“Organization of African Unity” par 9). Although the organization was beneficial, it could not help to its full potential due to financial issues. The result of this was the suggestion by Libya’s ruler, Muammar Qaddafi, to form a new group. So, in September 2001, the African Union (AU) was formed. The goal of this new organization was to support and spread the voice of the African people. The African Union has greatly benefited the Africans and has fought the problems of modern Africa. An example of this is the attempts by the AU to fight Islamic terrorism that is planted in Africa. Before the AU, the Organization of African Unity attempted to stop this terrorism. In 1999, the OAU created the Convention on the Prevention and Combating of Terrorism (“Terrorism in Africa” par 8). This counterterrorism is continued when the OAU developed into the African Union. However, the use of new technology, such as cellphones and Internet has allowed terrorism to grow not only in Africa, but around the world (“Terrorism in Africa” par 9).

The growth of terrorism and the continuation of Africa’s conflicts could be linked to the lack of beneficial leaders after Africa gained independence. One of the problems of the African leaders is that they are selfish. They have no desire to share political power. Two of these recent leaders would be a Sudan leader, Omar al-Bashir, and Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe (Ayitley par 1). Only 20% of African leaders since 1960 have actually been successful (Ayitley par 3). In 2002, African children describe the leaders as unbeneficial for education and health (Ayitley par 4).  This is important because those children are the next generation after the selfish dictators. The children saw that they have to make changes to the society. The chair of the AU commission, Alpha Oumar Konare said, “Africa is suffering a crisis of leadership.” This is true because the African people need a leader who will reform the African society and lead the Africans to prosperity. The Africans must see the changes that are necessary. President Mogae said, “It is Africa’s own responsibility to achieve her full potential.”  The Africans need to see the accuracy in this quote. If the Africans can unite to solve their conflicts, Africa can prosper tremendously.

      The people of Africa must take matters into their own hands to achieve their goal of a stable unified state. Africa made progress when they gained independence from the Europeans. However, they were set back after this milestone due to the boundaries set by the Europeans that left a tension between the different ethnicities and religions. Civil wars and mass murders resulted from this lasting tension. With no worldwide aid, it was nearly impossible to unify Africa and make it strong and stable. Unfortunately, Africa is still struggling after numerous efforts to create stability. Africa’s struggle and conflicts are significant because of Africa was stable and prosperous, the rest of the world would also benefit, along with Africa and its people. 

Anonymous Student. "Post-Colonial African Conflict" Study Notes, LLC., 06 Sep. 2015. Web. 13 Mar. 2018. <>.

Why Have West African States Been So Prone to Conflict Over the Past Generation?

The history of West Africa is a series of conflicts: Most of the states have seen civil wars (Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea-Bissau, Ivory Coast), coups d’état (Gambia, Niger, Guinea) as well as ethnic and religious clashes (Benin, Nigeria, Mali) since gaining independence. Moreover, poverty, political despotism, corruption and foreign interference have turned ‘the dreams of an economically integrated and politically united West Africa into a living nightmare for most of its citizens’ (Adebajo, 2002: 39). Outstandingly brutal and violent was the era after the Cold War, when several countries experienced destructive civil wars on their soil. Thus, this essay will shed light on the question why West African states have been so prone to conflict over the past generation.

For the purpose of this essay, conflict is defined as different groups striving for contradictory goals (Ibid: 2). According to the United Nations, West Africa includes 16 countries: Benin, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Ivory Coast, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Togo (United Nations Statistics Division, 2012). The past generation refers to the post-Cold War period; from the end of the 1980s until today.

The causes for West Africa’s tendency to conflict are diverse and highly interlinked: Jackson talks about the accumulation of political, economic, structural, historical and cultural factors (2006: 22) and Williams emphasises, that there is not a single element to blame for (2011: 5). This essay will argue that West African states have been so prone to conflict after the Cold War because of weak state structures and the politics of ruling elites to secure their power, causing grievances among the population.

