Academic journal article Strategic Review for Southern Africa

Militias: A Conceptual Framework

Academic journal article Strategic Review for Southern Africa

Militias: A Conceptual Framework

Article excerpt


While the presence of militia in conflicts dates back several centuries, their current nature and importance remains unique and in need of further analysis and understanding. This article attempts to further this understanding by providing an interpretative framework for the analysis of militia groups. It does this by first problematising the definition of militias, particularly with regards to the question of being a non-state actor. A framework is then provided which highlights the need to study the rationality and motivations of militias, their strategies and tactics, their structure, their means of achieving legitimacy and accountability and their relationship with other actors. These themes are crucial with regards to disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) and the overall peace process. However, demilitarisation of militias cannot be enforced from the top-down only, which is why the contextualisation of the historical, political, economic, identity politics, regional, international and civil society situation must also be considered. Thus, the multi-faceted and multi-layered nature of the demilitarisation of militias is discussed here in the hopes to provide a better theoretical understanding to aid in a more efficient implementation of the peace process.


Militias have been a strong feature of conflict for centuries. Although sometimes considered an archaic notion, the importance of militias to contemporary war and peace is profound and prevalent throughout the world. While militias are most often associated with Africa and the governments of weak states, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan--led by the United States (US)--have also seen militias play definitive roles, as highlighted most prominently by the direct allying of the US military with localised Iraqi militias, the so-called 'Sons of Iraq'. Overall, the diversity of locales, forms, motivations, and relationships has meant that academia and the policy world has struggled to come to a clear understanding of what militias are, the roles that they play and why, and hence how best to respond to them.

Militias occupy an uncertain and deeply controversial position in the changing landscape of conflict. Linked variously to atrocities against civilians or international criminal elements, militias embody a new dimension in warfare that transcends the classic inter-state and intra-state (government/guerrilla movement) disputes of the past. Part of what distinguishes them from more traditional combatants is operational in that they are willing to engage in violent tactics that defy international norms on conflict as well as a proclivity to embrace expediency in alliance-making. Moreover, as these militarised entities are prone to pursue conflict first and foremost in terms of local interests, militias are notoriously difficult to manage in the context of transitions from war to peace. As such, the conventional approaches to conflict management and resolution promulgated by the international community are singularly inadequate in addressing the issue of non-statutory forces as well as the enduring effect that they have on post-conflict situations.

In the first instance, unlike most national armies or opposition guerrilla forces, local conditions can enable militias to resist formal demobilisation and disarmament processes more readily. In part, this reflects the shifting balance of power within a given conflict, the absence of military command and control or distant territoriality from the central authorities that support these non-statutory forces, and the influence of weak or even non-existent government administration over the conduct of war itself. Concurrently, the loosening of bonds between state instigators and other external supporters, often forged solely for reasons of mutual expediency, as conflicts drag on is another aspect of militias that gives prominence to local factional politics. …

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