Warfare and Society: Archaeological and Social Anthropological Perspectives

By Ton Otto; Henrik Thrane et al. | Go to book overview

18 Warfare in Africa:
Reframing State and ‘Culture’
as Factors of Violent Conflict

JAN ABBINK


Introduction:
relating warfare, politics, and culture

This chapter explores the connections between culture, politics and warfare in Africa. Warfare, as the organised use of massive violence by states, insurgent groups or other collectivities for various political or predatory aims, is still frequent in contemporary Africa. Violence, defined as the human practice of intentional and contested rendering of harm or lethal force, aimed at intimidation or enforcing dominance, is a universal in all societies at some point or other. But some societies are alleged to be more prone to it than others. State societies with the so-called monopoly on the legitimate use of force do not necessarily evince less inter-personal violence or warfare than stateless or ‘tribal’ societies known from the anthropological record. Indeed, processes of state formation show phases of intense violent action aimed to establish hegemony by newly emerging elites claiming the monopoly of the means of violence and the extraction of surplus and other resources. While other chapters in this book evaluate the more strictly anthropological, comparative or archaeological aspects of warfare, in this chapter I will discuss a certain geographical area–Sub-Saharan Africa–from a broader political anthropology perspective

In popular discourse and media images, postcolonial Africa often figures as a continent of ceaseless internecine wars and ethno-regional conflict. Many countries have or had either an internal armed conflict or a high level of communal violence. The terms ‘low intensity warfare’ (van Creveld 1991), ‘new wars’ (Kaldor 1999) or ‘anarchy’ (Kaplan 1994) are often seen as applying particularly to the African situation, especially after the end of the Cold War. Congo, Somalia, Sudan, Angola, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, or the Saharan Republic are notorious examples, in which hundreds of thousands of people died in the past decade alone. It is, however, difficult to consider the continent as showing unitary political or historical traditions that would explain the mayhem. Only factors like the low level of socio-economic development, steady ecological decline, inequalities and a great lack of legitimacy of regimes and state elites are common across the region. What seems sure is that indigenous African traditions of political culture, community mediation and leadership accountability do not articulate well with the state structures that were imposed in the colonial period or with those that emerged in the African post-colonies. In many accounts of state decline and persistent every-day violence in Africa, explanatory recourse is taken to what we might call

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