African Studies Quarterly
Volume 8, Issue 1
Fall 2004

Armed Conflict in Africa. Carolyn Pumphrey and Rye Schwartz-Barcott, eds. Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, 2003. 313 pp.


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Pumphrey and Schwartz-Barcott's Armed Conflict in Africa is one among a number of recently published books on the politics of war in Africa. The nine contributors to this volume examine the history of recent armed conflicts on the continent, each from different perspectives. Most address why Africa has been affected by what appears to be a rising tide of violence in recent times. Each offers prescriptions or at least provides a framework for considering what would have to change to bring about a diminishment of these conflicts. Especially those chapters by René Lemarchand on Rwanda and Bona Malwal on Sudan provide detailed information about specific cases. The editors have collected a valuable set of maps in one of the appendices. Especially for those conflicts that took place before the days of internet and the extensive and detailed reports of the United Nations NGO's such as the International Crisis Group, detailed maps of combat activities can be hard to find in one place.

Several of the chapters, when taken together, offer good examples of different explanations for causes of conflict in Africa. Julius Nyang'oro makes the basic observation that the absence of a viable middle class in many countries leaves them with polarized social structures and polarized politics to match. Readers familiar with critical scholarship from the 1960s and 1970s will recognize a structural argument that stressed the social dysfunctions and internal political fragmentation that arose out of economic dependence on more powerful countries. Now, however, powerful outside forces in the guise of multilateral financial institutions insist on further weakening of states through retrenchment in civil services and privatization of remaining state assets. There may be good macro-economic arguments for doing this in terms of enhancing economic efficiency. But the social consequence is that people in many African countries are exposed to the full force of global economic competition without the aid of regulatory institutions to buffer them from the destructive aspects of this process. That situation, Nyang'oro argues, is tailor-made for political entrepreneurs to take advantage of disorder and change to exploit people's anxieties and lack of legitimate alternatives to provide for themselves and their families.

René Lemarchand provides a different framework to explain the external roots of conflict in Rwanda. He observes how ideas inherited from colonial era scholars, both European and Rwandan, were incorporated into the political strategies of different political groups in that country. These became justifications for classifying people into what took on the trappings of rigid group identities. Official ideology and administrative practice gave license to some political entrepreneurs to instrumentalize these "myths" to mobilize followers against specific targeted communities.

Like Nyang'oro, Ali Mazrui stresses how external influences have sharpened local conflicts, especially as cold war era powers recruited African proxies to extend their influence. Africans are agents of conflict in this explanation, not simply pawns of foreigners. The strength of Mazrui's chapter lies in his identification of this political agency as a key to ending conflicts. His remedies focus on the efforts of Africans, ranging from cooperation for internal institutional reform, which can be found in the multitudes of indigenous human rights groups, women's rights organizations and in regional associations which have come to play major roles in conflict resolution, especially in West Africa but also in Central and Eastern Africa. These successes of African conflict resolution often get shortchanged in academic analyses.

But the book has several weaknesses. From the outset, the editors provide no clear definition of conflict. Army coups and mutinies find their way into a lengthy chronology of conflicts in an appendix. If this and other events like it fall under the heading of conflict, why not consider all coups and uprisings as conflicts? Was the al-Qaeda inspired attack on an Israeli-owned tourist hotel that killed 15 people (page 280) an instance of African conflict in a comparative scope that includes the Congo war and the ongoing conflict in Sudan? On the other end of the chronology, one finds references to events in ancient Egypt stretching over several centuries. These events, often listed as instances of general turmoil over several centuries, do not fall under the consideration of any of the substantive chapters and it is not clear what they add to a book that really is about twentieth century wars. Points such as "Terrorism is the deliberate use of terror to achieve political goals" (page 5) add little. In the end, the editors produce no real parameters to point to what they consider to be a conflict, beyond contentious politics that results in fatalities, though most of the chapter contributors appear to settle on standard notions as those events that involve a thousand or more deaths.

Several of the chapters obscure rather than illuminate. One finds the statement in the introduction that "people caught up in the conflict often seem to have little idea of what the fighting is about" (page 2) and later, "wild, irrational lashing out" (page 47), notions that contribute little to social science understandings of conflict. These and other passages recall the "coming anarchy" thesis of Robert Kaplan that explains conflict in terms of ancient hatreds and atavistic hunger for conflict that do not find much purchase in contemporary scholarly analyses of root causes of conflict. And if Africans do not really know why they fight, how can they be involved in resolving these conflicts?

Numerous factual errors also creep in. Right at the outset on page 1, for example, the list of UN peacekeeping operations, cited from a source published in 2001, omits Sierra Leone -- the largest UN peacekeeping mission at the time. "Ibo" in place of Igbo is archaic. The book would have benefited from more careful copy editing too. On page 86, for example, perusal of the list of the final five footnotes for the preceding chapter reveals two misspellings of the names of well-known authors. In sum, specialist readers may appreciate the better chapters and maps at the end of the book. The general reader with more limited funds may wish to look elsewhere.

William Reno
Northwestern University