Opinion

Why Nations Fail

The unending warfare in Africa

Sierra Leone is not the only African nation that has been ravaged by civil war. They have been all too common, and any explanation for African poverty that does not come to grips with these all-too-frequent civil wars is bound to be incomplete. Though the number and death tolls of African civil wars have been declining, they are still ongoing in many parts of the subcontinent, including in various parts of the Niger Delta, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, Sudan, South Sudan, and of course Somalia.

A recent book by William Reno, Warfare in Independent Africa (see here), is a must-read for anybody wishing to understand the never-ending cycle of civil wars in Africa. Among the many useful theses in the book the most notable concerns the transformation of the nature of civil wars in Africa — or more appropriately in sub-Saharan Africa. Reno identifies earlier movements as anti-colonial and majority rule rebels, who fought colonial powers throughout the subcontinent and minority rule governments (e.g., in South Africa, Namibia, and Zimbabwe). Consistent with the vicious circle of extractive institutions and the pattern in Sierra Leone we saw in an earlier blog (see here), the successful rebels simply took control of the extractive institutions themselves. Thus it was natural that another round of rebellions, led by what Reno calls reform rebels, aimed at replacing these regimes would follow.  Typical examples include Yoweri Museveni in Uganda and Meles Zenawi in Ethiopia. But the vicious circle was not to be broken so easily, and these rebels, when successful, did not change institutions underpinning poverty and the widespread inequities in the subcontinent.

But over the last two decades most civil wars have been fought by what Reno calls warlord rebels (and on which a key reference is Reno’s own book Warlord Politics and African States; see here), and parochial rebels. These rebels have little ideological commitment. Sometimes, like Charles Taylor in Liberia or Foday Sankoh in Sierra Leone, they are fighting to line their pockets. Sometimes, like Joseph Kony whose Lord’s Resistance Army has been killing indiscriminately in Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Sudan, it is not clear at all what they’re fighting for. Like both sides in Sierra Leone’s conflict, many of these warlord and parochial rebels use child soldiers (because they do not have the ideological basis to attract a regular force) and are responsible for many of the recent atrocities. Reno deserves a lot of credit for putting the spotlight on these rebels and helping us understand their breed.

The deep explanation for the emergence and persistence of such rebellions is still unclear, however. Reno writes (p. 246):

“One of the core messages of this book is that warlords and parochial rebels do not fit easily into a simple scheme of state collapse and ungoverned spaces. The argument in the preceding pages is that the regimes in Africa that base their authority most thoroughly on the manipulation of access to patronage opportunities, have been very effective in disrupting the organizing strategies of ideologues, and have made deployment of rebel commissars considerably more difficult than under colonial or apartheid regimes.”

Fear and loathing in Sierra Leone

By 1991, Sierra Leone was a failed nation, mired in poverty, with an economy almost continuously shrinking for almost three decades. And then failure turned into total collapse…

On March 23 a group of armed men under the leadership of Foday Sankoh crossed the border from Liberia into Sierra Leone and attacked the southern frontier town of Kailahun. Sankoh, formerly a corporal in the Sierra Leonean army, had been imprisoned after taking part in an abortive coup against Siaka Stevens’s government in 1971 and had ended up in a training camp for African revolutionaries ran by the Libyan dictator Colonel Qaddafi. There he met Charles Taylor, who was plotting to overthrow the government in Liberia. When Taylor invaded Liberia on Christmas Eve 1989, Sankoh was with him, and it was with a group of Taylor’s men that Sankoh invaded Sierra Leone. They called themselves the RUF, the Revolutionary United Front, and they announced that they were there to overthrow the corrupt and tyrannical government of the APC.

The RUF even had a manifesto called “Footpaths to Democracy” (see here) which started with a quote from the black intellectual Franz Fanon: “Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it or betray it.” The section “What Are We Fighting For?” begins:

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