Volume 9, Issue 1 & 2
Fall 2006

Is Violence Inevitable in Africa? Theories of Conflict and Approaches to Conflict Prevention. Patrick Chabal, Ulf Engel, and Annamaria Gentili (eds). Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill Academic Publishers, 2005. 245 pp.

Is Violence Inevitable in Africa offers a survey of perspectives on collective violence and conflict prevention and resolution in Africa. The volume covers many subjects, such as ethnic conflict, decentralization, power-sharing, and peacebuilding. Political science is the primary disciplinary touchstone, but the chapters include anthropological, economic, and sociological perspectives. In the preface, the editors note that they asked the contributors to explicitly address the topical focus. The result, a multiplicity of literature reviews, can be a useful resource for scholars. However, the array of theoretical overviews could be bewildering for some readers, and it underlines a key problem, namely the need for more synthesis of the material.

In the introduction, Chabal uses the lens of political action to argue that African conflicts should be viewed in terms of embedded rationality rooted in precolonial neo-patrimonialism. Foregrounding African social patterns of the longue durée, Chabal parallels the recent trend of emphasizing African agency. His focus on scarcity, rationality, and neo-patrimonialism deserves serious consideration, but it leaves out major themes in the literature and the ensuing chapters. His piece would therefore be more appropriate either as a chapter or an introduction to a more focused body of work that clearly elucidated his thesis.

The book has many strong points. The chapters by de Bruijn, van Dijk, and Hesseling provide insightful anthropological analyses that nicely complement prevailing political and econometric perspectives. The literature reviews in many of the chapters are good references for readers seeking surveys of the theories in this subject area. Gentili’s chapter, for example, offers a good discussion of the ethnic conflict literature. Another strength is the inclusion of an applied view in the piece by Idriss from the organization Search for Common Ground. In addition, Engel’s conclusion provides an admirable overview of the policy-oriented literature. There has been insufficient cross-pollination between practitioners, policy-makers, and academics. One does wish that such a dialogue could have been included here and that the conflict resolution literature could have been addressed, but perhaps other works can take up these issues. Hopefully, they will include African authors.

Although typical of edited volumes, the lack of a synthetic analysis of the chapters does lessen the potential contribution of this valuable body of work. The title suggests what is promised in the introduction: a “systematic discussion of some of the root causes of violence” supplemented by case studies that also address resolution efforts. That goal would have been furthered by posing central questions in the introduction and addressing them in the conclusion. The book’s organization could also have been reworked. It has two parts; one concentrates on violence and conflict prevention and the second on conflict resolution. The volume could have been enhanced by dividing it between chapters on conflict causation and those on prevention and resolution. Each section could have an introduction and a conclusion that sums up the similarities and differences in the chapters and their significance in relation to the existing literature. Additionally, Chabal’s introduction poses the key question of whether there is something unique to the African context which makes the continent particularly conflict-prone. That question should have been explicitly addressed in the conclusion. 

Given the time demands on academic writers and the pressure to produce numerous publications, it may be unrealistic to expect that edited volumes will be either tightly focused or reasonably comprehensive. The fact that the volume leaves this reader eager to answer key questions may have its positive side. One might consider, for example, the hypothesis that scarcity (or abundance) produces widespread violence. The many empirical counter-examples demonstrate that the answer is “not necessarily.” In the first chapter, Cramer alludes to a dynamic overlooked in Chabal’s introduction, namely that abundance can be as significant as scarcity in conflict situations, as Collier and others have pointed out. However, although scarcity (and abundance) can increase the potential for violence, ultimately, it is social relations that matter the most. Several of the chapters underline this idea, which can be paraphrased as conflict and violence are fundamentally about meaning.

Cognitive or interpretive frameworks emerge out of a dialectical interaction of socially transmitted worldviews and lived experience. The symbolic, normative realm of conflict includes political, sociocultural, psychological, and economic dimensions. Cramer’s excellent literature review implies what this anthropologist considers a vital point, namely that the causality of intergroup conflict cannot be reduced to a single variable or even a set combination of them. Econometric approaches and concepts such as relative deprivation and collective action have varying explanatory power, yet while certain situations may be more or less likely to produce violent conflict, there is no equation that can accurately predict widespread violence. The reason for this is deceptively simple; violence is produced by actors and not by situations or structures. Consequently, a nuanced ethnographic and sociohistorical perspective is essential for understanding conflict dynamics.

In summation, the volume would benefit greatly from a more robust framing of the material that explicitly addressed the questions implied in the title. However, this critique applies to most edited volumes. The breadth and depth of the literature reviews make this a worthy purchase. The book would not be an easy read for the uninitiated; however, due to the range of theoretical overviews and array of topics, it is a worthy addition to the collections of budding and seasoned Africanists interested in conflict and peacebuilding. The volume may also be useful for North American readers who are unfamiliar with prevailing themes in the European literature. Hopefully, this work can serve as a platform for sustained interdisciplinary efforts to enrich theory and practice.

Mark Davidheiser
Nova Southeastern University