The argument will be illustrated on the basis of the cases of Sierra Leone and Liberia. Their ways to civil war include several factors, which partially play a role in different conflicts of other West African countries: underdeveloped economies, unstable and feeble political institutions and external vulnerability lead to the erosion of the state. This is worsened by the distrust and scepticism of the population towards the state, because it was imposed by the colonial powers on to the natives. The latter are not attached to this construct as they are culturally and historically accustomed to tribe structures (Ellis, 2007: 32). This environment enables greedy individuals or groups to seek power and maintain it, often through violence, in order to strive for private gain rather than the well being of their people. Thus, greed-motivated power elites in the context of already weak states cause a spiral of hatred and violence: mismanagement, unjust distribution of goods and exploitation of vulnerable economies lead to poverty, for example through unemployment. The majority of the people suffer without having the chance to raise demands peacefully. That drives them easily into the arms of forces, which seek to (violently) oppose the ruling elite (Hegre et al.: 2009: 602). Moreover, ethnic, religious and social divisions, partly from pre-colonial times, fuel the resentments between different groups or are deliberately used to fuel them. Another factor that plays an important role is resource wealth: it tends to protract conflicts (Ross, 2004b: 346). On the one hand, the ruling elite for personal enrichment exploits natural resources. On the other hand, they are used by rebels to finance their movement and vindicate violence.

This essay is divided into three parts: part one clarifies the political and societal situation in Sierra Leone and Liberia before the civil wars, explaining the causes that led to the onset of the conflicts. The rebel forces, their way to violence and their goals in the wars, are described in detail in the second part. The third one concentrates on the war economies and the impact of natural resources on the conflicts.

Pre-1990s: Weak States and Greedy Elites

Sierra Leoneans and Liberians, who were born in the decades after independence, have never experienced anything but violence. Thus, the civil wars of the post-Cold War era were only a more brutal and bloody continuation of the previous decades, reacting to bad governance, despotic rule and the exploitation of the people (Adebajo, 2002: 15). The Liberian civil war lasted from 1989 to 2003 with a less violent period between 1996 and 1999. The Sierra Leonean civil war was spilled over from its warring neighbour in 1991 and ended in 2002 (Keen, 2005: 36, 267).

African countries in general are caught in a ‘classic dilemma’: they lack the resources to establish a reliably functioning state administration, which in turn hinders the acquisition of those resources. Thus, its legitimacy is undermined. Along with the disinclination of the people towards the state, as they are used to another societal order, the basis for a strong state is not provided. This contributes to the aims of elites who take office in order to gain and increase private wealth (Ibid: 9). Although the existing structures enable unscrupulous individuals and groups to come into power, they also limit the rulers’ possibilities to keep up their appearance of sovereignty. Because of that, they need to find other sources to maintain power. These ‘survival strategies’ lead directly to violent conflict: the state is reduced to a skeleton that cannot exercise its core functions, notably it fails to protect its people, deepening their grievances (Jackson, 2006: 22-23). The cases of Sierra Leone and Liberia perfectly demonstrate that.

Siaka Stevens and his successor Joseph Momoh ruled Sierra Leone like their personal fiefdom from 1968 until a military coup in 1992 (Williams, 2011: 68). Reno created the notion of a ‘shadow state’ to explain the link between corrupt politicians and entrepreneurs who take over the state for private gain (2000: 45). Stevens took violent action against any form of political opposition that could threaten the rule of his party, the All Peoples Congress (APC). Power was put into the hands of confidants. Only party members had access to public goods, and being excluded ‘literally meant death by attrition’, as Abdullah states (1998: 207). The use of violence was ubiquitous and convinced a whole generation of Sierra Leoneans that violence pays off, and that it is the most effective way to a rewarding future. It is assumed that the foundation for the extreme extent of violence in the later civil war was formed through the displayed behaviour of Stevens and his followers (Keen, 2005: 18).

Stevens handed over power to Momoh in 1985, when the country was already in a political and economic crisis: public expenditure declined from 31 percent at the beginning of the 1980s to only 16 percent at the end of the decade. Civil servants stopped getting paid. The education system was shattered and school dropouts were easy recruiting targets for forces opposing the government, notably rebel groups. By 1990, 68 percent of the population lived in absolute poverty, most of them in the rural countryside (Williams, 2011: 68). Additionally, the number increased, because more than a hundred thousand Liberian civil war refugees sought sanctuary in Sierra Leone (Keen, 2005: 38). Those refugee influxes had destabilising effects, causing security problems and being a further burden for the already crashed economic system (Arieff, 2009: 332; Peil, 1971: 216). Academics concur that external forces, notably through Liberia’s rebel leader and later president Charles Taylor, furthered the country’s instability. He supported the Sierra Leonean rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), who started the civil war in 1991. But the main cause of the war can be found inside the country; in the deep resentments and grievances among the people, inflamed for decades through a weak state and self-enriching rulers, which fuelled the rebellion (Keen, 2005: 36).

Momoh’s regime finally fell in 1992 through a military coup by Valentine Strasser, who soon faced the same problems as his predecessor. He had to cope with insurgencies that were backed up by the population and could not be fought easily, because the system of personal gain had dismantled an effective and reliable army (Williams, 2011: 69-70). In 1996, Tejan Kabbah was democratically elected, but was toppled a year later by Johnny Paul Koroma. A surprising alliance between the rebels from the RUF and the country’s military forces, which were fighting each other for the previous six years, was plotted to conduct this coup d’état. The bloodiest part of the war was about to follow, because both rebels and army soldiers turned their violent actions towards the civilians. The democratic government of Kabbah was reinstated in 1998. He was able to get the warring parties to the round table and to negotiate a lasting peace: the Lomé Peace Accord was signed a year later, leading to the disarmament of the RUF and other factions until 2002 (Keen, 2005: 1).

Liberia, in contrast to Sierra Leone, was never colonised and experienced a prosperous period in the 20th century. The state was deeply divided between natives and Americo-Liberians, who were former slaves. The latter ruled the country and suppressed the rest, consisting of many different ethnicities (Adebajo, 2002: 45). Distrust and hatred was created and prevailed between the groups. The ethnic division plays an important role in the course of the state’s history towards the violent events of the 1990s and early 2000s.

The oil crisis and the decline in the prices for primary commodities at the end of the 1970s uncovered the export-dependent economy and government reliance on US patronage. The natives were calling for justice after years of oppression and demanded a power sharing agreement, which the ruling Americo-Liberians refused. In 1979, riots, caused by an increase of 50 percent in the price of rice, were violently stopped, but finally led to an initially very popular military coup a year later. Out of it emerged the People’s Redemption Council, whose leader was Samuel Doe. He was the first native in power and people had great expectations for him. But soon he showed his true face. The already devastated economy suffered from corruption and mismanagement. Doe, who belonged to the ethnic minority of the Krahn, systematically eliminated all his opponents, including the old elite of Americo-Liberians, and conducted ethnic cleansings, mainly towards the numerically larger groups of Gios and Manos (Ellis, 2007: 55). All his life he was paranoid of being replaced in the same way as he came to power, and distributed positions to people he trusted, but who did not have the appropriate qualifications (Harris, 1999: 432-433). After a decade in power, the president had made a fortune equivalent to 50 percent of Liberia’s annual domestic income (Reno, 2000: 46). The already weak trust in the state and its institutions was completely shattered. High unemployment, and consequently poverty among the majority of the people, as well as Doe’s brutality towards certain ethnic groups, helped Taylor years later to receive a multiethnic support in fighting the despised president and his supporters. The latter mainly belonged to the Krahn and Mandingo ethnicities (Harris, 1999: 434).

Both, Taylor’s rebel force, the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) and Doe’s Armed Forces of Liberia conducted violence systematically aiming at ethnic groups (Ibid: 434). The factor of ethnicity plays an important role in Liberia and definitely contributed to the onset of the civil war. Ethnicity was used as a cover for greedy power-seekers: Doe got rid of his opponents who were notably from other ethnic groups, distributed wealth within his own one and with that, flocked followers around him. In turn, the Americo-Liberian Taylor received support from the ethnic groups that were persecuted by Doe’s regime, and understood to force ‘politics along ethnic lines’. Meanwhile, he persistently followed the goal of taking over the state and increasing his own power (Keen, 2000: 22). Thus, Harris concludes that ethnicity is used as a manipulative instrument employed by individuals and groups, inflaming violence (1999: 434).

Violent Forces: Origins and Goals of Rebel Groups

The outbreak of the civil wars in both countries were due to the grudges and grievances among the population, which suffered for decades from the corrupt and self-enriching regimes of their rulers, and the existence of a weak state, which could not provide economic and physical security to its people. Under these circumstances, conflict was inevitable and rebels easily gained sympathy for their rebellion (Keen, 2005: 8).

The RUF in Sierra Leone emerged, when the state was outwardly struggling in economic and political terms. The group entered the country in 1991 and covered it in blood for almost a decade. It initially came out from a student movement in the 1970s, which formed an informal opposition in search of a radical alternative to the corrupt APC-regime, but soon became a melting pot for all sorts of young people, no matter if they were educated or not. According to Abdullah, it turned into a ‘lumpen’ movement: the notion refers to unemployed young people, mostly male, who receive their income from informal economic actions and are prone to crime and violence. The inclusion of these youths took the movement away from its ideological, rebellious core idea to overcome the ruling elite and create a just system for the people, which is included in the name of the RUF (Abdullah, 1998: 207-208).

The rebel force started with less than forty fighters (Williams, 2011: 64), which underlines Keen’s statement that ‘war can spread very easily; it only takes five individuals with guns’ (2005: 8). Some of them were militarily trained in Benghazi, Libya, at the end of the 1980s. Among them was the later leader of the RUF, Foday Sankoh. After the end of the training, young males, who did not know what to do with their skills, were returning to Sierra Leone to pursue the ‘revolution’ (Abdullah, 1998: 219-220). The rebel group could not attract a large number of voluntary recruits, because its political message was confusing. Sankoh for example followed his own aims, namely to take over the government in Freetown and turned the movement into a power-seeking force (Williams, 2011: 70). The RUF soon became known for its violent actions against civilians, including sexual abuse, kidnapping and exploitation, as well as the intimidation of its own members once they were recruited. This totally contradicted its attempt to appear as a revolutionary movement (Keen, 2005: 39).

Charles Taylor, the leader of the NPFL, initially belonged to Doe’s government and led the General Services Agency, coping with procurement and allocation of government properties (Harris, 1999: 434). On a trip to the US in 1984, he was arrested because of the reproach of embezzlement by the president, but fled and came back to Liberia five years later. In between, he was supposed to be hiding in Libya, where he met the leaders of the Sierra Leonean RUF-to-be, which explains the later ties between the two rebel groups (Abdullah, 1998: 220).

The NPFL entered Liberia in 1989 from the border of Ivory Coast with an estimated hundred to two hundred soldiers (Williams, 2011: 64). They wanted to liberate the country and were supported by Sankoh’s men. In turn, Taylor sent some of his best fighters to help launching the RUF’s armed struggle in Sierra Leone (Abdullah, 1998: 220-221). As an Americo-Liberian, Taylor was not popular among the natives, but Doe’s hatred towards the Gios and Manos brought him the support he needed. Many of them joined his rebellion to seek revenge by persecuting the ethnic groups behind the Doe-regime, the Krahns and Mandingos. Already in 1990, Taylor’s rebels held over 95 percent of the country. The president could only hold parts of the capital Monrovia and was brutally killed by Prince Johnson, a former ally and now opponent of Taylor, in the same year (Harris, 1999: 434). Although Taylor controlled most of Liberia, Johnson hindered him to get into office. As the NPFL became numerically bigger, it span out of control and the rebels found interest in looting instead of fighting (Ellis, 2007: 87).

More warring factions emerged over the time. The probably most important one was the anti-Taylor force ULIMO, which was formed in 1991. It consisted of Krahns and Mandingos, who were fiercely fighting the NPFL for the next years (Adebajo, 2002: 47).

In 1996, the fourteenth peace agreement led to elections of the parliament and the presidential office a year later, which Taylor won under fair conditions. Although he was responsible for unbearable atrocities, the Liberians saw him as a liberator rather than a warlord (Harris, 1999: 431, 447).

Kaplan suspects in his famous article ‘The Coming Anarchy’ behind the behaviour that ‘in places where the Western Enlightenment has not penetrated and where there has always been mass poverty, people find liberation in violence’ (1994: 61-62). This assumption is supported by Harris: he sees the problem in unemployed and distressed young people who are easily turned into compliant and loyal rebels, as well as unpaid or poorly-paid soldiers who resort to terror and pillage (1999: 435). Urdal emphasises the impact of the youth: he assumes that the combination of a society with a large proportion of young people, as in Liberia and Sierra Leone, and a fragile economy is very explosive: if the youth are faced with unemployment and poverty, it is likely that they join a rebellion in order to resort from their misery and earn a living (2004: 9-16). Thus, many of them became part of the rebel forces by necessity, because it was the only choice to stay alive: either starving or joining an armed band (Keen, 2000: 37). It shows that grievances lead people to violence, which makes conflicts more likely.

War Economies: Profiting From Conflict

The question how economic incentives fuel armed conflicts is inevitable in explaining the events in many West African states after the Cold War. Collier states that ‘some societies are much more prone to conflict than others simply because they offer more inviting economic prospects for rebellion’. Countries with large natural resources, a young, male-dominated population and bad educational opportunities are very much at risk of a conflict (2000: 97). At the end of the 1990s, Collier precipitated a lively debate about the motives of warring factions, claiming that greed drives them to war rather than grievance (Ibid: 92). This assumption is widely criticised: scholars argue that the existence of natural resources and their exploitation is not the initial reason why individuals or groups start a war in the first place, but that it contributes to the protraction of conflicts (Ross, 2004a: 52-53; Keen, 2000: 31-32). Sometimes, the continuation of war, due to its profitability, is preferred to the state of peace. That again turns violence into a mean that is intrinsically valuable for warring factions to create and maintain a well-developed war economy (Jackson, 2006: 21).

Both countries, which are examined in this essay, depend economically on their resource wealth: Sierra Leone’s primary commodity are easily extractable, alluvial diamonds, whereas Liberia draws revenues from a wide variety of resources like timber, diamonds, iron, palm oil, cocoa, coffee, marijuana, rubber and gold (Ross, 2004a: 48). The warring groups engaged in the civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone were able to soon make money from looted natural resources and thus, benefitted from the conflicts. According to Stedman, this explains the difficulty of getting the parties to the negotiating table and entering the long way to peace (Stedman, 2001: 2).

In Sierra Leone, RUF rebels and government troops were bitterly fighting for control of the diamond-rich areas in the southeast, bordering Liberia. Both sides exploited the diamond resources at the expense of the state. The extraction of alluvial diamonds is easy and can be conducted by unskilled workers, which makes it a perfect source of revenue for non-state actors (Ross, 2004a: 51-53). The RUF gained US$ 25 to 75 million per year from the valuable gemstone. This in turn financed its armed struggle and deepened the grievances among the people (Williams, 2011: 83). Keen records that some rebels exploited the local economy in order to acquire money to keep the fight going, whereas many commenced fighting only for the sake of personal gain by exploiting the local economy (2005: 51). It led to a split in the RUF movement in 1996, when the elected president Kabbah tried to achieve a peace agreement: some leaders were in favour of the peace proposal, while others wanted to continue the fight, because their existence depended on it (Abdullah, 1998: 228).

Similar to Sierra Leone, it needed more than a dozen attempts to achieve a cease-fire in Liberia. Ross sees one important reason for that in the fear of the warring factions to lose access to the country’s resource wealth. It lessened their incentive to adhere to the terms of the agreements (2004a: 53).

By 1991, the NPFL financed itself by exporting tropical hardwoods, rubber, gold and diamonds out of the parts of the country it controlled. The rebels were also smuggling loot over the border to Sierra Leone, benefitting from the instability of the neighbouring country (Keen, 2005: 49-50). Moreover, one of Taylor’s motives to support Sierra Leone’s RUF was to get access to its diamond fields to fund his own war in Liberia (Ross, 2004a: 57; Keen, 2005: 49). It is estimated that Taylor derived US$ 75 million per year from his war economy (Harris, 1999: 435). He literally made money from everything that could be sold. And Taylor did not stop when he became president: he exploited forest resources and used timber sales to increase his power and strengthen his regime (Ross, 2004b: 346). The president admitted in 2000: ‘Once you are in, … you become undemocratic in the preservation of power (Adebajo, 2002: 71). This underlines Taylor’s fear of losing his position and with that, the means to raise his wealth.

Taylor deepened the grievances among the population, suppressed political opponents and consolidated ethnic divisions. New rebel forces emerged and the civil war flared up again in 1999, showing partially similar patterns of looting and exploiting as before, only with the difference that Taylor was now in office, fighting against rebels who wanted to overthrow him (Ibid: 45).

It can be stated that the two states are prone to more conflict through the existence of natural resources: diamonds and other goods were both a financial source for rebels and governments and an incentive for violence, which protracted the conflicts for years. But it would be wrong to believe that lootable resources were the root causes of the civil wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia.

The Proneness to Conflict: Greed Generates Grievance

Superficially, Sierra Leone’s civil war seemed to have been triggered by the combination of the proximity to its warring neighbour, Liberia, and the possession of valuable resources. But the origins of the conflict lay in the weak structure of the state as well as its exploitation over two decades through predatory, self-enriching rulers who tried to secure their power. This generated grievances and rebellion, which in turn legitimised further greed, leading to a vicious civil war in the post-Cold War era. Liberia’s proneness to conflict originated from the same causes, but was additionally fuelled by the history of ethnic hatred and its instrumentality.

Other West African states also tended to conflict over the past generation, showing similarities to Sierra Leone and Liberia in terms of causes. Nevertheless, it should be considered that each country has a unique context, which shapes its conflicts. Still, establishing strong state institutions and supporting individuals and parties that work for instead of against the people, would be worth the effort in order to generate peace in West Africa.


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Written by: Mareike Kuerschner
Written at: King’s College London
Written for: Dr Nicholas Michelsen
Date written: December 2012


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